Researching Music: Interviewing, Ethnography, and Oral History

Conference dates: 
6 Jun 2016
Senate House, University of London

Joint IMR/BFE/IASPM (UK & Ireland) Study Day: Researching Music: Interviewing, Ethnography, and Oral History, 6 June 2016

Report compiled by Yuiko Asaba 


The joint IMR/BFE/IASPM (UK & Ireland) Study Day, “Researching Music: Interviewing, Ethnography, and Oral History” held at the Senate House, provided a convivial and stimulating opportunity for students and experts in ethnomusicology and related fields, to share the often ‘hidden’, yet profoundly rich methodological stories behind the weaving of ethnography and oral history. Delegates were fortunate to engage with a wide range of topics enabled by the ten-minute presentation format given to each speaker. This was followed by four keynote speakers whose expert knowledge and experiences led to deeply thought-provoking discussions. This conference included perspectives and reflections on the issues surrounding ethnographic methodologies and oral history.

Organised by Dr Byron Dueck (Open University), Professor Geoff Baker (Royal Holloway University of London) and Sam Murray (Cardiff University) supported by the IMR, BFE, IASPM (UK & Ireland) and HARC (Royal Holloway), the day got off to an inspiring start with a packed audience. The first panel “Ethnography and access,” wonderfully introduced by the panel chair Professor Ruth Finnegan, included themes on reflexivity in research on reputation building and prestige in orchestras (Francesca Carpos), hierarchy in the uses of language and its positive complexity in the study of amateur community gamelan groups in Indonesia (Dr Jonathan Roberts), ethnographic tensions in ‘accessing’ Julio Iglesias (Dr Katia Chornik), and the impact of the researcher’s life changes upon the outsider/insider binaries in studying choirs of post-conflict Northern Ireland (Sarah-Jane Gibson). The panel opened up fantastic opportunities to acknowledge and to discuss similarities and differences in ethnographic methodologies in a vibrant and inspiring debate. This gave a wonderful lead into the next session “Ethnography and voice” chaired by Dr Sarah Hill. This session included issues of vagueness when discussing music that lead to marking of important areas in Drone Metal reception (Dr Owen Coggins), insider identification in multi-cited fields of international jew’s harp revival (Deirdre Morgan), and organisation of ethnography that “emerges from unfinished world” in a participant study of the British Northern Soul scene (Sarah Raine). Marion Wasserbauer who was also scheduled to talk unfortunately could not attend this conference. A question from the audience surrounding authenticity of questionnaire further invigorated the debate on negotiating “voice” (or indeed “voices”) within ethnography.      

The lunch break provided great opportunities for further discussions on topics deriving from the morning panels, and to share commonality in our approaches to researching music. The vibrant conversations were once again the evidence of the wonderfully diverse topics and approaches that exist in our field today. The superb quality of the catering later on in the day must also be noted. There was no shortage in the choices of cookies and tea flavours, which accompanied the lively discussions throughout the afternoon coffee break.

The afternoon sessions began with “Ethnography, performance and art” introduced by the panel chair, Dr Byron Dueck. Dr Lucy Wright discussed ethnographic perspectives of an artist’s residency in light of ethnomusicological study of the troupe dancing from the North of England and Wales. Louise Marshall’s presentation suggested the sonic artefact and its performativity as analytical ways to unpick levels and layers of interview data. Dr Sara McGuinness then discussed the overarching roles as performer, researcher, and collaborator with other musicians. The vibrant processes of gigging/recording and making sense of similarities/differences between Congolese and Cuban music through performance were highlighted. Dr Joseph Toltz’s paper moved on to discuss ethical dynamics surrounding staging memories of the Holocaust by means of oral history. Discourse of fearlessness as well as ethical concerns within an applied ethnomusicological inquiry were addressed. The next session “Ethics; researching networks” was led by Professor Sara Cohen. Dr Terence Curran raised ethical as well as broader issues concerning collecting interviews, influences of memory, and presenting data within the methodologies of oral history. Dr Fiorella Montero-Diaz discussed “studying up” at home, access, and ethics. Applicability, adaptability and boundaries of fieldwork rules were questioned. Dr Andrew Bowsher challenged the concept of multi-citedness in ethnography based on his research on the flow of music media. Dr Marilou Polymeropoulou presented her visualisation method of the chipscene based on ethnography and social network analysis. 

Following the coffee break, delegates were fortunate to have four wonderful invited speakers. Dr Sue Onslow’s presentation focused on interviewing Commonwealth politicians and those in related professions for the AHRC-funded Commonwealth Oral History Project. Multiple perspectives on techniques of interviewing in a web of gender and power dynamics were debated. Dr Jaime Jones discussed issues and challenges surrounding self-curating in ethnography. Dr Laura Leante revealed pre-fieldwork naïvity that transforms interdisciplinary (teamwork) approaches to ethnography, providing opportunities for collective ownership. The last invited speaker was Dr Lucy Durán, who shared her experiences of interviewing a Malian singer, Fanta Sacko. Dr Durán’s first encounter with Sacko was met with delicate issues of gender, while recent reencounter has further enriched the ethnography.

Delegates engaged in further lively discussions with all the panel chairs, beautifully summing up shared issues that emerged from the day. Congratulations to Professor Geoff Baker, Dr Byron Dueck, and Sam Murray for this very enjoyable, beautifully organised and successful Study Day. The opportunity to indulge in discussions about commonality and diversity in our ethnographic methodologies in a conference context was one of the most valued contributions of the day.