Conference Review: BFE/RMA Research Students’ Conference 2023

The annual BFE/RMA Research Students’ Conference (RSC) was hosted this year by Northumbria University on the 9th-12th January 2023. The theme of ‘Borderlands’ was successfully exemplified by presentations dealing with geographical, cultural, historical as well as aural, temporal, and formal borders/borderlands. In addition to presentation topics, the theme was also manifested by the great diversity of presenters and attendees, proving the RSC to be a great event for researchers of diverse musical interests from all around the world to convene.

Held over four days, the conference hosted 7 online and 30 in-person sessions with over 80 student papers, lecture-recitals, and performances of student compositions. With the first day being exclusively online and the rest exclusively in-person, the format struck a great balance between providing opportunities for delegates who joined online and ensuring an optimal setting for those physically present; with both keynote addresses assuming a hybrid format, none were neglected. 

The keynotes – ‘Traveling Together: Reflections on Accompanied Ethnomusicological Fieldwork in West Africa’ by Juan Diego Diaz (University of California, Davis) and ‘In Search of Women in Medieval Music History’ by Brianne Dolce (Merton College, University of Oxford) – held on 10th and 11th January were highpoints of both days and demonstrated the theme of ‘Borderlands’ in very different and fascinating ways.

Based on his own ethnographical experiences, Juan discussed diasporas and imagined communities across the vast Atlantic between Latin America and West Africa, reflecting on difficult methodological and ethical questions regarding accompanied fieldwork. Here, he highlighted some of the issues and intricacies that arise when physical borders are crossed and the ‘imagined’ is faced with the ‘real’; that is, when people of an imagined shared musical culture are actually faced with the ‘authentic’ music and culture of their imagined counterpart. 

Brianne dealt with musical engagements of women in the Middle Ages, specifically women from the Low Countries who were not composers or from aristocratic families – in other words, women who are nowhere to be found in the pages of music history. She discussed the methodological difficulties in ‘looking’ for these women and examined how there are traces of musical presence in a wider range of sources to what musicologists have usually examined. While the Low Countries were in themselves a complex borderland of independent principalities, the theme was metaphorically presented in the way that these women are not ‘lost’ to us, but that they merely exist in an obscure borderland – an ‘in-between’ – of several fields, methodologies, and histories. Learning to navigate this borderland can provide new and alternative histories of medieval sonic culture.     

While both keynotes were wonderful, I would also like to highlight some of the interesting PGR presentations that I was lucky enough to attend. Rafael (Ardi) Echevarria’s (Durham University) paper on ‘Beethoven, Schumann and the Foundations of Breakthrough’ presented a very interesting topic on formal developments during the long nineteenth century and presented a new way of thinking about different types of breakthroughs; however, what truly stood out was the range and depth of theoretical and historical knowledge displayed in the Q&A segment.

Turning towards a theoretical field farther from my own, Ruari Paterson-Achenbach’s (University of Cambridge) ‘Utopian Engagements: Listening, Sexuality and Trans-Temporal Intimacy’ presented innovative methodological approaches to sonic archival engagement, ones that bring the researcher’s body and sexuality to the fore and which seek to bridge hitherto un-bridged historical gaps by establishing a ‘trans-temporal intimacy’ with the subject of research. This emotional and subjective approach to research encouragingly challenged some of my ‘old-fashioned’ views and was enjoyably thought-provoking. It is sure to bring about great and innovative research in the future. 

Leaving the paper presentations, I also experienced Juan Hernández’s (University of Leeds) electro-acoustic composition ‘Helium Flash’ with the accompanying paper title ‘Re-envisioning atomic spectroscopic data and cosmic chemical evolution processes as musical systems’. Not only was the composition fascinating and beautiful, but the method with which Juan combined astrology and physics to create a rigorous compositional framework was itself wonderfully innovative.

The conference also provided opportunities to engage in research training and discussions of our shared fields.

Núria Bonet led ‘What’s Next?’, an event which focussed on different careers inside and outside of academia. While the statistics of academic careers seemed bleak, there were some great reflections and practical takeaways on what to do when the PhD ‘suddenly’ ends.

The RMA practice research study group held a discussion session presented by Scott McLaughlin (University of Leeds) and Sue Miller (Leeds Beckett University) on practice research PhDs, which allowed PhD students to share their varied approaches and issues when articulating their research through practice. This encouraged discussions on the importance of research questions as well as the strategies for documentation of practice.

Scott McLaughlin also led two composition workshops; one for string trio, and one for purely electronic works. Both introduced the performance of new pieces and included a rich discussion between players, composer, and the audience. These pieces were highly diverse, creating a great foundation for a deep and nuanced conversation around compositional intent, notation/communication, and interpretation. 

One of the big draws of the conference was the workshop ‘Ambisonic Sound Spatialization with the IKO Loudspeaker’ led by Jorge Boehringer (Newcastle University) and Marcin Pietruszewski (Northumbria University). This workshop was partly a critical listening experiment where participants experienced the 3D spatialised audio of the IKO speaker, and partly an introduction to the basics of the loudspeaker and the interdisciplinary sonification research being done with it as part of Project RADICAL.

Delegates were also treated to a delightful evening on 11th January by Trio Northumbria, who performed some stunning arrangements of J.S. Bach, Zoltan Kodály, and Ernest John Moeran.

As always, the RSC was a great way to begin the year. Special thanks must be given to David Smith and Katherine Butler and to all at Northumbria University for hosting it so successfully. Many thanks go also to the RMA Student Committee and to the BFE Student Representative.

Looking ahead, the next conference will be held at Cardiff University from 10th-12th January 2024.

Sebastian Bank Jørgensen is a first-year PhD researcher at Northumbria University, whose work focuses on German modal theory in the Renaissance.

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