Conference Review: The North American British Music Studies Association Biennial Conference 2012

To open our new RMA Student Blog, the Student Committee has invited its current Chair and research student in twentieth-century British music, Kate Guthrie, to write about her experience attending this year’s NABMSA at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in July.

British music has historically had a bad press. While eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German composers were conquering Europe, British ones were putting up a feeble fight against a largely disinterested public. So much so, that when Oscar Schmitz published his damning account of British music, Das Land Ohne Musik, in 1914, he hardly seemed to be stating anything new. It would take several generations of Elgars, Parrys and Stanfords to salvage our reputation. Or so the story goes.

Even now, when Britain can boast an illustrious musical heritage, it often remains on the periphery of musicology. In my experience, this is true even in the UK. Perhaps the ‘land without music’ myth still holds sway; or perhaps it is because of British reserve that Brits tend not to obsess over their own culture; or maybe the age-old appeal of the Continent entices prospective disciples away. Whatever the explanation, I’ve certainly met more historical musicology students researching Italian, German and French subjects than British ones. At best, Britain holds a precarious place in the musicology charts.

That is, unless you are at a meeting of the North American British Music Studies Association. To say that this organisation bucks the trend would be an understatement. A diverse group of scholars, students and random Anglophiles who’ve come along for the ride, NABMSA (yes, it is a ridculous acronym) loves all things British. Having grown up with a Britain-centric worldview (and having done relatively little travelling), I had never imagined that I might be someone else’s exoticised Other; but at NABMSA’s biennial conference 2012, I was.

But it wasn’t just my exotic allure that made the conference so fun. Drawn together by a passion for British music, the delegates made this one of the friendliest, most encouraging conferences I have ever attended – a great place to make my debut in the world of academia. The local organisers, Christina Bashford and Nicholas Temperley, their amazing team of grad students and the programme committe, which included Alain Frogley and Kendra Leonard, had evidently worked hard to put together a rich and diverse programme of activities including papers, concerts, lecture-recitals and a special Sousa exhibit exploring his British connections.

Of the presentations, I enjoyed two in particular. First, Christina Baade’s paper on ‘The BBC’s 1942 Music Policy and the Problem of Swung Classics’, which explored the political and aesthetic challenges posed by ‘swung classics’ – pieces of popular music which use melodies from the high art canon. The BBC were so uncomfortable about the threat such music posed to the boundary between art and popular music that, Baade explained, they sought to prevent it from being broadcast. In addition, the citation of Russian music proved especially problematic, at a time when British authorities, now on-side with Russia, found themselves in the awkward position of having to promote a country of whose political regime they largely disapproved. To my knowledge, very little has been written about the awkward relationship between music, the Soviet Union and communism in Britain during World War Two; it is an area that would merit exploration.

A second highlight was Erin Johnson-Hill’s paper on ‘Nineteenth-century British and American (Re-)Presentations of Fijian Music’, which I enjoyed as much for its comedy value as for its scholarship. She explained how explorers from the West were initially terrified of the wailing cannibals who inhabited the island – an image that was only confirmed when the first Western missionary to arrive there was eaten. The story of colonisation that followed was another painful example of the West obliterating a native culture in the name of civilisation. I was interested to learn afterwards that the cannibalism was not as mindlessly savage as it sounded: only the brains of very revered people were eaten (it was believed that their powers were thus passed on) and always in a highly ritualised manner. Still, abolition of this practice was arguably one of the few positive contributions we made to Fijian culture.

With such a diverse range of papers and presenters, the NABMSA conference prompted me to reflect on the state of British music studies. (I write this with some trepidation, as sweeping ‘state of play’ statements are rightly the preserve of more experienced academics than I.) My sense is that in the past, British music scholarship has tended to prioritise small-scale details over grand socio-cultural narratives. If this is true of musicology generally, the huge voids in our knowledge of British music probably made such an approach necessary. The phenomenal knowledge of the older generation of NABMSA members reflects the seminal role many of these scholars have played in putting centuries of formerly little-known British music on the map. There is, of course, more of this work to be done.

But personally, and it is a very personal thing, I get excited about the bigger-picture approach that seems gradually to be infiltrating British music studies. I always admire those who can use the fruits of extensive source reading to offer an insight into broad cultural trends. It’s no longer just about which composer went where and when and with whom, but also about how such details can elucidate the character of periods and places. I suspect that this movement towards larger-scale narratives is in part the product of a younger generation of scholars growing up in a new academic environment. The abundance of easily accessible information in modern life must also have played a role: the days when scholars were lucky to unearth even a handful of precious sources from a dusty, uncatalogued archive are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

In addition to enhancing my academic knowledge, the NABMSA conference also broadened my experience of American culture. Given how much culture the UK and US share, I was surprised at how different the US seemed. In particular, extensive primary research via Hollywood productions had given me quite a clear idea about what (I thought) life as an American student was like. Hollywood, it turns out, cannot be credited with giving an entirely accurate representation.

While I was relieved to discover that the university ‘dorm’ was not the rows of bunk-beds I’d envisaged, it was a far cry from the glamour of High School Musical. The mattress was like something out of a soft play area. I am sure the waterproof covering (apparently a standard feature of American halls) has helped to protect it from generations of students, but it also made it so slippery that keeping the unfitted sheets on the bed became an insurmountable challenge. Not that making beds has ever been one of my fortes, particularly not when there are only sheets and no duvets involved. Thank goodness bed-making isn’t ordinarily a daily requirement of musicology!

One comment

  1. I shall have to look out for this conference in the future – I quite fancy being an Exotic Other!

    Some of the problems in appreciating British music lie in the nature of surviving sources and their genres. Much eighteenth-century music, for example, was written for specific occasions and was circulated in manuscript copies, with printed versions existing only in truncated form, if at all. Ethnocentric views also tend to delegitimise much of the music written in Britain, giving a very lopsided view of musical culture especially in the international London of the eighteenth-century.

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