Kofi Agawu (The Graduate Center, CUNY)

31st March 2022, Zoom Colloquium, 6.30 UK Time

Some version of the claim that music studies are in crisis today has been circulating in the academy recently. The latest issue of Music Theory Spectrum (2021), for example, features articles from a 2019 SMT plenary noting deficits in the ways in which theorists have addressed matters of race, gender, nationality, and disability, and urging members to work towards reframing theory and analysis. Numerous conversations, debates, and bouts of talking past in a variety of forums continue to highlight issues concerning theory, especially as preached and practiced in the USA. Questions remain, however, about the cogency of the critiques and the intellectual and pedagogical implications of some of the solutions being proposed. Because these discussions are familiar to many of us, I will refer to only a few positions, leaving spaces—metaphorically speaking—for others to chime in consonantly or dissonantly. My aim is to raise questions about the project of reframing in hopes of clarifying the vision(s) of reformers. I argue that the real critique of music theory has not yet begun, and that although questions of demographics and representation are important, they form only a small part of a larger problem, namely, the ways in which theory’s objects are constituted in the first place. I conclude that without a broadening of theory’s geo-cultural reach and a re-imagining of its disciplinary bases, the work of reform may be with us for a while.

Kofi Agawu was born in Ghana, where he received his initial education before studying composition and analysis in the UK and musicology in the US. He is currently Distinguished Professor at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Playing with Signs (1991), African Rhythm (1996), Music as Discourse (2008) and The African Imagination in Music (2016). He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship (1991), the Dent Medal (1992), and the Harrison Medal (2009). A Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is also Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy and Honorary Member of the Royal Musical Association.