BFE-RMA Research Students’ Conference 2021

Report by Rowan Bayliss Hawitt

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that 2020 was a disorientating year to be a research student. Imagine my delight, then, at remembering that there are others out there doing excellent work, even if we haven’t come together in person for many months. Such was the effect of the 2021 BFE-RMA Research Students’ Conference, which took place (online) from January 12th–14th. Hosted by the Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge, the conference brought together students from a wide array of institutions (and time zones) for three days of paper presentations, professional development sessions, and keynotes.

After a welcome address from chair Dr Matthew Machin-Autenrieth (representing the BFE) and co-chair Professor Katharine Ellis (representing the Faculty of Music, Cambridge), the paper presentations began. Needless to say, with four or five sessions at once, the diversity of topics and issues was enormous. Panels themed on postcolonial perspectives, music and wellbeing, and performance studies sat alongside those on digital musicology, queer musical methodologies, and composition workshops.

The reclamation of untold musical stories and suppressed agencies was a recurrent theme across several of the sessions. Alice Masterton (University of York), for instance, invited us to explore how we remember female musicians after they have died, pointing out that posthumous narratives of Janice Joplin’s career framed her as especially vulnerable to substance abuse and hedonism in a way her male colleagues were not. Attending to the often moralising way in which Joplin was characterised after her death, Alice argued that taking such characterisations at face value risks further undermining Joplin’s agency. Meg Hyland (University of Edinburgh) drew on ethnographic sound archives to explore the Gaelic songs of Scottish female herring gutters in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She showed that this repertoire was excluded from contemporary accounts of Gaelic work song, in turn emphasising the central role oral histories can play in redressing the balance of canonical social history.

The disruption of hegemonic ideals was a stimulating and important thread throughout the conference. Irfan Rais (Bangor University) sketched out the limitations of Western notated musical theory; his compelling alternative theory of musical grammar employs sound recordings and concepts from descriptive linguistics as part of efforts to decolonise music studies. Like Irfan, Alex Ho (Royal College of Music) explored the tensions (productive and otherwise) which can emerge in cross-cultural music-making. Facilitated by a collective listening of his piece …chinese whispers… Alex outlined the reciprocal relationship between his own identity and creative processes, while also highlighting the ongoing racism experienced by British-Chinese communities.

Interspersing the fascinating paper sessions was a well-curated series of professional development panels. From insights into getting published (always know your audience) to applying for postdoctoral positions (build upon rather than extend your PhD topic), these discussions covered issues which everyone seems expected to know about, but nobody seems to talk about. Refreshing indeed! While the intended Gamelan workshops could not go ahead, a pre-recorded performance with commentary was provided to watch at delegates’ leisure. Coaching sessions with researchers were also made available; I gained many brilliant nuggets of knowledge from Dr Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, up to and including her thoughts on Arab-Andalusian cosmology. An eye-opening panel on careers beyond academia showcased just how useful a postgraduate degree can be in many professions – ever since the panel, I have been intensely jealous of Dr Janet Topp Fargion’s job at the British Library.

This was a conference which very much responded to events of the last year; not just in the necessity of an online format, but in the attention given to structural hierarchies and inequalities which have recently come further to the fore. Dr Emily MacGregor gave the keynote on behalf of the RMA, focussing her paper on the symphony in 1933. She demonstrated that the reception histories of symphonies by the likes of Kurt Weill and Florence Price indicate that it is a genre which remains implicated in racial hierarchies and questions about who is ‘worthy’ of being a symphonist. The BFE keynote, delivered by Dr Thomas R. Hilder, dealt with the hierarchies which pervade academia itself. In a moving autoethnographic ‘storying’ of his experiences as a queer music scholar today, Hilder outlined the ethical stakes at play in teaching and learning from students, especially in light of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. According to Hilder, storytelling is not ‘telling’, but ‘sharing’, not ‘authority’ but ‘involvement’; this is certainly what he and MacGregor achieved in their keynotes, which both invited listeners to investigate their own positionality. A most fitting end to the conference, then, came in a discussion session hosted by the LGBTQ+ Music Study Group and the recently-formed Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Music Studies Network (EDIMS). Representatives from each set out the urgent and important work to be done on decolonisation and equality in music education. The ensuing conversation with students in attendance underscored the need for intersectionality and offered compelling practicable insights into how these goals might be achieved.

The BFE-RMA Conference, I feel, continued many vital conversations, while also opening up new ones – I very much look forward to hearing more about these at next year’s conference, hosted by the University of Plymouth. For three days this year, though, I found myself forgetting I was sitting at the same desk I’ve been stuck at for months, such was the spirit of warmth and social and intellectual company. I, for one, owe a great deal of thanks to the conference committee and all who took part for brightening what was an otherwise decidedly odd start to 2021.


Rowan Bayliss Hawitt (University of Edinburgh)