- Good Music: What It Is and Who Gets to Decide by John J. Sheinbaum
When one has been at this game long enough, one develops a certain prescience regarding what might raise one's ire. And since there is something to the rule of conventional critical decorumçthat if you can't say something nice, say something productive, and if you can't say something productive, then maybe don't say anything at allçI wondered if this review was one professional opportunity it would be better to let pass. Evidently, I didn't heed my own cautions. Nevertheless, my darker mood was quickly eclipsed by the emergence of some productive questions concerning not so much the forces that effect how we evaluate music (the subject matter of Sheinbaum's essays), but rather the values that still predominate, mostly unquestioned, regarding how the discipline critically evaluates scholars' published musicological endeavours. It is not disingenuous that Sheinbaum's book is therefore here thanked for being the source without which such topics would never have arisen for me. Of course, the question may ultimately remain as to whether it was ever part of Sheinbaum's intention to inspire such reflections. But that is also a not uninteresting line of inquiry and certainly not unrelated to things I touch upon. For why should we not be praised for the inadvertent collateral of our musicological actions as much as for our intended outcomes? Surely it is only a dogged fetishization of academic authors as autonomous agents lording sovereignty heroically over the discourse they produce that can justify the prioritization of the latter over the former. And anyway, are we not these days meant to be propounding against autonomyças colonialist, domination, ideological, instrumental, all the rest? Should we not, therefore, be trying to envisage a non-autonomous musicologist and endeavouring to forge the new terms by which she or he should be evaluated?
It was probably because I was not thinking of such questions that it was possible at the outset to get somewhat irritable. Working as I was within the more normative critical terms of academic evaluation, the title itself already seemed problematic. After all, Anglo-American musicologists have been almost fully employed for nearly thirty years with the project of disenchanting the unquestioned hierarchical value systems and their attendant ideological baggage that we bring to bear on our musical engagements. The practice of understanding that music gets elevated to the status of 'good' predominantly as a result of decisions made by specific communities within a terrain of unequal power relations—rather than finding itself there merely as a fact of nature—is now so pro forma within the discipline as to constitute a problematic value calling out for a bit of disenchantment itself. Within contemporary musicology, representative statements by Sheinbaum such as 'the conventional portrait of ''good music'' is not at all a universal condition for the production and reception of music but, rather, represents a historical fact that began around a particular time and place for particular cultural reasons' (p. 9) do not constitute news. Sheinbaum positions himself as a fellow traveller of a certain intellectual vanguard, talking of the fact that with regard to our assumed value systems 'cracks are starting to show in this foundation' (p. 9, my emphasis) and that, as a result, he is likewise taking up the challenge. But in musicology the revolutionaries for this cause have long since [End Page 762] been our new bourgeois masters, so the sometimes wide-eyed, brave-new-world rhetoric that this text at times gravitates towards can sound a little spurious.
It is not only the general ethos of Sheinbaum's pronouncements on value that, to this reader, seemed a bit too familiar; a brief summary of the chapters reveals that the specific values to which critical scrutiny is being brought to bear are, almost point for point, those that have been the most favoured for critique in the continuing longue...