15 Minutes with … the Dent Medallist (Interview with Marina Frolova-Walker)

Continuing our series of interviews with RMA prize winners, we interviewed the 2015 recipient of the Dent Medal, Professor Marina Frolova-Walker (Cambridge University), immediately after her keynote lecture on the second day of the RMA’s 2016 Annual Conference at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Among other things, we asked Professor Frolova-Walker about her current research, the differences between academia in the UK and Russia, her work-life balance, and directions for future research in musicology.marina

1) What is your favourite and least favourite aspect of your job?

My most favourite aspect is, of course, when I manage to do some good writing or good teaching, or when my students do very well and I feel that I’ve had a role to play in this. It’s even more wonderful, perhaps, to meet someone years later and realise that you’ve made a difference to their life and helped change what they think about music and life in all kinds of ways.

The worst aspect of the job is, without a doubt, email! I’m very bad at coping with it and I still remember times before email when people managed to go about their job, just as efficiently as now, but by meeting each other and discussing things in person. Sometimes we can exchange fifty emails when really one could’ve just nipped next door. I feel that ‘doing email’ is extremely unhealthy because you have to look at the screen for so long and your eyes start watering and then you still have to look at the screen for more hours to do your own work. So that’s one aspect of this – it’s unhealthy. The other aspect is that it’s an interruption. I’m very bad at multitasking, so when I have to finish a piece of writing, I try to protect myself from email, but that, of course, doesn’t make me a very efficient member of the community.

2) What would be the one most important piece of advice you’d give to doctoral students aspiring to a career in academia?

Well, even before they come, I usually ask them very strictly whether they think they can live without this. I see a lot of frustrated PhD students, and it can be the cause of a nervous breakdown or a change of course, so it’s better if people actually know what they’re in for. Essentially, you only want to do a PhD if you want a career in academia, and it’s a very particular career which has its joys, but also has its difficulties and challenges. So I try to be very honest with candidates to find out whether they are sure. I recently had an applicant who was thinking about choosing between doing a PhD in musicology and becoming a policeman like their father. They were very good and I encouraged them, but then they didn’t come in the end. So I believe they probably did the right thing because if you have a choice like this, it’s probably better to get a ‘real’ job.

Another piece of advice would be to separate yourself from what you do in your doctoral work, or any academic work, from what you personally are. People are conflating this very often and students and academics feel that every bit of criticism is a criticism of themselves. I think we have to realise that it’s a persona we put out there, it’s not the person. Sometimes this persona can be criticised and sometimes very unfairly criticised, and you just have to take it on the chin and separate it from the personal issues, and never think that it undermines you as a person. It helps to have a robust core that is separate from what you put out there.

3) Can you speak a little bit about your latest book Stalin’s Music Prize for our readership? What is your central argument, how did you go about researching this topic, and what were the challenges and success stories?

I enjoyed this project hugely and it will be hard to find another one like this. It was so great to do it. The central thesis is that the Stalin Prize was not really Stalin’s ‘own’ prize and he didn’t give it out personally. Behind him or, let’s say, below him, was a huge bureaucratic system and it was quite amazing to figure it out because it wasn’t really understood before how the system functioned. I had to piece it together from lots of unrelated documents held in several archives. And when I realised how it worked, it was quite astonishing that this could have been going on, even during the Second World War when people should have been thinking of other things. So, to understand that the power of a dictator never lies in one person but is spread through many layers of the bureaucracy: every single person in the Soviet Union who was involved in the arts was also a member of that bureaucracy. You could not avoid it – unless you wanted to be a janitor and practice your art secretly.  If you wanted to be in that profession, you had to be part of the system of power. Very often various myths are created that it was all coming from Stalin’s head and it was all down to his personal taste. Of course, some things were – maybe about 10-20% of these prizes actually had to do with his personal taste – but all the rest didn’t. So when we’re puzzled about why such pieces like Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata or Shostakovich’s Quintet got the Stalin Prize, it’s not because Stalin liked those pieces.

One of the challenges was piecing this project together. There are always holes, there are always things that you will never know, and you need some imagination to draw it all together. In terms of access, obviously, you’re in Moscow and every archive is different and with its own ‘quirk’. It could be a quirky person who is difficult to deal with or a quirk where you can’t bring your laptop in, and you have to walk a mile to leave it at the locker room and then walk a mile back again. The marvellous success story was the find of recently declassified documents that came into this archive literally six weeks before I came there. They weren’t in any catalogue, so it was down to the babushki [lit. grandmothers] who worked there who thought that these papers might interest me. And it was amazing to see Stalin’s marginalia suddenly; this really put the cherry on the cake.

4) Have you had any mentors or people who have inspired you during your career so far?

Definitely! I think the main person was my PhD supervisor, Ekaterina Tsareva, to whom this book is dedicated; I’m still friends with her and am eternally grateful. She was a role model for me from the start and I think I was trying to emulate her in various ways. And there were, of course, lots of people on the way to whom I am also very grateful.

5) What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

The best piece of advice was to apply for the Cambridge job because I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. I never thought I was, let’s say, good enough – I wasn’t particularly ambitious. So sometimes it’s up to others to have that ambition for you. Cambridge is where I’ve felt much more freedom than in any other place. I’ve been extremely lucky with my colleagues and with the wonderful students and the sixteen years that I’ve spent there have been very rewarding. So this was really the best piece of advice – sometimes you need to listen. But there were many good pieces of advice that I didn’t listen to and only years later realised that I should have.

6) In your personal experience, how do you feel about your work-life balance in academia?

There has been lots of discussion about this recently. There are various initiatives that exist in universities now such as the Athena Swan [Charter], for example, that are supposed to not just look at gender equality but also ensure that we have better working practices for everyone, including people with families. I will speak from my own perspective, as a female musicologist and also as a parent. Despite everything that people had told me about Cambridge being a male-dominated place, in my college (Clare) the atmosphere was already good, because women fellows who came before me had already made a huge difference.  So I have hardly ever felt out of place, apart from maybe a couple of stuffy dinners (in other colleges!). I felt respected by my colleagues and was supported when I needed help. That was just my experience, however – perhaps I have been particularly fortunate.

For parents with small children, an academic job has its own particular challenges. We need to travel, and we often need to work nights and weekends. One thing that would have absolutely changed my life, after I had a baby, would have been a crèche at the university library. It seems such a simple idea and I’m sure lots of big employers have their own crèches and nurseries, but perhaps for me it comes from the study of Communist utopias of the 1920s – all those nice pictures of children cared for in nice facilities while the parents go out to work. I am not even talking about subsidised childcare for academics (although we should fight for it), but at least a place where you can leave a kid for a couple of hours while you go and look at a crucial source. If IKEA can do it, why not universities? Certainly places like Oxford and Cambridge, which sometimes spend money on various extravagant things, they could think of investing in their staff, and could become a flagship for other universities.

7) What music do you like to listen to or play in your spare time?

I’m afraid I only listen to music in the car and I always listen to Radio 3. I never usually play CDs, unless I have to, because I like the serendipity of it and the fact that you don’t have to make choices. I like that you can hear something that you know very well and you might not even particular want to hear it at that moment, but then you get into a groove and find something new in it. You also get to hear lots of music that you never knew existed. I must admit that I am a big fan of Composer of the Week; I think it’s such a marvellous programme.

8) What arguments would you use to defend musicology in the light of recent budget cuts to the arts? Can or should musicology ever be seen as something that is ‘useful’ for society?

Defending musicology is difficult. It is usually hard to explain to people what we do and why we do it. So, let’s start with how to defend the humanities generally. There is a very good argument that is not mine and I will only repeat it here: if we study ants, for example, we look at the patterns of their movement, at how they cooperate in various tasks – we never doubt the value of this kind of scientific enquiry. The humanities are about studying how we ourselves function, how can that be less important? Music is such a fundamental part of our lives; it’s somewhere next to language in making us human. Musicology is part of this self-reflection. And, of course, the richer societies are, the more they can spend on things that, on the surface, seem useless but are in fact useful in very profound ways. I often feel useful when I give a pre-concert talk or tell people about my research, and this increases their enjoyment of the music (at least that’s what they tell me). Ultimately, I make them happier for a few hours and I change their quality of life for the better.

9) Having lived and worked in both the UK and Russia, what would you say are the biggest differences between the academic environments and, specifically, the differences in terms of teaching and research in the field of musicology in each country?

This is a huge question and I don’t think I can give it any justice here. I would say it’s probably the same game but with different rules. Or maybe somebody would say it is a different game altogether. I still think that generally musicologists, both in Russia and the UK, are passionate about their subject in exactly the same way, but how you get a job, what it means to be successful, how you earn a living – usually in Russia you need more than one job to piece together a living as any kind of scholar – all this is hugely different. The prejudices are different, the fashions are different, things are very ‘asynchronous’ – paradigm shifts happen at different times – but things also come back around. Various debates that they had in musicology in, say, the Soviet 1920s, re-emerged in the West in the 1980s and so on.

10) What motivates you professionally?

Well, usually what motivates me is the next thing. It is either the next commission or the next lecture because you always have a fear of being unprepared in front of your students. Occasionally, during exam times, when I can’t do anything else but mark student papers, I have this irresistible desire for new ideas, and they come into my head at an inappropriate time when I can’t write anything down. It’s amazing: you read somebody else’s work (not always good work) and they just start flooding into my head. The end of May is really when get all my ideas for the next few years. So it’s the inability to do it and the ideas which you can’t get out of your head – this is my motivation!

11) If you weren’t a musicologist or academic, are there any other avenues you might have pursued? 

I think I would have been really happy if I were an interpreter. I used to do this to earn money and I enjoyed it hugely because you get a real-time thrill and then it’s over.  It’s not like life in academia where you always feel guilty about not doing something or not thinking about the right thing. With interpreting, you just go there, see new places, new people, you do your job – which is easy when you know two languages – you eat a nice dinner, you have a nice drink, you go home and you are sometimes quite well paid. What can be better than that?!

12) In what directions do you hope to take your future research?

Well, as I said before, it’s quite hard to find a project that would completely engross and fascinate me as the Stalin Prize project did. So I’m exploring various other avenues: I’m trying to take my research into the twenty-first century, looking at post-Soviet transformations in music and culture and I’m also hoping to re-visit the nineteenth century – my latest paper is on Russian opera libretti. Let’s hope that the next big project will come along naturally.


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