The Shame of UK Music Academia’s lack of inclusiveness


by Dr Neil March, Composer & Recording Artist (12th May 2016)

A combination of elitist attitudes and academic obsession with a narrow band of ‘contemporary’ music are contributing to a perpetual absence of diversity and inclusiveness in British higher education.

A more detailed study or article could break down the impact on various disadvantaged groups in society (i.e. women, other ethnic groups, disabled etc.). I am not in a position to achieve such a detailed analysis within the context of a relatively short article. So I intend to focus on young black and mixed race students from within the UK who, on the evidence I have observed, are the most under-represented group within formal music composition study in higher education compared to their size in relation to the population of urban London.

London is the most ethnically diverse city in Europe. Yet a cursory glance at the ethnic make-up of a typical composition class in London’s Conservatoires and Universities betrays the extent of the problem. The numbers from ethnic minorities are negligible. The numbers from within the UK’s own ethnic minority communities [as opposed to the small numbers from overseas] are even less.

I believe that, however unintentionally, a cocktail of attitudes rooted in a nineteen-seventies model of radicalism, a lack of non-white faces among the academic staff and syllabuses which either fail to acknowledge any non-white composers or, at best, acknowledge only those who pass a vetting process undertaken by an exclusively white academic elite is contributing to the routine alienation of young black and mixed race students in relation to the study of formal composition. It will hurt people to say it but it lays music (or more specifically composition) departments open to accusations of institutional racism.

One of the problems, in my experience, is that if one so much as hints at the notion of academic departments being removed from the real world, the stock response from those accused is to present their critics as supporters of a crude commercially-driven culture in which the value of music is determined by its ability to generate cash. That is a both a lazy and an inaccurate response. The argument is not about whether syllabuses based entirely on the study of white Euro-American (mostly male) post-war modernist composers and those who they influenced are out of touch because the composers they elevate to positions of importance are not commercially popular. Indeed, I would be the first to acknowledge that it is essential for composition students to come out of their comfort zones and learn from the ground-breaking methods and techniques of Stöckhausen, Ligeti, Finnissy, Gubaidulina etc.

The issue is about the exhaustive reliance on a relatively narrow band of composers and music approved of within academic and especially musicological circles to the exclusion of other composers and artists whose work has shaped the evolutionary process and significantly influenced others across a wide spectrum of genres that mainly happen to sit outside that Uber-Classical European formal tradition. Composition courses that speak only to the lives of a small highly educated elite will, by definition, fail to excite the interest of a young complex and culturally diverse inner city student population and will assist the process of compartmentalisation which typically sees black and mixed race students choosing popular music courses over classical ones.

There have been some interesting and lively debates around directly related subjects in recent weeks. The death of Prince sparked a furious debate on social media which saw daggers drawn between a musicologist-dominated tendency who were determined to discredit Prince and dismiss his contribution to music and an opposing tendency who were appalled by the intellectual snobbery and ill-informed misjudgements emanating from this academic elite. A more recent discussion sparked by a radio broadcast brought the specific issue of what is taught in conservatoires and Universities into sharper focus.

Of course, it is as simplistic and disingenuous to accuse all academics involved in teaching composition in higher education of out and out elitism as it is for academics to portray their critics as victims of Anglo-American Capitalist brainwashing. The day we allow the way we evaluate what is important in the study of composition to be reduced to the level of pure populism and commercial success is the day the entire discipline may as well be tossed in the bin. But that is not what I nor any of my allies are arguing. It is the responsibility of graduate and post-graduate music programmes to stretch students. That means pushing them to engage and experiment with methods of composition they may never have come across or considered. It also means exposing them to a good deal of music that sits far outside the commercial mainstream and reinforcing the value of innovation and originality in the evolutionary journey of music as against the short term disposable nature of much commercial music.

But it is just as important that courses acknowledge how what academics generally refer to as popular music matters not merely because of its popularity and its cultural dominance but because it has given birth to a multitude of genres offering alternative methods and forms of composing and its parallel development alongside those in art music, jazz and various world music genres has inevitably led to a great deal of cross-pollonisation and collaboration so that the lines of demarcation between these worlds are less obvious and less guarded than they once were. It is also important to recognize its social relevance to the lives of young people living in a diverse modern environment.

There is an assumption which I have seen repeated at various points during some of the recent debates that, whereas highly trained classical musicians can generally master non-classical styles of writing and playing, the same is not true in reverse. This argument goes on to conclude that this is why less accomplished musicians are more likely to choose to study popular music because it offers a ‘soft’ option.

Whilst there may be some truth in this assertion, it is by no means an accurate or reliable analysis. In my lengthy career as a [for want of a better term] Pop musician, I worked with hundreds of musicians, some classically trained, others playing largely by ear. On many occasions, I found myself being frustrated by the inability of some classically trained musicians to grasp how to play and contribute ideas to the music I was writing and by their inability, despite all their breathtaking technical abilitites, to improvise at a relatively straightforward level. Of course there were plenty of exceptions to that rule but then I saw plenty of non-classically trained musicians who enrolled for classical training and quickly developed into very accomplished players and writers of challenging notated music.

The truth probably is that a good number of students choosing popular music courses are not capable of mastering the more technically demanding rigours of contemporary classical study but I equally have no doubt that there are others who are simply put off because there is nothing that suggests they belong in that world and, even if they are allowed in, it must be on terms set out by the ruling elite. Sadly it is easier to write them off as lacking the intellectual strength to master [for example] European post-serial music than to engage their interest by acknowledging an understanding of the music which relates to their culture. In the case of young black inner city students, that is likely to include R’n’B and Hip Hop as well as genres associated with club music like House (which itself can be sub-divided into numerous categories), Garage, Techno and Trance and Reggae-based genres like Dancehall.

Educationalists need to recognize that getting younger students of any ethnicity to appreciate the historic references underpinning the music they listen to is a challenge in itself. For example, it is no good assuming that the mention of a few important names from black music history (i.e. Muddy Waters, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley) will automatically strike a chord with the potential graduate students of tomorrow. But if it is clear that these figures belong to a lineage which has influenced the likes of Pharrel Williams, Nicki Minaj, Jason Derülo, Elephant Man and others, the point may be more easily understood. That is not an argument for studying the music of any of these current artists. It is simply about contextualising the importance of those whose work should be studied not, as some academics would accuse me of suggesting, because of its commercial value but because of its musical content and its influence on a far wider spectrum of subsequent works.

For the situation to change, however, some significant steps must be taken by those currently occupying the positions of power within music academia. Foremost among them is that all composition students, whether they have opted for formal composition, sound art, popular music, ethnomusicology etc. need to be encouraged to embrace other disciplines and be incentivised and enthused to collaborate across different fields of creativity. In my recent experience as a mature student, there is talk of a collaborative culture and this is acknowledged as desirable by most academic staff but very little is actually done to engender such a multi-discipline approach in reality.

A more difficult change to affect but one which must happen if music departments are not to risk removing themselves ever further from the wider world is that those academics who pour their energies into defending the status quo need to come off their high horses and accept that music does not have to be complex, exclusive, notated or based on the European classical tradition in order to be important and the fact that an artist is hugely popular and has achieved commercial success does not automatically mean his or her work is of no value.

Another change that will be difficult to achieve when those controlling recruitment and determining the content of courses are so resistant is that music departments need to welcome into the fold individuals who can bring a fresh perspective but who are, in many cases, unlikely to possess the years of lecturing experience or intellectually highbrow publications which appear to be pre-requisites of a world class CV and may, in some cases, have little or no formal musical training.

It is ironic that the rhetoric of the currently prevailing factions in music academia is leftist and on the side of the oppressed and the disadvantaged. Yet the consequence of their inflexible approach to a changing world is that they reinforce the disadvantagement of some of the most under-represented groups. Partly this is because they adhere to a model of radicalism which might have had resonance forty to fifty years ago but has long since ceased to have currency beyond the narrow world in which it continues to flourish.

I look forward to a time when it is possible to suggest that, to cite a small random sample of names, Anton Webern, Olivier Messiaen, Gyorgy Ligeti, Sofia Gubaidulina, Lennon & McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Kate Bush, David Bowie, Prince, Bjork, Kraftwerk, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell and Bob Marley are all highly important and influential composers of the modern era without facing howls of derision from self-elected intellectual gatekeepers (and I am painfully aware that even this group is narrow and fails to acknowledge various other musical cultures).

In the meantime, higher education has to shake off the baggage of the nineteen-seventies and reposition itself to address the world it faces in the present century. Only then will there be the potential for large and significant groups and communities within our diverse towns and cities to be more successfully engaged. How enriching an experience that will be if it is ever allowed to happen.