On the 27th and 28th of April, the Society for Musical Analysis held its annual Theory and Graduate Student (TAGS) Conference. I had received my presentation acceptance e-mail weeks prior to this date and already made arrangements to attend this event. Like a few other presenters, the trip to London proved exhausting. In the height of Royal Wedding buzz, the entire world seemed to be making its way to Britain’s capital. So with an air of excitement throughout the entire city, attendees of the TAGS Conference congregated at the Institute for Musical Research for graduate students from all over the world to present their research. Overall, the research over the course of two days encompassed diverse presentations addressing musical theory, cultural theory, and psychoanalysis.
Upon arriving at Senate House on the University of London’s campus, most presenters trickled in to the two rooms designated for the conference. Kenneth Smith, Vice President and Events Officer for the Society, began the conference by thanking everyone in attendance and wishing us all a warm welcome. Kenneth’s cheerful opening seemed to do the trick: nerves subsided as the first presenters were invited to deliver their papers.
Research from the opening panel on Post-tonal analysis was presented to the attendees, and was the only panel being held at that specific time slot. This single panel allowed for audience members to get a feel for the upcoming presentations. Presenters Helen C. Thomas, Olga Sologub, and Ju-Sun Kim set the tone for the conference by initiating contemplation and discussions based on the analysis of three specific pieces of music. These three presentations were well delivered and engaged the audience through an in-depth discussion of music theory and analysis. Attendees then proceeded to two different panels after discussion and a short break.
My own presentation was scheduled for the second time slot. I was privileged to speak alongside Mei-fen Hsin, who discussed popular Taiwanese campus music and analyzed the social implications of westernized popular music on non-western societies – again, illustrating the vast topics of research at the TAGS conference. As a Masters candidate, and a first-time presenter, it certainly felt comforting to have fellow panel presenters who share similar interests and research topics. Although nerves and the constant need for water shook my presentation a bit, the audience was pleasant and receptive, and the discussions throughout this whole session certainly gave me new ideas for my research, as I am sure it did for others.
After a short coffee break, all attendees congregated together again in the larger of the two rooms for Arnold Whittall’s keynote address. Professor Whittall rebutted Richard Taruskin assertions about the disciplinary insularity of music analysis and its supposed knack for impracticality, by demonstrating many cases of its usefulness, for example in its engagement with live composers and new compositions. Whittall further suggested that many musicologists use musical theory unreflectively, as a set of tools inherited from their training as musicians, which of course limits their analytical capacity and gives the false impression that the problem is with the discipline itself. I was interested in the way these arguments touched on Naomi Cumming’s thoughts, on which my own ethnographic research is based (see Cumming, The Sonic Self: Music Subjectivity and Signification, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000). Cumming addresses analysis as a subjective process that is sharpened through constant recognition of analytical tools prescribed at the educational level (pp. 319-20). New Musicology too is not unanimous in rejecting music analysis per se: Georgina Born, for example, maintains that both aural and formal written analysis remains a necessary and quite essential interpretative part of cultural studies in music. In other words, music analysis that remains self-critical and in step with scholarly developments is not likely to disappear or become irrelevant.
What better way to end a full day of presentations and discussions, but with food, drink, and more intense discussions? Dinner at ASK commenced shortly after the first keynote address. Much discussion on the day’s events ensued over dinner, as many of the presenters socialized, leading to a restful night for the next day of research presentations.
The first session of the second conference day posed a hard choice between two parallel sessions that, to me, were equally intriguing. After some deliberation, I finally chose to sit in on the Poststructural Analysis panel (and was not disappointed), yet I was also able to discuss the other session’s topics with those I had met at dinner the previous night. At the session I attended, Matthew Mendez, Chris Fuller, and Mark Bishop delved into analytical techniques that seemed to span beyond mere musical theory. Each speaker provided different psychoanalytical perspectives on music and composers, and the lively discussions following each paper, made this session very thought-provoking indeed.
After another short break, the final round of parallel sessions commenced. In this case my choice of panel was predetermined, as I chaired it (regrettably I cannot give here an account of the sessions I have missed). Again, the papers presented original and fresh research and were delivered in a way that thoroughly engaged the audience. Indioney Rodiguez’s concepts on the ‘Rhythmic Idea’ explained much of the theoretical framework for his doctoral thesis. I am personally looking forward to learning more of Rodiguez’s theories, as well as how he uses them in context. Jacob Thompson-Bell subsequently presented research based on his own composition. Through his explanation, audience members were allowed to see into the compositional process from a firsthand account, and witness traditional analysis combined with a thoughtful concentration on how a composer writes in stages. I felt honored to have been a part of this panel, and will look for more of Rodiguez and Thompson-Bell’s work in the future.
Conference attendees were invited to a small lunch outside prior to the final presentation of the day. Again, many discussions from the previous two panels fed into the lunch period. After filling both our bellies and our minds, all members quickly moved into the larger conference room for the final keynote address.
Michiel Schuijer, the second keynote speaker, spoke about qualifiers used to divide occupations in music. He presented specific factors of musical education including: sight-singing triplets over two beats, ensemble intonation training in Brahms’s Op. 115, lecture on learning methods, and an analysis assignment of a Bach fugue. These factors were integrated within four perspectives: equipment, commitment, space, and ownership. Through his analysis, Schuijer showed how the above factors related differently and with varying degrees of importance to different musical occupations, determining the way undergraduate and even graduate students conceptualized music and understood and envisioned their own future occupations.
The final keynote address fed into the roundtable discussion that ended the conference. Led by Bill Drabkin, the roundtable highlighted aspects of both keynote addresses, but especially concentrated on the education of musicians during their college years, and how specific classes would aid or hinder these music students in the future. Attendees were regularly invited to share their own experiences as music students. The many responses testified to the enduring diversity of undergraduate education and training worldwide, despite homogenizing trends. Indeed, the great variety of disciplines and analytical approaches presented at TAGS made that point abundantly clear.
Overall, I felt the conference went rather well and, as naïve as it may sound, I am extremely glad it was my first presenting and chairing experience, because it brought so well together research from musical analysts, theorists, composers, musicologists, and ethnomusicologists. It challenged the very idea of music analysis as a single discipline and amplified my desire to seek out new ways of interpreting music in my research.
University of Tennessee Knoxville