Burning Down the House: The Aesthetics of Self-Immolation



According to a recent article in New Music Box “The field of Western classical music  . . . suppresses Black and brown voices.”

By now,  the charge is more than a little familiar to those in the business.

What makes it somewhat relevant to those outside of it is the comparison with this recent news item which I will quote in its entirety:

An Ohio jury on Friday slapped Oberlin College with an $11.2 million damages penalty for siding with three black students who had claimed they were victims of racial profiling after they were caught shoplifting in 2016, a report said.

The liberal arts college must pay the massive compensatory damages award to the family-owned Gibson’s Bakery, where the three students had been arrested for attempting to steal or buy alcohol with a false ID.

The arrests were met with massive protests by students and faculty at the school.

During the protests, the Dean of Students, Meredith Raimondo, drew up a flyer, claiming Gibson’s had a history of racial profiling, the Chronicle-Telegram reported.

The flyer also urged students to boycott the bakery, the Chronicle-Telegram reported.

The students pleaded guilty to the attempted theft in 2017 and admitted in court they were not racially profiled.

The $11.2 million award could triple in a hearing next week on punitive damages, according to the report.


While the comparison may seem distant, the connecting thread consists in what is now obvious about the information age we inhabit: with the dominance of social media no one is going to prevent you from giving voice to your views no matter how marginal or absurd. Indeed you will almost always find a few-and maybe even a mob to cheer you on, just as did the Oberlin students who initiated the protest. They knew that they could count on the student body righteously taking their places in the anti-racist herd, joining them in chanting “no justice, no peace” with the unquestioning support of their professors and even of the administration.

What they didn’t bank on is that those who knew the facts and knew they were being smeared and libeled didn’t get mad-they didn’t even try to defend themselves publicly. Rather they got even through their constitutional right to the legal system, striking back and winning a multimillion dollar civil judgement. Their victory, according to this report, was seem by many in the town as “a sign that not only Oberlin College but in the future, powerful institutions will hesitate before trying to crush the little guy.”


It should be apparent that a similar set of neoliberal identitarian assumptions to those which ended up requiring a major transfer of assets from the Oberlin endowment to a local bakery inform the New Music Box piece mentioned at the beginning. Just as Oberlin students will reflexively protest a small business being charged with racism regardless of the evidence, so too can the notion that “western classical music is rooted in white supremacy” be simply asserted without the slightest argument. Indeed, anyone doing so can be confident that a mob will line up “in solidarity”. Furthermore just as the Oberlin students received institutional support via the Dean of Students, the flagship publication of contemporary music and those who read it appear to get a visceral thrill from metaphorically slashing their own wrists and from attacking as reactionaries and racists those attempting to prevent them from doing so.

What will be invisible to those performing the denunciations are African American composers themselves who will see through the treacly activistist gestures as age old liberal tokenism and condescension in an aestheticized, post-modern form. In fact, it was an African American composer who drew my attention to the article, characterizing it as “bullshit” and its author as a “whining incompetent.”


None of this, of course, will matter to those on the outside of our tiny circle of “new music” initiates. Potential audiences, insofar as we hope have them at all, will not be furious or even provoked. They will read one sentence of this nonsense, roll their eyes and come away with their preconceptions confirmed that classical composers and the institutions which support them are indeed as ridiculous and fraudulent as they always believed us to to be, a matter discussed here.

As for the fist pumping mobs, they are either oblivious or don’t care how they are seen by others. What is clear is that their baseless assertions of the inherent white supremacy of classical music help no one. Insofar as they succeed they will only further degrade the systems of financial support which continue to provide many musicians with a decent livelihood. And that includes the ostensible targets of their efforts towards “inclusivity”-those who are now establishing a place for themselves within it.

Update  1, 6/10/2019: Lightly edited for clarity. Links added.

Update 2, 6/10/2019: Incredibly (or maybe not) a bit of digging on the case reveals a still more direct connection to music: one of those taking a leading role in attempts to “smear the (Gibson Bakery) brand” was an Oberlin Professor of Music Theory.

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