The Royal Musical Association's Annual Students' Conference January 2009

Conference report

23 March 2009

King's College LondonDiversity was the overriding theme of the Royal Musical Association's splendid Annual Students' Conference 2009, hosted this year by the Music Department at King's College London. The conference gives students the chance to meet and present papers in a more relaxed and friendly atmosphere than a conventional gathering of academics, and in this respect this year's conference was a huge success.

The question posed by the opening panel – 'Where is musicology going?' – can not be answered with any certainty. But there is no doubt from the range of papers delivered by the delegates that at the moment, we are not only embracing a greater range of repertories but also exploring the possibilities of both extramusical analyses and non-musical associations with the music that we study with greater ease and enthusiasm than ever before.

The importance of this was clear from the start of the conference. What emerged from the introductory panel discussion, which included both academics and Nicholas Kenyon of the Barbican Centre, was the importance of reaching out. The tension between esoteric musicological work, which can be impenetrable even to fellow scholars, and populist books written by non-musicologists, highlights the need for a smoother conduit between musicology and the public sphere. The popularity of Alex Ross' journalistic book, The Rest is Noise, which was conceived before his weblog of the same name, was pointed to as an example of how the public can still be persuaded to talk about art music. In Julian Anderson's keynote speech, an analogous case was raised in the sphere of contemporary composition. Anderson exposed the overuse of quick shock tactics as the main affective discourse in recent compositions and was not afraid to criticise music which seems to contain little beyond the surface impact – usually during the first time of hearing only – of unpredictable outbursts of sound.

Both musicologists and composers, then, need to be more active communicators at times. One of the highlights of the conference was the evening concert at which seven new compositions were performed with extraordinary dedication, technical flair and insight by Caroline Balding (violin) and Dominic Saunders (piano). Utterly varied in procedure in spite of having the same instrumental forces with which to experiment, the seven pieces were all strikingly imaginative. What related well to the wider context of the conference, however, was the contrasting approaches of the composers towards meaning. Most of them were keen to posit either a programme or explanation of their music's structure, but Dimitris Economou was content to let his piece speak for itself, and – significantly or not – for me it proved to be the most compelling of the compositions.

King's College London'Interdisciplinarity' was another watchword of the conference. However, it has to be said that at times, the panel discussion devoted to the subject seemed to raise anxieties that were not necessarily shared by the new generation of students at whom the conference was aimed. It was suggested that the study of more recent or non-Western genres, such as Oriental repertoires and film music, is thwarted by a mixture of the marginalisation of such music from the canon and by the incongruity of traditional musicological techniques with the material being studied. With good reason, Katherine Brown showed how interviewing living composers can be a valid approach to academic study, even though it is often frowned upon.

Yet the vast majority of the papers that formed the backbone of the conference proved that the scholars of the future have no fears of branching out into disparate areas. After all, the very act of writing music history, or analysing a composition, is by its nature interdisciplinary: to associate words or images with sound, for instance, automatically brings together different disciplines. The range of presentations on offer showed that musicology's inherent versatility has already moved in new directions. We had papers on the influence of geography on music in Sardinia and Arctic Europe, on timings of Elgar's performances of his own music, on Eminem and on sonic art installations; we heard of students' studies of electronic dance music, opera on film, fascism in the performance history of Aida and 'antifascism' in dodecaphonic music in post-War Italy. Indeed, there was no limit to the types of music discussed or to the ways in which it was approached.

In fact, such is the freedom of the current field that we almost witnessed the reverse of the concerns of the interdisciplinarity panel. It was striking that the music discussed during the conference tended towards the margins of the canon, or even beyond. Mozart and Wagner were intriguingly overlooked, while Bach and Beethoven were almost novelties and Schenker and Adorno had for the most part relinquished their iron grip. Otherness has become the norm, so to speak, and the range of papers involving gender-related approaches, ethnomusicology, film, psychoanalysis, recorded media and source studies was ample evidence of the kind of perspectives on music that we are more than comfortable to employ today.

Another problematic forum involved the discussion of performance and musicology. One irony of this discussion, even before it took place, was the absence of performance from the conference. Notwithstanding the concert, whose purpose was essentially to relay the compositions to the delegates, there was no room for performers at the gathering, and few papers on performance-related topics. Then, too, the performance panel focussed almost exclusively on the study of music on record, to the detriment of a wider discussion of this most elusive aspect of musicology. There was general agreement that we still lack the tools for discussing performance with enough complexity, especially regarding the study of expressivity, but the debate was sidetracked by a lengthy discussion of recorded music. It was suggested that while capturing performances on record can help us to examine performance in different ways, to do so in isolation of existing methods of approaching music – whether historical or analytical – can be just as restrictive as score-based analyses. Replacing one text (the score) with another kind of text (a graphic representation of a recording), rather than examining them together, will probably never be widely accepted by non-specialist musicologists. Nor does examining the performance history of a repertoire solely through recordings necessarily give the full picture.

Nevertheless, it was pointed out that as it is only a few years down the line, the AHRC CHARM project – which came in for a certain amount of criticism, tempered by praise from others – could not have been expected to achieve a definitive methodology for studying recorded music within so short a timescale. What clearly needs to happen, though, is a more complete integration of the study of recorded music into musicology generally – in other words, to see it as part of the bigger picture, rather than a branch of its own or a distant outpost that does not have a place in mainstream musicology.

Overall, the conference organisation was excellent. The programme was completed by workshops on issues such as 'Getting Published' and 'After the PhD' in which plenty of useful advice was issued, such as pursuing Junior Research Fellowships well in advance of the end of the PhD and writing a 'killer article' during the period of doctoral study in order to stand out from the crowd during applications for jobs and fellowships. There was a feeling amongst many of the students whom I talked to that the schedule for the conference was rather too packed with papers and that fewer of these might usefully have been selected for inclusion. Also, the nature of the panel discussions promoted a divide between the professional academics and the students, since none of the latter were actually included on the panels (in spite of it being a students' conference); perhaps a mix would have stimulated more discussion from the students.

Nevertheless, there was plenty to think about in the wake of the conference, with three key themes standing out above the rest: the need to think about what the canon means to us now, the need for us to work together as a community more effectively, and the need to learn how to communicate more effectively to the public.

by Dominic McHugh

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