The drawing together of the Seventh International MSN conference and LancMAC was a bold and highly successful stroke that found an appropriate venue in the impressive new contemporary arts building at Lancaster University. The conference was attended by over 150 delegates from 20 countries. The scale of the conference was exceptional in that the seven parallel periods were all comprised of five themed sessions. This gave an enormous amount of choice and surely allowed most delegates to find a route through these well-chaired sessions that was informative and relevant to issues in their own research. I consider two highlights of my own route below; but first, the plenary sessions.

The first of five plenary sessions was a particularly ambitious session in its concern to shed light on the ‘uneven temporalities of the art of the present’. Its apparent aim was to provide a kind of metadiscursive insight into some of the more difficult questions confronting music scholars, but two last-minute cancellations meant the session faltered a little in terms of coherence. Nevertheless, the convenor of the session (Huw Hallam, King’s College London) worked hard to compensate for this, drawing together the varying strands of thought concerning temporality offered in each of the papers presented, and delegates did come away with a powerful sense of how much work remains to be done in theorising current musical practice.

Temporality remained a central theme for the second plenary session, simply titled Metaphor. Helen Thomas (Lancaster), who convened the session, gave a fascinating presentation on her own highly systematic work on metaphor, which draws on recent developments in linguistic studies. This concern for a systematic, even scientific, approach was also detectable in Joshua Mailman’s (Columbia) consideration of metaphor and music. His ‘computational-phenomenological theory of dynamic form’ was intriguing, and most striking for me was the paper’s dialectical proposition. Metaphors for time, Mailman asserted, tend to be classable as one of two types: where time moves over us (temporal) or where we move through time (spatial). The synthesis offered concerned the notion of vessel, which encompasses both the temporal-metaphorical approach to time (think of a blood vessel) and the spatial-metaphorical approach to time (think of a seafaring vessel).

Paul Archbold’s (Kingston) presentation on how metaphor can support and stimulate the creative process provided an entertaining and interesting contrast to the theoretical papers preceding it. It was followed by Anthony Gritten’s (Middlesex) sustained critique of the metaphor of problem solving as it relates to the interconnected activities of analysis and performance. The paper benefited from a consideration not only of analytical processes but also of the institutional environment in which so much academic discourse is situated. It concluded by advocating the development of a richer field of metaphorical interchange to adequately engage musical performance.

Christopher Redgate’s (RAM) approach to the role of metaphor in his own work as an oboist was refreshingly relaxed and enhanced by a number of performed examples. The session closed with Michael Spitzer’s (Liverpool) authoritative engagement of metaphor theory with particular reference to his book on the subject and the theoretical work of Paul Ricoeur. Spitzer further developed the idea of temporality by engaging Schubert’s ‘Trockne Blumen’ and thereby offering some insights into his current work on the role of accumulation and the ‘piling up of figurality’ in the generation of musical meaning. The return of score-based analysis in Spitzer’s paper was, I am sure, welcomed by many of the delegates in the audience and brought a satisfying close to an exceptionally successful plenary.

The third plenary consisted of Henry Klumpenhouwer’s (Alberta) authoritative and engaging keynote address. It comprised three disparate parts covering different aspects of Klumpenhouwer’s work. The first concerned, as one might expect, an account of some further work on k-net analysis and offered useful insights into how the comparison of networks connecting monads with networks connecting dyads might allow isographies to be found between the networks of more diverse collections of notes. The second part considered in depth the idea of ‘analytical technologies’ as an external force that impacts upon the analyst. This discussion centred on a forthcoming essay by Klumpenhouwer’s teacher, the celebrated theorist David Lewin. The last and most accessible section of the keynote (described by Klumpenhouwer as a ‘bonbon’) explored the possibilities of applying analytical technologies developed in the study of chant to the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Third Symphony. It sparked an interesting debate on reception and the ontological status of the analysis object.

Klumpenhouwer’s rigorous and detailed approach to music formed an effective contrast with the more fluid and culture-focused keynote given by Philip Bohlman (Chicago). Bohlman’s approach was both interesting and salutary. This was a wonderfully nuanced keynote that drew the thread of aporia/borders through a wide variety of musics and cultures from Hindustani tala to the post-holocaust music of Viktor Ullman. Throughout, Bohlman played with a rich set of ideas that resonated with Derridian thought and did much to remind us of the continued power of post-structuralist ideas in addressing some of the most complex areas of musical study.

The final plenary brought yet another dimension to the conference: all of its papers related to the extraordinary documentary evidence of 2000 VHS tapes (the Altman Koss Collection) held by the University of Sussex, containing footage of jazz in different audio-visual guises. Each paper offered different insights into the intersection of sound, style and image. But perhaps the most successful study was Björn Heile’s (Glasgow) carefully constructed discussion of issues surrounding notions of extemporisation and ‘liveness’ in jazz performance. This paper was also noteworthy for its effective and advantageous use of the bountiful Koss Collection.

The diversity and quality of the plenary sessions was a clear strength of the conference but, for me, the most useful experience came from my route through the parallel sessions. Two papers, in particular, stood out. Neil Newton’s (Manchester) exceptionally well-argued paper drew a distinction between functionality and tonality in order to demonstrate how Schoenberg’s early post-tonal music can be understood as exhibiting the former whilst becoming unclassifiable as the latter. Key to Newton’s argument was the reconceptualisation implied by using the terminology of transformational analysis to address key patterns in tonal music, particularly tritone action. This paper was well-placed to engage both the music analysis and post-1900 strands of the conference. The issue of continuity or discontinuity in Schoenberg’s post-tonal music – whether that music can be said to be genuinely functional within its historical context – seemed to dominate the questions that followed. In a discussion that spilled out after the session, William Drabkin (Southampton) recalled a similar debate taking place twenty years ago, and at that time the idea of a break with functionality had been far more stable and taken for granted. Newton’s paper and all the formal and informal discussion that followed indicate a decline of this master narrative and the opening up of new interpretative possibilities.

A similar move from the specific to the general and a more overtly stated anti-essentialist agenda was found in Julian Horton’s (Dublin) brilliant paper on the post-classical piano concerto. Horton critically engaged the idea of a proper/improper approach to form in post-classical piano concerti. Similar to Heile’s paper on jazz, this paper’s strength lay in its empiricism and hard evidence, in this case extensive data on 81 piano concerti from the period in question. This made for some compelling claims about the theoretical distortions inherited through the traditional insistence on Mozartian paradigms. More importantly the paper convincingly called us to rethink our approach to key aspects of musicological endeavour.

LancMAC/MSN 2011 was an exceptionally well-organised and enjoyable conference. Edward Venn did a fantastic job in planning and overseeing a thoroughly engaging but relaxed environment where, no doubt, many professional and social connections were forged and developed. Enormous thanks are due to him for co-ordinating the event and his colleague Rosemary Fitzgerald for the excellent technical support.