Conference report: Music and/as Process: Music and Language, 29 Jun-1 July 2018, Edinburgh

The 6th Annual Music and/as Process conference was held in the attractive and amiable city of Edinburgh in the Merchiston campus of Napier University from June 29th until and July 1st 2018. Ably overseen by John Hails at Napier, the theme of the conference was music and language and comprised presented papers as well as performance pieces and installation work. Delegates were modest in number, but this encouraged lively discussion and facilitated a good exchange of ideas and conversation at the informal surrounding social events.

The keynote speaker was Professor Cornelius Schwehr from the Freiburg Musikhochschule who spoke about his work on the interplay of meaning between the spoken word as a sonic event and the corresponding linguistic semiotics which are separate but, of course, related. This sentiment was echoed by a paper and performance piece by Tom Parkinson (Royal Holloway, University of London) and Itxaso Moreno, respectively, in a project entitled Phonetic Venn where performance artist Moreno read a text which slowly morphed from Basque into Glaswegian-dialect English which gave rise to many positive comments. Along similar lines, Isaac Fernández (Universidad Internacional de La Rioja) gave a paper about spoken music in the field of Spanish sound art, and Emmanuelle Waeckerle (UCA Farnham) presented both a paper and engrossing performance utilising the sound of the letter ‘o’ in Réage’s The Story of O in a participatory piece entitled An Ode (owed) to O.

Several papers and performances explored the theme of the destruction and reconstitution of language. com-bi-na-to-ri-al-ly [sic] (2016) by composer Steve Gisby was performed by Lauren Redhead from Canterbury Christ Church University and explored the sonic qualities of the recombination of the syllables of its title. Andy Ingamells spoke on the inimitable nature of performance before presenting a piece where he and David Pocknee (University of Huddersfield) used water pistols to fire lemon juice into each other’s mouths in order to disrupt the reading of a scripted text. This witty and, some felt, uncomfortable piece inspired by Chris Burden generated a great deal of discussion over the spirit of performance art and the aims of the piece, which worked to examine questions of uniqueness in the act of recital as well as the deliberate fracturing of the spoken word.

Pocknee himself presented a paper on his experiences in writing his PhD, which is a self-reflexive thesis on algorithmic musical composition techniques then applied back into the thesis itself, affecting the content, layout and meaning of the text. Other genre-questioning presentations were given by Ben Horner (Canterbury Christ Church University) and Natasa Penezic with Tijana Popovic Mladjenović (University of Arts, Belgrade): the former on the notion of the non-fiction narrative podcast as an exercise in musical composition and the latter exploring the role of language in the construction of Frederic Rzewski’s Marriage (The Road, Mile 53) followed by a piano and spoken word performance of the same.

An installation of Sophie Stone’s (Canterbury Christ Church University) longform composition As Sure As Time (2016­ – present) was available for delegates to spend time listening to and experiencing during the conference. Sophie’s work uses long duration and slowly-evolving soundscapes to explore the nature of attentiveness in listening and was very well received with many positive comments made.

A standout paper and performance was given by Zubin Kanga (Royal Holloway, University of London) with a multimedia-based piece entitled 2018 (2016), composed by Neil Luck. The piece is a wry look at notions of musical virtuosity, imagining future musicians being genetically modified with contrivances to their hands in order to facilitate more intricate and ostentatious playing. The performance itself featured Kanga on the piano backed by an overdubbed video explaining the Cronenbergian modifications, and employed re-edited television and film clips to unsettling effect. Kanga played the role of the affected musician, twisting his hands and fingers into distorted shapes in order to demonstrate the usefulness (or otherwise) of the mutations. The piece excitingly played with ideas of musical language and the expression of such through the composer-performer relationship. The conference closed with Lauren Redhead’s seo niedhæmestre; se tidfara (2018) performed by herself and Alistair Zaldua (Canterbury Christ Church University) playing vocals/electronics and violin respectively. The piece is an expression of the semiotic and symbolic relationships between written and spoken (in this case archaic) language and was an excellent and appropriate way to close.

Over the conference a number of key themes emerged, namely the relationship between the spoken word and its constituent sound, matters over associations of written and spoken text, and the urge to disrupt and subvert ordered communication. Over all it constituted a fascinating three days’ discourse and delegates’ feedback at the time indicated that a useful exchange of ideas had taken place, with several indicating the desire to explore previously unfamiliar areas of research. The Music and/as Process study group intends to hold another conference in 2019.

Ben Horner is currently reading for a PhD at Canterbury Christ Church University in the cross-disciplinary areas of music and media, studying the relationship between the composed feature documentary podcast and musical compositional practice.

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