Jerome Roche Prize 2021 Winner Brianne Dolce on Interdisciplinary Approaches to Medieval Studies, Stromae, and Finding Your Scholarly Voice

Following the keynote lecture by the Jerome Roche Prize 2021 Winner Dr Brianne Dolce at the 2023 RMA Research Students’ Conference (Northumbria University), she was interviewed by Nicholas Ong (RMA Student Committee) who prompted discussions on researching medieval women, musical influences, and the market of academic work. Below are edited excerpts from the interview which was conducted on 27 January 2023.

Brianne Dolce is the Fitzjames Research Fellow in Music at Merton College, Oxford. A musicologist and historian, her interests lie primarily in the interactions between music and religious life, particular that which can be characterized as dissident or non-orthodox, between the eleven and thirteenth centuries. She holds degrees from the University of Michigan, King’s College London, and Yale University, where she completed her PhD in 2020. From 2020-2021, she was a Past & Present Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research in London.

Nicholas Ong (NO): Congratulations on receiving the prize from the RMA. To start us off, could you talk briefly about your prize-winning article and describe its significance to research on music of the medieval period?

Brianne Dolce (BD): The article stems from my PhD, and from a manuscript which I was studying in which a lot of women were named. The core aim was to talk about these women and how we understand them. The article is historiographic in that it evaluates what we prioritise when we look for women in history who are composers and musicians. Additionally, it encourages us to contextualise these women once we have found them; to find out what kind of world they lived in, what opportunities existed for them, and what economic and financial positions they may have found themselves in, amongst others. At the end, I posit several ways forward; to be open about what women we are looking for, and how we’re expecting women to participate in musical culture, and to think more widely about how music and musical activities are defined.

NO: And how do your propositions fit into medieval studies in general?

BD: That’s a good question. I think of myself as very much an interdisciplinary scholar, and there’s an underlying suggestion in the article that we should be doing more interdisciplinary work in general. What is quite evident is that I take inspiration from scholars in a myriad of fields such as history and literature who have contributed much to our understanding of what medieval women were doing in their time, particularly in the Low Countries during the thirteenth century which is the region and period that I study. Every field has its own way of approaching such a topic. Historians are led by documents, which is an approach that I am quite sympathetic to. Musicologists, however, still tend to be quite composer-centric, often looking for women who were composing music as if that was the only way women engaged with musical culture. But this is not how the medieval world works. I wanted to crack that critical perspective open more widely by reassessing how we, as musicologists, can understand the role of women in medieval music history when drawing upon approaches from different fields and disciplines.

NO: It’s safe to say that the medieval world is quite different to the world in which the notion of ‘the composer’ is established, so it’s perhaps anachronistic to apply such composer-centric approaches to the medieval system. Even for research on later periods such as the nineteenth century, it might bode well for us to think of female patrons and teachers, amongst others, as musical women as their influence on musical paradigms is significant. Taking such an interdisciplinary approach can be difficult due to the uncertainty of what may or may not work, what has your experience of this been like?

BD: It’s definitely difficult, but also rewarding! I never want to simply apply a methodology from another field without understanding what that field is about. These approaches can be very different, and while I think that it’s important to ask what kinds of light they can shed on medieval musical culture, I also think it’s important to apply them carefully. I’m not a close reader of songs nor do I conduct musical-poetic analysis much, which is sort of the common practice in terms of the way we study medieval music. That said, with the approach that I’ve taken, most of my interlocutors have been generous with my work and have seen the value in it. In that sense, I believe it is in productive dialogue with other strands of early music scholarship.

NO: Would you say that the idiosyncrasy of your interdisciplinary approach is mandated by your topic of study and that it may not be applied to other topics requiring an interdisciplinary approach?

BD: Yes, I would definitely say that it’s idiosyncratic. For me, it’s really important to study that specific place in the medieval world really well as it may differ drastically from another place 200 kilometres away in the same period. It’s equally important to be trained in new ways and adopt new methods when the area of study requires it regardless of one’s home field. Adaptability and flexibility are key.

NO: I presume you work a lot with archives as a medieval scholar. What were some difficulties, if any, in exploring the manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 8541) which is the focus of your article?

BD: The manuscript posed a lot of difficulties as the primary contents consist of a list of (a lot of!) names. As a musicologist, it makes you think, ‘where are you supposed to begin?’ and ‘what is relevant for music?’ The questions that I needed to ask about it were unclear and it took a long time to figure out how I needed to understand it; this took a lot of patience. I studied things like medieval economics as part of the process and this probably led to the idiosyncratic approach that I ended up with. As I went on, my approach became increasingly grounded in social history, in which I had no formal training, so the learning curve was steep. I moved to Ghent (which meant I was close to my archives) to be a visiting researcher while I was writing my PhD and within the first weeks, I realised that I was completely out of my depth. That said, I was in the right place to learn about and then use the methods I wanted to; I learned a lot from my fellow researchers in Ghent and was really inspired by their work.

NO: In your article, you write that the manuscript, apart from names, also included terms that indicate the professions of the people listed. Was this a practice you knew about before seeing the manuscript or did you have to learn about the practice before coming back to the manuscript?

BD: Definitely the latter. One of the dangers with medieval naming practices is to assume that the information is obvious. I started to read a lot about such practices to understand the manuscript – not just how naming works but also how the practice developed in Arras, the city I focused on. What surprised me when learning about naming practices in the medieval period was how often Arras featured as a place of significance for such developments, and so I felt I had an area to grab onto and trust in terms of secondary literature. Learning about this was definitely not something I had anticipated at the start of my PhD.

NO: To turn to you as a scholar, what attracted you to the study of medieval music or to the medieval period in general?

BD: I get that question a lot, especially as I grew up in south-eastern Michigan – I didn’t really have the chance to be inspired by medieval European sites until I was at university! There was a moment that motivated this for me: I was sixteen and a high school student at Interlochen Arts Camp in northern Michigan. I had spent a couple of summers there as a camper and I had always taken the music theory elective courses. One year, I decided to take the music history course as I’ve always been fascinated by history. It was a six-week class in which the history of music was taught chronologically, starting with the Middle Ages. At that point, I had never heard anything like the medieval music that we were taught and it really challenged my ears in ways that I wasn’t used to. I came out of the course determined to be either a medieval music scholar or a scholar of Alban Berg. Obviously, I stuck with the former, but what you can tell from this anecdote is that I was interested in anything that was super distinct from anything I had heard before, in things that didn’t adhere to the music world that I was inhabiting. I think the medieval music that stuck out the most to me was Hildegard von Bingen, actually. I’ve never studied Hildegard as a scholar, but it’s the music that turned me onto being a medievalist. When I first heard her music, I was completely sold, and went to my saxophone teacher (because I was a classical saxophonist!) and told them that I wanted to find a monastery and look at some manuscripts there. I have now done that, which always feels a bit surreal – I don’t think 16-year-old me would have believed that dream could be realised!

NO: How unconventional to end up as a medieval scholar having been a saxophonist! Have you played medieval music on the saxophone?

BD: No, I haven’t. I have played some Telemann on the tenor saxophone, though, for my undergraduate exams and that threw off the woodwind committee – they were a bit confused!

NO: I guess you can never know what to expect with musical explorations nowadays – which is a good thing. Speaking of exams and studies, you are one with experience in the academic environments of both the US and the UK. Whilst we always refer to the output of these environments collectively as ‘Anglo-American scholarship’, do you perceive any difference in research styles between the two?

BD: That’s a really good question. I suppose in general higher education is very different between the two. In fact, my idiosyncratic and interdisciplinary approach to research discussed earlier may also be attributed to my undergraduate studies in the US. I completed it at a public university where in any term, I could be partaking in musicology courses alongside courses in medieval Latin and medieval history. This flexible model allowed me to be very curious. I think that, in many ways, the educational priorities in the US can be rather different to those in the UK. I don’t think that one is better than the other, but they allow one’s thinking to develop rather differently. With that said, I’m generally more in touch with research environment in the UK as there is a higher density of scholars working on the medieval period on this side of the Atlantic, so there are more interlocutors and a bigger audience here.

NO: Are there other musical styles or genres that inspire your thoughts on medieval music?

BD: This may not be what one would expect, but I love popular music and what’s on mainstream radio. While I was living in Belgium and the Netherlands, I became interested in local popular music. There is a wonderful artist called Stromae; I’ve been listening to Stromae for a while, but he has become really popular more globally in the last couple of months. He’s Belgian and is multi-lingual in the way that I’m trying to make this point about people knowing Dutch, French, etc., and a lot of his music make political points or discusses the state of the world. So, it’s not just stereotypical love songs on the radio. I wouldn’t say that that has directly influenced my work, but it’s certainly made me appreciate the resonances between the medieval and the modern!

NO: What are you currently working on research-wise?

BD: I am mostly working on my book project at the moment. My book grows out of my PhD, rather than being a revised version of the PhD itself (which has become a series of articles and book chapters). Basically, this project emerged quite naturally from my PhD conclusion, but it’s now being massively expanded. It is about the relationship between religious and musical culture; I think about religious culture in the broadest sense, but I’m especially interested in anything that the church deemed heretical. I explore how shifts in religious life and thinking relate to cultural life in the vernacular – so things like trouvère song – in Arras between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Every chapter utilises an entirely new methodology and handles material that poses questions that aren’t necessarily easy to answer with more traditional methods. The first chapter is a theological and exegetical reading of the role that music plays in a heresy trial from the early eleventh century. The main chapters give a socio-historical and religious-historical explanation for why the city of Arras becomes an incredibly important hub of vernacular music-making by the thirteenth century. Basically, it’s exploring why Arras is such an important place for us as musicologists, and the factors that led it to be so. 

NO: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received in relation to academic work?

BD: My PhD supervisor, Henry Parkes, always gave me really good advice, whether it’s for the trajectory of my academic career or just life in general. He always suggested that I produce work that I felt was uniquely mine; work that was honest about who I am and what I can offer our field. Also, to not confine myself to the boxes that I might feel I want to fit myself in, but to think about how I’m placed to answer questions in new ways. There’s a related piece of advice that I received from Gundula Kreuzer when going into the job market for the first time, right before I finished my PhD, and that is that ‘you have nothing to lose if you go into an interview and represent yourself as authentically as possible’. I think many young academics feel as if they need to fit the mould of what a hiring committee, for jobs inside and outside academia, might want, and I thought Gundula’s advice was really good as, even if you don’t get the job, you can still be proud of what you offered. 

NO: Is that advice that you would also offer to aspiring postdoctoral researchers? Do you have any additions of your own?

BD: Yes, I think the advice to be yourself and be honest about what you offer is hopefully applicable for postdocs as well. Landing a postdoc is a hurdle that is almost impossible nowadays, let alone landing a permanent position. So, I’d say that if you are successful in attaining a postdoc, make the most out of that time by putting out work that you believe in and think is important.

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