Wrapping it up, without any string (the final conference paper)

Apple a day keeps the doctor away
An Apple a day keeps the doctor away …?

Writer's blockIs it professional death to admit to struggling with the conclusion of a conference paper?  Well, I’m not going to fall on my sword in public, but I do confess that this paper is resolutely refusing to come to a nice, tidy end.  I shall be giving it at the “graveyard slot” at the end of the conference, and although I certainly haven’t been given a brief to round off the proceedings – I wouldn’t be so vain as to imagine such a thing! – I do feel inhibited by the thought of so many as yet unheard papers before my own, final one.  What if they’re all much more brilliant than my own?   What if my arguments have already been expressed more coherently by numerous speakers before I speak?  What if they all express different views to mine? Worse, what if my arguments have effectively been shot down a dozen times before I stand up to speak?  And worst of all, what if there’s hardly anyone left to hear me at all?

This conference may attract a slightly different audience to those I’ve spoken at before, and that’s another factor to put me on my mettle.

Meanwhile, here I sit with 1,600 words and most of a PowerPoint presentation.  Stuck, with a cup of tea for company, and an apple in a vain attempt to avoid the biscuit barrel!

Teaching Artist Spurned, Rejected

Hours of preparation went into that presentation, but there was no audience.  A couple of drop-ins, one after the other, but a quick chat and off-the-cuff demonstration was more appropriate than giving the whole singing-and-dancing show.  I had blogged, emailed, sent a circular round … I guess the poor delegates were tired, even those who had said they would be there! Scott 14th birthday cakeSo, seriously, what does it take to get an audience for an e-resources presentation?! Cakes?  (If I’d known, I’d have baked some.)  Cleavage?  (I don’t have one.)  Tap-dancing?  (I have two left feet.  I can’t speak for my co-presenter!)   All we can do is turn to Plan B.  Watch this space!

Scottish versus English, Folk versus National, Tradition versus Revival …

I’m enjoying Maud Karpeles’s biography of Cecil Sharp.  It’s interesting reading about his folk song collecting, and how he was determined to get folk song back into the school curriculum so that children would get acquainted with their heritage.  He also got involved with Morris and folk dancing, and got quite hot under the collar about well-meaning people who were happy to get the dances DANCED, without being too concerned about the niceties of accuracy.  By all accounts he was an astonishingly dedicated and hard-working individual.

His definition of ‘folk’?  Something passed through the oral tradition, perhaps modified as it was transmitted, but certainly not a “national song” published in a book and henceforth preserved in aspic.  Something more fluid in form, then.

I began thinking about Miss Milligan, who did similar work with Scottish dancing for what became the Royal Scottish Dancing Society.  She, too, decided ‘how it should be’, and tried to set standards and codify steps and dance-movements. (My mother-in-law was her first pianist at Jordanhill Teacher Training College, as it happens.)

Does it not seem that both Cecil Sharp and Miss Milligan, having collected something that they feared would perish if it weren’t revived, then proceeded to try to pin down and ‘fix’ the very traditions that they were saving?  It’s as though each was saying, ‘this is what I consider the purest form of THIS song, THIS dance, and THIS is how it should be from henceforth.’  Indeed, my mother-in-law, a longstanding and loyal member of the RSCDS, later earned a scroll of recognition of her ‘outstanding service and loyalty … maintaining the aims of preserving the standards and traditions of Scottish Country Dancing …’  There it is again – preserving standards and traditions.

But!  This laudable attempt to keep something pure and unchanged is at the same time at variance to the idea of a fluid folk tradition.  Saying, ‘we do it this way, this is the best way, and this is how it must be done’, is a rather risky way of encouraging the next generation to adopt traditions and make them their own.  (We could say the same about churches clinging to metrical psalms, I guess, but I’m not blogging about that just now!)

My thesis touched on some of these arguments in earlier times.  Sharp and Miss Milligan were positively modernists compared to my research into Scottish song collecting from 1760-1888, and I really want to read more before I leap into old arguments with my size three wellies on and upset everyone who knows more about the early 20th century collectors.  More anon, then.  Until then, I must be restrained and willing to be corrected!

Speaking and Being Spoken To

In the past fortnight, I’ve attended two one-day conferences, and given a presentation to my library colleagues.  I went to the National Library of Scotland a couple of weeks ago for the Reading and Identity Conference (26 August 2014).  Although the title of the conference was promising, I was a little disappointed in the content, not because of the presentations but because of the sheer diversity.  When I talk about reading and identity, I have in my mind eighteenth and nineteenth century Scottish song enthusiasts discussing their sense of identity, and how their songs expressed that identity.  To spend a day hearing about reading to babies, teens’ reading preferences, experimental verse and a transsexual interpretation of the New Testament was perhaps not the best use of my time.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d have been happy to sit and talk to any of the presenters – who came from libraries, academia, trusts and other backgrounds –  over a cup of coffee in my own time.  I might even have argued with one or two!  As a Christian, I was discomfited by a mock ‘prayer’ session during which all delegates were invited to close their eyes and hold hands.  I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been politically incorrect and simply ‘not done’ to have subjected any other faith to that treatment, but poor old Christians are supposed to smile bravely and put up with it.  (I sat with my eyes open and my hands in my lap, and I suspect that the brave smile would have been spotted as fake if anyone else was also looking!)  This was not my idea of a research conference!

Faced with the incipits of 20 digitized Scottish fiddle collections to transcribe, of which only two are currently completed, I couldn’t help feeling a touch resentful that I was being unfaithful to my tunes by neglecting them for a whole research day. The lesson, I suppose, is to think carefully about how a conference theme might be interpreted by other delegates!  On the positive side, I learned about a digital Ossian text project which certainly warranted my attendance at the afternoon session, so all was certainly not lost.  The organisation and technology worked impeccably, apart from my phone being unable to access the wi-fi using the password I was given.

Yesterday (12 September 2014), I was back in Edinburgh for a digital humanities workshop: Research and/as Engagement.  This was as engaging for me as the earlier one was not!  Each speaker was interesting, and all the projects were fascinating.  It was much more my scene.  I tweeted away merrily, took copious notes, and came back invigorated and keen to get on with the research project.

Between these two events, I and a colleague did a dry-run of a presentation that we’re delivering ‘for real’ to our academic colleagues next week; our drama opposite number did his session the following morning.  It’s easy to be critical of other people’s talks, so it was good to have the boot on the other foot as we practised explaining how various subscription databases worked, and what benefits they offered.

And I have yet to finish off the paper I’m writing for the ‘Understanding Scotland Musically’ conference in Newcastle in October.  (See my previous post.)  Mind you, I’ve got the Greenock roundabout to photograph tomorrow morning, Cecil Sharp’s biography and a compilation of Hamish Henderson’s writings to read yet, so things are certainly humming along!

Wynds, Vennels and Dual Carriageways: the Changing Nature of Scottish Music

I’m writing what I hope will be a controversial conference paper for the forthcoming Understanding Scotland Musically AHRC-funded two-day conference in Newcastle, 20th-21st October.  I’ll be making the point that pinning down what Scottish music actually IS, is pretty much like going to look for the place where your ancestors come from, and wondering why it doesn’t look the same.  You can’t compare what people thought Scottish music was, 200 years ago, with what people think it is now.  Indeed, if you try to compare what I think Scottish music is, with what you think Scottish music is, or what my son, or your granny, think Scottish music is, you’ll get as many different answers. 

WherGreenock Dalrymple Street Car parke do the wynds, vennels and dual carriageways come into it?  Ah, that would be telling! Though I can tell you that if you see a small, middle-aged personage taking photographs in the middle of a roundabout in Greenock with a perplexed look on her furrowed brow, then you can be fairly sure that’ll be me.

The abstract for my paper can be found under the “Musicologist” tab on this blog.