Conference Report: RMA 59th Annual Conference

Report by Ning Hui See

The 59th Annual Conference of the Royal Musical Association took place on 13-16 September 2023. Hosted in-person by the University of Nottingham at the scenic University Park campus, a small number of international delegates presented online and were well supported by the technological setup. Over three days, a wide-ranging line-up of papers, lecture recitals, composition workshops, and two keynote addresses reflected the ongoing expansion of musicology as it embraces novel interdisciplinary approaches and responds to the current social climate.

Two keynotes examined the intersection of music and social consciousness. Exploring the themes of harm, care, and repair, Naomi André’s (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) Le Huray Lecture ‘Opera’s New Realism: Expanding Narratives and Representation’ first outlined the exclusion of Black participation since the nineteenth century through composers, librettists, subjects for plots, singers, and those involved with production behind the scenes. Drawing upon newly commissioned works (Blue, 2019; Omar, 2022; and The Factotum, 2023), André considered the genre’s cultural position in the twenty-first century as it caters to wider audiences extending beyond the wealthy elite. Opera can become a site to repair past harm through a recovery of underexplored narratives and a careful engagement with the present. Mark Burford (Reed College), this year’s Dent Medallist, demonstrated how musicologists can compassionately and productively reassess the discipline’s past in his lecture titled ‘Music in Crisis: W. E. B. Du Bois, Propaganda, and the Black Atlantic’. Burford explored scholar-activist Du Bois’s role as a propagandist for the Black freedom struggle, and how the collaboration between Du Bois and British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor encapsulated themes of identity and dual consciousness in the Black Atlantic context.

The role of performers in relation to historical and contemporary practices, discourses, and technology emerged as a theme across sessions. The panel ‘Reimagining French Modernist Historiography through Performance’ stimulated important discussions, with papers by co-chairs Adam Behan (Maynooth University) and Peter Asimov (University of Cambridge), Jeanice Brooks (University of Southampton), and Barbara L. Kelly (University of Leeds). Highlighting Jane Bathori, Nadia Boulanger, Maria Yudina, and Yvonne Loriod, who played pivotal but often underappreciated roles as performers promoting modernist music, the panel challenged conventional composer-centric narratives to offer more inclusive histories. The discussions further examined the significant disparity between these performers’ rhetoric and actual performance practices, who outwardly leveraged ‘performance as an act of service to the composer’ to ascribe professional credibility to themselves. Turning to the present day, Ning Hui See’s qualitative study and Ji Liu’s lecture-recital explored the creative work of performers concert programming repertoire which present unique challenges. Situating performers as agents of artistic value, See (Royal College of Music London) contended that a methodology focussing on process, rather than product, can offer longevity in repertoire inclusivity. Liu (King’s College London) demonstrated, at the piano, the artistic and sonic possibilities of combining fragments of Schubert’s Unfinished Sonata with improvised interludes and contemporary works by Frederic Rzewski (Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues) and Morton Feldman (Palais de Mari). Joyce Tang (independent scholar) showcased how the duo-art piano rolls of women pianists Cécile Chaminade, Myra Hess, and Clara Evelyn inform our understanding of early twentieth-century performance practices, and the implications of such technology on the performer’s identity. 

Two papers examined the issue of women composers’ agency as they engaged with political movements in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Focussing on Valentina Serova (1846–1924), Nicholas Ong (University of Cambridge) considered her career amidst the musical, social, and intellectual contexts of her time, and thereby assessed the impact of the Women’s Liberation Movement on Russia’s musical world. Particularly fascinating was the comparison of her career trajectory between the city, a locale reserved for the masculine and the ‘intellectual’, and the country, where women were more easily accepted as leaders. Danielle Roman (New York University) examined the complexities of Alicia Adelaide Needham, a London-based Irish composer known for her involvement in both Irish nationalist and suffragist music movements. While Needham’s compositions for both causes were musically similar, her private writings reveal her personal struggle with domestic abuse and her self-empowerment through the suffragist movement. 

Aesthetic influences on Early British modern music were analysed through various lenses. Samuel Cheney (University of Edinburgh) navigated the nuances of British modernist composers using Chinese folk music and its supposed simplicity and ‘universality’ as an aesthetic tool against the excesses of Romanticism. While acknowledging the risks of perpetuating the trope of ‘oriental’ stagnation through the illusion of a timeless East, Cheney argued that these composers drew upon China as a revivifying impulse. With a similar emphasis on the continuity between past and present, Alexander Kolassa (The Open University) examined how Kaikhosru Shapurj Sorabji’s complex life and music exemplify the intricate relationship between modernism and an imagined medieval world. Of special interest was the composer’s refusal to be called ‘British’ while intertwining medievalism with his Indian identity, a complication which Kolassa identified as Sorabji’s rejection of modernity rather than of race. Both papers provided valuable insights into re-evaluating modernist discourses.

Collaboration and openness were emphasised in themed sessions on two fields seeking to expand their presence in scholarship. In a panel imagining ‘The Future of Organology’, Gabriele Rossi Rognoni (Royal College of Music), Simon Waters (Queens University Belfast) and Rachael Durkin (Northumbria University) repositioned organology as an area that transcends technical analysis, with an urgent need to embrace interdisciplinarity and to consider musical instruments within broader cultural, historical, and musical contexts. Laudan Nooshin (City, University of London/Charcoalblue), Wiebke Thormählen (Royal Northern College of Music), and Rachel Cowgill (University of York) formed the panel for ‘Musicology in Public Spaces’. Reflecting on various projects which they have led, the panel advocated for a departure from traditional museology focussed on education in favour of an entertaining and immersive experience for visitors.

The rich variety of papers presented here reflects musicology’s evolving landscape and encourages us to construct a more inclusive, adaptable, and interdisciplinary future. We look forward to the next conference celebrating the 150thanniversary of the RMA on 11-13 September 2024 held at the Senate House and the British Library in London.

Ning Hui See is a Singapore-born pianist-researcher. A C H Scholar supervised by Prof Rosie Perkins, Prof Natasha Loges and Danny Driver, Ning Hui’s PhD at the Royal College of Music London examines the practice of concert programming in relation to issues of gender, value, and the musical canon, with Clara Schumann’s Sonata as a starting point. She has given guest seminars on women composers at the University of Freiburg, Duke University, and University of the Arts Singapore (NAFA). Ning Hui has presented her research at the Royal Musical Association Annual Conference, the European Platform for Artistic Research, the Gender-Studien der Gesellschaft für Musikforschung (Hamburg), and ‘Women at the Piano’ (Irvine, California). She is a Graduate Teaching Assistant for BMus 2 historical studies ‘History of the Orchestra’ and ‘Music and Power’.

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