Conference Review: RMA Annual Conference 2019

This year’s annual conference, which took place in Manchester from 11–13 September, was unusual in being hosted jointly by two institutions — the University of Manchester’s Music department, and the Royal Northern College of Music — the aim being to embrace the breadth of today’s research in music and to highlight the increasing synergies between research in musicology, performance and composition.

Accordingly, the range of presentations given was extremely diverse, encompassing:

  • The fruits of practice-based research — including 6 lecture–recitals involving both live performance the study of recorded music, and a 2.5-hour composition workshop and performance involving five new contemporary works.
  • Technical areas of study, including four complete sessions devoted to analytical approaches, as well as others on editing, source study and performing practices.
  • A wide range of sessions exploring music’s interactions with society and culture, including particular focuses on relationships between music and trauma, the impact of new media, and several sessions exploring music’s role in issues relating to politics, protest, national identity and transnationalism.
  • Sessions exploring some of the most pressing current concerns in the discipline, including challenges posed to music publishing, the risks of some traditional musicological skills being lost within the more interdisciplinary environment in which we now work, and even the experience of juggling musicology and parenthood.

With the number of registered delegates standing at over 250, and an impressively international profile of presenters, who had come to Manchester from as far afield as Australia, Japan, China, Taiwan, South Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, the USA, and Israel, alongside many of our colleagues from all over Europe, this ranked among the largest RMA conferences yet, and it was fêted by those attending as an exceptionally well-organised, collegial and stimulating event.

Although the institutions are located just 300 yards from one another, the organisers – Rebecca Herissone from the University of Manchester and Barbara Kelly from the RNCM – took the decision to use the venues in alternation rather than simultaneously, with morning and afternoon sessions held respectively in one or other venue so that delegates did not have to move between institutions if they wanted to attend papers in different strands within one session. This enabled delegates to experience the environments of both institutions and ensured that they ventured outside at least once a day! Nonetheless, with up to six simultaneous strands in some of the sessions, there were the usual frustrations for those wanting to attend papers from more than one strand simultaneously, despite the attempts of the conference organisers to avoid obvious clashes between themes. The distance between the rooms used within both venues was also in some cases perhaps rather further than was helpful for inter-session switching, although the rooms themselves were generally well equipped, spacious and well supported technically.

As is traditional at the RMA Annual Conference, the two focal points of the programme were the Le Huray lecture and the Dent Medal presentation and lecture, which were hosted at each of the respective venues on successive afternoons on the first two days. Tamara Levitz’s keynote presentation, held at the University’s Martin Harris Centre, was a fascinating and hugely timely exploration of the history and principles of academic freedom in musicology, particularly in the US but also in the UK, highlighting a fundamental flaw in its conception, as originally laid out by the American Association of University Professors, in its inability to deal with issues of inequality, difference and discrimination, a flaw that has subsequently been exploited by those seeking to limit the status and power of academics. At a time when some would argue that democracy is under threat, this was a thought-provoking and stimulating talk, which led to a lively question-and-answer session and much discussion at the subsequent reception. Inga Mai Groote’s Dent lecture, given at the RNCM the following evening, took on the very contrasting but equally interesting topic of the place of material studies in musicology at a time when the discipline has taken a decidedly acoustic turn, making the case for the its continuing potential to contribute to historically embedded musical research, allowing us to trace the wide variety of ways in which people have interacted with music in different milieus and social contexts.

The emphasis on practice-led scholarship was made prominent by a substantial composition workshop and performance on the first afternoon of the conference, involving contemporary Manchester-based ensemble Psappha, singer and RNCM alumna Rosie Middleton, and the University’s electroacoustic sound system MANTIS (Manchester Theatre in Sound). The five selected compositions were remarkably varied, exploring topics ranging from contemporary political discourse to the difficulties of social interaction to the relationship between the semantics and sounds of words; yet they also invoked discussion of a number of common issues, most notably the challenges of achieving textual intelligibility when writing for voice. A number of the lecture–recitals had a traditional performance focus, including Amanda Babington’s enjoyable presentation on the use of the now rarely-played musette, and Christopher Holman’s exploration of organ ornamentation in sixteenth-century Swiss sources. Others took the more unusual approach of focusing on recordings, including a fine dedicated session in which Inja Stanovic showcased her research on the making of domestic wax cylinder recordings around 1900, and Emily Worthington discussed the 1930s recordings by the Leipzig Wind Quintet, each presenter finishing with performances applying stylistic principles evident in these recordings.

It was heartening to see music analysis strongly represented, with two sessions on structural analysis, one on harmonic, and a themed panel, Sonata Theory 1900, chaired by Julian Horton, addressing the problem finding appropriate theoretical apparatus to accommodate sonata-form practices from around the turn of the twentieth century. Gaps between theory and practice were also highlighted in a number of strong contributions on structural analysis, such as Anne Hyland’s paper on the structural innovations in Viennese composer Joseph Mayseder’s string quartets around a century earlier and Laura Erel’s promising early-stage research on the potential of theoretical models to inform listening practice. The technical side of the discipline was also explored in rigorous sessions on source study and editing as well as historically informed performing practices.

By far the greatest proportion of the sessions involved exploration of music’s complex and multiple relationships with and reflections of broader socio-cultural contexts, something that was evident from the number of sessions that bore the title ‘Music and…’. There were several stimulating groups of papers relating music to topics in psychology, philosophy and aesthetics, others giving comparison with literary studies, and others exploring issues of politics and protest. Two complete sessions focused on the use of music to represent, enact and respond to trauma, including a themed session that sought to take the focus away from the common concentration on the Second World War and later conflicts to look back into the nineteenth century, and to consider gendered conceptions of trauma in this period. Both sessions included much thought-provoking material, although it was perhaps surprising that the wider issues surrounding the ethics of aestheticizing trauma were not foregrounded at any point.

Perhaps appropriately at the current time, there were a good many papers focusing on the role of music in articulating national and regional identities and on transnationalism in music. Although some of these did not engage fully with current broader questions about and debates on transnationalism, there were several notable papers on these themes. Included among these were Francesca Vella’s fascinating exploration of the role the prima donna Adelina Patti played in the ‘voice politics’ of the late nineteenth century as an apparently ‘global voice’ a time of crisis for Italian vocality, her removal from Italian language and culture being seen by Vella to offer a reading of how that language and culture was used to foster national stories and narratives. In the same session Stephen Armstrong provoked much discussion through his application of tourist studies to the mobility of operatic and musical culture. In a very different vein, the session on music, institutions and national identity in the early twentieth century brought out some powerful synergies between the first two presentations in particular (by Fiona M. Palmer and David Kidger), which focused on notions of class, establishment and national identity in two influential British institutions, the Musical Conductors’ Association and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The forward-looking nature of the conference programme as a whole was clear from the number of sessions focusing on matters of particular interest and concern at the current time. They included a challenging session exploring the impact of the Internet on the ways in which we create, listen to and interact with music today, which involved an interpretation of vaporwave rooted in Marxist theories (Ross Cole), an assessment of the construction of online identity via music-streaming platforms like Spotify (Clarissa Brough) and the proposal of radically new ways of understanding popular music by synthesising assessment of online and offline reception, theories of web use and music analysis (Edward Spencer). Music and disability was the focus of another session, in which the interactions between creativity, music notation and disability studies were explored by Floris Schuiling in research on blind musicians’ use of Braille notation, and Mark Dyer and Kathryn Williams gave a lecture–recital looking at the use of disability as a creative spur in pieces commissioned by Kathryn in response to the restrictions caused by her lung conditions.

Several of the cornerstone themed sessions also focused on key contemporary debates. ‘Rethinking Contemporary Musicologies’ was convened to reflect on the position of musicology twenty years after the publication of Rethinking Music. Participants highlighted both crises – most notably the risk of ‘deskilling’ as technical expertise is undermined by changes to school and university curricula and as the importance of the ‘expert ear’ becomes increasingly undervalued (Larson Powell and Peter Tregear) – and opportunities – such as the attempts being made in modern discourse to de-Westernise  and decolonialise our notions of music history (Eva Moreda Rodriguez). As with several of the other themed panels, this session brought together contributors to forthcoming edited volumes on the topics in question, offering a tantalising foretaste of the material that will be gracing our bookshelves in the near future.

Three other key sessions stood out for their timely interventions. There were two panels celebrating European musicology: the first placed in context several of the RMA’s sister organisations in Europe, focusing on the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary and Switzerland; the second was an open session that was used to launch an important new venture for the RMA – the Network of European Music Societies (NEMS), which seeks to create stronger links and synergies between the RMA and its European counterparts, at a time when such visible collaboration and cooperation is sorely needed. A particularly striking contribution to the meeting was made by Lola Saint Martín Arbide, who spoke about the challenges of early career scholars who find themselves taking up short-term postdoc positions in different European countries.  She urged the new network to take their needs and experiences into account.  We very much look forward to seeing NEMS develop in the near future under Petra van Langen’s leadership. The other was a very popular session on music and publishing, which involved extremely informative contributions from the commissioning editors for music from Boydell and Brewer (Michael Middeke), Oxford University Press (Suzanne Ryan), Cambridge University Press (Kate Brett), Routledge (Heidi Bishop) and Bärenreiter (Douglas Woodfull-Harris) on the state and future of academic publishing. Their contributions provided considerable insight for delegates  on  publishers’ perspectives on issues relating to open access, the changing sales market for academic music books in the digital era, the risks posed by the diminishing skills pool for music editing, and the challenge to the peer-review model posed by increasingly onerous academic workloads. The many positive comments received after the session suggest that much remains to be said on these topics.

Alongside the formal sessions there was also an imaginative range of complementary events, including two training workshops for research students and early career researchers to help them navigate the dizzying world of academia and develop resilience, two piano recitals in one day – respectively by the world-renowned pianist–scholar Roy Howat and the Jordanian-Palestinian performer Iyad Sughayer (RNCM) – for some delegates a visit to the BBC Philharmonic’s studios at MediaCity, and two new events for the RMA: a wellbeing singing workshop, and the chance to go on a multi-sensory sonic walk around the conference environs, both of which build on research from academics working at the University of Manchester.

Hospitality was warmly provided by two receptions, the first after the Le Huray lecture sponsored by Routledge, and the second following the Dent Lecture hosted by Boydell and Brewer as they celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. The conference helpers, James Hume, Maria Stratigou, Maria Palapanidou, Simon Hellewell, David Sciacca and Ioanna Filippidi, as well as the technicians and front-of-house staff at both institutions, did a superb job of keeping everything on track.

Overall the conference was deemed by delegates to have been an outstanding success, made all the more positive by the announcement at the AGM that Barbara Kelly, conference co-convenor for the RNCM, will be the RMA’s next President: we wish her every success in her new role, and in the meantime look forward to seeing everyone at Goldsmith’s in London in 2020.

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