Conference Review: Royal Musical Association 56th Annual Conference, 8-10 September 2020

Online and hosted by Goldsmiths University of London

Symbols of people joined by interconnected lines

The programme for the first ever online edition of the Royal Musical Association’s Annual Conference proved to be diverse and wide-reaching in topic, discipline, methodology and geographical scope. It included over 50 presentations, keynote lectures, themed sessions, roundtables and social events which were hosted in four online “rooms” which ran simultaneously over three days. Considering the potential limitations of the online format, each room included a live chat feature which allowed for further discussion and questions, which, on the whole allowed for a creative and engaging experience despite the short time between papers occasionally hampering deliberation. Other “asynchronous” content included ethnographic and documentary films, a socially-distanced composition workshop, and specially curated sound art playlists and archive material.

Besides the sheer breadth of topics covered in this year’s conference, something which stood out seemed to be a new boldness in tackling thorny questions that have dogged the discipline for generations. Gundula Kreuzer (Yale University) took on the “C-word” in her Dent Medal lecture, looking at contemporary adaptations of the operatic canon and the ambitious challenges they pose in inviting audiences to reconfigure their relationships to history and its role in the present. A themed session on ‘Emerging Musical Value(s) in Neoliberal Economies’ chaired by Darci Sprengel (University of Oxford) proposed concepts such as risk and speculation as tools for dealing with age-old questions of musical value and meaning. The four speakers argued for a renewed focus on the economic in ethnomusicology, which could  bring us closer to the localised, pragmatic values and ethics motivating cultural production in diverse but globally interconnected settings.

Novel approaches to understanding aesthetic beauty and music’s role in mental health and cognitive and social development were also showcased in the session on ‘Music, Mind and Brain,’ chaired by Daniel Müllensiefen (Goldsmiths, University of London). The inclusion of empirical scientific research in the RMA programme was a welcome attempt to bridge the chasm between the “two cultures” in academia, acknowledging the importance of new insights coming from the field of auditory neuroscience and computational and quantitative methods in music analysis and composition. The precarious state of musical higher education in the UK was explored in several roundtable sessions, and a discussion on Early Career pathways with Núria Bonet (University of Plymouth) gave a sobering account of the hurdles faced by young academics entering the job market. Despite the gravity of these issues, however, the openness and sincerity of these conversations gave reasons for optimism.

Elsewhere, the session ‘Musical Labour and Industry,’ explored representations of masculinity and the aestheticisation of musical labour (Kai Arne Hansen, Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences), followed by Alex De Lacey’s (Goldsmiths, University of London) acute study on the impact of pirate radio networks on the creative processes of Grime. Through a detailed analysis of Grime’s radio infrastructure and performative interactions, it showed how the radio space enhances the practices of improvisation in Grime performance. ‘The Location of Musical Knowledge’—a roundtable also chaired by De Lacey—proposed fruitful, and thought-provoking questions which sparked a valuable, self-reflective discussion on ways of musical knowing, experiences of the learning process, and communities of practice both inside and outside academic contexts. In the session on ‘Comparative and Qualitative approaches,’ Dwight Pile-Gray’s (London College of Music) study underscored the influence of the West African Juba dance on 20th Century American classical music, including composers who have been underrepresented and under-studied in musicology.

 A particular highlight was Marie Thompson’s (The Open University) Peter Le Huray keynote lecture ‘Music in the Post-Mom Economy’—a phrase partially indebted to Sarah Sharma—that probed how reproductive sound technologies interject in social reproductions, and that culminated with speculations on the capacity of music to act as anti-reproductive sound technology. Thompson’s nuanced observations and insightful, thought-provoking historical and contemporary sources offered novel trajectories for thinking about the relationship between music, mediating technologies and social reproduction, and, the wider implications for discussion on music, capitalism, gender and race.

There was a marked shift in experiential thickness switching from individual recorded presentations to the ethnographic and documentary film submissions, highlighting how much the haptic and affective dimensions of the medium can bring to the task of knowledge dissemination. In their own ways, the four films created immersive environments that invited viewers to find nuance between lines of dialogue, diluting the air of didacticism that can often dominate events such as these. However, given that virtual conferences look set to continue well beyond the pandemic, it seems likely that cinematic production values will become increasingly common even in “regular” academic talks, and this represents an exciting avenue for future work. Aside from the stimulating formal presentations, attendees were invited to take part in daily online social events. Amongst these, the discussion forum on ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the Profession’ delved into the topics of safe spaces within HE and the sensitive nature of mentor-mentee relationships. On a related note, a forthcoming RMA-facilitated programme offering mentorship to Early Career Researchers was mentioned and looks set to become imperative for the wider scholarly community in the challenging times that lie ahead.

Regan Bowering, Goldsmiths, University of London
Maria Perevedentseva, Goldsmiths, University of London

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