“White Stories, Black Histories, and Desegregating the Music Curriculum”
In certain languages the words for “history” and “story” are the same, as in French (histoire) or Russian (история). There are of course differences. “History” usually implies an accurate account of past events, a summary of what happened over a period a time, while “story” usually refers to events that may or may not accurately reflect on the past, embellished as necessary by the “storyteller.” But in this distinction race is rarely mentioned. Anyone, irrespective of race, can write histories or tell stories, yet with remarkable consistency in the academic study of music in the U.S., our histories have been written by white persons, usually men, passing from generation to generation with little divergence from the main narratives of “great works” of the “western canon.” And when a nonwhite voice challenges the white narrative, efforts to stifle that voice are swift and sever, and all too often whiteness will accuse nonwhiteness of “storytelling,” a common critique of Critical Race Theory these days for example. In short, white persons write histories, while nonwhite persons tell stories. In this talk I’ll expand on music’s histories and stories, and explain why, in fact, the common American music curriculum is still quite segregated along racial lines, like much of the country writ large, mostly because of the distinction between history and story. I’ll then suggest that we don’t need to “decolonize” the music curriculum—that’s too vague—but, rather, that we need to desegregate it and foreground race in our discussions so that all racial musics, and musical races, have a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation.
About the Artist:
Philip Ewell is a Professor of Music Theory at Hunter College of the City University of New York, where he serves as Director of Graduate Studies in the music department. His specialties include Russian music theory, Russian opera, modal theory, and race studies. His work has been featured in news outlets such as the BBC, Die Zeit, NPR, and the New Yorker. He received the 2019–2020 “Presidential Award for Excellence in Creative Work” at Hunter College, and he was the “Susan McClary and Robert Walser Fellow” of the American Council of Learned Societies for 2020–2021. In August 2020 he received the “Graduate Center Award for Excellence in Mentoring,” and he was a “Virtual Scholar in Residence” at the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music for 2020–2021. He recently finished a monograph, to be published at the University Michigan Press, combining race studies with music and music theory. Finally, he is under contract at W.W. Norton to coauthor a new music theory textbook that will be a modernized, reframed, and inclusive textbook based on recent developments in music theory pedagogy.