BFE Annual Conference 2024 (University College Cork): The Impacts of Ethnomusicology

Conference report by Thomas Graves

In a sectoral atmosphere which has seen music departments closing and shrinking opportunities for music research, this year’s theme, the impacts of ethnomusicology, is urgent. This conference has truly shown the wide breadth of impacts ethnomusicology can have in the world. Presentations explored relationships between music/sound and  the climate crisis, mental health, decolonisation, deforestation, political movements, poverty, migration, access, EDI, and technological change, to mention just a few. But it is not only the impacts of music on the wider world, and of the world on music that are of concern to ethnomusicologists now. It is also for ethnomusicologists to themselves take action and do what they can to conduct research that has a positive impact in the world: for people, musics, and planet. Therefore, it was also wonderful to learn of so many projects doing just this – projects making music more accessible, projects connecting people with the natural world through music, projects using music to connect people with each other, and many others. The excellent keynote speech from Professor Beverley Diamond covered a great many of these topics, while also highlighting the need to be aware of both the positive and negative impacts of ethnomusicological work. The conference took place, for the first time in the history of the BFE, in the Republic of Ireland, at University College Cork.

Beverley Diamond presenting the keynote address " Spaces of Impact". Photo by Liu Tianyu.

For me, one of the most thought-provoking and coherent panels of the weekend was entitled “species in counterpoint”. This panel included three papers addressing the theme of musical relationships between humans and non-human life. Rowan Bayliss Hawitt explored community music groups working with folk music and the natural environment in England and Scotland, showing both how such things intend to connect people to land, and how they may actually contribute to harming the animals they seek to act in solidarity with. Similarly, Andrew Green considered the relationship between acoustic violence and environmental loss, in his discussion of how the sounds of chainsaws are heard in Ajusco, Mexico City, and how this helps halt deforestation.

Rowan Bayliss-Hawitt presenting her talk "Fiddling While the World Burns? Sounding out Multispecies Accountability in Ethnomusicological Research" in the "species in counterpoint" session. Photo by Leandro Pessina.

Similar considerations of the relationships between positive and negative impacts played out in many of the papers and in Beverly Diamond’s keynote speech. Discussions of EDI, decolonization, and accessibility of music all touched upon this. Sunday morning’s roundtable from Sheffield’s Access Folk project demonstrated a rigourous but humane way of both including research participants as co-creators of research, and mobilizing ethnomusicological research to produce tangible, positive change in peoples’ musical and social lives. They described a process beginning with gathering information about the demographics of folk music performance and putting together a team of co-researchers including folk musicians and organisers, then of collecting further information about the accessibility of folk music through focus groups and participants interviewing people they know, and finally an action phase in which small grants are distributed according to the needs of local musical projects. While such projects require large amounts of funding, they present an interesting approach to the impact ethnomusicological research can have. Other similar approaches to accessibility and representation in music making were explored by Tenley Martin’s presentation on the Bradford Dhol Project or Daniel Woodfield’s presentation “Queering Cornish Song”, in which he explores a collaborative process of making Cornish song lyrics more inclusive. Turning to the context of Namibia, Amanda Bayley and Perminus Matiure explained how teaching of traditional music and skills in instrument crafting could both divert young people from the dangers of drug use, and find them a source of income in the local tourism industry.

Roundtable: "Laying foundations for Impact: Access Folk, Participatory Research and the Ethics of Change". Pictured left to right: Jonathan Stock (organizer), Daniel Woodfield (audience), panel -Rebecca Draisey-Collishaw, Chris Butler, Morag Butler, Roary Skaista, Kirsty Kay, Esbjörn Wettermark. Discussant on the right of the room – Alexander Douglas. Pictured online via Zoom – Cat McGill (top) and Fay Hield (bottom). Photo by Liu Tianyu.

Amanda Bayley presenting "Transforming Lives through Ethnomusicological Engagement in Kwando, Namibia" in the "soundly organized humanity" session (Perminus Matiure attending online - off-screen). Photo by Liu Tianyu.

Despite a few absences from musicians who were unable to make it at the last minute, the conference had its usual warmth and produced many fascinating conversations. There was a particularly strong group of postgraduate students this year, putting forward a wide range of new ideas for the field to consider. It was over almost too quickly, but at least there is next year to look forward to in Cambridge, with Fiorella Montero-Diaz as the new BFE chair.