Conference Report: BFE/RMA Research Students’ Conference Report 2016: ‘Disciplines in Dialogue’

Here Rachel Becker provides a report on the RMA Research Students’ ConfeIMG_6943 - Copyrence that took place in January at Bangor University. Rachel is a second year PhD student at the University of Cambridge, where she works on nineteenth-century opera fantasias for woodwinds.



The first joint research students’ conference between the British Forum for Ethnomusicology and the Royal Musical Association was held between 6 and 8 January 2016 at Bangor University in the beautiful and historic main university building. Given the extremely broad scope common to student conferences, any conference title risks being a mere nod to convention rather than a real indicator of theme. However, the title ‘Disciplines in Dialogue’ was in this case pleasingly relevant, and the dialogue in question was a real success. Although significantly more than the majority of the papers were from the ‘traditional musicology’ side of research – this will hopefully become more equal in following years – approximately half of the sessions included at least one ethnomusicological paper, and within ‘musicology’, papers on traditional Western art music were well balanced by less easily classified papers on pop music, technology, gender, and psychology. Every participant I spoke with over the course of the conference was enthusiastic about the joining of the two associations for the student conference, and most seemed inspired to increased ‘interdisciplinarity’.

The conference began with a brief welcome by the vice-chancellor and then by the head of the School of Music, Chris Collins, who remarked that themes of the sessions had been chosen to deliberately cut across musicology and ethnomusicology, and papers mixed within them for the same reason. The results of this were some extremely broad themes, such as ‘media’, ‘identity’, ‘gender’, and ‘definitions’, but also some more closely linked sessions such as ‘movement and the body’ and ‘new compositional practices’. Papers on ideas of interdisciplinarity, interconnectedness, and internationality abounded, including particularly fascinating presentations on interplay between Italian and Scottish fiddle music in eighteenth-century Edinburgh by Aaron McGregor (University of Glasgow), classical musical analysis of the Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ by Bláithín Duggan (Trinity College Dublin), the misconceptions and erasures of Barbara Strozzi’s life and compositions by CN Lester (University of Huddlesfield), issues of identity and artistic register raised in Jay-Z’s 2013 installation performance at the Pace Gallery by James Gabrillo (University of Cambridge), and the politics of the collection and use of West Mexican instrument collection held at Bangor University by Christina Homer (Bangor University).

To allow a large number of students to participate, four parallel sessions, each with three papers, ran alongside a composition workshop and a performance masterclass or lecture recital. While this inevitably led to some competition for an audience, all of the sessions were well attended, and attendees felt free to dip in and out of sessions in order to hear specific papers. Additionally, many senior academics from Bangor and from the RMA and BFE attended and provided helpful questions and suggestions; their genuine interest in student research was gratifying and reassuring. Along with session papers presented by performers and composers who were also participating in the masterclasses or concerts, the lecture recitals were a particularly interesting addition to this year’s programme, though they were heavily weighted towards the Western end of the musicology spectrum.

Aside from six sessions spread over the three days, the conference included two ‘careers and methodologies’ sessions, each with two parallel panels, led by academics and professionals as well as an open discussion on graduate training needs, which featured active and helpful participation from the attending graduates. The panels on ‘post-PhD careers beyond academia’, which cheeringly focused on careers in which a PhD is either necessary or highly beneficial, and on fieldwork seemed most highly praised by attendees. Additionally, a wine reception sponsored by Routledge was particularly well attended. Lunch was provided every day, and the lack of an official conference dinner meant that the conference could host two evening concerts of student compositions, one by Electroacoustic WALES and one by the professional Okeanos Ensemble, who paired student compositions with traditional Japanese works.

There were two keynote lectures: one given by ethnomusicologist Professor Keith Howard (SOAS, University of London) with the title ‘The future of our musical pasts’ and one, the RMA-sponsored Jerome Roche Lecture, given by Professor Nanette Nielsen (University of Oslo) with the title ‘The work of musicology in the age of cultural reproduction’. In keeping with the conference theme, the two keynotes displayed a significant overlap in sources. One theme of both lectures was a call to reevaluate, in the words of Nicholas Cook, the sentiment that ‘we are all musicologists now’ – if not its original context. Identity is important, and terminology always a minefield, but the students of both the BFE and the RMA seemed to feel the close ties between our studies and the increased blurring of our fields which were on display during this conference.

The conference could not possibly live up to its lofty ambition to ‘represent the entire range of current music research being undertaken by graduate students around the world’. Yet it did represent a wide range of research and demonstrate the collective desire of graduate students to increase connections and lower barriers between disciplines. The conference was characterised by well-written, interesting papers presented professionally, and by enthusiastic interaction during paper sessions, panels, and coffee breaks. I hope that next year’s student conference remains a joint effort between the BFE and the RMA.


The next Research Students’ Conference is scheduled for Thursday 5 to Saturday 7 January 2017 at Canterbury Christ Church University. For further details contact: Dr Vanessa Hawes –

If you or someone you know would like to write a post for the RMA Student Blog then we’d be happy to hear from you! Please get in touch with one of your student representatives.


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