Oxford Today recently visited the music faculty to speak with its new breed of musical innovators. The feature in the Michaelmas Term print issue (Vol. 26: 1, p45-7) only receives its full expression here, on Oxford Today’s website, where we offer fuller versions of each of eleven interviews, and links that will take you off to recordings and films.
One of the judges of the recent Oxford Today music composition competition noted that while entries were uniformly of a high quality, they adhered to a very narrow range of styles. Most compositions were from either a choral tradition for which Oxford is famous, or high modernism of the Benjamin Britten variety. Traditional musicology still thrives at Oxford, of course, but what is taught to the typical undergraduate has changed beyond all recognition.
In particular, interdisciplinary study means music's relationship with anthropology (ethnomusicology), psychology, sociology, geography, history and media. Technology has crashed all over it like a wave.
Martyn Harry is a contemporary classical composer and the head of the graduate programme at the music faculty. His acclaimed works include Restraint for Handcuffed Pianist and Fantasy Unbuttoned, as well as numerous works for children. He oversees M@SH (Music at St Hilda’s – a performing group.)
We’re trying to move on and combine the best of traditional Oxford with new opportunities and possibilities that I think Oxbridge has always had. Students have a bit more autonomy and resources here and that, combined with various lecturers here who are doing new and interesting, imaginative things, we are getting a very interesting blend of the old and the new.
I came here with composition in mind and to bring a new approach whereby we perform a lot of music and a lot of music is studied in the creation of stuff between students. And we even put on operas where, as part of the course, we create a children’s opera and we go into schools, do workshops with school-kids and pieces of music that have participatory elements for children. That’s a very big difference from the way new music is usually studied at university.
The study of music has changed and a lot of essays are now written on popular music, for instance, and issues to do with people’s identity and how they are expressing themselves. There are completely different theoretical slants on things that maybe 20 or 30 years ago would have just been notes on paper, to be discussed that way. New music has changed. It’s become less doctrinaire. I think we’re just reflecting the fact that contemporary music is much more diverse. It’s individualistic.
At St Hilda’s there’s the JDP, which was founded in the mid-90s, and it just seemed an amazing venue, in this quiet, former woman’s college, to do really mad and crazy things. It just felt like a tremendous opportunity to do something really radical, really exciting. M@SH is very much the product of lots of people’s ideas, and also the fact that Oxford is a very exciting town because you really do find almost anything you’re looking for here, whether good or bad. I find that people in their early 20s are hoovering up stunning things. It’s one the most exciting things of my job: I get to hear about all sorts of things I would never on my own even think about.
There is a general feeling of tolerance here, but also curiosity. I think curiosity is the most important thing that a university should encourage. Our main hope is that people who have experienced what they have experienced here will be more generous, creative, curious and imaginative.
Noel Lobley is an ethnomusicologist working full time at the Pitt Rivers Museum, the home of Oxford University’s anthropological and archaeological collection, including hundreds of musical instruments from across the world.
I work as an ethnomusicologist at the Pitt Rivers Museum, developing ways for the music and sound collections to be experienced by new audiences. Applying approaches from anthropology, sound studies, and DJ-ing, I develop new uses for field recordings and museum objects, especially through public events in gallery spaces, online, and among the communities who have been recorded.
Ethnomusicology, the social and cultural study of all musical processes, is naturally interdisciplinary, and I collaborate with composers, sound artists and choreographers to design practical sound curating. I try to ensure that unique collections of ethnographic recordings and other museum sound objects, collected over more than 100 years from places as diverse as Vanuatu, school playgrounds across Europe, and rainforests in the Central African Republic, are heard and experienced by as many people as possible. Within the past year we have seen and heard sound artists crafting live compositions from decaying sounds and errors found in wax cylinders, Bayaka recordings streamed in Oxford and heard back in the Central African Republic, and pigeons describing their flight in sound using recycled film pot whistles.
While researching at the International Library of African Music in the Eastern Cape of South Africa - where local communities do not come for headphone research appointments - and trying to find ways to connect contemporary Xhosa musicians with their recorded heritage, I found that sound archives come alive when they are embedded in local communities. Here, the best ways to get recordings heard included giving them to artists, DJ-ing at street forums, in bars and people’s yards, and hiring donkey carts loaded with musicians who sang archival songs as they travelled around the townships.
In November 2012, our composer in residence Nathaniel Mann and I curated a sound galleries evening, transforming the Pitt Rivers Museum into a rainforest soundscape for visitors to explore by torchlight. We streamed the event - attended by thousands of people – enabling it to be watched live back in the Central African Republic. Bayaka musicians whose music was being streamed had walked for an hour through the rainforest to access the nearest satellite phone connection.
Video of sound galleries evening:
Bayaka earth bow
Bayaka men singing and playing geedal
South Pacific Pop Music
Jason Stanyek was appointed to the music faculty in 2012 and taught the mandatory course on global hip hop for the first time last Michaelmas. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and spent six years as Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at NYU.
I think that the perception of the music faculty here is that by virtue of its eliteness and its longevity, it must be stuffy, it must be behind the times. And that’s just not the case. I think, pound for pound, there’s more cutting edge stuff going on here than anywhere else I’ve been.
I think it’s important for students to learn about contemporary music and hip hop is a major global musical form. I think it’s incumbent upon us as professors at an elite university, an elite research university, to give students the requisite tools with which they can deal with the world as it exists in front of them at this moment, and hip hop is everywhere. I think those tools, those analytical tools, theoretical tools, methodological tools, that come along with studying something like hip hop will serve the students well. What is important is opening their eyes to the things that are most proximate to them. And I think there’s no way to get around the fact that hip hop is a ubiquitous musical form in the 21st century.
When I first taught it at UCSD, one of my colleagues questioned whether we should be teaching hip hop because, as she said, ‘It’s not music.’ How could anybody argue that? That it’s not music. You could argue that you don’t find it pleasing, and you’re not going to put it on. You could argue about its value or whatever. But you can’t really argue that it’s not music.
Hip hop is not radical at all. You are dealing with a repertoire of pieces, works; you’re dealing with rhythm, melody; you’re dealing with musical borrowing. Rappers and the hip hop producers didn’t invent borrowing, they didn’t invent inter-textuality. You could study the whole history of music as being the history of borrowing. The mere teaching of hip hop in a way reinforces the traditional boundaries between the disciplines. And it reinforces some of the standard notions of what the study of music should be. It’s music oriented: there are songs, with texts, and you can deal with them formally. You can think about instrumentation. You can think about the placement of these pieces in a larger economic framework, in a larger social framework. You don’t need hip hop to do that, it’s kind of what most music teaching is.
It’s more overt in hip hop, but all of those things matter to all musical forms. All musical forms involve fashion and involve media. Just think about the history of opera. Could you deal with the history of opera without thinking about the history of fashion?
"Vida Loka" -- Racionais MCs (Brazil)
Trailer for documentary "Hip-Hop Revolution" (South Africa), Directed by Weaam Williams
"Curious" -- Miss Monday (Japan)
Eric Clarke is Heather Professor of Music. He has researched and written extensively on the psychology of music and has supervised doctoral students writing theses on subjects as diverse as reductional theories of atonal music, music and consciousness and music and parapsychology.
Student projects have changed both for reasons of cultural attitude, which have shifted, but also because there have been quite significant changes in technological capacity. Students can now not only be concerned with looking at scores, ie., looking at music on paper, but also actually looking at musical sound using digital signal processing, usually on their own laptops. So a person can look at the wave forms for Frank Sinatra singing a song rather than transcribing it onto paper and talking only about notes and rhythms.
The faculty is much more technologically engaged than it would have been until fairly recently. We have a very good and powerful music studio, we have a studio manager who has a very significant background in popular music as well as classical music, a person who has worked as a producer with top pop musicians, who knows that kind of world, and a studio that is used both as a compositional resource and also as a way for students to use those same resources for more analytical purposes.
Musicology over the last 25, perhaps a bit longer, years has become a very much more interdisciplinary subject than it used to be. It has become much more open to sociological and psychological questions. How does music function in all kinds of social circumstances, both in different cultures but also in our own culture? In what way is music used as a form of manipulation? In what way is it used as a way or confirming or establishing people’s identities? In what way is it used as a method of persuasion in advertising, in jingles? It reflects the fact that we are increasingly aware of how much music pervades our lives.
The area of the psychology of music is new to Oxford. I was the first person to be appointed in that specific area. From five years ago, students have had the option to study courses in the perception of music; the psychology of musical performance; I’m teaching a course on music and consciousness this coming year. That is a significant change for Oxford and represents the way in which psychology, and people’s psychological responses to music, have become quite a powerful part of musicology.
Until recently, Tom Hodgson was Stipendiary Lecturer in Music at Magdalen, whose work has focused primarily on the music of the Muslim communities in Bradford and Pakistan. As well as moving to a new post at King’s College, London, He recently also gave a tutorial to second years on the internet phenomenon Gangnam Style.
One of the tenets of ethnomusicology is that you’ve got to understand these musical cultures from inside. What I tried to look at [in research in both Bradford and Pakistan] was how spaces of music-making map onto ethnic urban areas. Music is used by Pakistanis in places like Bradford as a way of understanding their experience of living in an incredibly diverse city.
More broadly it poses questions like what it means to migrate to Britain, what it means to be born in Britain and ultimately what it means to be British. It’s looking at how music might be a way to reframe a debate about nationalism, a debate about migration, immigration and how a re-imagined sense of Britishness might take into account some of these broader transnational connections and flows of culture.
Perhaps looking at things like music and art is a slightly more accessible way to discuss diversity in the UK. There’s a huge diversity of ethnicities and faiths that live in Britain and there’s so much great music going on. It’s a way that people can access culture, think about culture and mix culture. It’s all going on; it’s right on the doorstep and people don’t know much about it.
Any time you play music, you’re always drawing upon influences from here and there and elsewhere. It’s what music is about. Music has never been a homogenous mono-cultural thing. It’s always been influenced by diversity and other cultural factors.
I gave a tutorial on Gangnam Style, this internet phenomenon that has had a billion views on YouTube. I got a mild reprimand from my supervisor/boss, but the students loved it. It was something they could identify with, could engage with. They wrote amazing essays exploring the process of globalisation, technology. It’s an important thing for places like Oxford to do because whether or not one thinks highly of the music—and Gangnam Style isn’t exactly the most dynamic music—the fact that a billion people have seen it on YouTube means we have to take it seriously. You’ve got to think about it critically, how that happened.
It’s quite surprising really that people still find it so difficult to take popular music seriously.
Chris Garrard is finishing a doctorate in composition, focusing on the Ukranian composer Valentyn Sylvestrov. He composes opera, is involved with M@SH and has experimented with using music in social activism. He has also presented mobile musical pieces through iPhones and iPads.
Training in music, unlike other areas, develops a certain kind of thinking process, a certain kind of creative approach. It means you have a certain kind of response to situations; your default setting is to find a creative solution to a problem.
It’s something I’m still exploring but I’m involved with doing social activism around climate change and big oil. We did a concert—it’s one of our favourite concerts—called “People, Place and Protest”, bringing together videos, music, different ideas. My piece was a sort of sound installation, called “Land Grab” that delivered through iPhones, iPads, smart-phones. People had different tracks, but those tracks together formed a kind of detailed sound-scape. And because they’re so personal, people walked around and can hold up someone’s voice right next to you, which gets into someone’s personal space. And then a phone on the other side will shout back across. It was a much more understated, lo-fi way of doing electronic music, or doing a sound-scape.
I’m interested in taking music into the public space, whether it’s like a flash-mob or presenting it maybe a bit more like a performance art. Say, for example, people go stand with a bunch of placards outside BP headquarters, you’ll get a certain type of response. But say we turned up with a string quartet and went into their entrance area, it’s slightly unorthodox and it’s away from the normal adversarial ‘them against us’ thing. Then you might provoke a different quality of debate.
Because Oxford is so culturally rich, there will be something unusually musical happening every week, whether it’s within the university or outside of it, so it’s a good place to feed the brain. For us it’s about the diversity of stuff and with our concerts we say, ‘Come along. You might dislike some of this and you might discover something you really like. Just come along and try.’ There were some people who said, ‘I absolutely loved that, but I’m not entirely sure what happened. There was something quite awe-inspiring but I didn’t quite know how to orientate myself.’ And for me that’s not a bad thing.
Extracts from The Handmaid's Tale, composed by Chris Garrard, performed with a cast of second year music students taking part in the Opera and Music Theatre course.
Dan Jeffries is a composer of both acoustic classical and electrocoustic music, and is one of the organisers of OxLork, the Oxford Laptop Orchestra.
Essentially OxLork is a group of performers, like a normal orchestra, but they’re using laptops instead of instruments. But the difference we hope is evident is that instead of just playing music on that laptop like a DJ, where you press a button, you’re using the laptop in a more tactile way, like an instrument. You connect things to it, like a Wii remote, or very tactile controls, so you’re really playing an instrument that has expression.
Our mission statement is essentially to create engaging, interesting electronic music. The laptop orchestra is very performance orientated; its purpose is to write music that is to be performed in interesting ways, that will make people literally enjoy the form. It’s a reaction against a lot of experimental music that can be very, very removed. Over the last 20 years, it’s got to the point that because almost anything is possible, it means that it can be quite alienating. I have the belief that experimental can still be accessible and interesting. Laptop orchestras are, in a way, a reaction to this tradition of: you turn up to a gig of electronic music and there’s literally a slightly nerdy guy sitting behind a laptop who hits play and looks like he’s just checking Facebook or something, and there’s music coming out of a speaker. There’s so many more possibilities for a performance that can make it better for an audience member, and yourself as a performer.
The electronic side [of music at Oxford] has really grown. When I got here, things were really starting to get going, but with the laptop orchestra, with the new music technology officer Dan Hulme coming in, it has just risen the profile of electronic music in the faculty, which means that first years coming in and second year undergraduates think: ‘Ah, I’m at Oxford and that’s acceptable. I can do that, that’s really interesting, I really enjoy that.’
I tutor a few undergraduates who, I think, three years ago would never have even contemplated writing electro-acoustic compositions. That’s really, really exciting.
Bells and Whistles, coded by Dan Trueman and composed by Michael Early. Performed by OxLork. (Dan Jeffries, second from right)
Electric Fuzz by one of our founders, coded, composed and performed by Nick DiBerardino, one of OxLork's founders.
Explanation of how OxLork would play 24 Axes by Dan Iglesia:
Excerpt of BBC Radio performance of piece named 900, written for a March 2013 concert. Features three performers on the instrument 'Beepsh' and two playing iPad synthesisers.
Adam Harper, a third year PhD student based at Wadham, is the author of Infinite Music – Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making. He is currently researching the aesthetics of “lo-fi” in popular music, and also teaches a course called “Musical Thought and Scholarship”.
I’m in a really odd position because I’m studying, really, bad music. But ‘bad’ in quotes because it’s been constructed as bad by tastes. What I’m looking at is the way people seem to go after this bad music very deliberately because they’re so sick of the commercial mainstream. This is really the story of the very beginning of indie music, and people looking for stuff that sounds as different as possible to Hall and Oates and Phil Collins and the very top of the charts. This is about ‘authenticity’, which is a very big topic in popular music studies.
What I’m doing is a bizarre cross between ethnomusicology and a sort of historical archiving of stuff that hasn’t been touched before. Much like musicologists did 50 years ago, I’m going into the archives and finding what they say and writing the history.
I am studying “bad” music. To a Beethoven scholar of 50 years ago, this would be insane. But the fact is, I’m not looking at it because it’s so great and I’m looking to bring it to people’s attention. I’m looking at the way in which people describe music and the way in which they use it to define themselves, to paint pictures of social relations. Really it’s a study of people rather than works themselves. And I think that’s a big shift in music over the past 50 years.
People often prefer a kind of safe, traditional, culturally accepted idea of what constitutes music and for them it’s about appreciating great, dead classical composers. They seem to expect nothing more than a greater, deeper understanding of how glorious the past was and how glorious the works of the past was. And instead they get this complicated mind-expanding idea of history, who has been written out of history, and what might be important about music other than the notes on the page. I think what should happen to people at university is that their minds get completely blown open. It doesn’t have to be Beethoven to be important. Post-graduate music can go to infinity and beyond at this point.
'They Told Me About You' by Jandek (1978)
Elizabeth Eva Leach
Elizabeth Eva Leach’s principal focus is the music and poetry of the 14th century, but she is also the faculty’s leading exponent of electronic media as a means of disseminating musicological ideas. She interacts with people interested in medieval music across the world via her Twitter account and blog, on which she also aggregates open access copies of her publications, and lists of digitised musical manuscripts for use in teaching and research.
Medieval studies as a whole, not just medieval musicology, have taken on board critical fashions and have started to use new technologies, particularly digital technologies. It is particularly useful for the things I do. When I did my doctorate [on the composer Guillaume de Machaut], his big six manuscripts are in a library in Paris, which was very scary to go to. Now all of those manuscripts are available in very good colour digital images online and I can just surf between one manuscript and another. I can turn the pages. I can suddenly have access to medieval visual and musical culture in a way that I didn’t have before.
[Previously] the librarians were guarding not only the manuscripts but similarly the knowledge about those manuscripts, how to read this arcane form of notation. I developed some online notation learning tutorials, for people who wanted to learn how to read 14th century musical notation. I had online quizzes with multiple choice answers and people could check that they’ve done it properly. It has been used quite a lot in university settings but I’ve had emails from people who are sackbut players from the Midwest who have said: ‘I totally love this. I had no idea that it was that easy to do.’
It used to be a very time-consuming thing to be a medievalist and the advances you could make would be very small, and I think it put off a lot of people. This idea that libraries are great because you stumble across stuff, whereas the internet is rubbish, I see it totally the other way round. The internet search functions enable you to stumble in a not-completely-directive way, but nevertheless in a way that’s productive. It just gives you much more access to more things. I can look at the Machaut sources that are in Cambridge, Bern, there’s lots of places. I can look at stuff from lots of different centres just sitting at my desk.
Twitter is an absolutely brilliant way of networking within an particular interest that you might have. It’s a really good way of disseminating information.
Guillaume de Machaut - "Quant en moy"
Guillaume de Machaut - "Je vivroie liement/Liement me deport"
Guillaume de Machaut - "Dame à vous"
Chris Ferebee is a composer and folk music obsessive, who one of the principal organisers of M@SH. He is working with Alistair Anderson and Andrew Areci on the first release on the M@SH record label.
Effectively, what I’m doing is a sort of synthesis between folk music, particularly English traditional music, and classical music, in terms of structure. I have various influences. Vaughan Williams is the guy that I go to on a regular basis, but I also listen to a lot of Stravinsky and at the same time Martin Carthy. I’ve got a pretty weird influx from all different directions on a pretty regular basis.
The interesting thing about M@SH in general is that you have this massive range of influences from everywhere and I think the thing that really distinguishes M@SH from other things is that there are no stylistic boundaries. Martyn [Harry] is happy to listen to any ideas that we have. He’s very exacting and he’s a very, very good teacher and he expects the absolute best from us. We all strive to give it to him. But the interesting thing is that we’re doing all kinds of weird stuff. It’s not normal.
I don’t think what any of us do could exist anywhere else other than M@SH. That umbrella really helps us all to move forward. And I don’t know of any other place that would allow us to do that. We follow our own beat, as it were.
We do a new music marathon every year and then we curate a number of concerts through M@SH. One thing leads to another and you meet loads of people that you get on with who are all wonderful musicians and you end up collaborating on other things. The record that we’re currently doing spawned from all of that, from just meeting other people. We got on very well, we enjoyed playing with each other and just said, ‘Let’s keep on going.’
We’re planning on doing a recording with an amazing, legendary English concertina player named Alistair Anderson, and a viola da gamba player named Andrew Arceci, and myself. The three of us are going to write and collaborate on a record of folk classical and early music. This will be the first CD on the M@SH record label.
Chris Ferebee - Exmoor Set
A short set of two tunes from the song cycle Eclogues by composer Chris Ferebee, featuring Alistair Anderson on concertina and Rebecca Tay - Voice, Tal Katsir - Voice, Andrew Arceci - Bass, Athena Corcoran-Tadd - Fiddle, Chris Garrard - Piano, Chris Ferebee - Plucked Strings. Performed at the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building at St Hilda's College, Oxford on 9 March 2012.
Jonathan Hicks’s DPhil in music focused on the French pianist and composer Erik Satie, placing Satie's work in the context of Parisian urban geography at the turn of the twentieth century. His current project looks at the performance and depiction of street music in nineteenth-century Paris and London. Previously Jonathan has written about the English experimentalist Cornelius Cardew and the interaction between elite and popular cultures.
For the PhD I ended up settling on Erik Satie because he’s someone who is often talked about as blurring the purported divide [between elite and popular culture]. He worked in cafes as a pianist, as well as having music performed in very conventional venues. The way people move around the city is very flexible and very subjective and poses lots of other types of questions. Street music was a way of going whole hog onto public urban spaces and finding a way to talk about them.
The way we talk about music has always been conditioned by the way we talk about particular places. We’ve always talked about music in relation to geography, so it makes sense to turn the spotlight onto those cultural geographical constructions.
Part of my project is looking at street musicians themselves, but another part is how are they represented. How do they appear in operas? How do they appear in novels? How do people talk about music and the street?
Back in the 1980s, there was a very traditional approach. You looked at scores, you looked at notes on the page and you talk about composers. And then there was a big critique through the 80s, just like there was in humanities, where people said, ‘There’s more people involved than the authors. There’s the public, there are listeners, critics, producers. All these people are really important so why don’t we talk about them too? Why only talk about what’s on the page?’ Music is experienced live and that’s what matters to people.
Musicology is much more contextually minded. It’s much more about relating different parts of musical culture, musical practice and musical experience to other bits of history, rather than merely describing particular bits of music. When students come along and they’re doing their undergraduate dissertations, I tend to say to them: ‘You either need to find something new to talk about, or you find a new way to talk about something you know about.’
Erik Satie/René Clair: Entr'Acte (1924)
Howard Swains is a feature writer whose work has appeared in The Sunday Times Magazine, The Times, The Guardian, The Independent and Wired and on CNN.com. He is based in London.