03 October 2010

Is there abuse and corruption in musicology? Introduction

The following is the introduction to an essay entitled "Is there abuse and corruption in musicology?," which originated as a response to a discussion on the AMS-L e-mail list in May 2009. See also Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4. A pdf of the complete essay, including the introduction, is available here.


On 15 March 2008, the Board of Directors of the American Musicological Society approved a statement condemning the use of music in physical or psychological torture.[a] By that point, similar resolutions had already been issued by the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Society for American Music, and the U. S. branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. All were in response to revelations over the preceding few years that the United States had been using long-term uninterrupted exposure to very loud music among its arsenal of extreme interrogation techniques at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp and elsewhere. The AMS had been slower than the other scholarly organizations to approve such a resolution; in fact, the AMS had failed to pass a similar resolution in 2007.

On 8 May 2009, The Chronicle of Higher Education published two items related to these resolutions. The first was an article by Lara Pellegrinelli, “Scholarly Discord: The politics of music in the war on terrorism” (available here, now behind a paywall), a well-researched piece of contextual reporting, that did not, however, refrain from expressing the author’s opinions. The second was an opinion piece by Ilias Chrissochoidis, “Composed in Hypocrisy: Music, torture, and the drama of American musicology” (available here, likewise behind a paywall).

Chrissochoidis, a relatively recent (2004) Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford, expressed in quite direct and emotional language his feeling that the anti-torture resolution of AMS was deeply hypocritical, given the various “tortures” to which those on the musicological job or fellowship market were regularly subjected. Chrissochoidis’s essay quickly became the subject of lively (and sometimes nasty) discussion on AMS-L, the e-mail list of the American Musicological Society. The first message pertaining to the essay appeared on AMS-L on 4 May 2009 (the essay had appeared online ahead of its official date of publication). Within the next 10 days, there were at least 72 messages relating to Chrissochoidis’s essay or related topics by at least 54 different respondents.[b] These messages are available in the AMS-L archive (access through the listserv requires a password, but registration is free). The relevant subject headings are:

“CHE article”

“Chronicle article: “Composed in Hypocrisy,” Re the AMS and its resolution on the use of music in physical or psychological torture:

“Chronicle article: 'Composed in Hypocrisy: Music, torture, and the drama of American musicology'”

“controversy & hermeutics”

“Fwd: Chronicle Review article, Scholarly Discord: The politics of music in the war on terrorism”

On 14 May 2009, I submitted to AMS-L a response of my own, with the subject line “Is there abuse and corruption in musicology? [LONG].” The message was indeed unusually long, over 5000 words, and I realized that there was some danger that the moderators of AMS-L would balk at publishing it for that reason. However, because of its relevance to the ongoing discussion on the list, and because of the unique perspective that I had to offer on the topic, I had hoped that the moderators would see fit to allow it, perhaps broken across several separate posts.

Later that day, I received the following message from one of the moderators, James Zychowicz:


Thank you for submitting your posting to AMS-L. It is an impressive statement, and I admire the time you spent to write such a thorough response to the recent thread. That stated, it is an extremely long essay, and I do not believe that this listserv is the best venue for it. The fine points you raise may not reach all the readers successfully with the posting as it stands. Yet I do not want to dismiss it out of hand, but request a revision: I would ask you to submit a precis of no more than 1,000 words, with your main points summarized. In that version, you are certainly welcome to mention the longer article to the readers and offer to send it to them individually upon request. This would allow you to convey your message to the listserv effectively and also make available the full version to those would would want to read more. When you do submit the shorter statment, please include your full name and e-mail address in the body of the message, as required by AMS-L Guidelines.



As I had just spent many hours composing a 5000-word essay, it seemed more than a little dispiriting to be asked to write a new essay about my first essay, and so I let it ride for the time being.

I am publishing the original essay here now as part of my larger ongoing project under the general rubric “Confessions of a Recovering Musicologist.”  I have made only a tiny handful of editorial emendations to the original essay; otherwise, it is published here exactly as I submitted it to AMS-L on 14 May 2009. Because of its length, I am dividing it across four separate posts in addition to this one. (All four posts and this introduction will include links to the full series.)

What I say in this essay should by no means be considered my last word on any of the topics I address; it should be seen, rather, as an introduction to them. I intend to address all of these topics in more detail (and more explicitly) in the coming weeks.

It is worth noting that according to his current CV (available here), Chrissochoidis seems to have been unusually successful over the past two years in obtaining grants and fellowships. So at least in the short run, the publication of his essay seems not to have caused irreparable damage to his career, as some who read the nastier responses on AMS-L in May 2009 might have feared that it would.

Continue on to Part 1 of "Is there abuse and corruption in musicology?"


[a] “AMS Board Condemns the Use of Music in Physical or Psychological Torture,”  AMS Newsletter, 38:2, August 2008, p. 5. The text of the resolution reads:

Whereas, we, the Board of Directors of the American Musicological Society, join the chorus of protest and dissent against the use of physical and psychological torture, finding such torture incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons; and

Whereas, we, as scholars and musicians who devote our lives to sustaining musical cultures throughout the world, protest the contamination of our cultures by the misappropriation of music as a weapon of psychological torture;

Now, therefore, we condemn the use of music as a weapon of torture, and we call upon members of the American Musicological Society to exercise their rights and petition their political representatives to ban this use.

Approved 15 March 2008
Board of Directors, American
Musicological Society

I have been unable to locate this statement anywhere on the AMS website.

[b] I accumulated these statistics in May 2009, while preparing the response that I am publishing here. I have not gone back to verify them, and there may be a few subsequent messages on the topic that are not included in my count.

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