RMA Report

The below report, by Ellen Davies, was originally written for the Newsletter of the Royal Musical Association.

Third Annual Conference of the RMA Music and Philosophy Study Group

King’s College London, 19–20 July 2013, with pre-conference activities on 18 July

From the 18 – 20 July 2013, King’s College London welcomed 220 delegates for three days of widely diverse papers and engaging debates on what we mean by music and what we mean by philosophy. This year, for the first time the usual two-day conference was extended to include a further day of pre-conference activities on 18 July, with 72 speakers involved across the three days. After feedback from previous years, the conference organisers made use of some of the larger lecture theatres at King’s, and this was appreciated.

The optional theme of ‘Embodiment and the Physical’ tied together the variety of papers given at the conference, with ontological issues an underlying theme of many of the talks. The opening plenary discussion panel on Friday morning, ‘Is Music a Bodily Art?’, began with Jenefer Robinson’s talk, and was centred on the dualism of music as structure and music as performance. She argued that we might hear music’s bodily functions foregrounded; however, her talk could have delved into the tension between the inherent dualism of structure and performance. Nicholas Baragwanath addressed some of these issues, whilst Jeremy Begbie’s presentation argued that music was the most spiritual of the arts, and presented an embodied understanding of the transcendental nature of music.

The first keynote by Peter Szendy on Friday afternoon asked what happens when one plays a piano in a department store. His rich and imaginative paper focused on the Marx Brothers film, The Big Store, with questions about the theatre of bodily commerce, underpinned by the philosophy of Jacques Derrida and Karl Marx (‘the other Marx’, as he said). Eric Clarke’s response brought out debates regarding the terms ‘infinite semiosis’ and ‘general fetishism’, as well as highlighting musical episodes from Marx Brothers films that might be thought-provoking to consider.

Georgina Born’s provocative and informative second keynote on Saturday morning directly addressed many of the ontological issues which were raised in the discussions following the first keynote paper. Born discussed relational ontologies provoked by the consideration of the living presence in digital music. She called for a renewed attention to the social, in response to the rise of the actor-network theory and affect theory.

On Friday afternoon following Szendy’s keynote paper, a session entitled ‘Musical Understanding: A Dialogue’ with Nick Zangwill and Lawrence Kramer, chaired by Julian Johnson, was held to close the day before the evening’s wine reception. The two papers opened a discussion on the nature of musical value. Zangwill’s controversial paper was a throwback to Hanslick (‘who was right’, he said). His argument was based on a tautology that in order to know what musical understanding is we must first know what music is. His talk provoked some unsettlement, perhaps best articulated by Lydia Goehr who advised against his discourse of ‘purity’ as an exclusionary term. Lawrence Kramer on the other hand, gave a very different paper in which he argued that an understanding of music and understanding by music are almost identical.

One of the highlights from the day of pre-conference activities was Goehr’s paper on Continental Philosophy, as part of a session of ‘Introducing…’ papers. Goehr’s stimulating and fluid talk discussed the nature of Continental Philosophy whilst defending the thesis of her seminal book, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works. The Thursday morning session opened with a introduction by Derek Matravers to ‘Analytic Philsophy and Music’. Matravers reiterated many of the stereotypes surrounding analytic philosophy, in order to provoke lively debate and some opposition among musicologists.

A personal highlight from the conference was the session on Schubert which took place as one of the three parallel events on Friday afternoon before the first keynote. Benedict Taylor and David L. Mosley gave two very different approaches to Schubert’s music. Taylor’s stimulating paper argued for a reading of Schubert’s music in terms of memory and temporality, whilst Mosley engaged with debates surrounding landscape. One of the sessions that coincided with the Schubert session due to parallel scheduling included a much praised paper by Rachel Beckles-Wilson on sound and complexities of listening. Following Born’s keynote on Saturday morning, a session on ‘Gesture and touch’ was part of three parallel events focusing on ontological debates. I look forward to hearing more of the on-going research from both papers given, first by Kristoffer Jensen and Søren R. Frimodt-Møller on capturing the gestures of musicians in performance, and secondly by Jana Weissenfeld on her research of conductor’s gestures, (staged or otherwise) from video recordings.

The final keynote paper by Stephen Davies on Saturday afternoon in many ways presented the culmination of ideas from three days of diverse talks. His paper focused on the theme of music and embodiment, and drew on a variety of ideas and examples. Davies argued that to understand what is ‘going on’ in music, it is necessary to ‘see’ what has happened, whether physically or in the mind’s eye. Mark Katz responded by noting that seeing and understanding how music is ‘done’ only enhances the appreciation of music. The discussion brought to an end three days of stimulating discussions within the sometimes precariously overlapping fields of music and philosophy, posing and attempting to answer difficult questions surrounding ontological debates. Many felt that the conference was the best yet, and next year’s 2014 conference will most definitely be very eagerly anticipated.

Ellen Davies begins a DPhil in music at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford in October 2013, researching musical temporality and philosophies of time in 1913 Paris.