Here Lindsay Carter provides a report on the RMA Research Students’ Conference that took place in January at the University of Bristol. Lindsay Carter is in the second year of a PhD at the University of Bristol, working on National Socialist and Stalinist film music.
Held at the University of Bristol on 8–10 January, this year’s RMA Research Students’ Conference saw over 180 musicologists and composers descend upon the city in what was to be a vibrant and stimulating conference. The event ran smoothly from start to finish and served as a friendly and encouraging space for the meeting and exchange of intellectual enthusiasm and ideas.
Behind the imposing Greek-revival exterior of the Victoria Rooms in Clifton, the conference venue provided a number of more intimate spaces in which to take a break from the busy activities and to network with fellow delegates. Social events included the conference dinner at the award-winning Square Club and a celebratory pub visit on the Saturday night (complete with a musicology quiz written by members of staff and postgraduate students from the University of Bristol).
All three of the keynotes raised a number of important questions about ways in which to approach the study of music. Significant attention was given to the concept of the listener in all of the keynotes and in many of the postgraduate papers. Professor Katharine Ellis’ (University of Bristol) polished and thought-provoking paper ‘Who cares if you listen?’ introduced the theme beautifully, leaving the questions of when, how and why we listen lingering well after its close. Ellis examined the differing dynamics of audience behaviour in nineteenth century Paris and the emergence of a standard of ‘attentive listening’. Despite having been drafted in at very short notice, Ellis’ lecture married very well with the other two keynotes. Jerome Roche Prizewinner Dr. Bettina Varwig (King’s College London) proposed a model for considering religious experience through music, arguing that all musical consumption is religious in nature as the consumer seeks out alternative, modern authenticities. Varwig’s paper, ‘Hearing is believing: J.S. Bach in the Twenty-First Century’, was an illuminating examination into the relationship between the present-day Bach cult, religion and the sacred. Finally, Professor Rachel Beckles Willson (Royal Holloway, University of London) presented a stimulating lecture entitled ‘Ecologies of the musically sensorial, old and new’, which illustrated music’s affect in the inner recess of the body and the construction of new spatial realities. The paper was very convincing and eloquently expressed.
The round table discussion ‘Perspectives on Analysing Sound and Music’ was similarly thought-provoking. A panel of 5 professional scholars each responded to the title in differing ways, bringing their own unique angle to the discussion. Amongst the common themes to emerge was the consideration of music as process and a move away from the objectifying of music towards the view of sound and music as fluid and unknowable.
Amongst the student papers, too, audience reception and the process of listening was given significant attention. A panel entitled ‘Reframing the listener’ saw David Fay (University of Bristol) advocate a model of musical meaning which places the ordinary, everyday listener at the centre of musical analysis and in the same panel, Richard Powell (University of York) proposed that hearings of different pieces can inform one another in a creative listening act. On top of this, there were two sessions dedicated to reception studies.
Aside from this recurrent theme, there was a particular focus on popular music this year, with four panels dedicated to the topic. Of particular note was Rachel McCarthy’s (Royal Holloway, University of London) comparative look at psychoanalytic constructions of ‘woman’ in N-Dubz and the Occitanian Troubadours. McCarthy highlighted the similarities between contemporary medieval and popular music studies in what was an exceptionally well presented paper. In the same panel, Jack Webster (University of Southampton) presented a convincing paper which combined the study of music making in British urban cultures with the study of digital and translocal communication. More generally, the diversity of topics and approaches covered, with other points of focus including 19th century music and Russian and Soviet music, gave everyone the opportunity to hear papers that were seemingly unrelated to their research.
The conference also offered a number of career development workshops and talks including a workshop on publishing journal articles, a panel discussion on ‘Life post-PhD’ and individual C.V. tutorials. The Thursday session on ‘Effective chairing’ was very helpful to the conference’s student chairs. Indeed, the combination of student and staff chairs was a welcome feature of the conference as it both gave students the opportunity to chair a session and saw staff and students working together, rather than in pre-defined roles.
The integration of composition into the programme was a stand-out feature, with three concerts showcasing new compositions, a full day of composition workshops and a panel discussion with composers and performers. The all-female choir Schola Cantorum, directed by Dr. Emma Hornby (University of Bristol), performed four new unaccompanied works particularly well, including Veni Sancte Spiritu by Jessica Norton (University of Birmingham) and The True Sun by Kostis Tsioulakis (University of Bristol).
Overall, the impressive range of events and the welcoming atmosphere of the event made for a stimulating and enjoyable conference, and thanks to the maps provided in the conference programme, there have been no lost delegates found in the labyrinthine basements of the Victoria Rooms.