RMA Research Students’ Conference 2014: A Report

Another year, another successful RMA Research Students’ Conference. Here Alexi Vellianitis (University of Oxford) gives his view on the event. Thanks Alexi! We’re already looking forward to RSC2015: Thursday 8 – Saturday 10 January at the University of Bristol.

This year’s RMA Research Students’ Conference took place between the 6th and 8th of January at the University of Birmingham. The university’s spacious new Bramall Music Building easily accommodated 104 speakers for three days of five parallel sessions and provided comfortable open areas in which to relax, socialise and discuss work.

The presentations given by professional scholars were inspiring. The keynote by Howard Skempton (Birmingham Conservatoire), ‘Exploring the Hinterland’, was touching, funny and admirably brief, allowing ample time for discussion. He described research in terms of an adventure through an uncharted land, and stressed the fertility of moments of surprise, curiosity and playfulness. Jerome Roche Prize winner Christopher Chowrimootoo (Notre Dame) gave an extremely polished keynote entitled ‘The Turn of the Screw, or: The Gothic Melodrama of Modernism’, which explored a conflict in the reception of Britten’s opera between the tantalising superficiality of low-brow gothic melodrama and the ascetic abstraction of high-brow modernism. This excellent paper set a very high standard towards which conference delegates could aim to work. (Due to adverse weather conditions, Georgina Born (Oxford) was unfortunately unable to be present to deliver her scheduled keynote.)

Other talks tackled some of the essentials of academic life: Laura Tunbridge (Manchester) gave advice on publishing in peer-reviewed journals and Geoff Thomason (Royal Northern College of Music) spoke about using music libraries. Both of these presentations provided a solid set of skills for the large number of the presenters and attendees who had just begun PhDs, Master’s degrees, or held only undergraduate degrees.

There was a great breadth of papers, although some areas were better covered than others. There was a particular focus on popular, film and video-game music, while early music and non-European music were only represented by one panel each. Many areas were a subtle mixture of the traditional and the diverse: one panel was devoted each to ‘Beethoven’ and ‘Opera’, and three each to European art music at the turn of the twentieth century and pure ‘Analysis’. But the delightfully diverse content of the papers matched for this latter set of panels indicated that one term can accommodate lots of different approaches. A similar thing can be said of the two panels on the study of instruments: one was devoted entirely to ‘The Piano’, and the other to ‘Instruments’ as different as the Majorcan bagpipes and the ondes martenot.

Many papers were admirable in their persistent interrogation of fundamental disciplinary issues. A compelling topical analysis of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces and Erwartung was given byDanielle Hood (Leeds), who successfully defended herself from intense criticism about the applicability of topics to this music in light of Schoenberg’s desire to eschew all idiomatic gestures in favour of ‘immediate expression’. Other highlights in this respect included Ralph Whyte (Columbia), whose entertaining and richly historical paper placed Richard Strauss at the intersection of idealism and commercialisation in early twentieth-century America, and Amanda Hsieh (Toronto), who gave an understated but profoundly critical paper about the gendering of nature and organicism in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

In between panels and during the conference dinner at the lively Bank restaurant, delegates chattered about a paper on autism by Sara Clethero (London College of Music, University of West London), and a paper on David Cameron’s appropriation of mass culture by Stephen Millar (Queen’s University, Belfast). Even other more historical or theoretical papers tended to be keenly outward-looking, this large focus on diverse contemporary political and social issues allaying any fears about the insularity of the academy.

In a similar vein, it was heartening to note the very high number of speakers undertaking doctoral research at conservatoires, many of whom presented the freshest and most impressive papers: pianist Maria Razumovskaya (Royal College of Music) provided a sensitive and nuanced reading of Heinrich Neuhaus’s interpretation of Beethoven’s piano music, and Erin McHugh (Royal College of Music) drew upon her own singing experience to provide an impassioned discussion of the gendering of vocal registers in Berg’s Lulu and Strauss’s Salome.

Some composers benefited from composition workshops, others from papers they gave on their working method. In particular, these latter papers gave interesting answers to a question, posited by Skempton in his keynote, about the disciplinary gap between musicology and composition, and ways it could be bridged. A stand-out paper was given by Brona Martin (Manchester), who discussed the use of recorded reminiscences of members of her hometown in her hauntingly personal soundscape compositions.

At times certain speakers seemed too self-conscious in questioning their subjective position in the construction of musical meaning, though this should be attributed to some lingering spectres of positivism rather than to actual audience feedback. But the support provided by RMA members and other scholars, both formally in presentations and informally in discussion, was invaluable. The hustings for the election of a new Student Representative fostered a sense of community between students, and it was particularly heartening to see so many of the Association’s members in attendance throughout the conference: this support really renewed one’s sense of the RMA as a living and breathing entity.

Alexi Vellianitis is in the first year of an AHRC-funded DPhil at the University of Oxford, working on nostalgia as a narrative in the contemporary discourse on tonality.

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