You might think music theory is an academic area that’s safe from the illiberal mob, but a University of North Texas professor has learned otherwise.
By Samantha Harris | 31 July 2020
NATIONAL REVIEW — Chances are you have never heard of the music theorist Heinrich Schenker or the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, a publication at the University of North Texas (UNT) devoted to “all facets of Schenkerian thought, including theory, analysis, pedagogy, and historical aspects.” But that journal, and, in particular, the UNT music-theory professor Timothy Jackson, who oversees it, are now at the center of a controversy that goes to the heart of whether we are truly a free society. Can people speak their minds, or will those who express dissenting opinions be destroyed by a mob they can neither challenge nor resist?
In the most recent issue of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, Jackson published a critique of a plenary address given by the music theorist Philip Ewell to the Society for Music Theory. Ewell posited “a ‘white racial frame’ in music theory that is structural and institutionalized.” In particular, Ewell accused Schenker (1868–1935) of being racist, therefore suggesting that his work in music theory is tainted.
For Jackson to have questioned Ewell’s thesis and defended Schenker against the charge of racism was seen as nothing short of heresy. UNT graduate students and faculty, as well as music professors across the country, are now demanding that Jackson be investigated, his journal shut down, and his position eliminated. A group of graduate students in UNT’s Division of Music History, Theory, and Ethnomusicology issued a statement calling on the university to “hold accountable every person responsible for the direction of the publication” of the journal. “This should also extend to investigating past bigoted behaviors by faculty,” they wrote, “and, by taking this into account, the discipline and potential removal of faculty who used the [Journal of Schenkerian Studies] platform to promote racism. Specifically, the actions of Dr. Jackson — both past and present — are particularly racist and unacceptable.” A group of UNT faculty piled on, circulating a petition “endors[ing] the call for action” by the graduate students. […]