Down from the pedestal: reflections on research and performance

I learnt pretty quickly when I first started my PhD never to admit that my subject is music. Even ‘music history’ is a bit risky. There’s something about the word ‘music’ that gets people excited and makes them forget that actually you’re a PhD student, you’re a serious academic, thank you very much. We’ve all mastered the non-committal grunt in response to that inevitable question ‘Music, how lovely! What instrument do you play?’ and the rictus grin whenever someone says ‘Oh, you should meet my nephew. He plays the clarinet.’ I rarely describe myself as a music student now. I’m a historian, working on the English Reformation – oh, and I look at music as well. .

This attitude is totally wrong, as I’m just beginning to learn. A few months ago I was talking to an academic from Oxford University. A group of us were having dinner and the wine was beginning to flow, and she suddenly engaged me in a rather intense, urgent conversation: ‘We’re all musicologists because, at school, we were the best at performing. We were great pianists, cellists, flautists… We were musicians. Now look at us. We never perform any more, and it’s almost as if we’re ashamed that we ever did perform. If I were religious I’d say we were throwing a gift back at God.’

Throwing a gift back at God. Maybe it was partly the wine talking but she was, of course, right. It’s all too easy to fall into the ivory tower mentality, trying to disown the very thing which other people – non-academic people – appreciate about our research, in the guise of maintaining ‘rigour’ or ‘seriousness’, and it’s not only damaging but rather despicable as well. We owe it to ourselves and society, in these days of ‘impact’, accountability, the REF, not to alienate ourselves from what really matters to most people about what we do: in other words, performance.

Recreating historical performance styles and contexts has two huge benefits. One is obvious: it offers researchers who also perform, and who collaborate with performers, a source of information that they would otherwise lack. It’s a slightly less extreme form of experimental archaeology. So you want to find out how sixteenth-century performances worked? Try it and see. But one far more important benefit that performance offers to the music historian is that it opens doors to public engagement that would otherwise not exist. Those people (normally they’re friends of our grandmothers!) who always want to know what instrument we play, or whose nephews play the clarinet, haven’t just got the wrong end of the stick; they’re doing us a favour. Without realising it, they’re showing us how to engage them in our research: they might be interested in the history which we love, or the obscure composer we’ve just unearthed, but for them to feel comfortable enough to engage we have to start with a format that they already know – a performance. The best public engagement events I’ve been to have involved performance. One got the whole crowd singing from sixteenth-century manuscripts, even those who claimed they couldn’t sing. At another, a fantastic professional choir sang newly reconstructed music from a replica lectern, in a church, like real medieval choral singers did. Only a few weeks ago I and a group of Newcastle undergraduates borrowed that same lectern to perform music by Robert Johnson, newly edited and reconstructed: one very knowledgeable lady said she was ‘totally transported’ by the effect created in that combination of sight and sound. Live performance gets people talking and asking questions in a way that the ‘stand and deliver’ approach just can’t achieve.

Musicologists are lucky. All the ingredients for great engagement and fantastic research impact are there for the taking. We just need to come down off our pedestals, listen to our instincts, and realise that – as always – grandma does know best.

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2 Responses to Down from the pedestal: reflections on research and performance

  1. Roz Southey says:

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with this. Yes, performance is what most people relate to. Yes, it is, of course, important. But as a music historian myself, I don’t regard myself as finding out about performance – I’m finding out about people. Who were the musicians? Why were they musicians? How did people react to musical performances? What meaning did music have for them? I adore music, I love listening to it, I enjoy the sort of events you mention. But first and foremost I want to know about people. I suspect that makes me much more a historian than a musician – and I’m fine with that.

    Though of course, there’s room for plenty of other interpretations and attitudes!


    • daisymgibbs says:

      Thanks for your comment! Yes, of course you’re right, and I think lots of music historians, myself included, would agree that we’re trying to find out about the past, and the people that made it – not just about performance per se. What I’m arguing here is that when we’ve found out all that, if we want to engage the public with it, performance is the best medium to use to draw them in. I don’t think we need necessarily tailor our research to what’s going to be popular (though there’s definitely room for debate about that!) but I do believe we’re all responsible for finding accessible ways to propagate our findings. What do you think?


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