RMA Report

The below report, written by Rob Upton, originally appeared in the April 2013 edition of the Newsletter of the Royal Musical Association.

Second annual conference of the RMA Music and Philosophy Study Group

King’s College London, 20–21 July 2012

On the 20 and 21 July 2012, 235 delegates attended the Second Annual Conference of the RMA Music and Philosophy Study Group. The friendliness of pre-Olympic London was matched by a warm welcome at King’s College London. Although a large percentage of the conference was given over to the optional theme of ‘Meaning and Ineffability’, the event was also full of engaging and diverse papers that reached beyond that subject.

The conference opened with a plenary discussion of Adorno. Debate about whether Adorno’s views are a proverbial ‘dead duck’ or are useful in the twenty-first century included discussion of commodity fetishization, price versus value, and capitalism. Whereas Roger Scruton (University of St Andrews) encapsulated the tone of Adorno’s writings on modern music by comparing the practice of modern music to masturbation, stimulating argument from Andrew Bowie (Royal Holloway, University of London) questioned whether some central philosophical debates about music are concepts obvious to musicians.

All three keynote speakers engaged with the question of ineffability in music. ‘IneffaBeethoven’ by David Chua (Hong Kong University) was delivered with charm and enthusiasm beyond compare. Referring to Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Chua debated how the ‘blank-flag’ of absolute music allows us to appropriate not just the music but also the composer for differing political and aesthetic ideologies. A lengthy paper from Günter Zöller (University of Munich / McGill University) endeavoured to link Wagner’s writings and his music, and philosophy scholar David Davies (McGill University) sought to bridge the divide between philosophy and musicology by engaging critically with modern musicological thinking.

Tackling musical language in one of the many parallel sessions, Lauren Redhead (University of Leeds) debated that modern composers use contemporary discourse and new instrumental techniques to gain acceptance within the Western art music fraternity; even her abstract successfully displayed how language, rather than content, can hold the power. A first-rate paper by Caroline Lucas (University of Leeds) on masking in the extreme genre of black metal considered performers of black metal as using a moniker or a physical mask in order to gain contemporary acceptance, and furthermore highlighted the negation of self-identity and the multiplicity of the personal and the persona.

In discussing how musical nuances such as ‘brightening the interval’ or the ‘pocket of a groove’ may at first be indescribable, Tiger Roholt (Montclair State University) united modern musicological thinking and analytical philosophy with aplomb. He discussed how the idea that differing hues of red can be characterized under the term ‘red’ can be applied also to sounds. He concluded that music’s ineffability might be due to our lack of terminology rather than our cognition: the musically ineffable becomes explainable when placed in direct reference with other musical examples.

A superb paper from Alex South (University of Glasgow) examined Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise in light of Wittgenstein’s writings that influenced the work. South’s shrewd move was to hint at his own engagement with the work, written in experimental notation that is ‘a picture of a score’. Chair Nick Zangwill’s respectful control of the session gave South the time to engage with a captive audience eager to enquire about this personal attachment to Cardew’s work.

Although murmurs of frustration followed the ‘undergraduate nature’ of the opening paper (from Bruno de Florence of the IMR) on Lacanian musicology, this introduction to Lacan provided an enjoyable and informative foundation for ideas that followed, making the session accessible to all. Kenneth Smith (University of Liverpool) provided a fascinating insight into the link between the harmonic language of Strauss’s Elektra and Lacanian metaphors of desire and jouissance; and an entertaining and exceptionally well-paced paper from Freya Jarman (Liverpool) examined the voice and how impersonators and listening to recordings of our own voice can disrupt our agencies of identification.

In a session given over to discussion of improvisation, the captivating Lydia Goehr (Columbia University) moved away from the conference trend of discussing musical works and improvisation extempore (such as jazz improvisation where one can speculate what will happen next) to focusing on the more surprising moments of improvisation impromptu, when instruments break or one forgets what happens next when performing from memory. Respondent Mark Doffman (University of Oxford) respectfully engaged with Goehr’s arguments: he considered whether extempore and impromptu are extremes, and (through entertaining anecdotes of his own life as jazz musician and scholar) questioned whether what lies between is a spectrum of context and performer expertise.

Owing to the overwhelming response to the call for papers, the organizers experimented with a PechaKucha session, in which speakers talk over 20 timed slides of 20 seconds each. Unfortunately, because some of the speakers attempted to squeeze their original 20-minute paper into the shorter format, the session was not well received. However, the paper by Alex Kolassa (University of Nottingham), considering musical ontology from a composer’s perspective, was successful – having been adapted carefully to the PechaKucha format.

The annual conference of the Music and Philosophy Study Group is a meeting place for philosophy and musicology scholars to talk about music. The stimulating discussions here demonstrated how the two fields are in good health, yet at times it seemed as though there was a split between the two disciplines. These crossed wires can only be solved once we all start speaking the same language, or become slightly more bilingual; and conferences such as these will help bridge the gap. Some of the papers might have been better as articles, enabling the reader to take time to reference and reflect. Generally, papers with audio-visual examples were easier to follow, as they gave time for the audience to gather their thoughts or to discover new things that they may not have seen or heard before. Musicologists can certainly profit from exposure to logical philosophical arguments and conceptual abstraction, yet a few delegates questioned the abundance of papers that reconstructed nineteenth-century thinking rather than examining contemporary music. With conference organizers responding to a feedback questionnaire reviewing all aspects of the conference, we can be sure that next year’s conference will be eagerly anticipated and will build on the superbly organized 2012 symposium.