Med-Ren Music in the 21st Century

I want to draw your attention to a session in the upcoming Medieval and Renaissance Music conference in Maynooth next weekend: Med-Ren Music in the 21st Century. The speakers and their papers are:

Brandi A. Neal: “An Ounce of preventions is worth a pound of cure”: shielding early music from the Alt-Right.

Elizabeth Randell Upton: Music, medievalism and white supremacy: anti-racist pedagogy after Charlottesville.

Samantha Bassler: Music, disability and a 21st -century pedagogy of medieval and renaissance culture.

It’s currently scheduled for 5-6.30pm on Thursday 5 July in the Bewerunge Room. I guess things might change, though, as they sometimes do at conference, so it’s best to check the link to the full schedule available on the conference information page. The overall programme looks exciting. You might think I would say that, since I’m on the committee, but I’ve been on sick leave for several months and out of the loop. My gratitude to Antonio Cascelli, Eleanor Giraud, and Thomas Schmidt for being so gracious about my absence.

Call for Papers – Medieval & Renaissance Music Conference, 5-8 July, 2018, Maynooth, Ireland

We welcome papers and themed sessions on any relevant topic, from performing and recording early music in the twenty-first century, to madrigal studies, sources studies, analytical studies, medieval and renaissance music in Ireland, to mention only a few. In view of recent political events across the world, however, as a committee, we would like to suggest at least one topic and create space to consider the politics around researching, teaching and performing Med & Ren music in a time when racists, white nationalists (not only in the US) and xenophobes feel emboldened. How do we teach Med & Ren music courses that do not appear to be safe havens for white supremacists? That challenge ahistorical views of Med & Ren as all white (male) and Christian? What resources do we need? What stories are we not telling? What does intersectional, postcolonial, and/or anti-racist research, teaching and music-making look like or sound like in our field? What are the structural barriers to inclusivity and diversity in our field, and what can we do to remove them? We feel this is an important topic for our research fields, but it is not intended as a conference theme in any restrictive way and we would like to stress of course, that all themes and topics will be considered with equal interest.

Possible formats of presentation include, but are not limited to:

* individual papers of 20 minutes
* paired papers (60 minutes including QA)
* themed sessions (120 minutes for 4 papers and 90 minutes for 3 papers, including QA)
* round tables
* workshops/ lecture-recitals
* posters
* short 10-minute presentations

Conference languages: German, English, French, Italian, Spanish

All proposals should include:

* title
* indication of format
* proposer’s name
* proposer’s affiliation (if any)
* names and affiliations of any additional participants
* contact email
* AV requirements
* a short bio or bios of the participants (max. 15 lines; this has no bearing on the evaluation but simply for distribution to chairs).


* for individual contributions : c. 250 words
* for sessions with multiple participants: c. 200 words on the proposal as a whole, and c. 100 words on the contribution of each participant.

Deadline for all proposals: 4 December 2017.

Notification of acceptance: by 31 January 2018.

Proposals to be submitted to

General Information
The committee would like to support academic parenting. As such, a room with a fridge will be available as lactation room. The room is located on the first floor of Logic House (accessible via staircases), the same building where the main sessions will take place.

Antonio Cascelli (Maynooth University)
Eleanor Giraud (University of Limerick)
Frank Lawrence (University College Dublin)
Melanie Marshall (University College Cork)
Thomas Schmidt (University of Manchester/ University of Huddersfield)

For information contact:

Purity in Early Music

Following the Women, Music, Power conference, I received an email from Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, a freelance arts journalist who contributes regularly to the New York Times. She saw an interesting story in my work on purity and early music vocal practice in the disconnect between the way early music singers describe singing and the sound they make, and the way critics describe early music voices. She took the idea and ran with it, interviewing numerous singers and directors, as well as me, and the result is a rich and critical investigation. ‘Early-Music Ensembles: Praised as Pure, but Seeking More’ is a really thoughtful exploration of purity as the main adjective to describe women singers of early music. The article is published online already (link above), and will be in the print version of the New York Times on Saturday, 23 Jan. 2016.

As da Fonseca-Wollheim notes, ‘The lexicon of praise for female singers of early music can be narrow, with purity a recurrent concept’. I hope that this lexicon will now become richer.

Women, Music, Power

The joyful celebration of Suzanne Cusick that was Ellie Hisama’s Women, Music, Power conference was quite the best conference I’ve ever attended. Stimulating papers, humorous anecdotes, lively company, and a jazzercise workout.

It was quite a conference! My daughter (almost three years old) now thinks that every conference involves jazzercise!

Congratulations to Ellie, Emily Wilbourne, and the professional team of graduate conference assistants.

Performing Vice and Virtue

Last week was a lot of fun, and I have to thank Melinda LaTour for it. Ms LaTour organised a panel on Performing Vice and Virtue in Late Renaissance Europe at the Renaissance Society of America’s annual meeting in Berlin. She gave a paper on ‘Repetitions of Virtue: Music Pedagogy and Ethical Capacity in the Quatrains de Pibrac en musique’ in which she argued, among other things, that the musical repetition in strophic settings might have the function of facilitating the repeated performance of virtue. Dr Catherine Deutsch’s discussion of Annibale Guasco’s Ragionamento … a D. Lavinia sua figliuola della maniera del governarsi ella in corte focussed on hitherto overlooked passages and chapters, and argued that “repetition of proper acts” (such as performing music) became embodied as habits and virtue.

It was down to me to provide the vice, in ‘Vice and the Villotta in the Sixteenth Century’. My main example was the Primo libro de villotte del fiore (1557) by Filippo Azzaiolo, dedicated to Abbot Pandolfo Rucellai. Rucellai was a bit of a scallywag, it seems. In the early 1540s, his maternal uncle, the humanist Giovanni della Casa, himself no stranger to vices, chastised Pandolfo for gambling so excessively that he threatened his brother’s portion of the family estate. He claims that Pandolfo has stopped practicing the virtues of youth, like music, in favour of gambling and womanising. The villotta book dedicated to Pandolfo in 1557 might suggest that he was back on track to virtue. The content of the book—songs with thinly veiled sexual metaphors, and even insults to living persons—means that is not entirely clear. On the one hand, moralists condemn the villotta for its sexual content, and on the other, we know that ‘lowbrow’ genres (low stylistic register for ‘low’ content) were enjoyed by a wide audience—including humanist academicians. It might seem at odds with what a modern reader would expect of an abbot, but it seems to have been entirely in keeping with the musical habits of a young nobleman in the church. It was one way to continue to perform aristocratic masculinity.

Thanks again to Melinda LaTour for organising the session, and to Prof. Jeanice Brooks for chairing.

Liveness and Gaga

Tomorrow I will be participating via Skype in Rethinking Liveness: Music, Performance and Media Technology at University College Cork. I’m going to be joining a round table discussion. I’ve never done this via Skype before, so it’ll be an interesting experience (and peculiarly appropriate for a conference on liveness!).

I’ve been asked to consider liveness in relation to Lady Gaga. I’ll be drawing on various performances, including her recent turn at the VMAs (below) that was somewhat overshadowed by Miley Cyrus’ assertion of her sexual womanhood at the expense of black women.  (And talking of which, Cyrus’ observation that her performance generated 306.000 tweets per minute, or something, reminds me of the liveness of Twitter, too. Gaga is known for her adept use of social media, but is it always Stefani Germanotta who does the tweeting? Or is it the Gaga assemblage? [My understanding of assemblage is courtesy of Craig Owens’ contribution to the forthcoming essay collection on Gaga that I co-edited with Martin Iddon.])

Then there’s all the staging of death and dying in Gaga videos. Anyway, I still have time to get my head around this, just….

More on ImproTech Paris-New York

Just a heads up: Han-earl Park has collected his live tweets from the ImproTech conference and gigs at freedom, machine subjectivity and pseudo-science: twitter transcript – io 0.0.1 beta++ and he will be following up with a longer post soon. There’s some consideration of historical context, politics of performance, as well as comments and questions about the techniques, performance styles on display, and on the presented papers themselves (e.g. George Lewis on imbuing machines with “integral subjectivity”). It’s certainly worth keeping an eye out for the follow up blog post.

ImproTech Paris/New York 2012 at the Roulette

My blog has been a tad quiet recently. This was not entirely by choice, but I can’t go in to the reasons here. Anyway, I’m resurrecting it with a post that I wrote on 17 May. I haven’t gone through and edited my original text. What I’d want to spell out more clearly, were I to rewrite this, is that the problems I’m struggling with are in part (perhaps largely) to do with the conventional way of understanding the dynamics between performers and composers. In many cases, performers playing works written for them have lengthy conversations with the composers, and in fact make a substantial input into the piece. This can be recognised by composer, performer, and programme writer, or the piece can be performed and written about in a conventional way. Some of the performances I discuss below staged their creative work in a way that highlighted the collaboration and did away with the customary hierarchy of composer over performer. Others did not. And in the two performances that did not, there were very specific intersections of gender and race.


Last night, I went to hear ImproTech Paris/New York 2012: Improvisation & Technology at the Roulette. It was a gig bringing together musicians from three institutions: IRCAM in Paris, New York University and Columbia University. The gig prompted lively conversation afterwards over a late night diner meal. (I could just have been hungry—it was almost midnight—but I swear the eggplant rollatini I had at the diner was the best diner food I’ve ever had.)

So, who played what? The line up was:


  1. Raphael Imbert: OMax at Lomax – Nine Spirit Company : Raphael Imbert, sax, Simon Sieger piano & trombone, Benjamin Lévy, Omax interaction, Thomas Weirich, Guitar
  2. Robert Rowe : Cigar Smoke (2004) for clarinet and interactive music system – Esther Lamneck, clarinette
  3. Steve Lehman, sax, live electronics, Mari Kimura, violin, live electronics, Vijay Iyer, Piano, Improvisation
  4. Jean-Baptiste Barrière : Crossing the Blind Forest (2011) for flute, live electronics and live video – Margaret Lancaster, flute
  5. Roscoe Mitchell, Saxophone, David Wessel, touch controller & computer , Improvisation
  6. Georges Bloch : Duck Laughs (world premiere) for percussions, preceded by Canaries by Elliot Carter – Laurent Mariusse, percussions, Georges Bloch, OMax interaction
  7. Bernard Lubat, piano, Gerard Assayag, OMax interaction, Improvisation
  8. George Lewis : Interactive Trio (2007) for trombone, two pianos and interactive music system – George Lewis, trombone, Geri Allen, piano
  9. Steve Coleman, saxophone, Gilbert Nouno, live electronics, Improvisation

(Source: ImproTech Paris / NYC 2012 Schedule)


I guess it was not a complete surprise to have so few women in the gig, although it was disappointing, particularly since public funding (from the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche) went into the event; there were also private institutional sponsors.

What I want to think through here is not so much the gender imbalance of the gig in terms of numbers, but rather the ways in which gender and race appeared to intersect in some of these performances. I have more questions than I do answers. (Isn’t that always the way?) And I am sure there are other, perhaps more positive, ways to read this. I hope there are, because what I have come up with isn’t exactly heart warming and affirming.

Numbers 2 and 4 were a pair, in a way. In each, a white woman performed a woodwind instrument in front of several music stands. They appeared to be compositions rather than improvisations, although there could well have been moments of improvisation built in.  The electronic wizardry happened off stage: those performers (the composers?) were not visible. In each case, the women were the only performers on the stage. And they staged a particular kind of femininity. The notes they played were written by someone else (perhaps the music stand ‘stands in’ for the composer). There is doubtless a degree of agency in how they interpreted the scores, but in effect they were using their bodies and instruments to sound someone else’s compositional voice. (To my knowledge, there isn’t yet an adequate theoretical model to account for a performer’s input into a specially-written composition and/or a performance. Convention dictates that, even if the performers had substantial input, the concert programme identifies only ‘the’ composer.) And in each case, that person had written some kind of algorithm (I think) to take that sound and respond to it, sometimes with a kind of echo and reverb, sometimes with some more complicated process that produced contrasts rather than repeats. At some points, especially at busy, climactic moments, it became hard, even impossible, to distinguish the sounds coming from the clarinet or the flute from the processed responses, in effect merging the human and the digital into one. A kind of transcendental loss of the self, perhaps? But only of the female performing self: the composer self was controlling almost everything anyway, and already disembodied, invisible but audible. In #4, the embodied performer/disembodied composer had a different spin, in that the performer was also source material for live video, her face and upper body and flute appearing superimposed on to nature walks, including a close up of a tree trunk, and the whole subject to further processing, blurring so that just as the sounds melded human and digital, the images melded human and nature. And in this, I think gender is significant again: in Western societies, women are often considered to be closer to nature than men.

I found it very hard not to see these performances as reinforcing a particular set of binary oppositions, that woman = body, man = mind; woman = reproducer, man = creator; woman = nature, man = culture (or perhaps science, or perhaps technology; all of those work). The woman is visible, and yet is not always audible, often indistinct, with blurred boundaries.

The performer ostensibly generated the sounds, but they were composed by someone else: this is a kind of ventriloquism. The disembodied, invisible composer occupies the performer, in a way, which could sound kind of cool in terms of cross-dressing/trans-of-some-kind, except the performer’s self is subordinate to, subsumed/overwhelmed by the composer’s: it is an occupation. The electronics were reactive to ‘her’ stimulus. The electronic performer reacts to his sounds coming from her embodied instrumental presence. But these electronic systems did not appear to be interactive systems, despite the descriptions, since it seemed that the women were playing already notated music from which they could not deviate. They could not respond to what they were hearing. And nor could the algorithms deal with visual cues in the way that a live performer would. In one particularly memorable moment, almost at the end of the flute piece, the flautist made the most assertive gesture of finality, punctuating the end with her body, her head movements, only to have this ignored as the electronic sounds continued on, as if the performer and the physical stimuli she produced were utterly irrelevant. The performer finished and was flushed with the effort and the intensity; the disembodied performer kept going.

This is in contrast to the two ensemble improvisations with women, in which women had their own creative voices. Mari Kimura (#3) triggered her own live electronics, as did another member of the trio. All three improvised, interacted; all three were on the stage. Geri Allen improvised with George Lewis on trombone and an improvisatory system of Lewis’s devising which played the second piano. This seemed to actually interact—to respond to Allen and Lewis, and they in turn responded to it, just as an all-human ensemble works. No sign of a one-way relationship with the electronics. But it is possible my ears missed something. And in each case, all performer-improvisor-composers were on stage. Indeed, that was true of, I think. every piece in the concert save numbers 2 and 4.

I find myself wondering if it is any coincidence that the pieces in which the performer-on-stage is at times indistinguishable from the disembodied-performer-off-stage, where only the instrumental performer has a body but in effect has no voice, and the little she does is easily con-fused with the digital/electronic manipulation…. Was it a coincidence that those performers were white women, or appeared to be? Is this a kind of good girl white femininity being staged here?

What a contrast, too, with the Roscoe Mitchell/David Wessel duo. Both on stage, both embodied and apparently enjoying it, both improvising, and both interacting with each other: two way communication. (And I had no idea it is possible to circular breathe on the flute.)

Thomas Jefferson’s Soundscapes in Slate

Congratulations to Bonnie Gordon (University of Virginia) for busting some Jefferson myths for a wide audience with her article in Slate on Thomas Jefferson: The sounds of Monticello, from patriotic songs to the slap of the whip. Great piece! Gordon outlines how Jefferson managed his sonic environment and his sonic legacy, if you like: how he muffled, or tried to muffle, certain sounds in his immediate soundscape, in his notebooks, and in his archive.

Takeaway point for me: silences in accounts, collections and archives can speak volumes if you listen.

Gordon organized two conferences at the University of Virginia on Jefferson and soundscapes. I attended one earlier this year.

The Politics of Preservation & Censorship

'BnF: L'Enfer de la Bibliothèque, Eros au secret'

'BnF: L'Enfer de la Bibliothèque, Eros au secret' by Yann Caradec (y.caradec) on Flickr.

I’m accustomed to tales of librarians sticking up for our rights to read whatever we like. Attendees at the Music: Parts and Labor conference at New York University recently were treated to exactly that kind of demonstration, as Columbia University librarian and activist Aliqae Geraci discussed a variety of labor and access issues (including the move away from owning an item toward licensing of e-journals and e-books: when an item is only licensed, it can easily be removed without the purchaser’s agreement. And even open access e-journals/e-books, she suggested, still have problems, including the hidden labor involved in creating and maintaining them). I also remember the librarians sticking up for Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men in 2002. To be honest, it has been a while since I encountered a recent tale of library censorship, but it transpires that Florida libraries have removed an erotic novel from their shelves: Fifty Shades of Grey banned from Florida libraries (Guardian).

Libraries ‘protecting’ readers from encountering erotic material has a pretty long history. The l’Enfer collection in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France was created in the nineteenth century to make sure erotic materials could only be seen by those who would not be affected by them. (This is the odd thing about censorship: the censors look at stuff that they may then decide would deprave or corrupt others. I’m not a fan of pornography—much of it is misogynistic, and I don’t find misogyny erotic—but I don’t think the way to deal with misogyny is to sweep it under the carpet and pretend it’s not there.) Many books on historical erotic materials open with authors’ accounts of going to the BNF and being taken in to a private room (so they couldn’t corrupt other readers) and having to be supervised while consulting images, pamphlets, poems and books. But back in 2007/8, the BNF put on a public exhibition of materials from the collection, and the catalogue is still available.

The equivalent in the British Library is the locked case book. I read sixteenth/seventeenth century Italian editions of Pietro Aretino’s works that were treated like any other rare book: they arrive, you give your seat number when you collect the book, you carry the book back to your seat and work away until you finish. When I read a modern English translation of Aretino (from the 1970s or 1980s), however, it arrived in a locked case. I had to switch desks within the Rare Books & Music reading room so that the music librarian could watch over me; the issuing librarian brought the case over to me and unlocked it at my new desk. After that, it was the same. But it was really quite bizarre: you can order up any number of English-language scholarly books about Aretino or about eroticism, and even more recent translations don’t seem to be in a locked case, but this book, for some reason, was considered particularly precious. Perhaps it was the only copy left in the world, although I don’t think that explains the locked case since most of their rare books aren’t in locked cases. However, at least I could consult the book, which is more than can be said for Florida library users who want to read Fifty Shades of Grey.