Early Modern Soundscapes, Bangor University, 24-25 April 2014

By Tess Knighton


To Bangor, North Wales, for the two-day conference on Early Modern Soundscapes, an interdisciplinary meeting organized by the University’s Department of English. While the bluebells swayed silently in the spring breeze, we discussed the finer points of ‘bellscapes’ in a congenial atmosphere of inquiry and debate. Many interesting papers and much food for thought (supplemented by the delicious cakes baked by conference organizer Rachel Willie). Those present included principally historians of music and literature and there were many point of contact, despite the inevitable programming of sessions that were largely constructed round one or the other of these disciplines. This wouldn’t have mattered if the number of papers hadn’t necessitated double (and even treble) simultaneous sessions. Impossible to know how to get round this – unless all sessions could be streamed for later watching? I had to miss Nicholas Hammond’s paper on ‘Parisian  soundscapes: Singing Gossip in the Seventeenth Century’ and several other papers I would have loved to have heard. Still, the divide was neatly bridged in the Society for Renaissance Studies Annual Welsh Lecture, jointly presented by Jennifer Richards and Richard Wistreich. The theme of this key-note was the ‘Renaissance voice’ and it was particularly interesting to hear these two excellent scholars analyse many of the same texts from different perspectives, and to think about how the voice was used in different contexts, and the different effects created by reading aloud and singing. The session on ‘Transgressive soundscapes’ also raised lots of issues about the dichotomies that have become established in music historical discourse – art song versus popular song (John Cunningham), enclosed space versus public space (Barbara Eichner) and sacred versus profane (Thomas Leitmeir). It was again thought provoking to hear these notions being unpicked and challenged. Some very good papers, too, from younger scholars: watch out for Matthew Champion (shortly to take up a JRF in Cambridge), Jan-Friedrich Missfelder from Konstanz and Emilie Murphy (currently at York University).

Our project was represented by Ascensión’s paper on ‘The Role of Female Convents in the Soundscape of Sixteenth-Century Barcelona’ and my key-note on ‘Singing for the Soul: the Requiem Mass and Other Music for the Dead in the Chapels, Churches, Convents and Streets of Sixteenth-century Barcelona’. Not only Spain, but also Italy, France, England, Germany, the Habsburg Empire and the New World received coverage in wide-ranging papers. The latest trends in historical methodology, including the history of the emotions, and of course aural history, were much in evidence too. A rich and fruitful meeting – thanks to all at Bangor!

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