Papers and Performances: GSIM 10 in Review

April 23, 2007 at 10:00 am

When I saw the topic of this year’s Graduate Students in Music Conference at CUNY (a.k.a. GSIM 10), I was ecstatic. The conference committee, led by the extremely capable Megan Jenkins, had selected “Theorizing Performance/Performing Scholarship” as the theme, with Elisabeth Le Guin keynoting. The planets seemed aligned, since I was just starting work on John Kirkpatrick’s role with the Concord Sonata, and the impeteus of speaking in front of a group of mostly strangers would help me kick the research into high gear.

The conference topic is timely, since Le Guin, Carolyn Abbate, and others, have increasingly drawn attention to the problem of performance in musicology. It is not a difficult problem to articulate – musicologists tend to study scores while performance seems like something that happens “over there.” The general issue has been gathering steam since at least the mid-60s, when Susan Sontag declared that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,” and the problem retains its currency today. When faced with the presence of performance, critical vocabularies seem to whither – and if what performance does is really beyond words, then the discipline is in a dire situation indeed.

On the other hand, as Prof. Norman Carey noted in his introductory comments to the first session, getting up and giving a paper is a kind of performance in itself, and as such a conference, rather than a mere collection of papers, is an ideal medium to contemplate the issues related to musical performance. Based on the ideas of my fellow presenters, I am happy to note that there still seems to be much to discuss when it comes to performance.

The voice enjoys a privileged position in performance scholarship. As the most direct embodiment of musical performance – the body itself is the instrument – this is not surprising. At the morning session, Cindy Kim and Jonathan Greenberg both traced with great skill issues relating to vocal performance in two different repertoires. Kim looked at issues surrounding Rossini’s Semiramide, and raised important questions about ornamentation. Having interests in early opera and historiography myself, I was struck by two things: firstly how the issue of ornamentation in voice has such a long history, stretching back to at least Caccini and Le Nuove Musiche – and how that has remained an issue through Rossini.  Secondly, I was struck by the endless Beethoven v. Rossini debates, and how those discourses have shaped our understanding (not always for the better) towards a view of Rossini’s opera as somehow “outside” what beautiful music should be – namely all style and no substance. Close to my own research, Jonthan Greenberg looked at the linguistic issues in Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “Wrap your Troubles in Dreams.” Using linguistics as a theoretical model in music has great currency – Le Guin drew on the discipline in her keynote – and Greenberg’s borrowing of the term ‘phonetic play’ seemed to aptly describe what was going on in Armstrong’s performances.

By far the most performative paper of the day was Jenny Olivia Johnson’s, titled “Echoes Timbres and Synaesthesia: the Luminous Noise of Childhood Sexual Abuse.” Johnson traced the experiences of three anonymous interviewees, and their experience of sound as a way of recollecting traumatic childhood experiences. Flashing single words up on a screen, with clips of songs intermingled, she connected her work with Suzanne Cusick’s recent work on music and torture. It was not until the very end of her talk that Johnson revealed that she herself was one of the interviewees, and had been sexually abused by her babysitter as a child. Dramatically flinging her papers down on the podium at the end of her talk, Johnson’s shocking testimonial was greeted by the applause of a clearly distraught audience. While Johnson’s talk did not follow certain conventions of scholarly writing – such as naming herself as the primary informant at the beginning of the paper – its effect at communicating her own trauma was unquestionable. Johnson’s performance was so jarring that Le Guin asked the audience to stand, stretch, and take some deep breaths before beginning her keynote only ten minutes later.

Graduate student conferences play a vital role for their participants, allowing them to hone their ideas in front of new audiences, meet colleagues from other institutions, and hear talks from established scholars. I am also beginning to appreciate the fine art of listening to and digesting complicated arguments on a single hearing, and having meaningful conversations thereafter. In all, I have to congratulate the participants of GSIM 10 for one of the more thought provoking Saturdays in recent memory.

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