BFE/RMA Research Students' Conference 2017 at Canterbury Christ Church University – Conference Report

This year’s theme for the BFE/RMA Research Students’ Conference at Canterbury Christ Church University (5-7 January 2017) was Exploring Musical Practice. This is Sophie Stone‘s report from the conference.


This British Forum for Ethnomusicology/Royal Musical Association Research Students’ Conference took place in the beautiful and historic city of Canterbury from 5 to 7 January 2017, hosted by Canterbury Christ Church University. The bulk of it took place in the prestigious Augustine House, which, as well as being a venue for conferences and events, is the university’s library, and has won architectural awards for its contemporary design and commitment to sustainability.

The three days comprised some 30 sessions with up to four parallel sessions and up to three papers being presented in each. The numerous paper sessions allowed many students to gain experience in presenting a paper to a friendly and captivated audience. The subjects covered in each session were diverse, allowing students, academics and professionals to contribute to sessions relevant to their research topic as well as to hear something new. Some of the more popular paper sessions focused on cultures of popular music, compositional methods, improvisation, gender, music and well-being, and cultural networks.

Keynote lectures were given by Kate Guthrie (University of Bristol), on ‘O Magnum Mysterium: Teaching Modern Music in Postwar Britain’, and Anna Morcom (Royal Holloway, University of London), on ‘Performance, Performativity and the Enactment of Music and Dance’. Particularly useful for research students were the three discussion/training sessions covering contemporary issues in music research: Using Documentary and Archive Sources; People, Culture and Community Sources; and Practice-Research and your Ph.D. Experts in each area talked about their own experiences of research (for instance, how they’ve overcome problems) and their vision for the future, and they answered questions.

Overall, the conference was a fantastic experience where participants could connect with others and present their work in a friendly and informal environment. There were too many parallel sessions to provide a full report, but the following focuses on some key personal highlights.

The Phenomenology session started with an informal introduction by Sara Clethero, an academic, singer and director of Birmingham-based Opera Mint. Clethero passionately discussed her project, which is committed to teaching and performing new and traditional operas. The company is linked to charities including Autism West Midlands, whose residents and carers attend the annual summer school.

In the same session, James Davis (University of Birmingham) presented the paper ‘Luciano Berio, Epifanie and Phenomenology’, explaining the philosophical-political presence within Berio’s Epifanie (1960–63) in terms of its proximity to the publication of Umberto Eco’s Opera aperta (‘The Open Work’) (1962), and the phenomenological dimension of Epifanie through the texts Berio utilises (specifically the texts of Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Claude Simon). Berio’s and Eco’s work was produced at a time of social and cultural change due to Italy’s economic growth and industrialisation through the 1950s and 60s. The questions sparked an interesting discussion on the title of Berio’s work and what he would have defined as an ‘epiphany’ (a word which, of course, has biblical connotations as well as referring to a sudden realisation).

Olivia Knops (Birmingham) presented research on the relationship between Michael Tippett and analytical psychology, covering Tippett’s dream analysis and its influence on The Midsummer Marriage. She explored Tippett’s interest in Jungian theory through his own dream analysis which took place over a nine-month period in 1939, helping him come to terms with his sexuality. Discussing Tippett’s controversial opera The Midsummer Marriage (1955), Knops simplified the plot by drawing correlations with the composer’s dream analysis through specific events, characters, hermaphroditism and individuation. The questions led to a discussion about how staging could be applied in realising the opera in a way that would improve an audience’s understanding of the plot.

The training session People, Culture and Community Sources was briefly introduced by Liam Barnard and was made relevant to students of all disciplines. The speakers took turns to discuss their work and the different ways to engage with others when doing research before they answered questions from the audience. Lois Fitch (Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester) discussed the benefits and difficulties of engaging with a living composer through examples from her book on Brian Ferneyhough (2013). She emphasised the importance of maintaining a ‘critical distance’ from those you are researching, in order not to be biased. She also described the benefits of engaging with communities that are not entirely academic, for example, the Radio 3 message board for new music. Maria Varvarigou (Canterbury Christ Church University) explored the challenges and rewards of interviewing the elderly about their musical experiences, reflecting on researcher bias. In another project, students participated in spontaneous music-making, producing diaries to explain their experience. Anna Morcom discussed her experiences of fieldwork and the value in expecting the unexpected. With reference to her research on the musical cultures of Tibet and South Asia, she explored the challenges of dealing with people and the responsibility of keeping up relationships, and discussed her deep attachments to the people she met. Morcom concluded that one of the most rewarding parts of fieldwork is the beneficial change in the people you meet because of their experience and involvement in your work.


On the evening of Friday 6 January, composers had the opportunity to showcase their installations at the University’s Sidney Cooper Gallery, sponsored by the CCCU Centre for Practice-Based Research in the Arts (CPBRA). CPBRA promotes practice-based research in all artistic disciplines through lecture series, projects, performances, workshops and conferences. The installations drew a large audience, encouraging conversation and debate around the experimental and diverse practices used by the composers. As the crowd entered, they heard Liz Hayward’s (CCCU) electronic Pianoforte Memento Mori. Alongside the sound element, reclaimed piano parts had been used to create interactive sculptures, and the sounds produced by the audience contributed to the overall installation. The production of the work was evident through the sound, sculptures and photography (Charlotte Stratton). The electronic sound was a culmination of recordings completed outdoors, where the piano was destroyed and the remains created the sculptures. The evidence of the work’s creation allows the audience to reflect on renewal as the destroyed piano has a renewed function.

Hayward’s installation was followed by a brief introduction by composer Lauren Redhead which led to the realization of a polytemporal composition for solo guitar by Joe Inkpen (CCCU). Inkpen’s work was an audio-visual installation with pre-recorded videos of himself playing the guitar projected onto several walls, the audio for these videos and Inkpen performing live. The musical context was simple, but the polytemporal layering of the varying rhythmic ostinatos produced a conflicting and complex texture which in turn created an almost meditative experience for the listener. Inkpen’s piece was followed by the acoustic realization of my own work As Sure as Time, in which a quote from Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (2015) is used to form a spoken-word installation. This performance involved three vocalists who performed their own compositional processes, exploring the space and the different techniques of sound production.

Hardi Kurda (Goldsmiths, University of London) gave a demonstration and performance of his creation Diagnosis Machine. He used an ECG to create music using the responses of the body with a graphic response. The machine creates different sounds through the movement of a person’s fingers, therefore making the human body a musical instrument – which means that every person can produce a unique sound. Kurda’s research involves experimenting with new ways of creating music by using interdisciplinary media.

The final installation was Landscapes by Emily Peasgood (CCCU), which involved a projected video of a choral performance from a community choir of music composed in response to the artworks of J. M. W. Turner and Helen Frankenthaler. The political and expressive messages of the film resulted in an emotional and thought-provoking response from the audience.

The conference ran smoothly, and coffee breaks, lunches and dinners proved beneficial in making connections within the broader discipline, laying the groundwork for researchers from all areas of music study to come together – one of the major aims of the conference in general and the 2017 conference in particular, only the second supported by the RMA and the BFE together. The next event takes place from 4 to 6 January 2018 at the University of Huddersfield.

Sophie Stone


Watch Anna Morcom’s keynote lecture below:


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