Postcards from a PhD
I woke up this morning feeling refreshed after a night in my own bed, without being troubled, as I was for the last three nights, by the 6.30 alarm call of shrieking Travelodge pipes. It was not the variety of experimental noise I had in mind when I booked to attend the inaugural Alternative Histories of Electronic Music conference. Staged as part of the AHRC funded project on Hugh Davies: Electronic Music Innovator, collaboratively led by Leeds University’s James Mooney and Tim Boon from the Science Museum, the conference was conceived as a one-off event. However, its tangible value in applying new approaches to how we advance the study of electronic music in a cultural and historical context must surely be a case for its continuation in future years.
My first conference as a student, I chose to dip-in and out somewhat, slightly overwhelmed by the sheer variety of topics on discussion, including a particularly large range of international perspectives. The highlight of the first day for me was, unsurprisingly, Christopher Haworth’s talk “The Hauntological Turn: Genealogy, History Making and ‘the Contemporary’ in Electronic Music”. More than anything it was encouraging to hear hauntological music, the topic of the first half of his session, being discussed in an academic context. It was also reassuring that whilst Haworth’s research interest overlaps with my own there is significant divergence. I found it particularly interesting to hear how he articulated discussion about temporality in music, as finding ‘the right words’ when talking about hauntology can be somewhat challenging. He described the mixture of new and reissue material by particular labels as ‘time casual’, for example, and used the terms ‘presentness’ and ‘nowtime’ within his analysis. The second half of his talk focusing on the Nurse With Wound list was also very interesting, relating back to male displays of connoisseurship, something that relates to a lot of electronic music, not least hauntology itself.
Other ideas that I took away to process from the first day related to ‘the canon’: how it’s defined, how availability and choice of sources make up the history of electronic music, whether it actually discourages creativity due to its overbearing presence in academic culture, and the way it encourages linear progress narratives.
AHEM was to its credit impeccably curated, with sessions themed to get the most out of topics. Day 2 was then, for me, very much about Instruments and DIY approaches, discussions more relevant to my art-practice interests than my academic ones. Settimio Fiorenzo Palermo presented a particularly interesting queer interpretation of the use of non-conventional instrumentality in his talk “Serendipitous and Subversive: a Critical Ontology of Hugh Davies’s Found Instruments”, suggesting that the use of objects without a historical musical identity, e.g. egg slicers, constituted a process of othering from the established musical community. Serendipity also played a part in Andi Otto’s talk on cataloguing the STEIM archive, as well as the difficulty of establishing the narrative of a collective that never sought to record its history or to preserve for posterity. Paul Hession’s discussion of Tony Oxley’s work with electronics presented similar dilemmas; Oxley’s organically developed and very functional set-up, built from racking and domestic implements, was all but destroyed by an overzealous border control official, effectively bringing an end to his work in this area, for psychological as much as practical reasons. A really interesting run of talks.
The keynote for the day was provided by Sarah Angliss and was one of the main reasons I signed up to attend. I was grateful all the talks were being filmed as I didn’t even attempt to take notes. Ostensibly about parallels between intense sonic experiences in the electric and pre-electric eras, the talk was peppered with personal anecdotes from her eclectic career as well her experiences as listener. The talk touched on so many interesting topics; the idea of the sublime within music, the iconic nature of some instruments, like the Theremin, giving them the ability to “punch above their weight”, male analogue synth culture (including an extremely funny reading from the Muff Wiggler forum), the thrilling aspects of volume, I could go on. I’m really looking forward to going back to this one at a later date.
I skipped the morning sessions on day three in favour of brunch after dreaming about pancakes. I also took the opportunity to visit Skoob Books which promised over 50,000 un-catalogued secondhand books to rummage through. Thoroughly recommended: would rummage again.
I arrived back at the Science Museum Dana Research Centre, where the conference was held, in time for the afternoon sessions linked by their focus on discourses, narratives and canon formation. All fascinating; highlights for me, for entirely different reasons, were Frances Morgan on “The problem with pioneers: how media narratives of exceptional women distort the history of female involvement in electronic music” and Daniel Wilson’s “Failed histories of electronic music”. Morgan’s talk was a really strong critique of the idea that we should be content with female representations in electronic music just because women are represented, particularly looking at the visual fetishisation of women using vintage equipment, the commodification of their output in the reissue market, and exploring the basic idea of why women must be visible in order to be recognised. It was one of the most thought provoking talks of the conference and the one I attended which gave rise to the most post-talk debate. It made me aware of the lack of panel discussions as part of the programme, which I think would have really added something to the conference. Following on from Morgan was Daniel Wilson’s hilarious trawl through some of the oddities of the history of electronic music. Pitched in a somewhat tongue in cheek way as ‘anti-academic’, Wilson’s hands-on approach to research had unearthed some eccentric characters and inventive contraptions that never quite made it into the history books. All very lighthearted, but a timely reminder that electronic music exists outside of the academy and the avant-garde.
I don’t know where to begin in trying to summarise Georgina Born’s keynote speech to close the conference. I scribbled furiously throughout and will probably need to go back to the live recording a few times to get everything out of it with a view to blogging on it in more depth later. Taking its inspiration from her 2015 article “Making Time: Temporality, History, and the Cultural Object”, Born began by outlining why new approaches to music history are needed and it was an uncompromising critique. She was blunt in asserting musicology can be at fault for being unconscious of its own frameworks, that the dominance of humanist models of history have created distortion, that previous generations have produced reductive and overly canonical histories. Her answer to this: more histories. History should, Born argued, be conceived of as being produced by multiple intersecting temporalities; musical, technological, natural, cultural, social, economic… that each object or event produces pasts. I was enrapt. My research draws heavily on such ideas, so Born’s speech was somewhat of a clarion call for me, validating ideas I have been developing and providing inspiration for avenues to explore. In the space of an hour she effectively doubled my reading list. It was fortunate that, despite being my first such event, I had picked up enough conference etiquette not to attempt to start a Mexican wave as we applauded the closing of the symposium.