September Conference Review (Part 2: Music in Western Europe, 1150-1350)

This is Part 2 of a series of posts informally reviewing three conferences I attended (giving papers at two) in September. For Part 1, click here. For Part 3, click here

The Noises of Art: Audiovisual Practice in History, Theory and Culture (The School of Art, Aberystwyth University / The Courtauld Institute of Art, London / Aberystwyth Arts Centre) 4-6 September, 2o13.

Cantum pulcriorem invenire: Music in Western Europe, 1150-1350 (University of Southampton) 9-11 September, 2013.

DigiPal Symposium III (King’s College, London) 16 September, 2013.

I have to start this review with an apology. Not only was I only present for 2 of the 3 days of this conference, I was pathetically ill the entire time. So I felt I should include a disclaimer that I was under the influence of cough syrup/cold medication, and I may have missed an interesting point or two while either coughing like a 19th-century consumption patient, or trying not to choke in an attempt to NOT cough like a 19th-c. consumption patient. Anyway, if you read anything about people speaking in mysterious languages or how interesting it was that a prominent scholar sprouted wings in the middle of a talk, it probably isn’t true.

If the Noises of Art conference was a place for diversity, Mark Everist’s Cantum pulcriorem invenire: Music in Western Europe, 1150-1350 (University of Southampton) was at the opposite end of the conference spectrum, focusing on only two centuries of Western music, specifically the conductus. Though attending both required a lot of traveling in a short amount of time, I’m actually quite glad I went to these conferences one after another, as it was interesting to see how they were each inspiring in different ways. An excerpt from the call for papers: ‘The conference seeks to shed light on the issues around the discovery and management of known and newly-discovered source material, the implications of claims of meaning in thirteenth-century music, the use of digital technologies in the study of music of the period, as well as other traditional and innovatory approaches’.

To put it frankly, this was hardcore musicology at its finest. Because I study medieval song, the idea of a conference entirely based around the 13th-c. conductus was not something to be missed (though my source material is slightly different, and typically not included in the Ars antiqua category). It was especially interesting to see it discussed within the context of the organum and motet forms, as it has typically been given less prominent standing among the 13th-c. Ars antiqua forms. After writing a paper for a non-specialist audience (Noises of Art) and navigating the challenges of presenting in-depth research in manageable language, it was refreshing to hear scholars speaking in their native tongues.

The conference was part of a larger research project of the same name, so it was a very practical way for me, a Ph.D. student, to examine the practices of scholars working on large-scale funded projects, and how conferences can be an integral part of this kind of work (most grant applications will include a list of things that a research project will produce, including things like conferences, a monograph, &c.), both as a way to promote and present information from the research project, and investigate what other current scholarship is happening within the field.

Particularly interesting to me was the inclusion in the CPI research project of an online database of conductus repertory, and this is another way in which the conference can be a particularly useful tool. In the afternoon session on the first day there was a forum about the project as a whole, and people were asked what they would like to see included in this database, or what they would find particularly helpful. I found the answers to be interesting – a way to see what some of the major scholars in the field of medieval musicology would like to have included in an online resource. I was pleased to almost immediately hear about the possibility of linking the database to other resources in the future (I believe it was Michael Scott Cuthbert who first spoke about this, though it was mentioned several times during the discussion), because not only does it speak to the ability of e-resources to combine multiple fields of research within a discipline, but it also encourages long-term site maintenance. I’ve currently been attempting a project to catalogue online medieval musicology-related databases, and one of the most interesting things I’ve noticed is just how many are dead. Broken links, outdated information, or just a notice on the homepage, along the lines of: Funding ran out on this project in 2005, so see ya later! I’d love to be able to calculate a median lifespan for a scholarly database in the humanities. I bet the results would be surprising.

In terms of the database as being a useful tool, most scholars seemed excited at the prospect of the catalogue, which will certainly make it easier to access this repertory, even if the music will be edited and in modern notation (the question of whether MS images would be available was initially posed by Elizabeth Eva Leach during the forum). But with all the questions about linking the resource to other databases in the future, perhaps image databases could be included in that category, so that scholars will be able to note whether or not an image of a particular MS is available online, and where. If we’re going to create scholarly databases with an encyclopedic slant, we may as well allow ourselves a Wikipediaic element and link to as much relevant information as we can. I supposed in the end it will depend on the amount of funding a research project has received, and how much of that total amount can be alloted to resource creation. And let’s face it, Arts & Humanities funding is almost never enough to do all that we want to.

I’m not sure what the third day of the conference brought to the table, but if the first two days were any indication, a collection of conference proceedings would be a worthwhile investment. Which causes me to wonder: are the questions following a paper ever included in proceedings? This is a case where I’d love it if they were — the discussions were spirited and comedic in turn, but consistently helpful.

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