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Music Theory Through the Prism of Race: Professor Philip Ewell's Lecture to Explore How We Got Here and Where to Now

January 21, 2021

The School of Music is pleased to announce that Professor Philip Ewell from Hunter College of City will host a virtual guest lecture on Friday January 22 at 4:00 pm. Ewell is an acclaimed Black scholar researching the role of structural racism within music theory and the academy and well known for his blog “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame.” He specializes in Russian music and music theory, Russian opera, modal theory, and critical-race studies. 

Ewell will discuss music theory’s history and how it has influenced what music theory has become today through the prism of race. His lecture will ask “how we got here, where to now.” 

Professor Sumanth Gopinath wrote to Ewell after events that occured over the summer in their academic field. Ewell gave a talk at the annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory in 2019, which was then developed and published. Ewell discussed music theory's "white racial frame" and reflected upon the racist dimensions of Heinrich Schenker's political beliefs and theories. (Schenker's work is foundational for modern North American music theory.)  A group of scholars wrote negative responses to Ewell’s work which was published in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies (JSS), and the publication of the responses received negative criticism from others in the field. It led to a petition to the dean to condemn the article by graduate students and supported by faculty from University of North Texas, where the JSS is based. A wider petition was signed by music theory faculty in the field from across the country, including University of Minnesota School of Music theory faculty members.

Gopinath reflected on how the event shocked the music theory field. “Though some of the forum contributions were very thoughtful, many of them ranged from unhelpfully defensive to surprisingly offensive and even racist (including ad hominem attacks). As a result—and particularly in the wake of George Floyd's murder by police here in Minneapolis in May and the resulting protests and upheavals in support of Black lives locally and nationwide—the forum sparked much anger and discussion within our field, including many denunciations of its publication.”

As a result, Gopinath noted that “the whole situation prompted a great deal of reflection on the part of the School of Music’s own academic faculty in Music. We thought that inviting Ewell to speak would be helpful and informative as the School begins a long-term reconsideration of its mission, so as to counter structural racism and Eurocentrism in our curriculum and broader work.” 

It is highly recommended by Gopinath that anyone who is interested in music or music theory attends Professor Ewell’s upcoming lecture. “The general public will get a sense of how music theorists and music scholars are grappling with issues of race and racism in their world and related worlds (classical music, academic music departments and schools). We will also get a preview of some of the ideas that will appear in a forthcoming book by Ewell that deals with race and gender in music and music theory.” 

Ewell is a thoughtful and engaging speaker and Gopinath believes that the talk will be worthwhile for open-minded attendees. To ensure this event is civil and respectful—especially for our speaker and BIPOC audience members—the lecture will be given in a webinar-style format. Attendees are encouraged to submit questions in advance or during the Q&A period to Sumanth Gopinath directly at sumanth@umn.edu.

“The School of Music is honored and excited to have this opportunity to host Professor Ewell,” says Director of the School of Music Michael Kim. “It is very important for our community to have open dialogue and discussion about the issues of race and racism in music that he gives eloquent forum to, to be sensitive, receptive, and respectful of Dr. Ewell’s viewpoints, and to come together within our field and respective disciplines to find collegial pathways forward in these polarized times. I am grateful for Professor Gopinath’s facilitation of this opportunity, and we all look forward to welcoming Professor Ewell to our community.”     

 If you are interested in learning more about Ewell’s work, you can read his blog, “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame.” 

Guest Lecture: Professor Philip Ewell. Friday, January 22 at 4:00 pm