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Music and Pleasure Before the Law, 2023

I finally found some down time to update the website after what has been an eventful year in UK higher education.


Despite nearly two weeks since flying back from Dublin, I am still filled with lingering feelings of inspiration, awe and excitement over the experience of the conference 'Music and Pleasure Before the Law' hosted by University College Dublin, in June 2023. Organised by, Kyle Kaplan and Matthew Thomson, the conference featured an expertly curated assembly of speakers on topics ranging from thirteenth-century overlaps between musical appreciation and carnal desire in France to eighteenth-century South-Indian amatory poem and twentieth-century rap and legal disputes.


Each panel was organised in such a way where clear themes were exposed and made clearer through contrast, distance and negation. My own paper on depictions of nineteenth-century improvised playing was coupled with a wonderful paper by Hannah Strong (University of Pittsburgh) on Latto's 'PXSSY' (amongst other works) and the weaponisation of female pleasure. Kyle and Matthew were able to pair seemingly disparate temporal and regional areas of research to expose theoretical links and issues in a way which was organic and a real joy to experience.


My paper, in its early stages, explored the capacity of improvised music making as an inherently intimate and pleasurable act (specifically for the performer). I explored this through depictions of teaching, learning and performing on the guitar and harp in the early nineteenth-century and juxtaposed this with descriptions of the uses of music making. Conduct books of this time have a unique attitude towards music making and I argued that improvisation pedagogy, and its ability to position music making as an ultimately self-serving pleasure, was partially responsible for its decline in domestic teaching.


My research in this area is new, and I am still exploring depictions of domestic music making as a potentially intimate, night-time activity. I argued (haphazardly) that domestic music making has the ability to imbue domestic space with a carceral element. Music's ability to make oneself heard, and thus monitored and ultimately observed, makes it an ideal agent for social control. Improvisation then, an activity which partially turns from the study and execution of the works of 'great masters', has the capacity to act as an ultimately dangerous and illicit activity - one which shares the same dangers as masturbation and other illicit sexual activities. This research is ongoing and still new but I hope to develop it further as this is the logical progression from the research I undertook during my DMusPerf.


Some of my favourite moments from the conference included the pairing of a Amy Skjerseth's mixed-media analysis of sonic tactility in depictions of prison with Kyle Kaplan's paper on Henry Cowell's collaboration with Martha Graham. Skjerseth's exploration of depictions of sonic tactility through mixed-media (a novel, a silent film and a Lady Gaga Music video!) juxtaposed with archival studies on collaboration between two artists navigating Cowell's incarceration facilitated engaging discussions about pan-aurality and queer sexuality.


The organisers efforts to juxtapose disparate topics and themes culminated in a beautiful exchange between Abigail Lindo and Matthew Thomas - something made possible only by getting scholarship from medieval and postcolonial studies in contact with each other. Lindo's exploration of communications of transfem and postcolonial rebellion through an installation by Débora Silva and Slim Soledad was nothing short of stimulating; experiencing the exploration of Catholic imagery, sexual agency and black radical (trans)feminism in dialogue with medieval scholarship renews the calls for a more integrated and holistic academia. The caliber and breadth of the presentations on display during this conference were a testament to the strength of crossing disciplinary lines.


Suzanne Cuscick's keynote speech was also nothing short of a joy to hear and it was an honour to meet them. That Cusick's keynote might appear as an afterthought in this post speaks only to the truly singular experience of the two days. Well done to all who participated and thank you to Kyle and Matthew for organising!

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