Saturday, 2 January 2010

Summary: First term at Cambridge

Seeing as, bizarrely, anyone who Googles my name can get at this blog, I thought I should summarize my doings up until this point. Also it's 2010, and (supposedly) this could mark a juncture in things. Additionally, I rarely post anything here; so here goes.

Oxbridge can be an intimidating place to anyone outside of it. I know this because I live in Oxford and now go to Cambridge university. This ever-so-slightly awkward situation allows me to see Oxbridge (as the differences between the universities are really negligible) are from both the point of view of both a Townie and a Student.

Both universities are increasingly interested in 'outreach', as can be seen from their prospectuses which emphasise the 'cosmopolitan' and apparently multicultural nature of their constituent colleges. Actually, most students at both places are white and middle/upper-class. In my year at Corpus there is one black student. Additionally there are people from abroad (who have to pay a lot of money to come here, so some of them are on exchange which can ease the monetary load); lots of people (at Corpus) from Northern Ireland, but conspicuously only one student from Scotland.

As far as I can tell, in my year at Corpus very few people come from true comprehensives (I did). Most come from independent, grammar or public schools. One intriguing thing I noticed when asking people was that some students who came from a big public school (like Eton) would pause very slightly before saying this, suggesting there is a certain amount of guilt (either real or unconscious) associated with attending such a school. Who could blame them, with the amount of goading public schools get in the mainstream media. Considering our next government will be most likely made up of old Etonians (pretending not to be, of course) the state of affairs will soon become much stranger.

I try not to judge people on what kind of upbringing they have, but in reality it's very difficult not to. There is good reason to believe that there is less social mobility in this country than there was in the years just after the war.

So far, so obvious. But my experience of the first Michealmas term has been generally speaking very positive. I don't think I've humiliated myself too much, I have a nice room, and there always seems to be something to do. Food is generally okay. I've started acting in plays (the Cambridge drama scene is vibrant and littered with productions of big, difficult, canonical classics of the twentieth century, and Shakespeare), and recently landed the part of Macbeth. Extraordinary, I know, and I can't quite come to grips with it myself. Still. There is also good comedy, and the Footlights' pantomime sold out all of its dates within hours.

I also have come right in the middle of the apparent reform of the Music Faculty, which is facing difficulties like many of the institutions that make up the conglomerate university. The course, redesigned in the 70s by Sandy Goehr, is showing it's age. The somewhat tentative links between the lectures and their supervisions is sometimes fraught, and often we are asked to write essays about things we haven't yet been lectured about. Consequently I don't go to many lectures, even though (unlike other humanities subjects) they are apparently compulsory. Even more annoying, this year there are so many undergrads that if they do all turn up to a lecture, lecture room 2 isn't big enough to fit them all in. The inevitable latecomers have to find a spare chair, and, if they're lucky, a music stand to write on.

My fellow corpus student, Maria Helmling, has been campaigning for some time for change in the Music Faculty and has achieved a great deal. The first is the opening of a coffee bar used by students and staff before and in between lectures, a very welcome sight. The other, and sadder tale, is the newly opened Music Faculty common room, which never has anybody in it. It replaces the 'Ethnomusicology Room', which was apparently so useless the management seemed happy to replace it with a room with nothing in it apart from squashy bean bags and unread copies of Varsity. I hope it does get used, as often after lectures I find myself lonely in my room in College (as I suspect other music students do also).

2009 also saw the establishment of the AHRC Research Centre for Music Performance as Creative Practice, and the installation of 'New Musicology' mainstays Nicholas Cook and John Rink at the faculty. The programme has a couple of million to plow its way through nothing less than our current understanding of music performance. Quite what the results will be (other than written up observations and interpretations of how musicians work and perform) I don't know. I think part of the object might be to try and resolve the rather embarrassing situation that everybody in day-to-day life knows what music looks and sounds like, but Academia still hasn't quite decided what it is. Not unsurprisingly, the wider your remit becomes, the weaker the definition of what music is. (I was tempted, rather shamefully, to put inverted commas around the last word in that sentence.)

Perhaps in a Faculty so dedicated to funding new research into performance, one might assume the teaching would lean so too. Not so, as so far, genuinely enlightening lecturing has been hard to come by. Martin Ennis' entertaining teaching of Counterpoint (yes, you did read that right) is probably the best highlight. Nicholas Marston's well-intentioned yet misguided attempts at providing the 'friendly face of analysis' don't do too well. His non-Shenkerian motivic voice-leading analyses (conspicuously featuring Mr. Schoenberg at the centre) are pretty confusing, which showed up prominently in my essays. Analysis is presented as a series of 'coulds' and 'maybes'; very little appears falsifiable, and I am under a suspicion that when I get to it, Shenkerism will smell of circularity. But since nobody will actually teach it to me I guess I'll have to remain ignorant.

Like many of the other university bodies and faculties, the Music Faculty is in debt. It has taken to hiring out the concert hall to an evangelical church, much to the horror of music students and members of CUMS; but the fact is the Faculty has to look for spare cash wherever it can. The University Library recently announced that it might take a sponsor for extra cash. Similar outbursts of horror: 'The Tesco Cambridge University Library' etc. The best one I read was the foot-in-mouth 'Oxford University Press Cambridge University Library'.

But so much for this grumbling (one term is not justification for the level of grumbling I seem to have reached). I think there definitely are good things about the faculty - one of them being a collection of stellar musicologists. It's conservative collection, but bizarrely, revisionist at the same time. Many of them are approachable and cheerfully engaging people who, while they obviously have more important things to do, don't seem too put out by the prospect of delivering a lecture to a roomfull of undergrads.


Ian Pace said...

That's very interesting stuff. The appointment of Nick Cook to Professor at Cambridge seemed to me a real sign that this rather antiquated department was finally changing - would you really think of John Rink also as a New Musicology stalwart, though?

Lawrence Dunn said...

Thanks for the comment! I very much enjoyed Tracts, some truly amazing performances.

I assumed Professor Rink to perhaps be associated with newer trends in the field because of his books about music performance, as well as his contribution to Rethinking Music (1999). But I think the definition of 'New Musicology' is a shaky one; and the term seems to have been problematised, if not ignored completely in/by recent scholarship.

For example, do 'New Musicologists' always have to be revisionists - and if they are, where does this place Hepakoski and Darcy's Sonata Theory? Ostensibly a reaction to more 'fluid' definitions of classical form coming principally from Rosen, they're theory is (as far as I can tell) decidedly un-postmodern, with emphasis on categorisation.

Seems to me that 'New Musicology', as a vogue term, hasn't dated well, so I assume this change is more to do with fashion than varieties of understanding.