This busy conference, organised by Keith Potter, brought
together over 150 musicologists from Europe and America. Plenary sessions
included two round-table discussions, one each on performance practice
and historiography, as well as keynote lectures given by Brian Ferneyhough
and Richard Middleton. Each day had several other panels running parallel,
and these smaller groups addressed issues of musical analysis, history
An American delegate remarked that this was the first time she had attended
a musicology conference with any kind of performance element, and one day
was given over entirely to issues of performance practice and politics.
Most provocative was Ian Pace's paper, 'Reassessing Unconscious Conventions'.
Pace suggested that while much contemporary music has a critical function,
one that directly addresses the music's social and artistic context,
performers often allow received notions of 19th-century performance
practice, like 'beauty of tone', to pollute a 20th-century aesthetic. Some
performance techniques, said Pace, insulate art music from its social
context by creating a 'tradition of safety' that strips performance of
risk and denies the performer's capacities of instinct and criticism; he
singled out the pianist's conservatoire-taught arm positions which, while
reliable, 'rein in dynamics and articulation'. Pace suggested that a more dangerous performance technique would demand a different sort of involvement with the work, where aspects of an interpretation would be determined during
performance rather than during practice.
This spur-of-the-moment approach may have suggested a certain musical
sympathy between Pace and the improvisers with whom he shared the first
round-table, yet this circular and occasionally bad-tempered discussion
succeeded in highlighting divisions rather than unities. Having begun with a
series of overly defensive statements from the panel, the session saw Pace
take the position of musicology's us to Eddie Prévost and John Tilbury's improvising them. Often echoed by Tilbury, Prévost criticised the institutional
neglect of improvisation as a valid musical practice, describing the
improviser's method of 'heurism and dialogue' as 'a defining ritual of
understanding' foreign to notated music. But misunderstanding flourished,
and as more and more delegates sought to prove that, in fact, some of
their best friends were improvisers, Prévost and Tilbury expressed
worry at the prospect of improvisation becoming an area of scholarly analysis
rather than practical activity.
The eventual failure of this round-table was a shame: the relationship
between the notated and the improvised needn't be as antagonistic as it was
here. Indeed, Brian Ferneyhough's keynote lecture suggested a mode of
construction and criticism that might have interested both groups, an
aesthetic on the hoof. The composer began by exploring Adorno's famous
maxim that 'to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric'. Having delivered this
ultimatum, said Ferneyhough, Adorno's own subsequent activity, and his
insistence on the value of art, suggests that he meant to promote either
hypocrisy or endless self-flagellation. Ferneyhough suggested that today's
composers face a similar choice; they can either attempt to appeal
commercially, or else retreat to a world of inalienable (and maybe
unsaleable) morality. Neither option 'retains plausibility', said the
composer, and a 'third way' must be sought. Yet a synthesis of the
intentionally accessible and the wilfully self-reflexive would be the
worst of both worlds, a 'plurality-lite' that would only succeed in disengaging
the popular from its populace. Instead, Ferneyhough suggested a
re-thinking of the 'critical work', where these 'referential' and 'discursive'
features meet and engage: where actual composition no longer relies on inherited
styles or techniques, but on methods improvised or drafted-in to answer
the demands of a work's specific social and aesthetic context. Our 'cultural
bemusement' can only be transcended by such an operation of exploration,
said Ferneyhough, and that exploration's goal is ultimately to 'write
poetry that doesn't speak in the voice of Auschwitz'.
Discussing artistic imperatives using the language of genocide is a late
20th-century luxury, but Ferneyhough was never going to lapse into
mid-century do-or-die heroics. In the 'Exile and Suppressed Music'
session, Erik Levi skilfully demonstrated how such imperatives had grown out of the murderous hysteria of the Nazi era, and how racism had gentrified itself
into a cultural mandate. Levi's study of the suppression of musical
modernism in 1930s Germany analysed the content of festival programmes and
music magazines of the era, showing the speed at which Nazi ideology
permeated and transformed a once-cosmopolitan musical culture.
The austere rationality of the post-war Darmstadt school is often
characterised, in part at least, as the result of a reaction to the Nazis'
brutal Teutonic Romanticism. In a later session, Paul Attinello presented
a paper, written in collaboration with David Osmond-Smith, which explored
the ways in which sexuality rather than history helped shape the musical
outlook of some avant-garde composers, particularly Boulez and Bussotti. Combining history, analysis and gossip in about equal measure, Attinello suggested that while the closeted Boulez aestheticised his sexuality in an act of
'discretion through abstraction', Bussotti's outrageous camp cause tensions
at Darmstadt, his activities prompting compositional responses from such
'discomfited heterosexuals' as Stockhausen and Berio.
Attinello was keen to communicate on his own terms, and drew on cultural
theory only when provoked by questions from the audience. Even then, brief
references served as acknowledgements of and ciphers for others' thought
and research. A little of Attinello's scholarly modesty would have made
Richard Middleton's keynote lecture more digestible. In his paper, 'Popular Music
Studies: a Difference that Makes a Difference?', Middleton aimed to
explore a theme that he saw as having 'replaced such concepts as "dialectic" and
"autonomy" as key tropes in discourses around culture and history'.
Middleton plotted three main 'axes of difference' which he suggested
separate forms of pop music from 'art music' (and implicitly, other forms
of pop music). 'Simplicity' of construction, 'Otherness' of origin and 'The
Voice' thus became points of theoretical contact with various musical
genres from around the world, Middleton's examples here spanning township jazz
and chart pop. Although delineating an essentially relativist project,
Middleton's 'axes of difference' could be seen as an attempt, if not to
universalise, then to de-fragment difference, and to divert popular music
studies away from what he called its 'excessive localism'. In tracking the
courses of popular music studies rather than those of the music itself,
Middleton, almost self-admittedly, had not described emergent 'differences'
or changing relationships between musics, so much as the changing
terminology and critical apparatus used by western culture to measure such
relationships. And while the post-modern academy that Middleton described
may be vehemently anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-colonialist, the
feeling remained that its studies may just form a newly self-conscious
'Orientalism' of the sort so vociferously criticised by Edward Said, a thinker who
received a name-check.
Perhaps because Middleton's subject matter is so rarely associated with
academic thought - by anyone, not just elitist academics - he seemed to
wear his learning heavily, and the weight of his armour of protective jargon
and reference sometimes toppled him over. Questions remained: does any Cuban
not armed with a check-list of politically correct post-modernisms really see
traditional Son music, as Middleton suggested, as articulating difference
because it represents a culture of machismo re-located to a post-feminist
world? Perhaps. Does anyone worry about the Academy's neglect of popular
music except the Academy? Probably not.
Middleton's problems were methodological rather than ethical, but the
conference also had its fair share of academic chancers, those who arrive
at pop looking for niches rather than knowledge. In the sessions on rock and
jazz, two American analysts, Guy Capuzzo and Matthew Santa, used
Riemannian theory to analyse chord progressions in early 90s American rock and the music of John Coltrane respectively. The analysts' grasp of history and
context was weak, and their algebra proved nothing except that they had no
understanding of how rock and jazz musicians really approach their musics.
Like the check-shorted Chucks and Marlons who do Buckingham Palace and
Stratford-Upon-Avon in a day before going to Edinburgh to soak up the
ancestral ambience, they were tourists, with absolutely no empathy,
understanding or appreciation of the music about which they were speaking;
instead of fudge and kilts, though, they each got to take home a CV entry.
When studying musical forms which thrive outside of official institutions,
academics need to learn where to draw the line between interest and
co-option, between understanding a music and 'winning it' for themselves -
in practical terms, how to sit down and shut up.
There were two evening concerts. In the first, many of the players who had
spoken at the Performance Issues Round Table got to put their money where
their mouths were. The concert opened with a two-piano and electronics
improvisation by Sebastian Lexer and John Tilbury, and the second half
featured the London premiere of Ferneyhough's Opus Contra
Naturam as well as pieces by Scelsi, Skempton and Tom
Johnson The highlight, though, was Mieko Kanno's first public appearance as a
violist, and her performance of Scelsi's darkly impressive Coelocanth. The other evening concert featured John Lely's realisation of Cage's Musicircus concept, here called Three Walks, a Londonese Circus on Dark Lanthorns. The environment of recorded street sounds and mesostics, together with live musicians, was spoilt a bit by some self-conscious audience behaviour, and the balance between live and recorded sound was not what it might have been; but
Cage's happenings rarely happen, so it was good to see one materialise here.
The conference's strength was in its numbers, its many speakers representing
such wide-ranging interests. This variety may have meant that there was
little scope for heart-felt, single-issue, intra-clique fighting, but even
if it wasn't always provocative, it was never cosy.