All events are free and open to the public!
Saturday, September 22--Panel I: Canon and the (Un)Making of Genre (9-10:30am)
Marta Beszterda, McGill University: “New Music Canon in (Post)-Communist Poland: Composers, Gender, and the Nation"
Even though the post-war “Polish Composers’ School” is considered a compositional pantheon that defines the Polish new music canon today, the ways in which the gender dynamics of that generation have been influenced by the communist reality remain understudied. In this paper, I examine the relationship between the current conceptualization of the new music canon in Poland, and the social and political implications for the development of the new music scene under communism. Drawing on works by both Western and Polish scholars, as well as primary source materials including interviews with Polish composers, I present a local case study in order to reflect on the larger issues of gender and nation politics in the formation of musical canons.
On the one hand, I examine the situation of female Polish composers in the 1945-1989 period, when not only the new music canon was forming, but also when the status of women in Communist Polish society was negotiated. I account for the impact of the aesthetics of socialist realism in art and music, as well as the impasse women in Poland experienced underneath the façade of gender equality created by communist authorities. I argue that both factors contributed to erasing the “gender problem” from Polish discourse, both under communism and today. Moreover, this silence has led to the masculinization of the first row of canonical contemporary Polish composers.
On the other hand, I identify how the oppressive political reality under communism led to the consolidation of the Polish new music tradition with the necessarily gendered narratives of political resistance and freedom—for example, the subversive meanings built around the Warsaw Autumn Festival. Those narratives, promoting heroism and pitying the struggle of several iconic male composers vis-à-vis the communist system, remained at the centre of the new music canon formation after 1989.
Marian Wilson Kimber, University of Iowa: “American Women’s Concerts and the Idea of a Middlebrow Canon”
Recent calls to diversify contemporary concert repertoire have critiqued the continuing omission of works by women composers. Women’s problematic relationship to the canon is frequently attributed to their exclusion from institutions that supported the composition of large genres, such as operas or symphonies, and the inattention to their efforts in smaller forms. American women’s engagement with male-dominated highbrow culture from the Progressive era onward is well documented, yet the music heard on countless concerts associated with the rise of the women’s club movement often bore little resemblance to our current conception of the solidifying canon of European music. Programming of American women’s concerts into the mid-twentieth century not only included women’s music, but its most often heard compositions generated a body of repertoire that may itself have functioned as canonic within that setting.
Drawing on a sample of women’s concert programs from amateur clubs as well as from professional touring female ensembles, this paper explores the idea that American women were a major force in the establishment of a middlebrow canon before World War II. Women’s events across America typically featured piano and vocal music, violin solos, and sometimes spoken-word performance. Conceived as a series of varied, single-movement compositions, concerts often consisted of European character pieces and a range of songs, positioned across an art music–popular music divide, including those by women composers and Americans. While some women’s repertoire was by composers now considered canonic, some works’ reputations suffered from their lasting association with female performers. The idea of a recognizable middlebrow canon sustained by women’s clubs across America has ramifications for musicological pedagogy and scholarship, as it belies the presumed historical significance of the canon as currently perceived.
Kate Storhoff, Wake Forest University: “Confronting Greatness: Canonic Aspirations of the American Wind Ensemble”
When Frederick Fennell founded the Eastman Wind Ensemble in 1952, he intended it to be a group entirely separate from the concert bands that already existed at American universities. His “wind ensemble concept” required the use of one-on-a-part playing and flexible instrumentation, or any arrangement of instruments drawn from a group of 45 players, including winds, percussion, harp, piano, and string bass. Fennell’s group focused on performing new American music written for winds, rather than the transcriptions of European orchestral works that proliferated on band programs in the early and mid-twentieth century. But despite Fennell’s resolve to escape the dominant musical culture, it is evident in writings from the time that the hegemony of the orchestral canon and values of “greatness” permeated the band community. In 1967, for example, Fennell’s successor Donald Hunsberger expressed a hope that the wind ensemble performer would one day “assume his rightful position as a legitimate symphonic musician.”
Today, many composers regard the wind ensemble as an innovation performing group that is highly supportive of new music. Decades of influence from the orchestral canon and its accompanying nineteenth-century values have forced wind ensemble community members to confront and discard many of the hierarchical traditions entrenched in American musical culture. Other traditions persist, rooted in the old ambitions still held by some in the community. This paper explores the impact of the symphony orchestra on the wind ensemble as its leaders approached concepts of canonicity. Although Fennell’s contemporaries strived to legitimize the repertoire by connecting it to the orchestral canon, in recent years this canon has become increasingly anachronistic both within and outside of the wind ensemble world. As musical culture changes rapidly, the wind ensemble represents a case study of the effects of canonic aspirations on one musical community.
Panel II: Canonic Conversions (11am-1pm)
Elena Dubinets, Seattle Symphony: “Russian Music and Beyond: Ethnic Canon as an Opportunistic Tool”
Belonging to an ethnic or national canon can trigger multiple benefits, especially if such canon stands high in a perceived music hierarchy. If a musician wants to be better appreciated, the label “Russian music” often becomes a vehicle for success. For instance, trying to validate himself as a member of the top echelon of classical artists, the Chinese pianist Lang Lang called Russia his metaphorical motherland. To him, Russian music embodies the universal cultural prestige gained through its affiliation with the elitist European canon that is enshrined in past achievements, and association with the spheres of Russian music tradition offers multiple social returns.
But when trying to win over his native Chinese audiences, Lang Lang often offers not Rachmaninov’s preludes but, rather, arrangements of Chinese folk songs. The fluidity of such indicators of origin as the birthright and cultural heritage can serve the musicians in their search of hegemonic capital and better returns.
Many composers learn to make strategic choices about belonging and to commodify their identities in order to obtain certain practical advantages. As if to exemplify this statement, those of them who have emigrated from the former Russian and Soviet Union territories often change their loyalties drawing on different elements of their ethnic and national identities. More often than not they pragmatically professionalize their ethnicity through music. In an opportunistic fashion, many Russian-speaking Jews routinely chose to perform either Russian or Jewish identity elements depending on the benefits for which they would be eligible in their search of both artistic and commercial success. This paper will discuss such manipulative ethnicity-driven navigation through the musical landscapes by composers Aaron Avshalomov, Mark Kopytman, David Finko and Elena Kats-Chernin.
Paula Harper, Columbia University: “‘Substance and Profundity’: Groupmuse, the Gig Economy, and Classical Music in the 21st Century”
A group of friends and new acquaintances, assembled for the evening in a cozy domestic setting, chat and drink wine; a few feet away, a handful of musicians tune their instruments and prepare to play. This scene takes place not in 19th-century Vienna, but in Brooklyn, New York, in 2018--the audience and performers have been brought together through the musical startup platform Groupmuse.
This paper demonstrates the ways in which Groupmuse—a platform for organizing in-home concerts of classical music in select American cities—seeks to reframe and re-brand a beleaguered "classical music" through the affordances of technological innovation, social media, and the sharing economy, while simultaneously imagining roots for itself in a (white, bourgeois, European) past. While Groupmuse’s attempts to orchestrate new spatial and social models for classical performance have received a great deal of laudatory press, the platform simultaneously reinforces and reinscribes a number of features central to traditional notions of “classical music,” including established standards for the pedigree of its performers and a vaunted co-present “liveness” through which performers and audiences might escape or transcend a mediated everyday. The tenets of the organization also stress the importance of canonic repertoire; according to the Groupmuse mission statement, performances must consist predominantly of “time-tested” music of “substance and profundity.” Drawing in part on interviews with Groupmuse personnel and performers, I demonstrate how the Groupmuse platform brings the “gig economy” to those who were likely already gigging in the first place, not seeking to “disrupt” the classical canon, but instead proffering a modern, mediated functionality to conservatory-trained musicians struggling to carve out stable performance careers in a 21st-century neoliberal environment of imperiled orchestras and precarious labor.
Robert Fink, UCLA: “Musical Canon as Dataset”
It is hardly controversial in musical academia to note the mutually reinforcing relationship of analytical method and value judgment. Theories of music’s efficacy grounded in some notion of its “nature” — the overtone series, the numeric properties of the 12-tone set, axiomatic tonal grammars — have long served in the West to validate and revalidate an exclusive canon of “great” music, while that canon’s lingering prestige has in turn served to validate systematic musicology as a scientific field.
Postmodern musicology may have moved past this tautology, but advances in resonant body imaging and data processing have recently renewed interest in the “empirical” validation of normative cultural judgments. Musicologists have learned to cringe at the phrase “Science now confirms that...” in popular writing on music, since what is confirmed is, all too often, the old canonic verities (great music makes you smarter/happier/more successful; popular music is duller/louder/simpler than it has ever been) in new pseudo-quantifiable guises.
Easy and tempting as it might be to critique individual examples of this syndrome (and my paper will not entirely avoid temptation), a more systematic analysis is the best way to bridge the cultural gap. Are there, in practice, canons of empirically testable music? Has contemporary experimental and statistical work on musical form and perception avoided canonic tautology?
In a preliminary survey of the literature, I will concentrate on two representative types of empirical method. In the first, basic principles of musical form and process are renormalized by subjecting the brains of listeners to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning. I will not critique MRI itself (although its power to solve the “hard problem” of quantifying the qualia of musical consciousness is certainly open to question); rather, I will ask what music is chosen for these listening tests, and why?
A second, quite different form of empiricism is often applied to non-canonical musics. (This is in itself interesting.) Rather than concentrate on the listening experience, musicologists engage in “distant reading” (Moretti) of large metadata sets compiled by media service companies, or laboriously construct their own reductive corpuses for statistical analysis. The question of what music makes it into the database remains significant, but a more pressing methodological issue also arises: what aspects of the musical experience are considered worthy of being encoded, and thus prioritized, when these massive datasets are built, and then queried? Does the ideology of the Western canon determine the rules of the game, even in absentia?
James Currie, University at Buffalo: “The Inoperative Canon”
Privately, I have made a basic anthropological observation repeatedly at conferences over the past quarter of a century. A speaker performs a variation on the trope, “the canon is bad”; every one in the audience then nods in agreement. On a basic level, audience members are indicating that they are ethically and politically on the “right side.” But by making that conviction into a visible gesture, they are also expressing it to those present, as if to an audience, and so they are reinforcing a social bond, fueling the production and preservation of a community formed out of those who nod when they recognize certain identifying tropes. Moreover, since that gesture is, at least in North-American musicological circles, predominant, and since publically to perform dissent towards it risks professional ostracization, they are therefore participating in local level conservative politics. The embarrassing irony to be noted, then, is that academics performing their public conviction that the canon is bad participate in the very political activities they so often assert the canon has been instrumentalized to perform: a conservative politics that seeks to stabilize the economic, political, and psychological conventions of a community through the creation of a social bond from the circulation of cultural values.
But maybe the canon could strategically offer us something other than the violence attendant on the founding of the social? This speculative paper therefore contemplates: if cannons have traditionally come into being by monumentalizing musical works so that we ideologically identify with them, what would happen if we thought of them more as a selection of pieces whose indifference to us helps them to act as a focal point through which we might find out who we might yet be? With a nod towards Jean-Luc Nancy, I would call this “The Inoperative Canon.”
Panel III: Musical Creation and Canonic Aspiration (2-3:30pm)
Amanda L. Scherbenske, Eugene Lang College: “Becoming Composers: Jazz, Improviser-Composers, and Crossover”
Since the early 2000s, a cohort of New York-based aspiring musicians have adopted creative and political ideals advanced by 1960s Black experimental collectives, embracing artistic inclusion, rejecting generic essentialism, and espousing avant-garde tenets. Situated firstly within a jazz art world, these emerging artists maintain principles nurtured within jazz and African American cultural contexts as well, celebrating spontaneity, freedom, and individual creativity, voice, and narrative within the collective (Berliner 1994; Floyd 1995; Lewis 1996; 2004; Monson 1996; Barzel 2012). Upon working with elders, they seek to fashion an original sound on their instrument alongside like-minded peers but come to enshrine it newly through composition, oftentimes crossing over to new (classical) music for its patronage and prestige.
Based on nearly a decade of fieldwork, I focus on that transition—where the pursuit of a personal voice shifts from expression primarily through performance to ideally in composition. First, I establish the potential for competing narratives that affirm and challenge a culturally dominant hierarchy that privileges composition over performance/improvisation in musicians’ self-presentations. Next, I discuss how my interlocutors, who represent a range of subjectivities, come to hold composition in such high regard, positioning the individual as central to a professional artistic self, under the tutelage of African American elders who strategically reject race-based assumptions. Building upon DeNora’s work on how music “gets into social life” (2000), I show that conceptions of canon, imbricated alongside value-laden ideas about the autonomous composer, space, and networks, may be reexamined through the study of production. While Born (1995) and Lewis (2004) have shown that black musical influences frequently go uncredited in experimental music, I argue otherwise: despite offering a rejoinder to hegemonic ideas about art, they are being subsumed. As performers transform themselves into improviser-composers, ultimately, they are invested in becoming composers.
Kiersten van Vliet, McGill University: “Democratizing the Canon: André Mathieu, Québécois Nationalism, and the Neo-Romantic Turn”
Over the past decade there has been an unexpected posthumous revival of Québécois composer André Mathieu’s works. Mathieu (1929–1968), a child prodigy who was purportedly touted by Rachmaninoff as the “Young Canadian Mozart,” died in poverty and obscurity. His neo-Romantic works were unfashionable and, in many cases, left unfinished and unrealizable. It was not until the intervention of Québécois pianist-composer Alain Lefèvre at the turn of the twenty-first century that Mathieu’s works began to be played in concert settings. Lefèvre commissioned or is somehow linked to various Mathieu-related artefacts: a biography, an edited series of scores, numerous recordings, a biopic, and a statue.
Lefèvre’s efforts have not only installed André Mathieu in the Québécois performance canon; Mathieu’s music is given unusual prominence as a kind of “missing link” between the European Romantic tradition and contemporary neo-Romantic Canadian composers. Moreover, the accessibility of Mathieu’s music is an asset for concert organizers, who must balance Canadian content quotas with ticket sales. Quebec’s unique status as a majority-minority society cultivates anxieties over identity and cultural stature. Mathieu, as one of the province’s first musical prodigies, has become a potent national symbol—so much so that the ontological ambiguity of some of his most popular works is readily ignored.
This paper analyzes the reception of André Mathieu in Quebec as a noteworthy example of some of the paradoxes of the contemporary canon formation process, particularly those emerging around the principles of democratization and commodification. The rehabilitation of Mathieu’s legacy for nationalist ends is at once an engagement with historical metanarratives inherited from the Romantic era—particularly that of “genius”—and the repudiation of history, given the (post)modern temporal condition that eschews periodization for categorization with abstractions other than time.
Jacquelyn Sholes, Central Connecticut State University: “The Canon as Challenge to Iconic and Obscure Composers Alike: Case Studies in Brahms and Jenner”
For twenty-first-century audiences, performers, and scholars, the concept of “canon” is rife with problems. Canons reflect biases of those responsible for their creation and perpetuation, reinforcing existing social power structures and excluding work potentially of great value. These are well-considered problems. Less examined is the potential effect of the concept of “canon” on creators—-including both those who are themselves widely acknowledged as canonic and those who are not. What effects, adverse and/or beneficial, can the canon have on an artist’s creative voice, self-image, aims, and productivity, and do these differ tangibly depending on the artist’s own degree of establishment within an artistic canon?
This paper considers such questions, focusing on two cases from Western classical music. The first is among the most iconic composers of the Western canon, and yet one for whom that canon proved a considerable challenge: Johannes Brahms. Finding his voice at a time when the canon was a relatively new concept, Brahms struggled more than most predecessors with the psychological and artistic difficulties of living up to the precedent set by forerunners, especially Beethoven, who had been set before him quite publicly by Robert Schumann as a model. The second case, Brahms’s student Gustav Jenner, was unable to establish a voice sufficiently distinct from his famous teacher’s and remains obscure. Examining the influence of “canon” on the serenades and other works of the two composers, Brahms’s letters, and Jenner’s prose writings on his teacher, I draw parallels between the problematic effects of canon both from Brahms’s position of greater professional capital and Jenner’s relative obscurity. I thereby suggest a model for further consideration of challenges the canon may pose for composers within and without various degrees of socio-artistic privilege.
Keynote Address: Leonora Saavedra, University of California, Riverside: "Whose Canon? A View From Mexico" (4:15-6pm)
For decades musicologists have addressed, attacked or deconstructed the canon of Western art music. Yet the canonic fantasy remains steadfast. Any attempts to eradicate it face heated, emotional responses. This talk presents a different perspective, one that provincializes Europe and positions us as scholars of the American continent. I address the canon’s origins and widespread expansion as products of colonialism and nationalism. I examine the ontology and epistemology implicit in the canon, and their impact on the historiographical premises of our historical narratives. I will then present a view from Mexico that will help to clarify the perspective I take on these matters.
Sunday, September 23—Panel IV: The Materials of Canon (9-10:30am)
Stephen Meyer, University of Cincinnati “‘Leaving the Wolf’s Glen’: Measuring Decanonization in the Digital Age”
As many scholars have pointed out, the formation of a musical canon takes place in a number of different spheres. A canon—to paraphrase Joseph Kerman and William Weber—is not a repertory but rather an idea with moral and spiritual dimensions, continually responding to various ideological changes and cultural shifts. The process whereby certain pieces or groups of musical works (e.g. music by women composers, music written after 1945 etc.) enter a canon has been frequently described. The inverse of this process: the decanonization of musical works, has received much less attention. The goal of this paper is to enrich our understanding of this process through a particular case study: the Wolf's Glen Scene from Weber's Der Freischütz. Changing aesthetic priorities, and especially a desire on the part of musicologists to move away from the Germanocentrism that characterized music-historical narratives from the early twentieth century, would seem to imperil the place of this scene in the instructional canon. And yet, the Wolf’s Glen scene has proved to be surprisingly tenacious. Rather than providing a set of answers that might account for the decanonization of the Wolf's Glen Scene, this paper will explore a selected group of methodologies—historical "vertical readings" of textbook editions, statistical analyses of databases, and various kinds of qualitative data—in order to understand how (or if) it is possible to measure decanonization. The digitization of knowledge that has taken place over the past twenty years makes new kinds of analyses possible, but it also creates new cultural conditions in which the very idea of a musical canon may lose its relevance.
Sophie Lewis, Princeton University: “Unpacking the Archive of the International Music Score Library Project”
The International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), an online archive whose mission is to conserve and provide access to the world’s music, has grown from an experiment by a nineteen-year-old to a resource accessed by more than 3.4 million monthly visitors around the world in just twelve years. Containing more than 435,000 scores uploaded by volunteer users, IMSLP has become an essential tool for musicians all over the world. But while the site claims to be universal, the majority of its scores are canonical works by white, male composers and most of its web traffic comes from North America and Western Europe.
This paper will explore how IMSLP paradoxically maintains and destabilizes the canon. IMSLP is ubiquitous for twenty-first century classical musicians, yet there has been virtually no scholarly engagement with its contents and archival practices. I hope to fill this lacuna by discussing IMSLP’s role in shaping the canon in the digital landscape and contextualize it within the larger role of online media’s significance for global music production and dissemination. Though IMSLP reinforces the primacy of works by composers like Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart, it also stores and promotes music by obscure composers from all over the world, prompting us to consider how historical value is assigned to musical works. For the well-known compositions, IMSLP archives original transcriptions alongside the first edition, autograph manuscripts, and even sketches. Yet, while the archive reifies the “ur-text” version of these “masterworks,” the innovative transcriptions made by anonymous users, often for fanciful combinations of instruments, represent a willingness to play with tradition that subverts the idealized work concept.
Peter Mondelli, University of North Texas: “The Musical Canon as Capitalist Commodity: Outlining a 200-Year History”
The cultural logic that undergirds the production and consumption of commodities under capitalism is recapitulated in that of the musical canon. Far from being simply “the best which has been thought or said,” music’s canons are marked by a cultural pressure to know the pieces that one ought to know. A work becomes canonical when it becomes normative, when there might be negative social consequences to not knowing it. This situation mirrors the sociability of the capitalist commodity. According to theorists like Slavoj Žižek, the commodities we desire are not necessarily the best; rather, they are those we think we ought to own. And they are produced, marketed, and sold according to this normative logic of deferred desire: producers make things that they think consumers want, and consumers buy things that they think they ought to want.
This similarity is no coincidence. In this paper, I contend that the social history of the canon for at least the last 200 years has been tied to its coexistence as a saleable commodity. We can see this as early as the 1820s when opportunistic publishers like Maurice Schlesinger in Paris used Beethoven’s name and reputation as a way to sell sheet music. Decades later, we see other publishers turning to repertory by foreign or dead composers to skirt ever-changing copyright restrictions, marketing their wares as the products of genius—a practice that continued well into the twentieth century. Recordings repeat and amplify such claims, as with the Readers’ Digest collections of classical music from the mid-twentieth century. And we, collectively, have bought the model, as is evident in our continuing compulsion to have our students buy anthologies of scores and recordings, marketed as collections of canonic pieces that we ought to teach, because our students are expected to know them.
Panel V: Locating Canon (11am-1pm)
Denise Von Glahn, Florida State University: “Institutional Imprimaturs, Intellectual Knighthoods: The Role of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in American Musical Canon Formation”
When the brand-new John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (JSGMF) awarded Aaron Copland its first Music Composition fellowship in 1925, it anointed the man who would become “Dean of American Composers.” The twenty-four-year-old had just returned from three years of study with Nadia Boulanger. He was full of promise and had advantageous connections but was largely untested. Fifteen years later, the status of the Foundation had changed dramatically. By the 1940s comparing a Guggenheim award to an “intellectual knighthood” had become part of the cultural rhetoric, and Aaron Copland was instrumental in the metamorphosis. Archival documents reveal the Foundation’s big ambitions. But while the earliest correspondence exhibits genuine interest in cultivating musical culture, the Foundation expressed no explicit designs on canon formation. They wouldn’t have to: a more fundamental aspiration to identify and extol an intellectual and artistic elite would take care of that.
This paper explores the intersection of the Foundation’s stated mission with its practical realization. It considers the circle of Foundation associates who enjoyed close relations with the Rhodes program and Harvard University, and eventually with Yaddo, the American Academy in Rome, and the Pulitzer organization at Columbia University. It illuminates the primacy of the Boulanger atelier within the Foundation’s original composer feeder system. Without ever insisting upon an aesthetic orthodoxy per se, the Guggenheim’s network would grow to resemble a modern-day roundtable of knighted insiders.
Examining the early John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation music composition awards reveals the power of institutions to influence our understanding of what is valuable. The paper argues that institutions create canons in myriad ways, many of which are subtler than dictating acceptable styles or endorsing particular people or works.
Dale Chapman, Bates College: “‘Pulitzer Kenny’: Contemporary Black Music and the Western Canon”
In spring of this year, several events served to foreground the provocative and prominent place contemporary black music inhabits at the margins of the Western musical canon. In Beyoncé’s concert appearance at Coachella, or Donald Glover’s striking video for his song “This Is America,” we witnessed cultural happenings that alternately affirm or playfully subvert their creators’ own complex relation to Western conceptions of genius: to its gendering, its racial topographies, and to the ways its cultural capital is leveraged for pleasure and pain.
In April we also learned that Kendrick Lamar would become the first hip hop artist in history to receive a Pulitzer prize in composition (for his 2017 album DAMN.). In 1997, the Pulitzer committee’s groundbreaking selection of Wynton Marsalis’ jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields could be understood in terms of its deployment of harmonic language and formal tropes that are legible as markers of prestige in the Western classical repertory. After having reportedly considered the nomination of a more conventional work that brought a similar approach to hip hop, the 2018 committee elected instead to address the genre on its own terms, to acknowledge the distinctive modes of artistry inherent in digital production and narrative flow. The result was a pick that galvanized debate over the ostensible responsibility of the Pulitzer committee to safeguard a carefully delimited new music community and its monopoly on aesthetic prestige.
By way of close readings of DAMN., and of the public response to its Pulitzer nomination, the present discussion takes up this episode as a means of strategically recentering contemporary understandings of the Western musical canon around its cultural “others,” and of recalibrating musicology’s traditional definitions of genius, in relation to a popular definition increasingly rendered in black music’s image.
Seth Brodsky, University of Chicago: “Canon, Carters, TIDAL, Power”
Beyoncé and Jay Z face the camera, flanking the Mona Lisa, their expressions blanker than hers. They turn to each other, as if preparing to share vows, and then lay eyes on the painting itself. The entire Louvre is theirs, and soon, perhaps the painting will be too. Their motives remain, aesthetically and financially, a source of speculation.
Where there is canon, one could say, there is also always power. But could one also say: where there is power, there is also always canon? Is there a kind of power that operates free of the canonical, an un-canonical or post-canonical power? Would it also be free of patriarchy? “Genius”? How would this de-canonized power approach arguably canon’s defining operation, repetition? Would this power be non-repetitive? Might it wander, like “The Carters,” within canonized museal spaces while not being of them, constitutionally aloof?
The decades since new musicology’s deconstructions of the canon have already provide some answers. Anglophone music studies is suffering a retrenchment, and many classrooms still clutch desperately to a great European musical tradition. But one nonetheless finds signs of musical power otherwise defined, in ways harmonious with high neoliberal fantasy: dispersive, rhizomic, networked, de-hierarchicized, contingent, self-organizing—which is to say, de-regulated, liquid, streaming.
Taking its cues from the Carters’ 2018’s album Everything is Love, my talk asks what is lost when power is de-canonized, but nonetheless persists as power. I hope to offer a critique of this post-canonical reality, without falling back into an affirmation of “tradition.” As the present swings between obscene fantasmatic spectacles of canonical power and a reality that ceaselessly reveals their precarity—in such a moment, what is gained by a return to canon that is not a return to the canon?
William Weber, California State University, Long Beach: "Toward a Conceptual Vocabulary for Rethinking the Nature of Musical Canons”
I would like to suggest terms by which to frame a conceptual vocabulary for talking about the problem of Canon. Choice of key terms is crucial for such discussion, since so many—for example, the classics, masterpieces or the great composers—carry vague or dated implications. A basic, relatively neutral term for canonic status can instead be simply respect or indeed high respect, suggesting public admiration which differentiates key figures from those in the profession as a whole without carrying unnecessary overtones. It is likewise useful to speak of a living composer possessing an incipient canonic reputation, a reputation which over time can continue, disappear, or indeed come back again, as happened to a particular extent for Joseph Haydn in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Another major conceptual tool needing discussion is to identify a larger group of figures who were respected on a less fundamental but still significant level. Writing for a recent conference on German Lieder led me to speculate how to define the group of such composers often seen in relationship with Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms.
I would also suggest a related concept, counter-canon, to denote a group of prominent composers, usually seen as modernists, who challenge a traditional canonic repertory even though the debate they stimulate remains intellectually linked with the classical tradition. By contrast, since the 1960s there developed schools of composition and musical thinking, led by John Cage and diverse minimalists, who ended up much farther from that tradition and developed an independent canon. Joseph Kerman urged us to confront the fact that historically the term Canon has been “authorized … as a natural law [that is,] ‘wir haben ein Gesetz’”.