RMA Annual Conference Report: September 2016

Here Peter Tregear provides a report on the RMA Annual Conference that took place in September at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Peter is a Teaching Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London.


For most of us, I am sure, academic conferences are a ritual of academic life that evokes a mix of feelings encompassing conviviality and consternation, inspiration and exasperation. I, for one, almost never regret having made the effort to attend, whether I am presenting or not. For all the format’s inherent weaknesses, and for all the truth in the observation that some papers might be better read than read out, the investment of time and money almost always proves to be a wise one. This year’s Annual Conference of the RMA (3–5 September) was no exception, and the organizers and venue staff are to be congratulated for running an event that indeed delivered significant intellectual and social returns.


We were fortunate, of course, that our host the Guildhall School of Music & Drama is blessed with first-rate facilities. The Barbican might be a concrete jungle, but it is also a very convenient and well-appointed one, and the GSMD (which last hosted the Annual Conference in 1979) has now added to it a superb new facility at Milton Court able to accommodate all conference events. Such logistical convenience was especially valuable this year given that there were up to four parallel sessions over the three days. The chance of an attendee being faced with a clash of sessions of interest and thus needing to contemplate a quick dash across venues rose to almost a certainty. Furthermore, as conference director Cormac Newark noted in his opening address, the ratio between papers and drinks receptions thereby also decreased. Thanks to the generosity of Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group and the Musica Britannica Trust, however, these events remained as hospitable and pleasant as ever.


The GSMD also made its mark on this year’s conference through a programme that foregrounded practice-led scholarship. It worked well; there were some excellent presentations even if not all managed entirely to avoid the risk of invoking overripe academic methods and discourse in the service of what might seem to be rather prosaic conclusions. A session on Current and Future Perspectives on the Revival of Classical Improvisation in Western Art-Music Performance Culture, for instance, detailed empirical evidence to show that group improvising in such a style was accompanied by both heightened states of listening and attunement and a heightened awareness of the unfolding of large-scale musical structures. It is hard, however, to imagine how it could be otherwise.


On other occasions, however, a performer’s-eye view was the launching pad for quite novel perspectives such as offered by Matthew Riley (University of Birmingham) in his paper on ‘Diatonicism and English National Music’. Here, a connection was made between the organist’s craft of improvising processionals for ceremonial liturgical use, and what we have come to recognize as some of the sonic calling cards of the so-called English Musical Renaissance. Finzi’s op. 11 Romance came to be rather neatly described as a ‘doodle of musical Englishness’.


Unfortunately, professional commitments thwarted Graham Vick from being able to present the Peter Le Huray lecture at the end of day one. Instead, we were offered a panel discussion on recent developments in opera production and reception led by Charlotte Higgins (The Guardian), Mark Ravenhill (playwright), Annabel Arden (opera director) and former RMA president John Deathridge (King’s College London). As engaging as this session was, the Dent Medal address by Marina Frolova-Walker (University of Cambridge) that followed on day two served to remind us of the particular charismatic and rhetorical force that is the property of a single-authored keynote speech. Entitled ‘An Inclusive History for a Divided World’, Frolova-Walker’s address was a lyrical, incisive, and beautifully constructed talk that linked her own scholarly work in Soviet music history with current cultural and political events. Twentieth-century music, we were reminded, is more an ideological label than a chronological designation – one in which Russian music can all-too-easily be characterized as the mere by-product of ‘fancy-dress composers of the distant East’. And although particular works by, say, Shostakovich and Hindemith can sound very similar, those of the former are commonly received as the result of a repressed and tortured soul whereas those of the latter are noticed, if at all, merely for their interesting formal features. A new, more geographically inclusive, history of modern (and modernist) music may now finally be emerging, she suggested, but it faces a new risk. Our post-Brexit age is witness to a revival of cold war rhetoric often disassociated from its original historical context. We need, Frolova-Walker concluded, to protect the capacity of our community of scholars to think, as well as practice, freely across national borders.


Other especially striking addresses included the lead paper from Julian Anderson (GSMD) for his session on Composers and ‘Group Self-Contempt’, entitled ‘Selling Ourselves Short: Inturned Aggression and Group Self-Contempt in the Modern Music Sector since 1973’. That contemporary art music is considered a failure in popular culture is due in no small part, he suggested, to the fact that those who work in it believe it always-already to be so. But the facts do not support many of the standard critical clichés; such music has at times been hugely successful. The paper given by Miguel Mera (City, University of London) on ‘The Comedy of Audio-Visual Musicality’ deserves also to be singled out for being, as befits its title, one of the funniest I’ve attended for some time. The point he was making, that comic timing both has a musical analogue and can be supported by forms of musical punctuation, was, however, no mere bagatelle.


As ever, some of the most rewarding discussions occurred outside the bounds of the published programme. A fascinating discussion about the use of the German verb verkommen (and its possible translations) in Dahlhaus’s Nineteenth-Century Music that Derek Scott and Ian Pace had started over a post-session drink, for instance, found its apotheosis on the online American Musicological Society Discussion List the following day. Such moments are much more likely to occur, however, when as many of us as possible, paper givers or not, make the extra effort to attend and hear papers outside our own fields of interest and spend the time between sessions to engage with both old and new colleagues. To that end, as large as the pool of attendees was, I could not help but notice that there seemed to be very few representatives of the professoriate of our leading music departments present this year. As Frolova-Walker noted, however, the responsibility of defending and promoting the interests of our discipline is not just a scholarly exercise, it is also a collegial one. So I end with a plug and an encouragement: see you in Liverpool in 2017!


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