Conference report: 11th Biennial International Conference on Music Since 1900, University of Huddersfield, 8-10 September 2019

The 11th Biennial International Conference on Music Since 1900, which took place from 8-10 September 2019, sprang from the endeavour to cover the broadest global coverage and diversity of perspectives relating to music of the past twelve decades. Taking place in Huddersfield, a town renowned for its connection with contemporary music and its scholarly study, the conference had a natural atmosphere of excitement and passion for learning more about the rich body of 20th and 21st century works and their stylistic, historical, political, cultural and philosophical contexts.

The topical breadth of the event, as well as the great number of papers (almost 60) which ran in three to four parallel sessions, enabled the participants to learn more about issues closely related to their respective expertise as well as to broaden their horizons by attending sessions of markedly different thematic, methodological and epistemological bases. The diversity of presented papers was further increased by different professional backgrounds of the presenters who, apart from musicologists, included also music theorists, composers and performers. The somewhat unusual decision to increase the length of papers to 30 minutes followed by 15 minutes of discussion was met with considerable success since it allowed enough time for examining the individual topics in greater detail, leading to fruitful, in-depth conversations.

As might be expected, a lot of attention was paid to the detailed study of musical scores by a different variety of renowned 20th– and 21st-century authors (Lachenmann, Messiaen, Xenakis, Rautavaara, etc.). Through thorough musical analysis, these papers revealed different compositional strategies with the aim of enhancing our understanding of the works and providing us with new tools for listening. A lot of detail concerning pitch organization, harmony and formal structure was covered, among others, at the two sessions dedicated to contemporary music in Poland, some of which might be as yet lesser known internationally.

A running theme between the score-oriented papers seemed to be time in all its different manifestations. Keith Potter (Goldsmiths, University of London) examined how the unravelling of the repetitive musical material in Simeon van Holt’s Canto Ostinato affects the listeners’ moment-to-moment as well as overall perception of musical time. James Savage-Hanford (Royal Holloway) argued that the music of George Enescu might be perceived as embodying the temporality of the day-to-day process of remembering. Time in a linear, historical sense formed the core of the session “Other Times, Other Places: Postmodern Meanings in Contemporary Spanish Music” convened by Carlos Villar-Taboada (Universidad de Valladolid) which concentrated on musical borrowings and re-readings of pre-existing musical material and explored what types of meanings these intertemporal dialogues create.

As far as historiographical research is concerned, considerable attention has been paid to periods of political instability. The papers of Geoff Thomson (Royal Northern College of Music) on music in Manchester during World War I and of Dario van Gammeren (same institution) on orchestral repertoire and programming in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands both demonstrated through a detailed study of musical programmes that, somewhat surprisingly, a sustained interest in German music prevailed even in the tumult of war conflict, which raised interesting questions about aesthetic and spiritual needs of people in an age of crisis and music’s power to transcend national or political divides. At the same time, both papers dealt extensively with ways of promoting national contemporary music by both individual and institutional efforts; a theme discussed also by Rachel Cowgill (University of York) in her paper on the founding of British Music Society and the activities of E. J. Dent and Arthur Eaglefield Hull. A fascinating insight into one of the many motivations fuelling the global need to support new and experimental music was provided by Patrick Valiquet (University of Edinburgh) who claimed that the sustained emphasis on experimental music practices in British school curricula in the decades following World War II stemmed from the persuasion that they may promote more open and tolerant social behaviours.

The themes of respect and tolerance were raised also by numerous papers examining different areas of Western contact with foreign cultures in the 20th century especially in the context of (post)colonialism and migration. Belén-Vega Pichaco (Universidad de la Rioja) discussed the participation of artistic companies of Latin America, Asia, Africa and Spain at the French “Théâtre des Nations” festival and the strategies they employed to either reverse racial and cultural stereotypes or, on the contrary, consciously pursue the perpetuation of their ‘otherness’. Trevor R. Nelson (Eastman School of Music) performed close readings of two British children’s operas – Britten’s Let’s Make an Opera! and Bush’s The Spell Unbound, demonstrating how their treatments of racial and class difference simultaneously reflected and shaped various modes of British identity formation in the context of post-imperial migration. Contact with difference was also the main theme of the keynote presentation by Jann Pasler (University of California). Her paper ‘Mapping the Globe through a “Sound Atlas”: Listening to Race and Nation in France between the Wars’ vividly and in encyclopaedic detail recounted the little known history of making, transcribing and studying recordings of music from all around the globe undertaken by the French in the first half of the twentieth century. Apart from the issues of methodology, archiving and present-day access to sound sources, Pasler, by giving an account of the intensive work of Philippe Stern’s female assistants, also drew attention to the often unacknowledged achievements of women across diverse areas of musical study.

The conference was complemented by four short performances by postgraduate researchers from the University of Huddersfield’s Centre for Research in New Music and Research Centre for Performance Practices. Not only did they enliven the programme, but also, such as in the case of Irine Røsnes, formed thoughtful introductions to issues raised later in papers – e.g. the interaction between an acoustic instrument and electronics in electroacoustic music from the performer’s perspective. Overall, the breadth of research topics, high quality of individual papers and stimulating, yet relaxed atmosphere left the participants nothing but short of excitement for the next edition at the Birmingham Conservatoire in 2021.

Barbora Vacková is a 1st year PhD candidate at the University of Huddersfield focusing on Czechoslovak women composers in the communist era.

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