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Conference: The Idea of Canon in the Twenty-First Century

Leonora Saavedra, keynote speaker
Keynote speaker Leonora Saavedra

Saturday, Sept. 22, 9am-5pm and Sunday, Sept. 23, 9am-2pm @ Sage Hall, Smith College, FREE

Five College Conference: The Idea of the Canon in the Twenty-First Century

Marianna Ritchey and Andrea Moore, organizers

Featuring keynote speaker Leonora Saavedra, University of California, Riverside: "Whose Canon?  A View from Mexico"

This conference seeks to reconsider the idea of canon in music scholarship. This reconsideration comes at a time when the idea of the “Western musical canon” has become somewhat repolarized in musical practice and public discourse, if not in academic work. Indeed, the idea of the Western musical canon has been largely suspended as an object of critical academic scrutiny since the foundational disciplinary challenges of the 1980s and 1990s (Kerman, Citron, Fink, McClary, Weber, etc.) In practice, the repolarization of the canon has comprised increasingly urgent and empowered demands to diversify classical music programming, with the 2018-2019 seasons of major institutions being publicly challenged across new and traditional media platforms. At the same time, defenders of the canon, haunting venues like the muckraking music blog Slipped Disc, react to a perception of the canon’s endangerment by appealing to Western classical music’s autonomous and universal “greatness.” The mission of the recently-formed Future Symphony Institute, a “think tank dedicated to classical music,” exemplifies this kind of retrenchment, referring to “the Western tradition of art music, which, together with the symphony orchestra, represents an achievement unique and unparalleled among cultures in this or any other age.” Arguing for an historical musical canon from this position of Western chauvinism somewhat ironically supports the arguments made in a 1983 issue of Critical Inquiry that took “canon” as its topic: that canons are ideological, that they are not value-neutral, that they exclude important bodies of work, and that they reproduce existing social orders and replicate their inequalities and biases.

In the midst of these debates and practices, this conference revisits canon as an object of scholarly inquiry. In addition to asking how the construct of musical canon has persisted (or not) into the twenty-first century, this conference seeks new avenues for understanding, critiquing, historicizing, and even using the idea of canon. Have new forms of canon emerged in the new millennium: national canons, international canons, new music canons, or others? Does the idea of canon in the twenty-first century offer any potential for understanding contemporary concert culture? Are musicians today creating new canons through practices of lineage and influence? Despite disavowals of canon from some new music quarters, are there contemporary commissioning projects with canonic aspirations? More broadly, are there still vestiges of canon’s sacral implications in public or scholarly discourse? What are the uses of the traditional Western canon in places where classical music itself is culturally ascendant? And perhaps most urgently, does the idea of canon continue to serve as a mechanism of social power and exclusion? Can we analyze the idea of canon as a proxy for today’s polarized social and electoral politics?