Of PhDs and telling stories – why academic conferences matter

If this week’s post is both a little later, and a little less coherent than its predecessors, I offer apologies. I have just returned (well, very late last night) from a wonderful week in sunny Toronto, where I attended the 18th Biennial International Conference on Nineteenth-Century Music – and this is what I’d like to tell you a little about. No, don’t worry, this is not going to turn into 1,200 words of obscure critical analysis. But it was a great experience, and it’s got me thinking.

Let’s begin not with the long flight and terrible film selection, but with a party I attended last weekend, a baby shower hosted by an old school friend, at which the majority of attendees were unknown to me. Since I spend the majority of my time around musical sorts, it’s a relative rarity that I’m confronted with the array of blank looks when I explain what I do. ‘A whole doctorate?’ one person asked, evidently trying to wrap her head around this, ‘All on music? What sort of thing did you have to do? Play?’ And then, more tentatively still: ‘Write?’.

And why should they have known? After all, how many people manage to get along just fine without thinking of writing about non-contemporary music? Most of them. So I tried to explain a little, and get to the heart of why it is that I do what I do.

Cut forward to last Wednesday morning, and at 8.30am Toronto time I arrived at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto to register, have some coffee with familiar friends and colleagues, and head to the 9.00am opening session. I sat through papers on Wagner and Liszt; spectacle and stage effects in Rossini; the earliest attempts in Paris to record operatic singers for posterity; film depictions of Robert Schumann going gradually off his rocker; a panel on colonialism in Canada, India, Tunisia and Russia, and a whole host of other things besides. I gave a presentation, too, as part of a session on the public performance of Lieder in the second half of the nineteenth century (and you can find the abstract here, on my academia.edu profile). I heard about detailed tonal analytical models, and complex philosophical ideas underpinning a range of aesthetic approaches to music and art. It was fascinating, thought-provoking, not always convincing, but hugely enjoyable. For two and a half days, I was completely emerged in a world of musicological nerds, and I loved it.

(By the way, being in such an environment can also lead to extreme silliness. Behold one doodle of Brahms that I managed at a conference recently:)

Behind the bookcase

In the various social time between and after conference sessions, I had the chance to chat to a lot of old friends and to make many new ones. They spoke variously of the politics of their departments (many presenters were from the U.S.A., a very different system to ours in the U.K.), research assessment and workloads. There is little doubt that the pressure placed on researchers to perform well – to publish and present as quickly and prolifically as possible – is a global phenomenon now, and there was a general feeling of unease that in a humanities subject such as music, this meant that many scholars felt pushed into getting their research into the public domain before it was really as thorough, or as ready, as they would like it to be. The driving international model for this kind of dissemination comes from science and technology subjects, where publications are often multi-authored and provide a catalyst or blueprint for commodification of a given discovery… which in turn can be clearly demonstrated as an economic benefit.

But in the humanities, this is not the case. It is the research itself, the book or article, that is the ‘commodity’. You can’t sell a new article exploring the mid-nineteenth-century debates on the definition of tonality to a multi-international conglomorate. (Or at least, you could try, but I somehow doubt you’d get very far…) Instead, every little bit of research I heard about was a means of advancing an argument – a theory – an attempt to understand something about the music and cultural environment of the past. Often these investigations embraced much broader philosophical or political issues (the panel on colonialism is an obvious example). Their proponents were passionate, formidably well-informed, and open to discussion and debate to strengthen or better their theories.

The research assessment organisation in the U.K., the REF (Research Excellence Framework) came up with a means of comparing science/technology and other subject bases through what it described for the 2014 submission as ‘impact’. In this model, ‘impact’ means a demonstration that researchers are reaching more than just the academic community with their work – that it has an effect on the world at large. (Be grateful I’ve summarised it – anyone who’s been brave enough to click on the link above will see that the REF documentation makes the average piece of complex research look like a primary school reading text.) Public engagement talks and films, pre- and post-concert events, CDs, DVDs and so on are all excellent ways of showing this. It is about reaching a non-specialist audience, and giving them a way in, and I commend that aspiration since it’s something I intend to turn into my principal career. I love bringing music and music history to people who have only had a limited chance to engage with it previously.

But every now and then, there is nothing like being around people who really, really know what you (and they!) are talking about. No explanations, no caveats, just merry assumptions that you’ve read all the stuff and will already have an opinion on it. These conferences take a huge amount of planning, are often very expensive (and the level of assistance from universities and colleges varies hugely depending upon how much they can help their scholars to cover costs) and in the case of an event like this, only happen once every two years. But after all those years we spend training and studying to become world experts in our chosen fields, they are crucial. A number of people I met work in departments dominated by lecturers who would be as unfamiliar with nineteenth-century musical sources as your average music-loving layman: the diversity of musics covered by departments sometimes doesn’t allow for a faculty to have all that much of a shared language of research.

So: here’s to the conferences. To the opportunity to be around friends and colleagues who understand you and your subject, and can expect to be understood in return. And that doesn’t mean that our scholarship is dry: one of our keynotes was all about the power and importance of storytelling – he just happened to be talking about the storytelling of the rise and fall of tonal composition. Scholarship at its finest is intricate, detailed, and can be beautifully wrought in spoken or written text. And it gives us a way of better understanding how things were, and why we are where we are, and think (and listen and play) the way we do… Which, as projects and investigations develop, can be shared with wider audiences. As a wise prof told me as I embarked on my own PhD: never underestimate the power of informed conversation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.