Research seminars are an important aspect of the research environment in music at Newcastle University. They showcase some of the most distinguished and cutting-edge thinking and practice in music. They bring renowned thinkers and practitioners to the University, and the seminars are also a platform for homegrown research dissemination. They are often linked to current research projects or research groups run by us or with which we are affiliated.

This year's seminars take place on Wednesday 4pm to 6pm in Armstrong Building 3.38


Week 1:  Wednesday 4 October 2017
Dr Jonathan Hicks, Newcastle University

‘Ubiquity Organised: on the Geographies of Victorian Mechanical Music’

Mechanisation touched many aspects of Victorian life, including the performance of music. Long before the advent of sound recording, or the contemporaneous introduction of perforated paper rolls for player pianos and the like, the simple pinned barrel was widely used in both public and private settings. In large cities like London, the most prominent instrument to use pinned barrels was the street organ, which was at the centre of a well-documented campaign to regulate the “nuisance” caused by organ grinders, particularly organ grinders who had migrated to English cities in search of work. The Street Music Act of 1864 saw the middle-class opposition to foreign invasion (mechanical, acoustic, and economic) enshrined in law. Yet, throughout the same period, the pinned barrel was also marketed to parish churches across the country – churches that sought to accommodate the growing demand for Sunday hymn-singing without relying on poorly-trained amateur organists or costly hired professionals. While the phenomenon of street nuisance has received widespread attention in cultural history, musicology, sound studies, and English literature, the advent of mechanically-assisted congregational singing has been less remarked outside of the sub-field of ecclesiastically-minded organology. My aim in this paper is to ask how we might bring both sorts of pinned performance together under a rubric of musical ubiquity. Rather than thinking of ubiquity in terms of listening “anywhere, anytime,” as the Gramophone Company slogan would later have it, the double life of the pinned barrel in Victorian London suggests that ubiquity can also be divisive – a means of organising musical life, both socially and spatially.

Week 3: Wednesday 18 October 2017

Dr Kerry McCarthy, Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professor, Newcastle University
‘Tallis New and Old'

The earliest surviving source of Thomas Tallis’s music is a slim handwritten volume of motets for five voices. It is one of the precious few documents of Tallis’s life and work, which form not so much a paper trail as a rather pointillistic scattering of crumbs. This manuscript contains only one piece by Tallis, the monumental Salve intemerata, which must have been new or close to new when it was copied. The rest of the book is devoted to the music of an older generation, stretching back into the fifteenth century in some cases. Salve intemerata enjoyed a long afterlife: as the raw material for a later parody mass by Tallis himself, as a piece of ‘early music’ treasured by Elizabethan and Jacobean anthologists, and as a source of abstract exempla of three-part counterpoint. This study uses a single document—and a single piece of music in it—to explore nearly a century and a half of transformations in English musical repertory, genre, scoring, and style.

Week 5: Wednesday 1 November 2017

Dr Bennett Hogg, Newcastle University, with artist and printmaker Alex Charrington and with artist, curator and writer Prof. Mike Collier, Sunderland University

'Singing the World: A Dawn Chorus at Cheeseburn'

Imitating with the mouth the fluid voices of birds
came long before
men were able to sing together in melody and please the ear. 

Lucretius (94-55BC): De Rerum Natura

This presentation will explore some attempts to explore non-hierarchical interrelationships between the human and non-human world. In doing so, we will suggest that distinctions between culture and nature are considerably less stable than they have traditionally been seen to be, and that these instabilities are fruitful territory for artistic research. 

The raw material/experience standing at the genesis of the project was the dawn chorus at Cheeseburn Grange in Northumberland, the site for which the collaborative exhibition "Singing the World" was made. In this short talk and workshop, we will begin by explaining why, early on in our project, we decided that there was little point trying to imitate birdsong in the music - not only is this artistically uninteresting, but at Cheeseburn you are surrounded by the real thing.

 At the height of the recording of the dawn chorus, it is possible to hear what could be described as a bloom of sound; sixteen ‘songs’ that weave texturally in and out of each other; rhythms and melodies (and, we suggest that there are melodies) merging to form complex and rich sonic patterns.

We will then describe the process we engaged in over several days, refining digital visualisations of individual birdsongs and explain how the idea of using medieval musical notation (neumes) emerged. We will discuss how these notations were transcribed from neumatic into modern musical notation, so that contemporary singers would be able to turn the notes into sound; and why we then realised that the human voices somehow didn't "fit" the printed images we were simultaneously developing. 

 Like the musical notation, these prints were also twice removed from the original birdsong, the neumatic notations derived from the sonograms here being taken into a more abstracted visual language. The further refining and ‘stylisation’ of these images were then taken further into a set of individual screenprints. 

Finally, we will look at the re-composition of what was originally intended to be choral music into a complex and multi-layered piano piece (by co-incidence, the screenprints have seven layers to them, and there are seven pianos overlain in the music). We will explain why this extra distance from the original sound of the birds was just what was needed to connect to visual images.

 In conclusion, we will discuss how we plan to develop these ideas in print and sound – and then open up the floor to ask the question … ‘Is Birdsong Music’ … and what does an examination of this question tell us about ourselves and our relationship to the world. When, perhaps, is birdsong music?   

Week 8: Wednesday 22 November 2017

Sir James MacMillan, composer
'A composer’s personal reflections on the impact of religious, social and aesthetic influences on music'

lease note that this is part of the University’s Public Lecture series, and will be held at 5:30pm in the Curtis Auditorium, Herschel Building.

This is a time when artists are told that, to be at the cutting edge of culture, they have to reject the burdens of tradition, especially religion. Music has offered a stubborn resistance to this command, and it is clear that many of the great composers of the last century were either profoundly religious men and women or reflected deeply on the wider possibilities of the sacred in their work. James MacMillan explores this phenomenon in a musico-historical context and subjective reflection.

Week 10: Wednesday 6 December 2017

Stop press: this seminar will not take place as announced. Dr McGuinness has been summonsed for jury service.

Dr David McGuinness, University of Glasgow
'Bass culture in Scottish fiddle music from 1750'

Week 12: Wednesday 10 January 2018

Dr Daniel Grimley, Oxford University
'Delius in the Garden'

Gardens occupied a privileged place in the early twentieth-century imagination, but their musical significance has been underplayed. Frederick Delius (1862-1934) was fascinated by gardens: he and his wife, the painter Jelka Rosen, maintained a fine garden behind their house in the artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing, south of Paris, and gardens influenced many of Delius’s compositions. This paper considers the relationship between gardens, Delius’s music, and contemporary debates in garden design, especially the work of Elizabeth von Arnim and Gertrud Jekyll, and attends especially closely to Delius’s collaboration with the celebrated cellist Beatrice Harrison.


Week 3: Wednesday 14 February 2018

Dr Abigail Gardner, University of Gloucestershire
'Typical Girls Look Back: Musical Memoirs, Marking Time'

'Girl in a Band: A Memoir’ (Gordon, 2015) ‘Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: a memoir’ (Brownstein, 2015), ‘Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys Boys’ (Albertine, 2014). ‘Just Kids’ (Smith, 2010) and ‘M Train’ (Smith, 2015), ‘Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to be a Pop Star’ (Thorn, 2013) and ‘Naked at The Albert Hall’ (Thorn, 2015), ‘The Rise, The Fall, The Rise’ (Smith-Start, 2016). ‘Art, Sex, Music’ (Fanni Tutti, 2017). ‘Rat Girl’ (Hersh, 2010).

These are the titles of popular memoirs written by nine rock women musicians in their 40s and older. They speak of girlhood and growing up, of clothes and sex, of boys and of music. They are the female rock memoirs of key figures on the Anglo-American independent music scene from the late 70s to the early 90s. The second decade of the twenty-first century has witnessed a mini 'boom' in publications like this. This talk positions them as age-appropriate survival stories that shed light on experiences and narratives of creativity, whose dominant themes centre on domesticity, sexuality, trauma and musical creativity.

These tales of overcoming the odds are not restricted to women, but there is something notable about the timing of these female rock memoirs that point towards the acceptability of the ageing female authorial voice when it is couched within a literary, rather than a musical tradition. In tandem, this ‘voice’ is then mobilised to present a popular cultural nostalgia for the youthful ‘age’ of punk and post-punk that is mirrored by contemporary cultural reflections on the era from the world of art and media. There is something here too about the relationship between women and ‘girls’ (Apolloni, 2016) and the residual traces of girlhood recalled as palimpsest on the ageing female musician as memoirist. These memoirs are partially illustrative of an Anglo-American neo-liberal emphasis on individual resilience (James, 2015), of making it through and of coming out the other side that build on ideas of the individual creative auteur and, importantly for this talk, the ‘confessional’ singer-songwriter. 

Week 5: Wednesday 28 February 2018

Dr Stef Conner, freelance composer, performer and scholar, currently post-doctoral fellow at Huddersfield University
'No, this is the Oldest Song in the World! Deciphering Mesopotamian Music Notation'


Week 7: 14 March 2018

Dr David McGuinness, University of Glasgow
Rescheduled from last semester
'Bass culture in Scottish fiddle music from 1750'

Writers in pop songwriting teams can find themselves categorised either as topline (melody and lyrics) or as production (arrangement and grooves), with a smaller group of composers who successfully do both. In traditional music in Britain, it is generally only the topline which receives serious consideration from scholars, and which is considered to carry the ‘traditional’ content. Instead, this paper traces bass traditions in Scottish fiddle music through written and printed sources and into the recording era, and it observes the interaction of these traditions with those of the topline.

Dr David McGuinness divides his time between historical Scottish music and contemporary work. As director of early music ensemble Concerto Caledonia he has made thirteen albums, mostly of newly-rediscovered repertoire, and has been a music producer and composer for television and radio, most notably on several seasons of E4’s teen drama series Skins. In 2007 he produced John Purser’s 50-part history of Scotland’s music for BBC Radio Scotland, and co-ordinated the station’s observance of No Music Day with the artist Bill Drummond. From 2012 to 2015 he was principal investigator on the AHRC-funded project Bass Culture in Scottish Musical Traditions, and from 2018 he will be music editor of the Edinburgh Allan Ramsay edition, also funded by the AHRC. In Spring 2018, Drag City will release What News, an album of traditional ballads made in collaboration with singer Alasdair Roberts and electroacoustic composer Amble Skuse. David is a Senior Lecturer in music at the University of Glasgow.

Week 9: 18 April 2018

Prof. Adrian Pop, Gheorghe Dima Academy of Music, Cluj-Napoca
Music in Cluj: Development of a Composition School in the Twentieth Century

Cluj, Transylvaniae Civitas primaria, a city of ancient origin, has become in modern times the capital of the well-known province of Transylvania. Throughout history, the political and cultural development of Transylvania has been strongly connected with that of Western and Central Europe, functioning in many ways as the West’s eastern limit. It is therefore no wonder that a (superficially informed) Western writer such as Bram Stoker chose this particular place, at the far end of civilised Europe, as the land where the most famous among vampires lived in his cursed castle…

Today the second largest city in Romania, Cluj is a bustling cultural and academic centre, with its six universities, two opera houses, its famous Philharmonic Orchestra and Hall, and a rich variety of cultural institutions. Its musical tradition evolved from the Viennese models in the nineteenth Century, to assume a more independent path in the twentieth Century, when Transylvania became part of the Romanian Kingdom (1919). One of the first steps of the Romanian administration was the foundation of the Academy of Music and Drama as a higher education institution officially supported by the State. This meant not only a firm step forward in training professional performing artists, singers, actors and music teachers, but it also set the starting point for a composition school.  Nowadays there is a substantial group of composers from different generations and stylistic orientations working in Cluj, as well as a highly esteemed composition department at the Music Academy, with new talent constantly emerging from the younger generations.

Mainly represented by composers of Romanian nationality, the Cluj School is enriched with the contribution of composers of Hungarian and German origin, offering a lively multicultural landscape – a strong feature of the city’s culture, past and present.

This paper aims to introduce some of the composers who left a mark on the progress of the Cluj School, as well as some of its younger offshoots. 

Prof Adrian Pop is Head of Composition at the Gheorghe Dima Music Academy in Cluj. He studied with celebrated composers such as Sigismund Toduţă and Cornel Ţăranu. He was awarded the Romanian Composers’ Union Prize five times, as well as the George Enescu Prize and a number of international awards. In 2017 he was heavily involved in a series of events and publications to mark the centenary of the birth of his father, Dorin Pop, a much-respected pedagogue and choral and orchestral conductor. 

Week 10: 25 April 2018

Dr Stef Conner, freelance composer, performer and scholar, currently post-doctoral fellow at Huddersfield University
'No, this is the Oldest Song in the World! Deciphering Mesopotamian Music Notation'

The only complete Mesopotamian musical ‘score’ to be discovered so far is 'Hurrian Hymn’ h.6, which was inscribed in cuneiform on a clay tablet in ancient Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) around 1400 BC. There have been numerous attempts to decipher the notation, of which no two sound alike, and no single decipherment has yet produced a consensus. Because of this apparent stalemate and because the difficulty of reading cuneiform deters most musicologists from tackling the topic, Mesopotamian music has made very little impact on mainstream musicology. In this presentation I argue that the most substantial disagreements on the matter arise from a prejudicial assumption that harmony did not exist in the ancient world, which is not only unprovable but also at odds with archaeological and iconographic evidence. I assert that jettisoning this assumption would emancipate the debate from its current strictures, enable a consensus on many important features of Mesopotamian music and thus make the subject more accessible to musicians, musicologists and students, whose practical insights would benefit the discourse. I present what I believe to be the most accurate representation of the notation and invite discussion on how we might perform it.


Week 11: 2 May 2018

Dr Flora Willson, King's College London
'Bel Canto Borders: Nellie Melba and the Idea of Global Opera'

By the late nineteenth century, opera had become fundamentally international: transport and communications networks enabled performers and works to circulate more widely than ever before. Within this self-consciously “modernised” operatic culture, the Italian bel canto repertoire occupied a problematic position. A handful of works by Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi continued to be performed; but they were frequently decried as old-fashioned, the vocal technique they demanded seen as obsolete. 

However, the arrival in Europe of Australian soprano Nellie Melba marked a crucial shift. In the early 1890s Melba became not just an operatic star in London and Paris but a mass-media celebrity – one closely associated with bel canto roles (Lucia, Gilda, and Violetta in particular). What’s more, as the singer’s own global trajectory continued with her triumphant 1893 debut at the Metropolitan Opera, Melba-fever led to a repopularisation of bel canto even among New York’s famously Wagner-loving audiences.

This paper explores the tensions between Melba’s status as an explicitly modern media celebrity and the apparently outdated repertoire that she sang. In particular, it asks to what extent Melba’s border-crossings – both between nations and between the operatic past and modern life – might have facilitated her role in the 1890s bel canto revival. Tracing Melba’s reception as a paradigmatic operatic migrant in London, Paris, and New York at the century’s end, my paper ultimately seeks to lay the groundwork for a fuller account of the impact of opera’s international mobility on the shifting internal boundaries of the operatic canon.



For further information about the seminars please contact Agustín Fernández or 0191 208 7636