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Introduction

Introduction: understanding listening experiences

David Rowland

David Rowland is Professor of Music, Principal Investigator for the Listening Experience Database (LED) project and former Dean of Arts at The Open University. He is the author of three books and numerous chapters and articles on the performance history of the piano and early keyboard instruments. He has also edited the first scholarly edition of Clementi’s correspondence, which provided the impetus for a much broader investigation of the London music trade during the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, on which he has published extensively. David is also a performer on early keyboard instruments and Director of Music at Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Introduction

The essays in this peer-reviewed collection started life as papers at a conference organised in 2018 by the Listening Experience Database (LED) project team, hosted by the Music Department and Knowledge Media Institute (KMI) at The Open University, and run in collaboration with members of staff at the Royal College of Music and Glasgow University. The approach of the LED project team is both novel and distinctive, concentrating on historical listening experiences as evidenced in personal documents such as diaries and letters. As such, LED’s approach is to write listening history ‘from below’, as distinct from the way in which most conventional musicology is conceived. At the core of the LED team’s enquiry is the study of the listeners themselves, many of whom had little status in society, not the opinion formers whose professional role is to critique or teach music. No previous studies of listening have focused to this degree on individuals and the evidence they create. The emphasis of the LED project is reflected in this collection and the challenges it creates form a large part of this Introduction.

Nevertheless, this collection also reflects some of the wider interests and methodologies that have emerged in listening studies in the last few decades (scholars from all branches of listening studies were invited to contribute to the conference and some of their research is included here). For example, while the LED project focuses on the unsolicited evidence of personal documents, some of the chapters here are based on material gathered from interviews, both recently (see Stephanie E. Pitts) and in the past (see Lorenzo Vanelli). Craig Hamilton and Simon Brown use computer analysis of digital evidence from the internet. Studies of audiences (as opposed to individual listeners) also feature – a particularly important strand of listening studies since James Johnson’s Listening in Paris. 1

But this collection does not pretend to be comprehensive. In such a relatively small space it could not possibly cover all of the ground outlined, for example, in the Introduction to the latest major work on listening, The Oxford Handbook of Music Listening in the 19th and 20th Centuries. 2 It does, however, make an important contribution to the understanding of how individuals, many of them from modest social backgrounds, listened to music, and how the experience of those listeners compare with their modern counterparts.

Audiences

While the majority of essays in this collection focus in one way or another on the listening of one or more individuals, the first two contributions concern the collective listening behaviours of audiences. In the opening chapter Dave Russell focuses on listeners who seldom feature in conventional histories of music – those of modest social status in the long nineteenth century who listened to music in ‘popular’ venues such as music halls, variety theatres, pubs, working men’s clubs and brass band contests, as well as in concert halls. Along with others who seek to understand the views and behaviours of lower-class audiences, he acknowledges a problem inherent in the source material: the evidence for such studies, which often does not originate with the listeners themselves and is largely found in newspapers, periodicals and published histories of music, is both scattered and fragmentary, offering only occasional glimpses of the ways in which a significant proportion of the population engaged with music. The role played by social class is now a major theme in listening research. A number of recent studies highlight the part played by it, especially as it relates to audience behaviours. 3

Russell’s conclusions have some parallels with Johnson’s 4 in so far as both describe an increasing tendency towards attentive listening in the nineteenth century. However, rather than identifying a simple behavioural trend away from inattention towards engaged listening, Russell presents a more nuanced picture in which a variety of listening practices, including participatory listening, gradually gave way to generally quieter listening by the mid-twentieth century. 5

That a nuanced view of audience behaviours is needed is amply demonstrated in Stephanie E. Pitts’ chapter. In particular, by surveying modern concert attenders she demonstrates a fundamental truth that writers on historical audiences would do well to note: silent listening does not necessarily equate to attentive, or engaged listening. Using evidence gathered by survey, by asking people to draw pictures, and by recording interviews, her case studies examine how audiences react with both the familiar and the unfamiliar. What is perhaps most striking about Pitts’ findings is the conclusion that ‘the answer to “what are concert-goers doing when they listen”? is perhaps no closer as a result of this provocation, but it is fairly certain not to be what is going on in the head of an academic music researcher’. This comment neatly summarises one of the major issues in listening research: despite the existence of listening orthodoxies that often have their roots in published educational materials, listeners in the present and past – we don’t know the proportion – listen, or have listened, in very different ways that we are only just beginning to understand.

‘Personal’ documents and their readers

The majority of chapters in this collection focus on the written evidence of individuals, whether in the form of diaries and correspondence, oral history, or some form of social media. On the face of it, these documents appear to contain unvarnished accounts of listeners’ reactions to music, providing us with precisely the sort of evidence of authentic listening experiences that might help to answer the questions posed by Stephanie E. Pitts. Yet the sources pose multiple challenges of interpretation. In order to understand the documents it is important to evaluate the factors that shaped them, for example, prevailing philosophies, social and cultural contexts, writing conventions, and so on. This introduction briefly examines these factors, beginning with an evaluation of the sources’ readers. (It should be added at the outset that ‘readers’ in this context includes those who actually read the sources, as well as those to whom the sources were read.)

The letters and diaries which are so crucial to the study of historical listeners could be supposed, naively, to contain the private outpourings of individuals as they wrote exclusively for themselves (diaries), or for one or two other readers (letters). Indeed, sometimes this was the case, but more often than not the circumstances were different, a factor that crucially affects the nature of the accounts. The following examples demonstrate the range of readers for whom these sorts of documents were written and hence some of the factors that influenced the way they were written.

When a sixteenth-century aristocrat wrote a letter the text was most likely shaped in some way by the knowledge that its contents would also be known by the scribe to whom the letter was dictated, and the messenger who delivered it. 6 In the eighteenth century, as letter writing became ever more fashionable, the medium sometimes served as a training exercise for entry into the literary world and it is clear that some letters were written with the clear intention of later publication. 7 Commenting on letters written by poorer members of society towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Martyn Lyons writes that ‘letters had multiple recipients and sometimes several authors. They were intended for reading aloud to a family group and sometimes became a kind of general newsletter for an entire village’. 8 Lyons’ comments refer to particular sorts of writers at a certain time in history, but letters were written with similar intentions in many eras; for example, Clare Brant comments with respect to the eighteenth century:

The varied and often unpredictable circulation of letters confounds simple distinctions between public and private … In the context of letter writing, ‘personal’ is useful in that it recognises the significance of letters to individuals and to relationships. It is preferable to ‘private’, a term that is simply inaccurate for many eighteenth-century familiar letters, which were composed in company, voluntarily circulated beyond the addressee and frequently found their way into print. 9

Diaries or journals (whichever term is used probably matters little 10 were frequently written for a readership other than the author. Prominent members of society throughout history have known that their diaries might be of interest to a wider circle of people and would be published either in their lifetime, or after their death. But it was not just the influential in society whose diaries were written for a wider readership. The diary of John Yeoman, for example, an eighteenth-century farmer and pottery owner from Somerset, was not just written for himself: the frequent addresses to ‘the reader’ and other equivalent designations shows that it was written with his family and friends in mind.

Earlier authors of spiritual diaries knew that extracts may be published posthumously, and wrote accordingly:

specially selected entries were sometimes published after a diarist’s death alongside a sermon written for her funeral. In their diaries, believers monitored and constructed themselves in a culturally acceptable fashion, so as to avoid posthumous social embarrassment, not to mention God’s wrath. 11

In the nineteenth century it was not so much the wrath of God that some diary-writers feared, but rather the opprobrium of a governess, who oversaw the writing of young women’s diaries as they wrote ‘under duress’. 12

Clearly, documents such as diaries and letters were often intended for a wider readership than their author or recipient and although we may still refer to them as ‘personal’, we do so in the knowledge that many of them were anything but ‘private’. It is not difficult to imagine, therefore, that in many of these documents the writers were carefully constructing images of themselves for portrayal to others. Indeed, even in the case of diaries written only for the author a certain amount of construction may be apparent, as the diarist’s thoughts are written down according to certain conventions – a theme we will come to.

Understanding authors of ‘personal’ documents

Notwithstanding these caveats, as personal documents diaries and letters undoubtedly reflect the particular concerns, characters and world-views of their authors, and if we are to interpret and understand the listening experiences they contain, we must also acquaint ourselves as well as we can with the people who wrote them. This means studying the entire documents, wherever possible, and referring to whatever other sources about the authors may be available, not just focusing on the sections relevant to our enquiries, and not just exploiting the sources ‘as quarries for the telling quotation or support for a preconceived view’. 13 The need to study documents in their entirety is a common theme in the secondary literature of diaries and journals, and the current collection contains some intriguing examples. Elaine Moohan’s chapter examines the recorded listening experiences of the siblings William and Hannah Ann Stirling, who grew up in Scotland in the early nineteenth century. Hannah Ann was a very active musician whereas William was a self-confessed ignoramus in musical matters. Yet in their correspondence it was William who wrote most about music, for the benefit of his sister whom he thought would welcome this sort of news. In order to understand why Hannah Ann was so reticent in musical matters, and why William was so voluble, it was important to construct a detailed profile of their characters through a careful reading of numerous letters and other documents.

Knowing the authors of personal documents means understanding their views of ‘self’, especially how those ideas differ from equivalents in other generations. Peter Heehs has studied the way in which changing notions of ‘self’ have affected the contents of personal documents (primarily, in his study, diaries and memoirs), beginning with the earliest writings of self-expression prior to the age of printing, and moving forwards in time to the present. He concludes:

we see that over the last two millennia, the prevailing idea of the self has changed from a ghostly spirit [deriving identity from an external being] to a substantial soul to an autonomous individual to a centre of expression to a fiction constructed by social and biological forces. 14

An understanding of the author of a letter or diary in relation to prevailing attitudes to self goes some way to explaining the literary style of their documents.

Knowing the authors of personal documents means understanding the ways in which they perceived and experienced the world around them. A growing area of importance to the study of listening experiences, as this collection demonstrates, is research drawn from cultural history into historical perspectives of the sensorium – how the senses feature in people’s understanding of their worlds. Ina Knoth’s chapter examines eighteenth-century accounts of listening against the background of what she describes as an acknowledged ‘shift from the dominance of the hearing sense to the visual sense in the Age of Enlightenment’. Rebecca Rinsema takes these ideas forward into modern times, discussing the significance of the ‘sensory turn’ on the study of listening.

Other crucially important contexts that affect individuals include the social and political environment in which they lived. Helen Barlow’s chapter is telling in this regard, as she studies an environment in which individual listeners and opinion formers endeavoured to understand Welshness and the important place held by music in defining the phenomenon.

Knowing the authors of personal documents means understanding the way in which they were likely to express themselves according to contemporary social conventions. For those of us who study listening accounts it has often been surprising that so many sources make no reference whatsoever to any emotional response to music: we might even ask if many individuals did actually react to music emotionally prior to modern times. But in earlier times virtues such as self-control and propriety held sway, as they continue to in some contexts today, so we should not expect to read of intensely personal reactions to music in sources of every era.

A particularly significant period in which expressions of emotion came to the fore as never before was the age of sensibility. 15 In the late eighteenth century the expression of emotion became something of a hallmark of authentic human experience, which was expressed both in people’s behaviour and in their personal documents. For example, Whyman identifies a period of ‘the heightened language of sensibility in letters written by Robert [Johnson] and his friends from the 1770s – 90s’, 16 the period when the culture of sensibility was at its height. During these decades it was acceptable for both men and women to display emotion, before the floodgates were shut with the coming of the Victorian era, when men in particular needed once again to demonstrate behavioural restraint. 17 However, even during the age of sensibility, expressing oneself emotionally was not without social risk, since not everyone shared the view that it was to be encouraged. It is against this background that Thomas Twining expressed his emotions somewhat hesitantly, albeit tearfully, as recorded in a letter dated 24 February 1780 to his friend and university tutor, John Hey:

we dined with Bates one day, & heard Miss [Sarah] Harrop sing from tea-time till ten o’clock; snug & comfortable; no audience but the two Bates’s, Mrs. Bates, & ourselves. One of the greatest musical treats I ever had. I had, as Sir Hugh Evans says, “great dispositions to cry”; nay, the tears actually came out, and Elmsall said he should have cried if he had not seen how foolish I looked. She sung Pergolesi, Leo, Hasse — things I know, & that nobody sings. It gave me some faint idea of meeting one’s departed friends in Heaven. 18

Did men and women experience music, or write about their experiences of music, in a similar way? Comments in the previous paragraph suggest that an answer to the question is likely to be complex. 19 It seems that in the age of sensibility all could express themselves and express their emotions in writing, but at other times it is less likely to have been so.

As well as acquainting ourselves with the writers of personal documents and the environment in which they lived, we must also understand the literary conventions and constraints that shaped the texts they wrote. So, for example, during the seventeenth century in particular, manuals for the writing of spiritual diaries were used and model diaries were published. 20 In the long eighteenth-century manuals provided blueprints for the growing number of letter-writers. 21 The nature of travel literature was initially highly influenced by the Royal Society, whose publications affected the way that travel journals were written. Shortly after the foundation of the Society in 1660 a document was drawn up detailing the kind of data required from the experiments to be carried out and the observations to be made by Edward Montague as he led a naval squadron towards the Mediterranean. ‘There were six topics of enquiry: the depth of the sea, variations in the salinity of the seawater, the pressure of the seawater, tides and currents in the Straits of Gibraltar, and the nature of phosphorescence’. 22 This sort of approach, which was governed by close observation and accurate, factual reporting, and little expression of emotional engagement, characterises many travel diaries written during the century or so that followed. Whatever their experience of music, one would not expect to find accounts of the personal impact of music on its listeners in these documents, whereas one might in later travel writing: later manifestations of the genre were marked by an increasing concentration on the individual and a tendency towards personal reflection and sensationalism. 23

The textual style of personal documents is to some degree dictated by the media in which they were created. For example, in the modern era, everyone knows that tweets can only contain a certain number of characters, but without that knowledge we would probably find them baffling. Another example from modern times addresses the sort of quick and easy editing that has been become possible by means of computing technology; not editing undertaken in order to prepare text for publication, but changes made in order to produce a polished text for the sake of personal satisfaction. In his account of writing, first a teenage diary and then an adult one, Philppe Lejeune describes the stylistic differences of the two texts and some of the reasons for those differences:

As an adolescent writer, I adopted the rule of total spontaneity. I refused to rewrite my diary, which was of course why it was rubbish. I was even reluctant to correct its spelling. Since 1991, I have been working on a word-processor. While writing the journal of Le Moi des demoiselles on my Macintosh, I realised that it was possible to work over a diary in the present, ‘crafting’ an entry while remaining close to the truthfulness of the momentary emotion. I realised that the journal form was not incompatible with the process of composition: a dramatic and argumentative line of prose could be constructed in such a way as to meet the future. 24

Given the polished nature of their prose, some of the more elegantly-written diaries from earlier centuries read as if they underwent a parallel process of editing.

A new (or not now so new) type of ‘personal’ document currently exists on the internet. Users of social media, to some extent at least, now live out their personal lives in the online presence of a selected or entirely public readership. Exactly how different social media texts are from the letter-writing of earlier centuries is a matter for discussion, but there can be no doubt that the online text which appears is a construct, as Heehs observes:

By creating a profile and uploading text and pictures, users define who they are or rather create an online identity that they offer to others as themselves … The result has been the blurring of the line between the user’s ‘actual’ identity and his or her online persona. 25

Not only is there potential conflict here between an actual and online persona, but the possibility of rapid changes of online identity.

Studying online and oral evidence

For anyone studying online texts perhaps the biggest challenge is the sheer quantity of online data. Craig Hamilton’s research is based on people’s accounts of listening that ‘provide detail and reflection on their experiences with music across the course of a single day’. The accounts have been gathered from posts to online platforms, emails, and online forms. It is the challenge of making sense of large amounts of data from diverse sources with which the chapter is mostly engaged. In this respect, the chapter is similar to Simon Brown’s, which sets out to find ways of analysing pre-existing online data on Twitter and Facebook. What meaningful conclusions can be reached by analysing the short snippets of information provided by this data?

Martin Clarke’s chapter deals with a different kind of online interaction – a section of BBC Radio 3’s Forum relating to its regular broadcasts of Choral Evensong. The online interaction is distinctive in so far as elements of it form a conversation, carried out in the full gaze of a wider public. Quoting an individual’s reaction to the performance in Durham Cathedral of a piece by William Byrd, Clarke goes on to highlight a relatively ‘intimate’ discussion of the piece between nine individuals, writing between them a total of 23 posts, and his chapter points to the importance of this sort of activity in forming a unique kind of listening community.

So far we have considered some of the issues that arise when listening testimony in the form of written words is used, but some chapters in this collection use oral history and ethnographic recordings respectively – sources which, by their nature, could be thought to lie in a category between the ‘personal’ documents we have considered and the questionnaire approach used in Stephanie E. Pitts’ chapter. Oral history may be structured according to a specific series of questions asked by a second party, or they may be formed more loosely. Whatever the circumstances they may generally be regarded as ‘solicited’ sources in so far as one individual has usually asked another to provide information on a particular subject. As Barlow points out, we may therefore question to what extent their content has been influenced by the project that underpins the recording – yet another example of ‘personal’ evidence that is shaped by factors beyond the individual. 26

Lorenzo Vanelli tackles head-on the problems of using ethnographic sources as evidence. His chapter on African American Hollers analyses the way in which flawed methods of gathering evidence have led to a false narrative as a direct result of the way in which information was solicited on the basis of false assumptions, as well as the way in which the material has been poorly archived.

Language

Historians of listening are frequently disappointed by the brevity and apparent superficiality of listening accounts. In many historical periods it is rare to find expressions of real engagement with music, and more often than not only the barest of details of performances are provided. This has much to do with the issues raised above. However, even though an account may not appear to say much about a listener’s experience, the language it contains may nevertheless contain clues as to the intensity of an experience, because individuals whose listening was highly engaged often tended to use a richer vocabulary than those whose listening was more casual. The difference in language is especially, but not exclusively, evident in the choice of adjectives. A comparison of two listeners’ experiences, just 20 years apart, makes the point.

Mary Berry (1763–1852) was an author. Many of her listening experiences are recorded in the Extracts of the Journal and Correspondence of Miss Berry from the Year 1783 to 1852, which was published in 1865. A typical example is her account of a performance in Hanover Square on 18 May 1810:

Went to Barthelemon’s concert with Lady Ellenborough. The party. Lord and Lady Ellenborough, Lord and Lady Dunmore, Lord Sidmouth, sat together very comfortably. The Handel part of the concert fine. The Hanover Square Rooms quite full of persons, not one of whose faces I had ever seen before. At the end of the first act I went away, and walked down the whole length of the room with Mr. Rogers, through rows of people, all well or expensively dressed, who had paid half a guinea for their tickets, such a place is London!

Like many other accounts of the period, Berry’s is mostly given over to what we might consider to be incidental descriptions of the people who accompanied her, the rest of the audience and the price of tickets. Her comments about the music are very brief and, crucially, she chose a very weak adjective to describe the performance: the word ‘fine’ is a very frequently-used, but vague word, similar in strength to other adjectives of the time such as ‘admirable’, ‘agreeable’, ‘charming’, ‘delightful’, ‘pleasing’, and so on. Weak adjectives such as these are a common feature of Berry’s listening accounts. The amount of space she gives to descriptions of other aspects of performances suggests that music was for her just one element of a nice evening out.

Anna Seward (1742–1809), too, was an author, but her correspondence shows her to be a much more engaged listener than Mary Berry. In a brief extract from a letter to a Mrs Martin dated 27 October 1790 she reported that:

I ventured to one of the morning music festivals at Shrewsbury, and heard Mr Saville open the Messiah with a pathos, an energy, and a grace that none ever excelled, and which I never heard equalled. 27

Tellingly, in this extract three words (‘pathos’, ‘energy’, ‘grace’) are used to describe Saville’s performance, each of them chosen carefully to convey a particular sense of an element of his singing style. A comparison is also made between Saville and other performers. This sort of specific comment is characteristic of her other descriptions of performances: the care with which she expresses herself in passages such as this are symptomatic of her high level of engagement with music.

When studying listeners’ language care must obviously be taken to understand the contemporary meaning of words, and the interpretation of one passage should be made in the context of other similar descriptions by the same author. Adjectives such as ‘pretty’ have changed their meaning over time and terms such as ‘sensibility’ and ‘sublime’ need to be understood in the context of the wider picture of philosophical history and each writer’s experience of the concepts.

Language also offers a way in to an important question in the LED project’s research: how does the experience of ‘ordinary’ listeners compare with the orthodox pronouncements of those who promote ideas in society? It can reveal a gap between the experience of ‘ordinary’ listeners and public discourse about the supposed purpose of music in a given period. This is vividly illustrated, for example, in the language of public pronouncements on music in wartime that emerged during the First World War, in the press and in parliamentary debate, compared with the way that serving military personnel wrote about the effect of music. Unsurprisingly, public discourse focused on the function of music in promoting moral strength and martial spirit, particularly at the front. It frequently featured the adjective ‘good’ (as in ‘good rousing march tunes’, 28 and ‘good music by good musicians for good soldiers’ 29 – the blandness of that term conveying rather effectively the triteness and superficiality of the assumptions underlying such public utterances.

A close reading of the language in which musical experiences are described by military personnel in their letters, diaries and memoirs, reveals a very different tone. While such accounts certainly bear witness to the positive effect of music, their language rarely expresses patriotic fervour, but rather speaks of music as a means of reassurance, comfort, connection with home, and even sustenance and healing. While descriptions are not necessarily lengthy, the intensity of the experience is revealed in strong, vivid adjectives and other language patterns – such as the notably frequent use of an almost medical vocabulary: ‘a vital necessity… it was a life-giving nourishment’; 30 ‘If it was medicine, as I believed it to be, then it was swallowed in great gulps’. 31

This is one historical context where the perspectives of listeners suggest experiences of music that were very different from the ‘official line’. 32 Helen Barlow’s chapter offers another instance, using late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century oral testimony alongside the evidence of newspapers, periodicals and speeches to explore how Welsh singing, especially the performance of Welsh traditional song, was interpreted as evidence of cultural progressiveness. She compares the written and spoken rhetoric of opinion formers with the testimony of individuals who remembered from childhood the songs they experienced in everyday life.

Conclusion

Understanding historical accounts of listening is a complex and challenging task. We are only just beginning to unravel the issues, but at least one thing is clear; a thoroughly interdisciplinary approach is necessary in order to be able to grasp how individuals have interacted with music and what it has meant to them. The nature of the source material is often perplexing and often superficially disappointing, yet with care and imagination it offers up insights into the past which would otherwise be lost. Listening history is a fascinating sub-discipline that is at last beginning to gain some traction and it is our hope that this collection will play its part in developing the discourse and encouraging others to engage.

Select bibliography

Bannet, Eve Tavor. Empire of Letters: Letter Manuals and Transatlantic Correspondence, 1688–1820. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Brant, Clare. Eighteenth-century Letters and British Culture. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.

Doll, Dan and Munns, Jessica. Recording and Reordering: Essays on the Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-century Diary and Journal. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2006.

French, Henry and Rothery, Mark. Man’s Estate Landed Gentry Masculinities c.1660–c.1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Heehs, Peter. Writing the Self: Diaries, Memoirs, and the History of the Self. New York, London, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Johnson, James. Listening in Paris: A Cultural History. Berkeley; London: University of California Press, c.1995.

Langford, Rachael and West, Russell. Marginal Voices, Marginal Forms: Diaries in European Literature and History. Amsterdam: Rodolpi, 1999.

Lyons, Martyn. The Writing Culture of Ordinary People in Europe, 1860–1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Mullan, John Arthur. Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Ritchie, Donald A. (ed.).The Oxford Handbook of Oral History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Smith, Sidonie and Watson, Julia. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Thorau, Christian and Ziemer, Hansjakob (eds). The Oxford Handbook of Music Listening in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Oxford: Oxford University Press, published online in 2018 and in print in 2019.

Tosh, John. Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain. London: Routledge, 2004.

Whyman, Susan E. The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers 1660–1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 191–192.

Youngs, Tim. The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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Download: Introduction: understanding listening experiences

Audiences

Live music and popular listening cultures in Britain, c1850–c1960

Dave Russell

Dave Russell taught in schools in Bradford and Leeds, at the University of Central Lancashire and at Leeds Metropolitan University from where he retired as Professor of History and Northern Studies in 2010; he is now an independent scholar. He is the author of Popular Music in England, 1840–1914. A Social History (1997, second edition), Football and the English (1997) and Looking North. Northern England and the National Imagination (2004), and numerous essays and articles on the history of popular culture. His current interests include the music profession, the guitar in the mid-twentieth century and opera as popular music.

Abstract

Exploring a number of concert and theatrical settings including music hall and variety, the working-man’s club, popular classical concerts and brass band contests, this chapter examines popular listening behaviours in what might be termed a long Victorian century from 1850. While acknowledging that musical culture frequently transcended class boundaries (hence use of the label ‘popular’), it focuses mainly on working-class listeners. It discusses the social and musical factors that structured listening habits and, while noting the continued existence of distinctive sub-cultures, attempts to chart overall trajectories and patterns of listening. It is argued that audiences generally became quieter and more disciplined over this period, although they were stubbornly resistant to concerted attempts to alter their behaviour and the pace of change was slow. The problems posed by popular audiences should not be exaggerated, however, as they invariably exhibited behaviour appropriate to both specific musical environments and musical genres. Overall, a tendency toward respectful enthusiasm, politeness and attentiveness is arguably the hallmark of audience culture throughout the period. The emergence of new styles of youth culture from the 1950s, which sometimes appeared to involve not listening at all, marks a convenient endpoint for this discussion.

Introduction

Most exploration of the historical listening experience has been concerned with serious listening to serious music by members of the middle and upper classes. 33 This chapter is much influenced by this rich body of work and, indeed, hopes to contribute to it. Certain genres considered here including oratorio and popular opera might interest those tracing the evolution of art music audiences as much (or more) as they do students of popular music: the boundaries of scholarship must be as permeable as the categories under study. However, its main aim is to augment recent attempts to give greater consideration to more obviously demotic genres and audiences. It does so through an overview of audience conduct during a ‘long’ Victorian century from about 1850 to 1960 in a wide variety of British popular theatrical, concert or quasi-concert settings including the concert hall, music hall and variety theatre, public house, working man’s club and brass band contest. These locations are indicative and findings might be different if street music, jazz clubs or any number of other forms were selected. Concentrating on what Simon Frith has identified as a key ‘listening argument’, that of ‘silence versus noise’ or, perhaps more specifically in this context, participation versus spectatorship, it aims to discern the factors influencing audience cultures and to identify any general behavioural trajectories that those cultures exhibited across the period. 34

Although alert to the complexities found within specific listening environments, the study is consciously wide-ranging both in terms of chronology and subject matter. While breadth risks generalisation and the obscuring of subtle variation, the benefits of such an approach are considerable. The periodisation allows for the charting of changes (or otherwise) within a set of popular musical activities that emerged in the early Victorian years, reached maturity in the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, and then moved to, or much closer to, the margins of national life by mid-century. In terms of content, institutions usually studied in isolation in fact shared a set of common problems in regard to how audiences should be attracted, entertained and policed and it is instructive to see how these issues were addressed across a broad musical field.

This was originally conceived as a study of working-class listeners and, in the urban-based, white, male form that they most frequently assumed over the period, they do remain at its heart. However, although class was fundamental to the shaping of musical life it could never dictate absolutely its final outcomes. While the public house, the working man’s club and the band contest may have been almost exclusively proletarian in complexion, other arenas such as the music hall and popular theatre were more socially mixed with the exact balance varying between venues and over time. Again, working men formed often significant minorities at orchestral and even chamber concerts. 35 The label ‘popular’ rather than ‘working-class’ has therefore been adopted, used in its sociological rather than aesthetic sense to capture a set of musical environments which, although often drawing a majority of their audience from the working class, frequently transcended class boundaries.

Figure 1: Oxford Music Hall 1875 (Source: By London Theatre Museum collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19934650)

Sources

Primary sources for such a study are scattered and fragmentary, although the emergence of digitised resources and particularly the ever-expanding British Newspaper Archive have certainly enhanced research opportunities in recent years. Moreover, given that popular audiences rarely described their own conduct and serious ethnographic accounts were largely unknown until the 1950s, our main ‘earwitnesses’ are the critics, social commentators and recreational reformers whose writings, especially but not exclusively in the Victorian period, were often engaged polemics rooted in wider class-inflected debates. Although there was much thoughtful and nuanced commentary, working-class listeners were all too easily constructed as either rowdy villains or quiet heroes. A mid-nineteenth century Leeds music-hall audience, observed by a Baptist minister ‘gaping with gusto on scenes, and listening with delight to sounds, which to us, at least, were both humiliating and appalling’, stood at one extreme, clear evidence of the need for the wholesale cleansing of popular recreation. 36 At the other were ‘the earnest and intelligent working man’ found hovering outside a cathedral choral festival and wondering ‘whether the ladies and gentleman that come in their carriages to hear the music think as much of it as I should’; the audience at a popular concert in Bridgewater, mainly composed of brickyard labourers and deemed by the organisers ‘more quiet and attentive than some who occupy a higher social position’; and the occupants of the cheap seats at a Leeds ballad concert disturbed by a noisy mass exit by their social superiors:

Those people, too, who had paid their money at the doors and who could not boast of carriages and front seats, had a right to demand that silence should preserved until the concert came to an end. 37

These serious listeners, in their turn, were vehicles for various, sometimes radical, discourses seeking to highlight supposed middle- and upper-middle class philistinism. Used judiciously, these rich bodies of material tell us much but scholars must always guard against becoming their prisoners rather than their interpreters.

Listening cultures

While space does not allow a fully systematic discussion of listening cultures, in what follows they are seen as the product of constant interplay and creative tension between audience demand and musical product. That demand was built, in James Johnson’s felicitous phrase, on an ‘horizon of expectation’ that amalgamated personal taste, historical practice and collective cultural tradition. 38 It was frequently influenced, especially in commercial settings, by a ‘moral economy’ which provided a sense of obligation to audiences in terms of the nature, duration and quality of performance. The central component of the ‘supply’ side was obviously the music offered and it is essential that the ‘music itself’ remains close to the heart of any analysis; cultural history can too easily become only a matter of context. Nevertheless, other factors were central in defining the range of possibilities within which the music could be enjoyed and reactions to it expressed. Johnson has identified two critical influences, namely the wider social formations and relationships that defined acceptable behaviours and the more immediate physical and physiological stimuli and constraints provided by particular venues and their underpinning ideologies. These were to prove as critical to popular as to art music. 39 Forming a bridge between demand and supply were the specialist critics and wider cultural commentators noted above and whose comments upon, and attempts to influence, audience demeanour, were ultimately dependent upon ideological and artistic preference. Although audiences undoubtedly found champions amongst their number, their combined weight probably tilted toward those managements and performers seeking in some way to reform and alter existing habits.

Disputes between audiences and managements or organisers were inevitable but most were relatively easily resolved, glossed over or prosecuted by a kind of guerrilla warfare by audiences that eventually petered out as its protagonists were replaced by new generations. Serious confrontation was rare and most likely to occur when significant change was mooted in a commercial setting in which the power balance was delicately poised. In locations such as the club concert room where audiences were socially homogenous and collective habits well established, problems were generally manageable. However, in the Edwardian variety theatre when managements sought to change the nature of performance in order to engineer an upward shift in social tone, such resolution, as will be seen, was less straightforward. Difficulties could also occur where different etiquettes collided – brass band followers could be forced to share park space with casual bystanders and the ‘yells and horseplay…of dirty little boys and girls and “raffy” youths’ – or where music was performed in an inappropriate venue. The 1950s produced some of the clearest examples of when music that encouraged dancing was held in venues such as cinemas that required sitting, while other forms that required listening were held in dance halls. 40

Listening aloud

Although James Johnson’s ground-breaking Listening in Paris has been criticised both for underestimating pre-existing habits of silent listening and exaggerating the extent of their eventual triumph, there can be little doubt that in the period from about 1750 art music audiences did indeed increasingly ‘stop talking and start listening’. 41 As a later section will demonstrate, a parallel process gradually took shape amongst the popular audiences that had begun to coalesce around new entertainment forms from the mid-century (examining the listening habits they imported from earlier periods remains an important research task). This, however, was, often more a matter of a move to quieter rather than silent listening. Audiences had always been perfectly capable of silent listening when appropriate, but in many contexts silence would have been self-denyingly perverse and downright rude to the performers. Particularly in the Victorian period and in many contexts thereafter, enjoyment (or disapproval) was to be registered audibly and various moments in performance appropriated for public intervention. It is this process of active, participatory and engaged listening that is considered first.

Beyond the organised music-hall claques that wrought disorder if performers failed to meet their financial demands, audiences were rarely genuinely and deliberately disruptive. 42 Political and cultural tensions could spark serious confrontations, as at the Leeds Hippodrome in 1913 when Jewish patrons took exception to J. P. Ling’s comic song, ‘The ragtime cowboy Jew’, but such manifestations were unusual. 43 Many music halls were undoubtedly the site of youthful, masculine sub-cultures which much prized certain levels of unruliness involving jeering and the throwing of objects at the stage to show disapproval. Neville Cardus, eventually one of the most distinguished of British music critics, remembered how in early Edwardian Manchester, ‘a small company of us boys housed in bathless, unlavatoried Rusholme and Moss Side’ clubbed together to buy eggs to aim at unsatisfactory performers at the Tivoli Theatre of Varieties. 44

Audiences were also sometimes extremely harsh on those believed, fairly or otherwise, not to have delivered value for money, with the ballad concerts of the leading British tenor, Sims Reeves (1821–1900) a particular target. Reeves, although hugely popular with audiences, was famously reluctant to provide encores at a time when audiences often demanded them to excess and, from the 1860s, his consistent refusal to give other than minimal satisfaction became coupled with an increased tendency to cancel concerts at short notice. Although probably dictated by genuine health issue, a drink problem was widely believed to be the cause and audiences clearly determined to extract the maximum value when he did actually sing. At the end of his performance at Victoria Hall, Leeds in 1876, for example, sections of the audience were soon ‘applauding, stamping their feet, whistling and [unsuccessfully] shouting for his reappearance’ and refused to cease when the next performer took the stage, with the result that the remainder of the concert was eventually abandoned. This pattern of events was repeated on at least four occasions at Manchester (1867), Newcastle (1878), Exeter (1882) and Liverpool (1886), while other lower-level demonstrations were frequent occurrences during his tours. 45 Significantly, younger male patrons were once again responsible for such disruptions. The perpetrators were probably both older than Cardus and his music-hall friends and sometimes from a higher social class. Although Reeves did attract working-class audiences, at Leeds at least, the minimum entry of 1/6d would have excluded almost all working-class patrons and the ‘exuberant youths’ were likely to have been lower-middle and middle-class ‘swells’, young-men-about town apeing upper-class bohemian culture. Although the exact nature of rowdy audience behaviour may have been shaped by class, an aggressive masculinity was invariably at its heart. It was not until the pop concerts of the 1950s that young women’s voices really began to play their parts in shaping live listening culture in significant ways.

In general, these masculine sub-cultural styles were precisely that and did not constitute standard audience practice. In the nineteenth and early twentieth-century what was often reported as audience intrusion was essentially a desire to have some form of control over proceedings, to be involved and to express a view. Particularly earlier in the period audiences expected to move in and out of and within venues, with ease, and to smoke, eat and drink wherever possible. As already noted, ill-timed entry and egress could be highly problematic as was the taking of refreshment, especially if audiences were hearing music in a setting where it was not normally performed. A Good Friday Messiah performance in an east London theatre, for example, saw, albeit ‘a very few’ patrons, unable to ‘abstain from letting corks fly from bottles containing effervescing liquors during some of the finest passages’. 46 Above all, audiences wanted to be heard, both by their immediate neighbours (in musical comedy and light opera the overture was still sometimes seen as an opportunity for the continuation of chatting rather than its point of cessation well in to the 1930s), by the wider audience and, above all, by those on stage. 47

Historians of music hall have long recognised the easy intimacy often established between audience and performer but, while the halls probably saw this at its most marked level, it was a feature of popular musical life more widely. Interjection by individual audience members was a common and significant expression of this. Sometimes it was simply a matter of startled response to action on stage, as when a young female Bradford galleryite greeted the death of a character in Benedict’s opera The Lily of Killarney, by giving ‘a mighty shriek and exclaim[ing] “He’s shot him!”’ 48 More commonly, it took the form of admonition, encouragement or personal observation. The young Sims Reeves was told to ‘sing up lad!’ in Bradford in 1848 while, at a ‘People’s Concert’ in Halifax six years later, a member of the gallery was loudly cheered after shouting out ‘That’s true’ during a rendition of ‘Home, Sweet Home’. The local newspaper found this actually quite endearing and was far more troubled by the frequent whistling ‘more shrill and piercing than ever’ despite warning notices to the contrary. 49 Here was a sense of ownership, of familiarity with the performers that proclaimed the audiences to be valid and valued participants in proceedings.

Displays of enthusiasm or otherwise were obviously the most pronounced form of such engagement. Some measure of applause was the least a performer could expect but popular audiences demonstrated levels of enthusiasm, inappropriately so in the eyes of many critics, that ranged well beyond conventional politeness. Loud applause (sometimes combined with whistling and stamping) whether in anticipation of a high note, during its execution or after its completion, was commonly noted in reviews of concerts and of both popular opera and oratorio as was a more general habit of applauding at the end of individual arias and choruses. Interestingly, chorus members were sometimes called to account for joining in such activity. Discussing a Messiah performance in 1896, one Yorkshire-based critic felt that while ‘the Philistinism of the audience…must be taken as a matter of course’, the Dewsbury Choral Society really ‘should have set a better example in this matter than they did last night.’ 50 Jeers and boos or simply bored outbreaks of chatter and early exit formed the contrary critical response in most performance genres, with music hall audiences probably the hardest to please, although those attending events aimed at their mental and/or moral improvement were not slow in demonstrating that ‘inappropriate’ behaviour and ‘inappropriate’ content were closely related. Visiting London’s People’s Palace in 1889, George Bernard Shaw found music utterly unsuited to the building and the occasion:

In the concert-room some unfortunate artists were bawling ballads in the vain hope of gaining the attention of a vast audience. But the thing was impossible: the place was too big. Hundreds of young people loafed and larked, or stared and wandered in and out, at the end of the room. 51

The call for an encore, invariably demanded during rather than at the end, or at a suitable break in performance, was the most important but also most problematic element of audience involvement. It is no surprise that so many Victorian critics regularly coupled the words ‘encore’ and ‘nuisance’. Singers, contracted and paid for a certain number of songs, could be pushed beyond acceptable physical limits by audience demands. Schedules were disrupted by the additional material with some audience members therefore forced to leave for final trains and trams before the conclusion of a performance; counter-encore demonstrations were understandably not infrequent. Encores became an acute organisational problem for music hall as it evolved into twice-nightly variety shows that demanded precise timings in the first-house in order to allow prompt entry at the second. Particularly in opera and oratorio, dramatic tension and artistic integrity were at risk of being compromised by calls for repeats. As one twentieth-century musician wearily observed in the context of opera, if ‘the character…is made to die twice, it matters little’. 52 However, for audience and performer alike, encores, perhaps even more than ticket sales, were the best evaluation of success, pleasurable and effectively free entertainment for the former, the stuff of press notices and reputation-building for the latter. For the most part, they were generously requested and often equally generously granted.

The restrained audience

While noisy galleries, encores and other displays of enthusiasm were never to disappear, it is not difficult to discern an underlying move toward increasing levels of restraint. It was a slow and uneven process both across the period and between different genres and it was perhaps not until the 1930s that a visitor from the early Victorian era would have sensed really noteworthy changes. Moreover, by 1950, new patterns were emerging as crooners and balladeers, then rock and rollers and finally pop stars per se became the object of noisy, highly interventionist audience engagement from within youth culture. Nevertheless, although far more research is required, evidence currently available would suggest that by the inter-war period and with accelerating force from that point, not only the opportunity but also the desire for engaged involvement had diminished.

The variety theatres that increasingly supplanted music hall from the 1890s illustrated this most markedly. Controlled by syndicates anxious to reach new ‘respectable’ markets in the form of more women and socially-mixed clienteles, their managements sought to replace comic singers with circus-style acts, theatrical sketches and the new genre of revue. Architectural shifts, with the sale of alcoholic drinks either banished altogether or located in foyer bars, and the full adoption of theatrical seating rather than ‘cabaret’ style tables serviced by waiters, tended to fix audiences in one place for long periods. Taken together, these artistic and structural changes significantly altered the dynamic between stage and audience and increasingly generated what Frith has termed ‘secondary listening’, whereby music was essentially subsidiary to visual spectacle. 53

Changes on a rather less dramatic scale could also be seen in other areas. In 1936, one Scottish commentator expressed pleasure that:

an oratorio is no longer punctuated with bursts of applause, and such a thing as the repetition of a number in an opera is almost unheard of, even in the holiday atmosphere of a Saturday night. 54

It is difficult to chart their exact chronology and extent. Thomas Russell’s wry observation on double dying was made five years after this claim. In 1933, the critic, Herbert Thompson, always fierce in his defence of the artistic and spiritual sanctity of oratorio, met a Leeds Messiah audience’s applause for Mary Jarred’s rendition of ‘He was despised’ with the rebuke that ‘there is no excuse for such barbarism’. The next year, audiences at neighbouring Bradford were chastised for ‘applauding everything indiscriminately’ during the same work. 55 Nevertheless, even Thompson admitted in his 1933 notice that ‘much progress has been made in latter years’ and by 1947, a reviewer in a north-eastern paper talked of a Messiah enjoyed in ‘the newer traditional manner, no encores’, suggestive, perhaps, that a properly ‘silent’ listening had largely been established in the field of oratorio by this stage. 56 There were certainly genres that remained immune, with Savoy opera, both professional and amateur, still strongly imbued with an encore culture. One critic noted that the audience at a D’Oyly Carte Princess Ida in Birmingham in 1932 ‘seemed insatiable and the company only too painfully eager to oblige’, while another savoured a film version of The Mikado and thus the pleasurable and ‘unprecedented experience’ of hearing the work ‘unhampered by the “encore nuisance”’. 57 Overall trends, however, were clear.

Listening cultures were reshaped or reformed only rarely by either exhortation – warning notices in programmes or on theatre walls seem to have been substantially ignored – or forcible imposition. The Edwardian variety theatre was something of an exception to this, with strictures on audience behaviour sometimes reinforced aggressively by evictions and bans carried out by managers, uniformed commissionaires and sometimes even the police. Such tactics could provoke resistance, with attempts by the manager of south-east London’s New Cross Empire to introduce dress codes, limit whistling and prevent ‘unparliamentary language’ in the gallery, met with vocal hostility and even physical force. In one extreme incident, he was attacked with a knife by a patron (a slaughterman by trade) that he had tried to eject; the man served six months in prison and reportedly returned as an ally in the battle for order. 58 There were echoes of such tactics in the clumsy attempts to curtail the dancing that accompanied live rock ‘n’ roll performances in cinemas and other supposedly static environments the 1950s.

In general, however, the majority of audiences, variety or otherwise, did not need a punitive environment in order to conform to new expectations. Most significant alterations in audience behaviour were more usually the result of a gradual evolution in collective mentalities structured by the internalisation of new modes of public behaviour in society more widely and subtler forms of persuasion within the specific context of musical performance. Much change was doubtless the result of a ‘civilising process’ that saw individuals become ever more subject to the regulatory frameworks of urban-industrial life, brought forth by factors as varied as the workplace, school, enhanced consumer power, increased privatisation of domestic life and the marginalisation of older, rowdier and unpredictable forms of popular culture. Within the narrower arena of popular leisure, technological change may have helped reconfigure listening habits. From the late 1920s, ‘talkies’ made cinemas quieter places, with sound removing the need for the literate young to read out captions for illiterate or semi-literate friends and family, thereby establishing a less participatory audience engagement. (Like variety theatres, larger, city-centre cinemas were also highly regulated in comparison with older, community-based locations.) Gramophone and wireless had, in their turn, the potential to give a focus and intensity to the private listening experience that could translate to the public sphere. This is, admittedly, very speculative and some accounts of broadcasting even as late as the 1950s noted precisely the opposite tendency with wirelesses left on almost permanently and issuing music indiscriminately. 59 Whatever the case, the relationship between private and public listening provides a potentially fertile area for future study.

Within the field of live music, reform was largely a matter of incremental generational change. As variety became established, audiences increasingly knew what was expected of them. Within concert life broadly defined, prosaic but important organisational alterations emerging over the twentieth century including a reduction in the duration of concerts, imposition of strict starting and finishing times, insistence upon tightly defined intervals and restrictions on entry during performances, at the very least limited the problems of noisy movement and may well have generated a wider sense of order. The strictures of music critics demanding more disciplined habits possibly helped create a general atmosphere in which change could occur and, more fundamentally, they were often indicative of an increasing concern within the music profession about the need to maintain the artistic and intellectual integrity of the musical work. It was the steady but generally non-confrontational application of such thinking that had the biggest influence on listening culture. Although the detailed chronology is again unclear, for much of the nineteenth century, for example, it was common for conductors to accept the reprise of several pieces of an opera or oratorio during a performance. Gradually that number was reduced so as to allow only repetition of those items that custom and practice had rendered almost obligatory. During a Carl Rosa visit to Dundee in 1928, an encore of the ‘The Soldier’s Chorus’, long a popular favourite, was ‘the only one permitted by [conductor] Aylmer Buesst’ during the performance of Faust. The next night, while the similarly prized ‘Toreador’s Song’ from Carmen was reprised, the called for ‘double encore…was denied’. 60 Audiences were still indulged but within ever more constrained boundaries that new listeners swiftly came to understand as norms.

Polite listening

It would be unfortunate if the foregoing exploration of listening behaviours and the role played by external influences in shaping them should obscure the extent to which popular audiences were always highly active agents in the making of their musical experiences. What is so striking from this perspective is not the problematic nature of audiences but their strong tendency to polite behaviour and, where necessary, their willingness to display the quiet, concentrated listening that was at the core of much working-class and popular listening.

This was certainly the case in the concert hall, whether for the small working-class minority that patronised orchestral concerts or the larger numbers found, often with scores in hand, at vocal or choral events. Although the danger of taking positive commentary at face value has been acknowledged, there is simply too much testimony to the ‘most orderly’ behaviour, and ‘most wonderful discretion…in applause’ of the type experienced by the conductor and flautist, Edward de Jong, at his Manchester concerts in the 1880s, for them to be viewed as anything other than a central current within popular musical life. 61 Johnson’s question as to why audiences ‘stopped talking and starting listening’ may indeed be basically irrelevant to working-class concert-goers, bringing with them as many did, powerful cultural and economic motives for self-discipline. Many will have been keen amateur musicians imbued with the traditions of courteous listening common to much voluntary music-making from the eighteenth century. Beyond any such considerations of mutual respect, many early amateur choirs, bands and other groups also had strict codes of etiquette reinforced by monetary fines and penalties. Although these were often related to attendance, bad language and the misuse of instruments and other resources, it is likely that the disciplines imposed translated into a wider respect for taking music seriously and observing expected codes. 62 The simple economic imperative, however, was probably the most powerful factor. Attendance at concerts often involved costs that were ill-afforded and journeys on foot that could be long and arduous. 63 Why talk and undermine such sacrifices? For working men, unlike many of their social superiors, attendance at concerts was not an obligation or an opportunity to be seen. It was ultimately a serious aesthetic affair.

Although working-class concert-goers only ever constituted a small minority within their wider communities, serious, quiet listening, albeit not necessarily of the same duration or intensity, could also be found much more widely in such initially unlikely locations as the music hall, public house and working men’s club. As suggested above, much formal working-class culture was highly rule-bound by codes of conduct that reflected and reinforced broadly-agreed collective concepts of fairness, decency and, especially, respectability, a form of cultural capital absolutely central to larger battles over the gaining of political rights and reforms. Many aspects of popular listening were governed precisely by these codes, some of which were self-imposed, others requiring the intervention of an authority figure. Central here was the chairman, an individual variously imposed, elected or simply paid to keep order and ensure that performers could be heard. Although even the best chairmen might sometimes fail, he (always) was key to ensuring that early music halls were never the chaotic sites inhabiting the imaginations of their more extreme critics. 64 Many chairmen were the owners or managers of halls and their desire for control ultimately derived from commercial motives rather than popular mentalities. Nevertheless, the significant point is that audiences generally accepted their role and appreciated the purported philosophy behind it.

Although the chairman began to disappear from the music hall as the industry developed along new organisational lines, much music in pubs and clubs continued under their control for the remainder of the period. Musical performance in such places came in various guises, ranging from the ‘free and easy’ in which customers took turns to sing, to concerts, some free or available at only nominal cost, and the full scale variety performances that were emerging in working men’s clubs and commercial ‘cabaret’ clubs from the late 1950s. The exact dynamics of audience expectation and behaviour will have varied accordingly, but the presence of a chairman, Master of Ceremonies or, more fashionably from the 1950s, compère, armed with a set of rules and/or a widely accepted set of customary practices, was a fixed element. At a Victorian temperance public house in Leeds run by the British Workman movement, attendees at the free and easy paid small fines of 1/2d to 1d for a range of offences including swearing, not wearing a hat, refusing to sing when asked and talking after the chairman had called order. 65 Temperance institutions may well have demanded a higher standard of behaviour than most, but the British Workman pubs drew heavily on standard drinking cultures and such rules were probably not untypical. Some eighty years later in the same city, the cultural theorist Richard Hoggart recorded the basic mechanics of listening at a free and easy in a working-man’s club. Breaking into the general backdrop of piano playing, individuals:

would rise and move to the piano, probably urged on by friends. There will be firm cries of ‘order please!’; the servers stop clattering; the company becomes still and looks towards the piano – and the singer delivers his contribution. 66

There can be no doubt that the chairman might have to fight his audience as he desperately tried to hold a line. This is well captured in the work of sociologist Norman Dennis and his colleagues whose discussion of mining culture in the early 1950s includes one of the first scholarly ethnographic accounts of working-class listening. Their subject matter was a Saturday night concert in a working men’s club in the Yorkshire town of Featherstone at which the audience initially appeared to be relatively pliant and accommodating:

8.15. ‘The concert-room is full. There are about 160 people present. There are as many women as men, and all age groups above 18 are well-represented. The Master of Ceremonies rings the bell and thanks the audience several times until there is silence. D. H. sings ‘Memories’ and the audience loudly claps his indifferent performance, stamping and shouting. The bell rings, ‘Thank you, some order please! D. H. then sings Some enchanted evening.’

However, as drink and conversation begin to flow, within 45 minutes:

The Master of Ceremonies found it increasingly difficult to secure the required degree of silence. It is as if the performance was quite subsidiary to social intercourse, and was indeed used merely to facilitate it by filling in the gaps in the conversation…Between the songs there is a hubbub of conversation. Many join in the choruses as the artist sings. 67

Crucially, however, order never does break down, with the Master of Ceremonies determined that those wishing to listen should be able to do so and that the singer has to be given a full opportunity to perform. The main ‘hubbub’ is between and not during songs and the desire for noisy release takes the form of chorus singing. Some acts were doubtless sufficiently poor, ill-suited or unlucky to be beyond rescue and singer Elaine Delmar’s recall of one 1960s chairman requesting a club audience to ‘to give the poor cow a chance’ shows, inter alia, how unpleasant situations could become. 68 Nevertheless, much popular listening was marked by good intentions and a not inconsiderable level of respect.

The power of music

Important as individual leaders and arbiters were in structuring popular listening, audiences were perfectly capable of being quiet without being guided by anything other than a personal or collective response to the music offered to them. James Johnson and others have made a convincing case for the powerful role of particular composers – Gluck in opera, Beethoven in orchestral music, for example – in encouraging a new attentiveness in art music audiences. On the other hand, within popular music, whether defined aesthetically or sociologically, it was arguably genre rather than composer that dictated the listening response. Many forms of popular music were met quietly and attentively because personal enjoyment and accepted etiquette demanded it: even the liveliest music-hall song demanded close concentration on first encounter. However, certain forms seem to have exerted a particular power and set of expectations, and most important was the raft of music that a relative of Richard Hoggart’s once memorably described as ‘music that meks yer want to give all yer money away’. 69 As late as the 1960s, sociologist Brian Jackson noted the power of ‘the generalized “religious” sentiment of much working man’s music’ (an important reminder of a key continuity in popular taste). 70 Such music included actual religious pieces such as hymns and excerpts from popular oratorios but also secular items including popular operatic arias, show tunes such as Carousel’s ‘You’ll never walk alone’ (1945), or ‘Danny Boy/Londonderry Air’ (lyrics, 1913), ‘Bless this house’ (1927) and similar popular ballads and songs. All were linked by an ability to induce a transcendent mood amongst audiences. Given adequate performance, such material long had the capacity to induce quiet and contemplation amongst audiences and not merely in the concert hall. The music hall and variety theatre spawned a sub-genre of ‘sentimental’, ‘operatic’ or ‘ballad vocalists’ such as Charlotte Lauri, ‘listened to with the respectful attention which her superior ability as a sentimental vocalist entitles her to’ at Crowder’s Music Hall, Greenwich in 1877 and Lillian Alexander, whose repertoire included the enormously popular religious ballad, ‘The Holy City’ (1892). Although the song was seen as ‘rather incongruous with her surroundings…her fine singing, deep earnestness and handsome exterior commend[ed] her’ to an audience at London‘s Tivoli where she was ‘warmly applauded’. 71

Similar audience responses can be identified in pubs and clubs. One regular customer of a pub music room in Hulme, Manchester in the late 1940s recalled a ‘lady pianist who had a lovely voice and almost every Saturday night she was asked to sing the aria “One fine day”. Everyone present always listened in absolute silence’. 72 In the mid-1960s, the journalist Graham Turner encountered a similar response from an audience at Greasbrough Club, in south Yorkshire, then arguably the leading popular cabaret venue in the country:

The next turn was Delightful Susan Lane, the Lovely Lady of Song. She turned out to be a much better than average performer of semi-operatic numbers, and soon had the audience in awed and appreciative silence… [A member of the audience] began to hum in a fruity baritone, but an old man at the table raised his forefinger reverentially to his lips. 73

Critical to the power of such material was its connection with the trained voice and the rich accretions of what John Potter has termed ‘vocal authority’ that it garnered from association with the church and serious elements of art music, both sacred and secular. 74 Throughout the period singers in popular concerts, pubs and clubs were billed in terms of their vocal register, with the tenor voice in particular a vital component within mainstream musical taste. While exuberant and sometimes excessive response might greet such singers on completion of a performance, the structures of feeling generated by the marriage of their voices and the quasi-religious sensibility of their music made silent listening common currency. The public house and the social club were hardly imbued with the ‘undistracted communion’ of the concert hall but they were certainly capable of generating sacral moments. 75

Serious talking

Historiographical emphasis and contemporary habit lead, often quite rightly, to the equation of serious with silent listening and the current narrative is tending strongly in that direction. However, serious talking can also be an entirely valid audience response and any survey trying to capture the complexities of popular behaviour should acknowledge its widespread nature. Critical running commentary took place in all forms of popular music but it arguably reached its apotheosis in the brass band contest. Musical competition is something of an outlier within this study, a highly specialised site of ‘concert’ listening in which much of the audience comprised expert practitioners, some of whom were actually participants in the event. However, the importance of banding (and other competitive forms) to popular musical culture and the light it sheds on the nature of specialist listening justifies its inclusion.

Contest audiences were never entirely peaceful. Although it was a relative rarity, events could sometimes be disrupted by protests and disorderly displays as viewers reacted to perceived chicanery by bands (importing illegal players, for example) or even adjudicators; the prevalence of gambling on outcomes only added to inevitable annoyance that stemmed from wounded artistic pride. 76 Overall, however, external observers were more frequently impressed by the high levels of attentiveness, with the Daily News’s description of the 1907 Crystal Palace National contest arguing that:

The old Meistersingers were not more earnest in their cult of modes and tones than these working-men musicians…the crowd – score in hand – followed the performances with an accuracy of knowledge and judgement which bore out in striking measure the elaborate and careful estimates of the professional judges. 77

Such earnestness probably did not translate into silent listening, however. Ironically, those audience scores, the ultimate indication of serious and scholarly purpose, were themselves a cause of noise, so large and unwieldy that when turned in unison, ‘it sounded like a flock of birds flying over’ 78 More fundamentally, by the 1960s and almost certainly much earlier, a vigorous tradition of verbal commentary was well established. At the highly prestigious 1962 Open Contest at Belle Vue, Manchester, which drew an audience of at least 3–4,000:

Silence was not demanded. A band came on the platform, its conductor waited for the quietest moment he could, and then began. The audience discussed the conductor, criticized soloists, argued about correct intonation, suggested marks. Throughout the day there was a perpetual activity of assessment – a general thinking out aloud…In a poorer performance, part of the audience disappeared behind newspapers. You could tell the common assessment by watching the newspapers come up or go down. 79

On this occasion, the audience’s opinions did not accord with the ‘careful estimates’ of the judges and the results were greeted with ‘stunned silence, then cries of anger, disagreement and astonishment’. Applause for the winners was ‘very restrained’ and the wrong notes hit when they played a valedictory piece ‘set everyone in a happier mood’ 80 Here was a style of serious listening rooted as much, perhaps, in sporting as musical culture, and in which conversation could be a far more important symbol of respect and appreciation than silence, especially if the latter was accompanied by descent behind a newspaper. Arguably the most telling point, however, emerges when this rich ethnographic account (by Denis Marsden) moves on to describe a visit to a slow melody contest, a highly specialised event in which unaccompanied solos were played before a far smaller, specialist audience. In this case, those present ‘listened with closed eyes, beating time with fingers or conducting quietly with one hand.’ 81 Grunts of approval or otherwise were sometimes audible at such competitions but appreciation of the intense artistic and mental demands placed on the contestants made then ultimately a site of quiet concentration. As so often was the case with popular listening more generally, here was a precise understanding of the etiquette required.

Conclusion

By the 1950s and 1960s, much of the essentially Victorian musical world discussed here was coming to an end, rapidly dissolving into myriad sub-cultures and overshadowed by the dominant culture of pop and rock. Brass bands and choral societies, already much diminished in cultural power, moved further to the margins, unable to unite and invigorate communities as they once had. Variety, although still alive in clubs and pubs, was no longer a recognisable industry. Popular opera as live entertainment was effectively dead and the trained voice, while still audible, could no longer engage fully with popular audiences ever more attuned to new, often Americanized vocal styles in which, as one commentator noted of a Bill Haley concert, musicians were now often ‘playing against an audience…rather than to it’. 82

The century of popular musical culture from 1850 was complex and allowed for numerous styles of listening. Overall, however, there was a gradual but discernible shift away from often highly participatory modes of listening toward more restrained and disciplined forms. For the most part, audiences retained a considerable measure of control over this process, with concerted attempts to reform behaviours from outside sometimes resisted and often unsuccessful. Above all, popular audiences seemed to have shown a mature, almost instinctive understanding of what constituted the correct response to different musical environments underpinned in most instances by a propensity to politeness and open-mindedness.

This analysis is provisional, a target upon which others may sharpen their thoughts. Far more research is required and our growing, detailed understanding of particular musical genres will refine, reshape and perhaps overturn the picture drawn here. The materials on which to base new work are not always plentiful and those working on the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries in particular will require much resourceful reading between the lines. For more recent times, oral history, preferably undertaken collaboratively, represents a massive opportunity which must not be lost. In particular, such work might also help meet the still unanswered challenge set by James Obelkevich in his pioneering essay on the history of listening, which called for the study not of individual listening environments but of the total listening experiences of specific social groups so as ‘to make sense of peoples’ musical taste by seeing it as part of their way of life and social situation’. 83 The history of the ways in which live popular music has been listened to in Britain is still in its exciting infancy.

Select bibliography

Bailey, Peter (ed.). Music Hall: The Business of Pleasure. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1986.

Hoggart, Richard. The Uses of Literacy. Originally published, 1957, Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1973 ed.

Jackson, Brian. Working-Class Community. Originally published 1968, Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972 ed.

Johnson, James H. Listening in Paris: A Cultural History. Berkeley, London: University of California Press, 1995.

Kift, Dagmar. The Victorian Music Hall. Culture, Class and Conflict. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Obelkevich, James. ‘In search of the listener’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 114, 1 (1989), pp. 102–108.

Russell, Dave. Popular Music in England, 1840–1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2/1997.

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Audiences

Understanding audiences: what are concert-goers doing when they listen?

Stephanie E. Pitts

Stephanie E. Pitts is Professor in Music at the University of Sheffield, with research interests in musical participation, arts audiences, and lifelong learning. She is the author of Valuing Musical Participation (Ashgate, 2005), Chances and Choices: Exploring the Impact of Music Education (OUP, 2012), Music and Mind in Everyday Life (Clarke, Dibben & Pitts, OUP, 2010) and a co-edited volume on audience experience, Coughing and Clapping (Burland & Pitts, Ashgate, 2014). She directs the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre (SPARC) and is currently leading a 30-month Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project on understanding audiences for the contemporary arts, working with arts sector partners across four UK cities.

Abstract

This provocation summarises a keynote given at the Listening Experience Database Project Conference 2018, and draws together some key themes from my previously published work with audiences. In particular, it looks at ways in to classical music, considering both the routes taken by established audience members and the experiences of newcomers. The challenges of empirical research with audience members are addressed, and some qualitative methods including ‘write-draw’ and audience exchange presented as ways to gain in-depth understanding of live listening experience. The chapter poses questions for ongoing research with audiences, including some fresh perspectives from audiences for the contemporary arts.

Introduction

Entering a classical concert hall for the first time can be an intimidating prospect, especially if as a new attender you feel younger, less prepared, less affluent or in some other way an uncomfortable fit with the rest of the audience. Little wonder, therefore, that classical music organisations are increasingly concerned about their dwindling and ageing audiences, and are trying new presentation formats that fit more closely with the cultural needs of the ‘experience seekers’ and ‘metroculturals’ identified in Arts Council England’s audience spectrum categories. 84

Even for regular attenders, the mystery of what everyone else is doing in their heads as they sit silently through a performance remains. Listening – at least in the classical concert hall – is an invisible, internal act: respondents in a study of young people’s first experiences of a chamber music concert commented on how nobody looked like they were enjoying themselves. 85 Newcomers more familiar with the exuberant listening behaviour of pop festivals and arena gigs will find no help in an online search for ‘audiences’: photo stock libraries yield images of fields full of people waving their hands above their heads, some of them holding mobile phones to record the moment, and all of them smiling, moving, singing along. 86 Knowledge of how to become a classical music audience member is inaccessible other than through experience, making that first encounter with a live classical music performance all the more important.

Newspaper reports of the migration of pop music listening behaviour to classical music events emerge from time to time, always presenting the behaviour as deviant, while highlighting at an abstract level the desire for less ‘stuffiness’ in formal concerts. One such example was the ejection from a performance of Handel’s Messiah of a crowd-surfer, who later commented that:

Classical music, trying to seem cool and less stuffy, reeks of some sort of fossilised art form undergoing a midlife crisis. 87

The director of the concert, Tom Morris of the Bristol Old Vic, had encouraged the audience to ‘clap or whoop when you like, and no shushing other people’. However, he acknowledged that finding the bounds of unregulated audience behaviour had been taken as a challenge by the crowd-surfer, Dr David Glowacki, who was ‘investigating what the nature of the rules are using the skills that make him an extraordinary scientist – and for some in the audience, a slightly irritating one.’ Glowacki himself summarised the dilemma facing classical music organisations that have to balance informality with the expectations of their established audiences:

You’re free to behave as you like, and it’s comforting to think that you have that freedom, but it’s only available to you so long as you behave correctly. 88

Among the previous attempts to describe the rules of classical music concerts, the most influential has been Christopher Small’s Musicking. 89 Although an ethnomusicologist, skilled in the close observation of musical behaviour, Small’s analysis of classical music concert culture is based on generalities rather than close observation, and now looks rather dated:

Even if we have come alone and know nobody, we can still feel a part of the event as we buy a cup of coffee or an alcoholic drink and look around us as we sip. Amongst those present we might recognize celebrities […] perhaps an eminent politician. The latter may be taking cocktails with a group of expensively dressed men and women whom we can assume to be executives, and their wives, of the corporation that is sponsoring tonight’s concert. […] All appear casually at home in this place. We remember our manners and do not stare. 90

As Karen Burland and I observed in our edited collection, Coughing and Clapping, any ethnographic study of a classical concert hall today would likely show more diverse demographics and behaviour:

Audiences themselves are becoming increasingly public commentators on live music, through online fan forums, Twitter feeds and other evolving technology. A response to a concert can now go far beyond conventional, polite applause – coughing and clapping are only the start of the audience’s expression of their appreciation (or otherwise). 91

Small’s work also highlights the need to gather more systematic, up-to-date ethnographic evidence of what it means to be part of an audience. Investigating the live listening experience without disrupting it is a challenge for empirical researchers, who must balance the desirability of ‘real time’ responses to listening experiences with the easier access to reflective, post-concert discussions. The views of audience members at the heart of an established listening community must also be balanced with those who are new to live music listening, in order that the full range of audience expectations and engagement can be understood.

This chapter will draw upon three recent studies with different groups of listeners: a) regular arts consumers experiencing a new art form through an ‘audience exchange’, b) young people bringing the lens of pop music fandom to their first experiences of a classical concert, c) and audiences for the contemporary arts exploring new and unfamiliar cultural experiences across art forms. The brief accounts of each project will examine the methods used, as well as some headline findings, leading to a discussion of future directions for audience research and listening experience. 92

Case studies

a) Audience exchange: exploring the unfamiliar

As part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) Cultural Value project in 2013–2014, I worked with research assistant Katy Robinson to investigate routes into arts engagement in Sheffield. 93 We were interested in how existing and potential audience members made their choices between the various venues, events and opportunities in the city, weighing up the potential uses of their available free time, budget and cultural capacity. This was in itself a challenge to the often implicit assumption that the audience for any specific venue exists in a vacuum, making their decisions in relation to that programme and place, without recognition of the multiple other options available on that date – including, perhaps most compellingly, not going out at all.

A survey carried out with the audiences at a number of major Sheffield venues gave us an overview of audience decision making in the city, highlighting the variety of combinations of events that people engaged with (often quite eclectic, for instance, ‘opera/Shakespeare plays/heavy rock concerts’), and the different priorities for a ‘good night out’ expressed by audiences for different art forms. 94 Classical music listeners in the survey had high expectations of the events they chose to attend, seeking quality and high emotion from a performance, and having strong opinions on programming. Some listeners wanted more familiar music that would guarantee enjoyment, others sought more challenging and diverse repertoire, while one resolved this with a direct appeal to ‘have more of the music I like’. 95 Respondents noted the lack of diversity and youth among their fellow audience members, but were otherwise less likely than other arts consumers to comment on the social aspects of attendance, focusing more on the programme and its performance. Pop music listeners, by contrast, talked a lot about atmosphere and ‘vibe’ and had more in common with stand-up comedy audiences in their desire to see familiar performers doing something unexpected, experienced as being unique to that event. 96 Highly valued across all live experience was the commitment of the performers, the sense of being close to them, and the distinct experience of live engagement in relation to more frequent consumption of recorded media.

The Cultural Value study also incorporated a component that we called ‘audience exchange’, 97 where regular attenders at one art form were taken to something they had never or rarely experienced before. They were invited to bring a friend, to replicate the typical experience of attending live arts and to facilitate participation in a discussion that took place immediately after the performance. This audience exchange was revealing of the preconceptions that new audience members bring to live music events, not just in their expectations of audience behaviour and conventions, but also in the other arts expertise that they attempt to apply to their new experience.

First-timers at opera, for example, had expectations that the audience would be full of ‘posh people’, but also brought their experiences of watching films, musicals and plays to an attempt to interpret the story. One respondent captured a widely-shared disappointment with the level of dramatic and emotional experience that the opera production offered:

I mean, the musicals I’ve seen have always had like an intensity of emotion – I’ve always felt like I’ve really engaged with some of the characters, and you kind of get that intensity. Where, with this, I didn’t. So I don’t know why – I couldn’t work out if it’s a piece of music which I really enjoyed, and really liked the sound of it, or whether it was a bit of theatre. ‘Cos it was almost like a choir, but dressed up, I guess. Which made it interesting to look at, but it was kind of different.98

The audience exchange also revealed that the qualities of a performance that are highly valued by regular listeners can have less appeal to newcomers. Where regulars at the Music in the Round chamber music festival talk enthusiastically of being close enough to the performers to read the music over their shoulders, 99 a new audience member in our audience exchange felt that she did not know where to look: ‘I don’t know how to play the violin, so they’re just moving, but it has no meaning to me’. 100 Newcomers were aware of an apparent difference between their experience of the concert and that of the listeners around them:

some people were like, really intense, which was quite nice to see – made me feel a bit guilty that I couldn’t maintain that level of intensity. 101

In each of our audience exchange situations – a chamber music concert, a jazz gig, and an opera performance – respondents made reference to feeling underprepared or not sufficiently knowledgeable, so assuming that more established audience members were bringing not just experience but expertise to their listening. Newcomers to a concert audience have limited evidence on which to make these assumptions, drawing mainly on the silent listening and enthusiastic applause of that established audience. Navigating a new art form with no sense of what is collectively agreed to be normal and valuable in that setting, it is no wonder that this silent reverence can feel alien or unjustified.

The different expectations across art forms shown in the survey, and the distance between familiar arts consumption and a new experience revealed by the audience exchange, both present some pressing challenges to arts marketers: how to make new audience members welcome and how to talk about the arts experience in a way that is meaningful to both new and established attenders? The respondents reported a willingness to prepare more thoroughly for a new arts experience, by reading up on an opera plot or listening to some ‘easier’ jazz – though the younger respondents were bolder in asserting a ‘right to daydream’ and to take what they wanted from the event. 102 Their suggestions supported some of the arts development initiatives that have been undertaken by theatres and concert halls that provide accessible information about their events online, or offer ‘buddying’ schemes where regular listeners can bring a newcomer at a discounted ticket rate. Opportunities to talk with other listeners about their experiences were also shown to be valuable through the audience exchange, showing how articulating the internal experiences of listening can help to bring a social dimension to an individual experience. 103

b) Crossing musical genres: young pop fans as classical music newcomers

The genre-crossing insights offered by the previous audience exchange were explored in greater depth by Lucy Dearn in her research on young people’s experiences of live classical music. 104 Rather than adopting a deficit model, where young people’s lack of knowledge about classical music frames the interpretation of their first concert experience, this research considered the expertise that young people bring as pop music fans and how they use this in making sense of a different kind of live music. 105

To capture the first impressions of the young people attending a concert, and provide a stimulus to post-performance discussions, the ‘write-draw’ method was used. Respondents were given a small piece of white paper and asked to draw their response to the concert on one side, and write about it on the other. 106 The simplicity of this method is also its strength, in that it avoids priming respondents with directed questions, and makes clear that the researcher is seeking a personal response rather than any preconceived right answers. The method is drawn from research in health studies with children, where abstract responses to pain and illness are as similarly hidden and personal as listening, but previous academic applications had not included music or the arts. 107 Analysing such free-form data is of course challenging, but achieved in this case by categorising drawings (for instance, including/not including notation, people, patterns, nature), and triangulating the drawn and written responses with the group interviews that followed the performance.

The responses were illustrative of the emotional journeys undertaken by the new listeners: one response was a network of emoji-style surprised, non-committal and puzzled faces, finishing with a broad smile in the middle.

Figure 1:  Write-Draw card (Source: Author’s own)

Several depicted elderly or snoring listeners, one drew a face with the mouth crossed through to indicate the silence of the audience, while another drew music notation in place of eyes and mouth, showing (as described in the group interview) how much the audience members appeared to be immersed in music. 108

Figure 2:  Write-Draw card (Source: Author’s own)

The interview explored the respondents’ expectations and experiences of the concert, and here their greater comfort as pop music fans was evident in their attempts to make sense of this unfamiliar mode of listening. One commented that it felt strange to see audiences repressing their responses, in contrast to the movement and participation that would be part of a pop audience experience:

The audience never seem like they enjoy the concert very much while the musicians are playing (maybe it’s because they’re concentrating on the music). I’m not used to seeing audiences with no emotion. 109

The attempt to understand the unfamiliar audience behaviour – as concentration rather than lack of enjoyment – appears to offer a way in to articulating the differences in modes of audience listening that could be a productive part of welcoming new listeners. However, some other responses highlighted ways in which the music itself violated the conventions of pop music listening in ways that were alienating to the respondents:

I didn’t find it constant. It flipped up on me too much, I would rather it was constant. I know some people like it. I didn’t like it. 110

This respondent was not alone in experiencing genuine frustration at not being able to interpret the emotion of a piece of classical music, and therefore not knowing how to respond. Used to listening to much shorter pop songs, with a clear emotional message, the young people reported being ‘very confused as to what feeling was being wakened in me’. Strategies for dealing with this emotional confusion including zoning in and out of attention (a feature of established audience listening that I am convinced is under-represented in research), and devising imagery or narrative to interpret the music in real time:

for every single piece I heard, there was a visual in my head, say like a little animated sequence of what was going on. 111

Respondents brought expectations from popular music in relation to authenticity too, and in some cases expressed confusion over whether it was the performers or the composers who were being given the audience’s attention. One young person applied the notion of a cover band to understand this relationship, stating that ‘No one is going to play Beethoven like Beethoven can’. 112 While it is easy to deride a statement like that, or to bemoan the absence of classical music from the school curriculum, a more constructive response is to consider what it demonstrates about the musical expertise these listeners do have, and how that could form a bridge to fuller engagement as an audience member.

Some of the respondents were clear in their assertion that this music was ‘not my type of music and not for me’, 113 and it was apparent that in these cases their first experience of concert-going had entrenched existing views of classical music audiences as stuffy and unapproachable. Others were tolerant of different musical tastes, stating that they knew some other people liked it, or expressing surprise at how much they had been drawn into the experience themselves.

On the question of whether they would attend again there was a low level of commitment, with responses ranging from clear refusal to a range of practical obstacles including ticket prices, having friends to attend with, and ‘getting round to it’:

I would definitely like to, but whether I’d get round to doing it is another thing. If I could just be teleported here like once a week I would love to do that but it’s like getting round to doing it, like finding out what is going on and having time. 114

The young people in this study were put off in some cases by the sense that there was a ‘proper’ way to enjoy classical music, to which their musical experience and education had not previously given them access. This raises again the marketing challenge of how to communicate with people who are not already within an audience community – and a much greater challenge around whether it is concert life that needs to adapt and change to allow for more than one way to engage with classical music.

As in so many aspects of organisational development and adaptability, the arts promoters are ahead of the academics in trying out new approaches, such as the informal, late-night concerts offered by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment or the nightclub vibe of Haçienda Classical. These initiatives offer fascinating potential for understanding how classical music can be presented and approached differently, and exploring the impact of that change on both new and established listeners. 115

c) Understanding audiences for the contemporary arts

The final case study of these three highlights another ‘alternative’ route into audience engagement with live music, exposing another risk in assuming that all audience experiences are similar and require the same kinds of marketing and support. Contemporary music – and contemporary arts more widely – is often presented in marketing and programme notes as challenging historical conventions, pushing at boundaries, or overthrowing established norms. This perspective is likely to be that of the composer, performers, and indeed of any music graduate who acquired their knowledge of music history at ‘the beginning’ (as defined differently according to the locally agreed curriculum). However, our research with audiences for contemporary arts has found many instances of people crossing art forms and arriving ‘straight in’ at contemporary music without that historical context.

The project Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts (UACA) began with an invitation from Tim Rushby, then marketing manager at Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), to explore the hunch that audiences for contemporary arts were in some way different from those I had studied previously, and specifically were more open to cross-art form experiences. 116

The pilot phase research in Birmingham established a network of partner organisations ranging across theatre, dance, visual art, craft, film and music, and used qualitative methods to explore the life histories and recent cultural experiences of audiences associated with those organisations. 117 With the word ‘contemporary’ immediately entering our discourse through BCMG’s name, we began by asking interviewees to define what the term meant to them, reaching definitions that encompassed new art works that speak to today, or are in some way experimental, strange or different. 118 Within these descriptive definitions, judgements incorporating audience response quickly emerged, often using the word ‘very’ to distinguish works and events as ‘very contemporary’, ‘very difficult’ or ‘very weird.’ 119 Much more than audiences for the ‘very classical’ (whatever that would be), these respondents were comfortable in expressing their opinions, incorporating emotional and intellectual responses, and shaping an audience attitude that our ongoing research has summarised as ‘it’s okay not to like it’. 120

We found among the responses many varieties of participation, incorporating volunteering and advocacy as much as attendance at events. Practical contributions were made by audience members hosting cast members at BE Festival’s week of new plays, and financial support offered by BCMG’s sponsors of new works, Sound Investors. 121 A high proportion of our respondents had ambitions as artists and makers in their own right (both amateur and professional), and were supporting arts organisations out of a sense of collective responsibility for the sustainability of that art form and of the cultural life of their city. 122

Audiences for the contemporary arts do appear, therefore, to be distinctive, and while we have taken care in our follow-on study to seek greater diversity in our sample of respondents, the findings are consistent in showing a strong relationship between arts practice and consumption, and in offering reflectively-defined ideas of open-mindedness (usually within quickly emergent boundaries). Contemporary arts audiences value highly the access to the unfinished, back-stage aspects of the creative process, seeking multiple ways to engage with unfamiliar work, and to understand their initial responses, whether positive or puzzled. 123 We used the ‘audience exchange’ method again with these respondents, and found them to be highly engaged in the post-event conversations, where there was a greater willingness to express strong opinions than had been the case in earlier group interviews. 124

Contemporary arts audiences perhaps offer a model for helping newcomers to classical music to explore their initial experiences in a way that is non-judgemental and does not presume a ‘proper’ way to respond. The valued aspect of the audience exchange conversations in the UACA project was the sense that all respondents were equally unfamiliar with the work, and could benefit from hearing other people’s opinions and reflecting on the connections with their wider cultural experiences. This is arguably what we all do when we hear a live performance: the layers of whether it is socially and culturally acceptable not to like or know what is heard are added by the context, and might usefully be removed by more careful management of newcomers’ experiences.

Conclusion

This chapter has aimed to demonstrate how qualitative research methods offer at least a partial solution to exploring the expectations and experiences of live classical music audiences, particularly where talk-based and visual methods are deployed in ways that aim to understand audience experiences without disrupting them. The three case studies have illustrated the diverse routes into live music engagement that are potentially replacing the traditional concert-going habit formation of school and parental influences. Regular arts attenders’ exploration of new art forms, young people’s expertise as pop music fans, and contemporary arts audiences’ willingness to engage with the new and challenging all share an evaluative component that can be stifled by concert settings that seem to promote only one ‘proper’ way to be an audience member.

Arts organisations are, in many cases, embracing the challenge of matching their cultural offerings with their audiences, recognising that audience members do not always want to be coerced into trying something that they do not expect to enjoy. Starting with arts attenders’ existing expectations and needs is one possible way in to being more flexible in the way that classical music is written about, researched and promoted. The respondents in each of the case studies showed themselves to be reflexive, tolerant and willing to be challenged, suggesting that there is much to be learned from research with non-attenders and newcomers, as well as from comparisons between their experiences and those of established concert-goers.

The answer to ‘what are concert-goers doing when they listen?’ is perhaps no closer as a result of this provocation, but it is fairly certain not to be what is going on in the head of an academic music researcher. The need for multiple voices in the debate is therefore compelling, and calls for some sensitive, sustained research with a diversity of listeners, in order that concerts remain (or become) welcoming places for the next generation of audiences.

Select bibliography

Burland, Karen, and Pitts, Stephanie E. (eds). Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.

Crossick, Geoffrey and Kaszynska, Patriczia. ‘Under construction: towards a framework for cultural value,’ Cultural Trends, 23(2), 2014, pp. 120–131.

Hesmondhalgh, David. Why Music Matters. Malden, MA: Wiley/Blackwell, 2013.

Radbourne, Jennifer, Glow, Hilary and Johanson, Katya (eds). The Audience Experience: A Critical Analysis of Audiences in the Performing Arts. Sydney: Intellect, 2013.

Reason, Matthew and Lindelof, Anja Mølle (eds). Experiencing Liveness in Contemporary Performance: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017.

Acknowledgements

I gratefully acknowledge my inspiring collaborators in the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre (SPARC), past and present, particularly the researchers involved in the projects represented here: Katy Robinson, Dr Lucy Dearn, Dr Jonathan Gross and Dr Sarah Price. I would like to dedicate the article to Professor Christopher Spencer (1943–2018), one of the founder members of SPARC, who played a large part in setting me and others on the path of researching with audiences.

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Individual listeners

The listening experiences of John Yeoman (1748–1824)

David Rowland

David Rowland is Professor of Music, Principal Investigator for the Listening Experience Database (LED) project and former Dean of Arts at The Open University. He is the author of three books and numerous chapters and articles on the performance history of the piano and early keyboard instruments. He has also edited the first scholarly edition of Clementi’s correspondence, which provided the impetus for a much broader investigation of the London music trade during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, on which he has published extensively. David is also a performer on early keyboard instruments and Director of Music at Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Abstract

John Yeoman was a Somerset farmer and potter who travelled to London in 1774 and 1777/8, recording in a diary his experiences of music in and around the capital. As a church choir director in his home village of Wanstrow he was particularly interested in hearing music sung by the choirs he encountered in a number of churches of various denominations. His account of them reveals much about contemporary performance practice, especially relating to the singing of psalms.

In addition to recording his impressions of sacred music, Yeoman was immensely impressed by a performance he heard on a visit to Drury Lane Theatre in 1774. He had never heard anything like it previously and the information he records is of importance to theatre historians and to musicologists, particularly what he describes of the orchestral and choral forces in the theatre. His descriptions also unwittingly tell us something about music making in his home village of Wanstrow.

The accounts of listening experiences in Yeoman’s diaries are written in a style usually found in travel literature of the period. They are detailed and factual, and rarely contain information about the author’s personal reactions to what he heard. But by examining the language he uses it becomes clear that he was excited by his experiences, especially those that were new to him.

Introduction

The listening experiences recorded in John Yeoman’s diaries are intriguing for a number of reasons. Yeoman appears to have had little influence outside of his local community and his diaries have had virtually no impact on music history. Nevertheless, they are a rich source of performance history, specifically of church and theatre music of the late eighteenth century and they are also significant for listening history, because they illustrate how the impact of music on a listener can vary according to the context in which it is heard, especially its familiarity or novelty. Furthermore, detailed scrutiny of the varied ways in which Yeoman recorded his listening experiences provides insights that help us to explore the listening literature of the period more critically. But before we examine these issues in detail, and in order to understand his listening accounts as fully as possible, we need to understand who John Yeoman was – where he lived, his social standing and occupations, and his experience of music in his native county.

John Yeoman

John Yeoman was born in 1748 and died on 9 October 1824. 125 For several generations his family had rented the Manor (or ‘Great’) House in the small Somerset village of Wanstrow, a few miles from both Frome and Shepton Mallet, about 15 miles from Wells, and 20 miles from Bath (these distances are significant in the consideration of Yeoman’s listening experiences). Frome was the main market town of the area, around which the surrounding villages clustered, 126 and another Yeoman family diary written in 1800 by John’s daughter contains many references to his work-related and social visits to these villages and to Frome itself. 127

John Yeoman’s family ran a pottery business in Wanstrow, as evidenced, for example, in his notes about pottery making in Farnborough, which reveal that the Yeoman family had pottery-making facilities of their own:

It is Wen(s)day the 30th of Decr. we gets up in the morn, Breckfast, Walk down in the common to See the pothouse belonging to Mr. Mason. Itt is all the Same as ourn, but their Glaze Which is much better. they use pigglead and Sand. they Have an Oven Where they put the Lead in And Stir it till it comes to a powder. 128

John Yeoman was also a farmer. His diary records his interest in pigs and his daughter’s diary contains references to their slaughter. She also talks about weighing cheese, presumably for sale. The editor of John’s diary comments that he is said to have ‘milked sixty cows’, but without revealing his information source. 129 In addition, Yeoman seems to have been involved in the timber business. His daughter’s diary makes several references to him unloading timber in Frome and his own diary also mentions his encounter with a timber merchant, although there is no record of any business being conducted on that occasion.130

The details described above show Yeoman to have been a working man and trader based in his local community. His daughter’s diary goes further, revealing that he had a degree of social status. Not only did he live in a substantial house (albeit a rented one), but he also mixed with respectable people such as ‘Dr. Highmore’, with whom he journeyed to Shepton Mallet one day. 131 Importantly for our purposes, Yeoman’s memorial tablet in the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Wanstrow records that he ‘was Leader of the Choir of this Church for upwards of half a century’. 132 The fact that he wrote diaries and letters – albeit in an unsophisticated style – is evidence of his literacy. His diary contains evidence of his reading a novel and a play, as well as newspapers. 133 Yeoman was evidently a well-respected, intelligent man with wide interests.

John Yeoman’s diary

John Yeoman’s diary was published in a modern edition in 1934, at which time the two-volume original was in the possession of ‘Mr. R. Gibbons’, 134 but I have been unable to discover its current whereabouts. The edition is therefore our only source of the document.

The diaries record Yeoman’s visits to London in the spring of 1774 and the winter of 1777/8 (the account mostly concentrates on his travels in 1774, with only a few pages recording his experiences in 1777/8). There are no accounts of his time spent in Wanstrow, hence his daughter’s diary and the memorial tablet in the local church are our only sources of his life at home. John Yeoman’s diary begins with a record of his setting out from home on 17 March 1774 and continues with a detailed narrative of his travels until 6 May in the same year, when he began his journey home. He made no diary entries between 6 May 1774 and 28 December 1777, when he departed from Wanstrow on his second visit to the London area. His narrative of that journey ends abruptly, mid-sentence, on 5 January 1778: presumably another volume picked up the story, but it was not available to the diary’s editor. The diary is thus solely concerned with his journeys and it reads as a travel narrative, a popular genre of his time, and a theme to which we will return.

Why did John Yeoman write a diary? Unlike contemporary members of the gentry and aristocracy, it is most unlikely that he would have anticipated its publication (see the Introduction to this collection), either in his lifetime, or after his death. It may be that some of the diary’s detail was intended for his eyes only, such as the record of his expenditure on accommodation and food with which the diary begins. But most of the document seems to have been written for an audience, since from time to time he addresses the reader directly, especially in some of his more colourful descriptions of events. The following passage is a striking example:

[Northchurch, Thursday 21 April 1774] after Diner we went to a Farm house about a Mile and half (along) the London Road to See Peter the Wild Boy as they call him. he was found in the woods over in Hanover, as King George the First was hunting the wild boar, when he was about fourteen Years of Age & Was brought Over to England and a hundred a Year Settled on him for his Life, but this gentleman Who have this Money for the care of him gives this Farmer £30 Pounds. So that he is the Best of. he is about five foot four Inches high, Well made, has neither his Beard nor hair cut, neither Can he Speak, so Ill leave you to guest what a Figure he cuts. 135

Elsewhere in the diary phrases occur which address the reader, such as ‘Ill Leave the Reader to gest ye complection’ and ‘So I leave the Reader to Judge the Pleasantness’. 136 The diary does not identify these readers, but, given John Yeoman’s social status and interests, it seems most likely that they were the people close to him – his family and perhaps his friends.

Yeoman’s diary descriptions of his listening experiences occur in just ten passages. Six of these concern what we might broadly refer to as ‘sacred music’: five of them describe the singing of psalms in churches or domestically, and one is an account of organ playing in Westminster Abbey. Not only do they reveal details of sacred music performances in the London area, but they also unwittingly provide insights into rural Somerset practices. These listening experiences form the subject of the first main section of this chapter.

The other four passages are about various sorts of secular musical performance. The first, and by far the most extensive of all the descriptions in his diary, records his visit to Drury Lane Theatre. As with Yeoman’s remarks about sacred music, the account of his theatre visit not only reveals important information about contemporary performance in London, but is also revealing about music-making in Somerset: this passage is discussed in detail below, in the second main section of this chapter.

The remaining three descriptions of listening experiences are much briefer. They tell us little more than that Yeoman was a singer. For completeness they are quoted here:

[en route for Brentford, Monday 28 March 1774] Landed att Hungerford Stairs, from thence we went I cannot well Recolect, Somewhere about the Strand. Drank two or three Bottles of Wine, from thence to Berkly Square up by St James, took a Coach. home where we sung all the way. arived att Brentford about 7 o Clock for that Night went —. 137

[Farnborough, Thursday 1 January 1778] Went to Willmot Esq., as I found that he makes a General Feast on Every New Years Day … So my fellow Travelar and me begins to be Smart amongst them (the ladies), Farmer the Violien and I Singing to or three Soft Songs. They was highly diverted att it. 138

[Farnborough, Friday 2 January 1778] we went out in the Parish for Some Danceing but could find none, but a neighbour of my Kindsmans to Spend the Evening and So we did in Singing and Telling of Some Merry Storys, and thus ends this Days Memoirs. 139

In addition to discussing the detail of Yeoman’s experiences as outlined above, a final section of this chapter explores the differences in literary style of his various listening accounts and how they reflect Yeoman’s experience of, and engagement with, music. The observations in this final section are pertinent to the ways in which other writers of personal documents record their listening experiences.

John Yeoman’s experiences of sacred music

John Yeoman visited a variety of churches during his stay in the London area, ranging from Brentford’s small chapel of ease (chapels of ease were built for those who were unable to attend the parish churches) to the affluent parish church in Ealing and Westminster Abbey. Not only did he visit Anglican churches, but he also attended services of the Presbyterians and Methodists. His accounts therefore provide a rich picture of church music practice in the London area during the period.

Yeoman’s first recorded listening experience was very brief:

[Brentford, Sunday 20 March 1774] we went to the Chapel the People Sung all over ye Church. 140

A similar comment is found in the account of Yeoman’s visit to the Presbyterian church in Brentford on 17 April 1774:

after diner we went to the Prisbetariens Meeting where they Sung all over the Meetg. 141

The observation that people ‘Sung all over ye Church’, or ‘Meetg.’, is probably a reference to congregational singing, although it is just possible that it refers to the practice of distributing choir members among the congregation. 142 Full congregational singing was not universally practised in this period, as Sally Drage oberves:

All denominations wanted congregations to participate, but in practice the singing was divided between full congregational participation, which was most likely to occur in Methodist and nonconformist worship, and select participation, which was more usual in Anglican churches. 143

The fact that Yeoman remarked on congregational singing in both the Chapel of Ease and the Presbyterian church in Brentford may indicate that it struck him as unusual, perhaps because the psalms were sung only by the local Anglican choir (which he directed) at home in Wanstrow. However, this is conjecture, because we have no evidence of singing at services in the village.

Yeoman had much to say about singing in Ealing Parish Church, but nowhere in his account does he mention congregational participation, which may indicate that psalms were sung there by the choir only: this tended to happen particularly in churches such as this, where the congregation contained a significant proportion of wealthy members who had the means to support music financially, and who preferred to leave the singing entirely to the choir. 144 Yeoman’s full account of the music in Ealing is as follows:

[Ealing, Sunday 1 May 1774] Master Tommy and I went to Ealing Church, I chimed the Tenor as the(y) Chime an Hour before Sarvice. We went down to the Green Where it is Very Pleasant. Back again & went In Staring about the Church. ye Clark was So Kind as to come & Put us into a Pew. The Singers Sing the Same as we do the(y) sung Our 5 Tune to 4 Words & as there was but two parts, I was wont to Join with, but was ashamed to go up to them as there Was Shuch a Grand Congregation. the place concis’d mostly of Gentlemans Seats, as I have Mentioned in my Journeys before, So Ill leave the Reader to Jud(g)e the Grandness of the Congregation. but, however, when the Clark named the Psalm the Second I could not forbear going up to Them. the(y) sung the Eight. Soon as Service was over I went down into the Pew after my Hatt and Master Tommy, When we made the Best of our way back to our Aunts, as we Was to Dine that day att Mr. Joseph Honnors, Where was Mr. John Polter. So after Diner We Took a walk up to great Ealing when the Evening Sarvice was Just done, but the Singers was not Gon. I went up and Join’d With them I(n) an Anthem. After we went to one of him House. he Kept a Tavern Just by and after Some Talk about Singing we come home again. 145

The account of Yeoman’s visit to Ealing records several details about psalm-singing, most of which are also mentioned elsewhere in his diary. First, in addition to singing during services the choir also sang outside of that context – in this instance an hour before the morning service and for some time after the evening service. The choir in Northchurch also sang outside of church services, as witnessed by Yeoman:

[Northchurch, near Berkhamsted, Sunday 24 April 1774] Nothing Remarkable happend the forenoon of that day. after Diner My Aunt & cousin & Me went to North Church. the Parson was the worst that ever I heard but Upton Noble (a village near his home village). the clark was Shocking bad Indeed, they Sing the Same Tunes as we do but Very Bad, there was all the Parts. After Sarvice was over I went up and Joined with Them. I beleive we Sung for an Hour and all the Tunes as we had, Such as the 8th. 105th. 108th. 34th. 47th. my Singing the four Parts made them Stare as they thought It was Imposable for one Man to do. they Said they Should be glad to have me Live In That Part of the World for to Learn them. one on him, who kept a Tavern, had them all to his house & would make me go. they Treated me with the Best the House would (? afford). 146

The fact that the clerk was ‘Shocking bad indeed’, according to Yeoman, was evidently not unusual, as Nicholas Temperley observes: ‘it was rare for a musically well-qualified parish clerk to be appointed to a London church during the eighteenth century’. 147 But the poor quality of the clerk’s singing failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the other singers, who sang for their own enjoyment for an hour after the service had finished. This sort of enthusiasm for psalm-singing outside the context of a church service was also in evidence at a gathering a month earlier at Yeoman’s aunt’s house in Brentford:

[Brentford, Thursday 24 March 1774] Home again, where was one Mr. Deely a Timber Merchant waiting for me to go and Spend the Evening With him that night att a Tavern in the Markett Place. come Home with me and one of their party to my Aunts where we spend an Hour in Singing Psalms, Songs and the like. 148

The domestic singing of sacred music had, of course, been common from much earlier times, when much of the repertoire we now associate with the church was written for domestic consumption.

Different modes of psalm performance are evident from Yeoman’s accounts. In Ealing on 1 May 1774 (see above) ‘there was but two parts’ (presumably two independent musical lines, rather than singing in octaves), a common configuration for psalm-singing at the time, but perhaps a surprisingly sparse texture for a choir in such a wealthy church. At the Presbyterian church in Brentford, however, the members of the congregation all sang the melody of the psalm tunes, but at three different pitches, a decidedly inferior arrangement according to Yeoman:

[Brentford, Sunday 17 April 1774] Went to the Chap(el) of ease in the Morning. after diner we went to the Prisbetariens Meeting where they Sung all over the Meetg, the 105th. Psalm, the notes as we Sing them. the Clerk begins first, he Sings a Tenor Voice, the women Eight above and the Men as can go down an eight below the Clerk. they Sing all one Notes but it is a most Dolfull Harmony. home to Tea then we went to the Methodist meeting, where they Sing in Like Manner. It’s a Preatyer Harmony to the ear, but the three different Religgens which I have been to day to hear does agree more in their Singing then they does in their Doctrin by much. 149

And on 24 April 1774 in Northchurch (see above), where Yeoman commented on the poor quality of the singing, ‘there was all the Parts’, presumably meaning a full four-part texture, since after the service Yeoman joined with them, singing each of ‘the four Parts’.

Yeoman’s account of the singing in Brentford on 17 April 1774, just quoted, makes a broader point about church music of this period: the same repertoire was sung at services around the country, both in Anglican contexts and in churches of other denominations. So at the Presbyterian church in Brentford on 17 April 1774 he commented that they sang ‘the 105th. Psalm, the notes as we Sing them’ while at the Anglican church in Northchurch a week later, during their after-service singing they sang ‘all the Tunes as we had, Such as the 8th. 105th. 108th. 34th. 47th.’ and in Ealing on 1 May 1774 ‘The Singers Sing the Same as we do the(y) sung Our 5 Tune to 4 Words’ (see above for the full quotations of all these passages). The fact that a relatively small number of tunes were shared by congregations was partly the result of the way in which the numerous tune books published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries borrowed tunes from each other, but it was also the result of the dominance of two influential publications. Sternhold and Hopkins’ The Whole Booke of Psalmes Collected into Englysh Metre (London, 1562) and Tate and Brady’s A New Version of the Psalms of David (London, 1696) dominated the market, both being published in multiple editions over many decades. 150

The account of the singing at the Presbyterian church in Brentford on 17 April mentions a further element of psalm performance – the traditional practice of ‘lining out’, in which the clerk sang a portion of a psalm before the congregation sang it. At least, this is presumably what is implied by the phrase ‘the Clerk begins first’. ‘Lining out’ was a common practice which began by the mid-seventeenth century, as Sally Drage notes:

One or two lines of text at a time were spoken aloud or perhaps intoned on one note by the clergyman or the parish clerk, before they were sung by the congregation. There is no evidence that this lining out was used prior to 1645, but once established it remained a necessary part of Anglican worship in some churches until at least the end of the eighteenth century. 151

Yeoman’s listening accounts emphasise the extent to which psalms formed the basis of choir and congregational singing in parish churches at this time, as it had for decades. From the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, as some parish and village choirs became more proficient, anthems began to be performed in some places. The only instance of anthem-singing in Yeoman’s diary is recorded in his report of the music at Ealing on 1 May 1774 (see above) where, after the evening service, ‘I went up and Join’d With them I(n) an Anthem’. Despite the fact that the psalms were sung there in only two parts, the singing of an anthem suggests that there may have been a more proficient choir there than Yeoman encountered elsewhere, since anthem-singing required at least some musical literacy, whereas psalm-singing could be learned without reference to music notation. Yeoman’s familiarity with anthems and his ability to sing them probably reflected the practice and the abilities of the singers in Wanstrow: an entry in Mary Yeoman’s diary records that ‘Mr. Thomas Harding dined here today and went to church. Sang two anthems’. 152

None of the accounts of singing in churches that we have considered so far mention the presence of an organ. This is unsurprising. Many organs had been destroyed during the Civil War and at first it was only in the cathedrals, college chapels and the wealthier urban parish churches that they were built, or re-built. 153 By the 1770s at least some of the larger parish churches had organs, such as those in Shepton Mallet and Frome, near where Yeoman lived, but others were still without, apparently including the wealthy church visited by Yeoman in Ealing. 154 In smaller churches organs were still few and far between and there is no evidence of any organ in Yeoman’s home village of Wanstrow. In such cases barrel organs may have been used to play a limited repertoire of Hymn tunes, or other instruments began to be used (the so-called ‘west-gallery tradition’), but I have found no evidence that either was used in Wanstrow, or in the churches mentioned in Yeoman’s diary. The impression given by Yeoman is that he was most used to unaccompanied singing in church.

The only mention of an organ in Yeoman’s diary occurs in his account of a visit to Westminster Abbey:

[Westminster, Sunday 3 April 1774] My Cousen John and me went to Westmenster Abby were we herd the organs and Saw them play, Wells is in no Comparison with it. 155

It is not clear from the description whether Yeoman’s comparison was of the organs, or of the buildings at Westminster and Wells. However, his comments would make perfect sense if they applied to the organs, since the instrument in Wells was in sufficiently poor state in the 1770s that it needed repair and enlargement in 1786, whereas in 1774 the organ in Westminster was already quite large and in better condition than the Wells instrument. 156

John Yeoman at Drury Lane

On 8 April 1774 John Yeoman and some of his relatives attended Drury Lane Theatre. The occasion was a benefit performance for Thomas Jefferson (1732–1807), a very experienced actor who had performed at the theatre for many years. The main piece of the evening was The Rehearsal, a Restoration comedy by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, which had been performed many times in the previous century and remained popular, having five performances in London theatres in 1774 alone. The afterpiece, David Garrick’s Harlequin’s Invasion, was first performed at the theatre on 31 December 1759. It, too, was popular and was also performed five times in 1774. 157

Music had been an important element of theatre performances in London from Restoration times:

Before the play began, two pairs of two pieces each were played, these pairs being called the ‘first music’ and ‘second music,’ respectively … the next music is the overture or curtain tune, usually played after the spoken prologue. 158

Following the beginning of the play further instrumental music featured as well as songs and other vocal pieces. Similar incidental music was performed with plays throughout the eighteenth century, although the musical style developed with the times: for example, the prevalence of French overtures gave way to works in the Italian style. 159

It is impossible to know what music accompanied the performance heard by Yeoman of Villiers’ The Rehearsal, since no music for it survives. However, an afterpiece based on Villiers’ original by Mrs Clive entitled The Rehearsal; or, Bayes in Petticoats was first performed at Drury Lane on 15 March 1750 with music by William Boyce, the only part of which that survives being a ‘pastoral interlude’ entitled ‘Corydon and Miranda’. 160 Twelve further performances of Mrs Clive’s piece were given in the years to 1762. Perhaps Boyce’s music was used when Villiers’ original was revived in later years.

Only three items survive of the music composed by William Boyce for Garrick’s Harlequin’s Invasion. By far the most famous is the song ‘Hearts of Oak’, still well-known today. Two other songs from the piece were published in the years after the work was performed: ‘Sweetest bard that ever sung’ and ‘Thrice happy the nation that Shakespeare has charm’d’. We know nothing of the instrumental pieces that would have been played at the beginning and during the performance. 161

Yeoman’s description of the performance is much longer and quite unlike any other accounts of events in his diary. It is quoted here in full:

got there before the doors was Open’d, but Soon as ye Door was opend what a drunge (?) there was, yet we got a Second Seat in the two Shilling Gallery. We waited Some time before there was any thing to Entertain us with but the Looking at the House which is fifty times as Large as our Church, but Ive forgot to Mention that we was at Drury Lane. the Musick begun to play the first Thing, it consisted of:

10 Violens

2 French horns

4 basesoons

2 Base files

and another Great (file?) in the Shape of a Basefile But So Large as Six common ones, it was 2 Foot above the Mans head that Play’d him and I could Hear him Like Thunder att a distance, or like Something a Jowling in the Bowels of the earth. the Curten was then drawn up and the Play begun, but I cannot mind much of it. I can Remember they cauld the Rehersal, it was a composition of Blunders. there was a Variaty of Very Butifull Scens, one I can very well Recolect. att the further end of the feild as it apeard [the]re was a Large Bridge and we could here the Sound of Drums, kettle Drums, then we Saw an Army of Horsemen comeing over that Bridge and an Army of Foot seemd to Draw up to Battle before us with all the Appearance of War. In an instant the Battle was begun & they Fought till there was not a live man left. the entertainment was Harlequins Invation which was very prety. it apeard in ye Scene the first at a little House with a Stump of a dead tree by the Side of it and Harlequin laid down under it, but before I shall go on I’ll write do(wn) the Dress this Harlequin t(hat ….. er) apear in, he has all (…) has a black face and a Sp(angled?) Jacket and Trousers & he will either turn you or himself into Such Different Shapes that it is Impossible to Take him, as I Shall indeavour to make it apear. as he was laid down by this little Hutt of a House there came a Man with a Pick in his hand as If he would be Revenge on Somebody att last he Sees Harlequin thout he was dead but Thought to himself he would see where he was or not. he goes to him, Just toucht him with the Pick, he Jumps up and Takes the Pick from him & is gon. then there was a Report made that he has Murderd a Tailor & (gr)eat Search is making for him (all) this wile he is in the Stump (of the) Tree from whence he comes in the Shape of the Tailor with his head cut of(f) so that he frights them all away. then the Seine changes to a Wood and there are Solders after him, but they cannot find him. he gets up into a Tree & it is so Natural as If it was a Wilderness. the Seine then changes to a Large Room with harlequin in it. then they comes in att every Door crying out theres the Murderer, Lock the doors, We shall have him now & they are all going to Seaze him but he Springs from them & Flys through the Window & gets from them. So the Seine changes to a Judge with ye Court of gentlemen and Harlequin is taken & brought before them and his Tryal is Very poet(ical?) but Realy I cannot Mind (it?) Just now, but I Remember he is Very Sacy to them, telling them that if they do not aquit him he will cut all their heads off. so then they all cryed out What need we of further examining of him, but as they are Just agoing to take him away he gives himself a wherl Round on his hile and that instant they are all turnd into old women. now you must know that there is Somebody above that ye instant he gives the Wist rnd the Wooden Board, that they draws up the wigs & gowns of these gentlemen by Wires that we cannot See them and under they are Drest like old Women. Indeed the Seine then Changes to So Butifull a Sight that it is (Impos)able to Decsribe it. the last Seine is I beleive the Whole length of the House, it Seems to be 200 yds. Long, and att the Lower end they Represents the Ocean with the Ships on it Sinken in a Storm With Thunder & Lightning & they Represent it so Natural as if it was the Real thing. they conclude the Play with a Chorus Song about 20 Musitioners and about 30/50 Commeadons which made a Pretty Harmony…

Yeoman’s account continues in his diary entry for the following day, 9 April 1774:

[South Molton Saturday 9 April] There was two or three things in ye play I’d forgot to mention; the one was a Flying Chariot drawn by an Eagle, the Other a Forighn Ambaseger who was drawn across the Stage In his Chariot by Wild Beast & there was a Bear & Monkey appeared on the Stage and danc’d for some (tim)e as Reel (as) the Natural Be(asts). there is Several Scines that I cannot Remember. The Curtun was drawn once and there was neer to twenty boys & girls Danceing, the oldest did not appear above 10 yr. Old. I took that to be a prety Sight; Theres Not That Man Liveing who can form any Idea of unless they See it. Some of the Scines Ive heard say they Represent a Street as Real as any in London, there was one, It is Just come into my Head, It was Charing Cross with King Charl(es) in the Middle of it and all the Streets as Natural as If you was out in Town and it is so much Imposable for any Person to form any Idea of the Town as of the play unless they have. There you may Travel for Weeks together and Never see one place twice, Nor Never out of the Town, and in the Night it is the More Surprising with the Lamps. You can Travel along the Streets and they are so Strait so many Hundred crossways & every St. with the Lps Look so Long. Its beyond the (des)cription of My Thick (br)ains to ponder on, I’ll asure y(ou). 162

Yeoman’s account of the performance is remarkable in its detail. It is of considerable interest to both musicologists and theatre historians, but the discussion here will focus more or less exclusively on what the extract reveals about Drury Lane’s musical performing forces.

Details of the orchestras in London’s theatres in the 1770s is scarce. The most recent commentators on the subject point out that the relatively small orchestras which accompanied plays were placed in the pit, whereas oratorio orchestras played on stage, and were somewhat larger. 163 A passage in The London Stage describes the extent of the forces available from the late 1750s to the end of the 1770s:

The Account Books for Covent Garden during the seasons 1757-58 and 1760-61 specify the names of twenty-one orchestra members, but fail to indicate the instruments they used … Drury Lane doubtless employed as many, but actual figures are extant only in its Treasurer’s Books for the 1778-79 season, when Sheridan and the new managers were cutting expenses to the bone. Their list included twenty-three in the orchestra, and designated the instruments. They employed five first violinists, two of whom could double on clarinets; four second violinists, two of whom could double on clarinets. There were a first and second viola (and a third who could also play the trumpet); a first and second hautboy; a first and second faggoto (bassoon); a first and second cornu (French horn); four cellos, including a first and second double bass; and lastly one who played a bass bassoon, a tabor, and pipe … The weekly payroll for these musicians was £48, which is just 15s. under what Garrick laid out for his orchestra in 1774. 164

In addition to the instruments listed in the quotation above, keyboard instruments are also mentioned. The forces described by Rogers and Holman, based on iconographic evidence and, in Holman’s case, comparison with extant music, are in line with these figures. 165

Commentary on instrumental numbers for the 1780s and 1790s is found in Jane Girdham’s English opera in late eighteenth-century London, in which she points out that ‘our knowledge of theatrical instrumentalists is very limited because eighteenth-century critics almost always confined their commentary to soloists’ (no reviews were published of the performance Yeoman attended on 8 April 1774). 166 Nevertheless, she cites evidence from the manuscript diaries of John Kemble, an actor who managed the theatre from 1788 and 1796, and the Drury Lane account books, reaching the conclusion that ‘the orchestra comprised about thirty players, not all of whom were needed every night’. 167

The total number of instruments listed by Yeoman is roughly in line with other figures for the second half of the eighteenth century. In his account Yeoman lists ‘10 violens, 2 French horns, 4 Basesoons, 2 Base files and another Great (file?) in the Shape of a Basefile’ totalling nineteen instruments (the same number identified in Holman’s source), excluding the drums (see below) and any keyboards that may have been used.

There is little remarkable about Yeoman’s ‘10 violens’ and ‘2 French horns’, although it seems likely that some of the violins were in fact violas. The composition of the wind section is more difficult to understand, since an orchestra of this size is unlikely to have had ‘4 Basesoons’, but no oboes (2 oboes and 2 bassoons appear to have been standard in theatre orchestras of the time): perhaps Yeoman’s sight line was partially blocked so that he was unable to distinguish the double reed instruments correctly. It is probable that the ‘2 Base files’ were in fact cellos, since the two terms seem to have been interchangeable in the period – although conclusive evidence is hard to come by. 168

The most intriguing instrument in Yeoman’s list is the last – the ‘Great (file?) in the Shape of a Basefile’, which he describes as ‘So Large as Six common ones, it was 2 Foot above the Mans head that Play’d him and I could Hear him Like Thunder att a distance, or like Something a Jowling in the Bowels of the earth’. The size of the instrument (two feet higher than its player) and its pitch – the description suggests that it was lower than the other instruments, in other words, at 16 foot pitch – surely identifies it as a double bass. But why would Yeoman describe it in the way he does, rather than simply calling it a double bass, or something equivalent? The reason is almost certainly that the instrument was unfamiliar to him and his readers.

Would Yeoman have heard a double bass at home in Wanstrow? Probably not, since it is unlikely that he would have encountered an ensemble large enough to require one in the village. He does not seem to have heard one in Frome or Shepton Mallet and evidently he had not heard a double bass in Wells, whose cathedral he had visited (as we learned from his experiences in Westminster Abbey on 3 April 1774 – see above). The most likely nearby town where he might have heard a double bass is Bath, a major centre of musical culture by this time, which was only 20 miles from where he lived, but it seems that Yeoman had not been to any orchestral events there. Perhaps this is understandable, considering his age – he was only in his mid-twenties when he went to London – but his lack of knowledge of the double bass nevertheless underlines the limited musical experience that must have characterised many rural musicians in the period.

One further element of Yeoman’s description of the double bass is worthy of comment: in order to provide his readers with some ideas of its size, not only does he point out that it was about two feet taller than its player, but he also says that it was ‘So Large as Six common ones’, meaning viols. This cannot be a reference to bass viols, because surely no double bass could be described as equivalent in size to six of them, so it is most likely a reference to the smaller members of the viol family. If this is so, then it suggests that Yeoman might have been familiar with viol consort performances, which would have been remarkable at such a late date.

During the performance at Drury Lane Yeoman heard ‘the Sound of Drums, kettle Drums’. Who played these? Given that the regular instrumentalists doubled on a variety of instruments it seems most likely that one or two of them played the drums as the ‘Army of Horsemen’ and an ‘Army of Foot’ came over the on-stage bridge during The Rehearsal. Peter Holman points out that the likely identity of the drummer in the performance of 1779 that he discusses was ‘John Ashbridge or Asbridge, the third bassoonist in the Drury Lane band, who was also a drummer’. 169

The musical climax of the evening occurred at the end of Harlequin’s Invasion when, according to Yeoman, there was a ‘Chorus Song’ of ‘about 20 Musitioners and about 30/50 Commeadons which made a Pretty Harmony’. Who were the singers? On the day of the performance the Public Advertiser announced that Harlequin’s Invasion would ‘conclude with a Grand Chorus by Mr. Champnes[s], Mr. Davies, Mr. Kear [Kean?], Mr. Fawcett, Mr. Wheeler, Mrs. Scott, Mrs. Hunt, &c.’. Champness was a prominent bass singer of oratorios and the other six were regular singers/actors or chorus singers at Drury Lane. 170 It is likely that these seven singers fell into the category of:

Chorus singers, which are people that stand behind the scenes, whose additional voices are sometimes necessary in grand pieces of vocal music, and are made use of in the Tempest, Comus, Macbeth, &c, and seldom in number so many as 6, at 5 shillings each. 171

Given that chorus singers cost in the region of 5 shillings each in the late 1740s, and that the chorus for the performance on 8 April 1774 was paid £3.11s for two nights, 172 it is likely that these seven singers were the only additional, paid singers who took part in the performance. The others must have been performers from the regular troupe.

John Yeoman’s writing style

The account of John’s Yeoman’s visit to Drury Lane is written in a very different style from the other listening experiences recorded in his diary. How different is it, how do we account for the difference, what does the combination of writing styles found in Yeoman’s diary tell us about the way in which he engaged with musical performances, and what might we learn more generally about how listening accounts are recorded?

The most obvious characteristic of Yeoman’s account of the Drury Lane performance is its length: it is at least four or five times as long as any other account in his diary, musical or otherwise, because it includes so much detail of so many aspects of the performance. This, and the fact that the performance was still very much on his mind for much of the next day, is evidence that he was deeply impressed by the occasion (he wrote the second part of his diary description of the event on 9 April after walking for a long time and making several visits). Expressions of his mind’s turmoil as a result of the performance are found in passages where he confesses his inability to remember, or write quickly enough, with comments such as ‘I cannot mind much of it’, ‘but before I shall go on I’ll write do(wn) the Dress this Harlequin t(hat … er) appear in’, ‘but Realy I cannot Mind (it?) Just now, but I Remember …’, and so on. These and other characteristics were common to other travel narratives of the period, a category of literature into which Yeoman’s diaries fit, according to descriptions of other works of the period:

wonder constitutes a recurrent theme, and a stock trope, in travel writing. Wonder may be defined as the emotional and intellectual response that occurs when a traveller is confronted with something that temporarily defies understanding, and that cannot easily be assimilated into the conceptual grid by which the traveller usually organises his or her experience. The mixture of awe and bafflement that ensues will often operate at a pre-rational, even somatic level. Travellers report being rooted to the spot, or struck dumb in amazement; and the latter condition is one reason why tropes of inexpressibility and linguistic inadequacy are commonplace in travel writing, with writers frequently protesting that even retrospectively they cannot find the words to convey fully their experience. 173

Expressions of wonder, bafflement, amazement and linguistic inadequacy are all present in Yeoman’s account of the Drury Lane performance, and as he struggled to make himself intelligible he used a device common to many contemporary travel writers when describing unfamiliar objects or experiences: simile. The clearest example is his description of the double bass: as we have seen, this was an instrument almost certainly unfamiliar to his readers. He likens it to a large bass viol, explaining that it produced deep sounds ‘Like Thunder att a distance, or like Something a Jowling in the Bowels of the earth’. To modern readers familiar with double basses Yeoman’s description makes sense, but who knows what mental pictures his description might have conjured in the minds of his readers in the 1770s? If he struggled to portray accurately the features of a double bass, he all but gave up describing a scene in which there were around 20 child dancers on stage: he acknowledged that they made ‘a prety Sight’, but adds ‘Theres Not That Man Liveing who can form any Idea of unless they See it’.

However, for all Yeoman’s bafflement and amazement at the scene, he recorded as much accurate detail as he could. In this respect his approach was consistent with the philosophical developments of earlier decades, epitomised in the writings of Frances Bacon, John Locke and others, which stressed the importance of empirical evidence in the formation of knowledge. The principles espoused by these individuals were also advocated to travel writers:

Thinkers such as Bacon and Locke, and institutions such as the Royal Society, set up in 1660 to promote Baconian principles in science and knowledge, issued numerous directives to travellers, seeking in this way to regulate and systematise not only the sort of information they gathered, but just as crucially, the observational methods they used to gather and record data. 174

Admittedly, we have no idea whether Yeoman was familiar with Bacon, Locke, or the Royal Society, or whether he had read any travel literature, but the writing style in his diaries perfectly fits the descriptions of contemporary works in the genre, suggesting that in some way or other he was familiar with the kind of prose expected in such a document. His writing is full of careful, factual reporting. More than that, he generally avoids giving expression to his internal, emotional state as he describes the events he witnessed. Although the style of his account of the Drury Lane performance shows how excited he was, he nevertheless concentrates on recording details of the instruments of the orchestra, the clothing and scenery, and so on. His writing may be much less polished than others of his time, but his general approach follows that of other travel writers such as Addison, whose description of his visit to Rome prompted Thompson to comment:

given the importance of Rome in the itinerary of the Grand Tour, the modern reader might expect Addison’s account of the Eternal City to convey a sense of the pleasure and excitement he felt when finally he reached this key destination. … [however] Addison gives the reader little sense of what he felt as he viewed the various sites and antiquities of Rome; indeed, there is little direct narration of his personal experience at all. 175

This approach seems to have been deeply rooted in the way in which many late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers reported their experiences in journals and diaries and it explains the absence of overt expressions of emotion that is so much a feature of the genre at the time.

Yeoman’s factual approach to writing is also seen in his descriptions of church music. Although he sought out performances of psalms and was eager to join choirs when he could, he never overtly expresses the pleasure that he surely must have derived from participating in these performances. The relative brevity of these passages in his diary, compared with the description of his visit to Drury Lane, is accounted for by the familiarity of his readers with the subject material. Yeoman had no need to explain anything about the psalms that were sung, the nature of anthems, performance matters such as part-singing, and so on. His readers were familiar with all this, hence his need only to record a few facts about each venue.

With the exception of his description of the performance in Drury Lane, most of Yeoman’s accounts of listening are brief, and there are few of them in total. Nevertheless, taken as a whole they reveal much about the nature of the way in which writers of the eighteenth century recorded their experiences.

Select bibliography

Drage, Sally. ‘The Performance of English Provincial Psalmody c.1690 – c.1840’, PhD dissertation, University of Leeds, 2009.

Girdham, Jane. English Opera in Late Eighteenth-Century London. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Highfill, Philip H. Jr., Burnim, Kalman A. and Langhans, Edward A. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660–1800, 16 vols. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973–1993.

Holman, Peter. Life After Death: The Viola da Gamba in Britain from Purcell to Dolmetsch. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2010.

Holman, Peter. ‘Worth 1000 words: Edward Francis Burney at Drury Lane in 1779′, Early Music 45/4, pp. 641–656.

Reid, Robert Douglas. Some Account of the Family of Harding of Cranmore c. Somerset. Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith, 1917.

Reid, Robert Douglas. The Diary of Mary Yeoman of Wanstrow, Co. Somerset. Wells: Wells Journal Office, 1926.

Rogers, Vanessa. ‘Orchestras on stage in the Georgian-era playhouse: unravelling the origin of the ‘Winston’ sketch’, Early Music 44/4, 2017, pp. 607–625.

Stone, George Winchester. The London Stage, 1660–1800, Part 4. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1960–1968.

Temperley, Nicholas. The Music of the English Parish Church, 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Thompson, Carl. Travel Writing. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2011.

Yearsley, Macleod. The Diary of the Visits of John Yeoman to London in the Years 1774 and 1777. London: Watts & Co., 1934.

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Download: The listening experiences of John Yeoman (1748–1824)

Individual listeners

Hannah Ann and William Stirling: exchanging views on their listening experiences 1834–1842

Dr Elaine Moohan

Dr Elaine Moohan is a Senior Lecturer in Music at The Open University (OU), and is based in Edinburgh at The OU in Scotland. Her research interests include the history of music in Glasgow and fifteenth- and sixteenth-century liturgical music, and her most recent publication in this field is The Complete Works of Robert Johnson (fl. 1520s–1550s). She is a co-investigator on the Listening Experience Database (LED) project, focusing on the listening experiences of some notable Glasgow families, particularly the Stirling–Maxwells and the Smiths of Jordanhill.

Abstract

Hannah Ann Stirling (1816–1843) and her brother William (1818–1878), ninth Baronet of Pollok, received a typical education for those of their social class, which included exposure to the Fine Arts. Hannah Ann became an accomplished pianist and William went on to become a leading expert in Spanish art. We can follow their exchange of views on reading, attending concerts, and buying works of art through 141 letters. Both attended concerts and the opera but with different levels of musical knowledge; Hannah played the piano and harp, while William did not play any instrument and frequently refers to his lack of musical knowledge. Throughout their correspondence, William is determined to please his sister by writing about the performances he attends, and provides her with insightful comments about both the music and the performers. Hannah, however, knowing that William professes to have little interest in music, rarely writes any details about the music she hears. Examining their letters highlights some of the challenges and rewards of working with this type of historical material, where the writers endeavour to recapture in a shared language the fleeting effect of music and thereby manage to compare various qualities of the performers, music, and instruments.

Introduction

Hannah Ann Stirling (b. Kenmure House, 17 August 1816 – d. Carlsbad, 20 July 1843) and her brother William (b. Kenmure House, 8 March 1818 – d. Venice, 15 January 1878) left a collection of 141 letters through which we can gain some understanding of the closeness of their relationship and the events they experienced through nine years of their lives. This collection of letters that preserves both sides of their discussions, is now deposited in the Glasgow City Archives. 176 The letters start in December 1830 and end in May 1843, a few months before Hannah’s death. We learn little about the topics of their earliest discussions, which are contained in three widely-spaced letters dating from December 1830, August 1831, and October 1834. Fortunately, the letter of October 1834 lands in the middle of a conversation about music. It was written when Hannah was 18 and moving between family residences in Scotland and London, and William was 16 and still at a boarding school in Leicester, from where he took up a place at Trinity College, Cambridge. They always write tenderly to each other, exchanging family news, and encouraging each other to pursue their interests as well as offering and asking for advice on cultural matters, particularly with respect to their reading materials. In writing about music, however, they seem to be sharing a private joke, one in which Hannah Ann is cast as the more informed party, while William plays the part of the hopeless ignoramus.

Although Hannah Ann played the piano and harp and took singing lessons, she rarely writes to William about the music that she heard, be that in private or in public, even though she undoubtedly possessed the knowledge and technical vocabulary to do so. (The wider archive collection relating to Hannah includes over 100 letters that she received from family and friends; Hannah’s side of these conversations is not preserved in the Glasgow City Archives collection. Only five letters written to Hannah make reference to music, three of which are considered below: one each from her father, a relative in Mannheim, and her friend Jessy Paterson. The latter two appear to be responding to musical matters in the letter they had received from Hannah.)

William, on the other hand, continually reminds his sister in his letters that he has no musical knowledge and is not particularly interested in music, and yet it is precisely in those letters where we find the richest observations about opera performances in particular. William’s vocabulary is that of a layman, which is just as valuable to the researcher as anything written in a professional musical language. His descriptive vocabulary tends to be narrow, and changes during the period under investigation, but it is sufficient to convey his appreciation of the music and performers. The earliest letter that refers to an opera performance in London shows that what William lacked in depth of musical knowledge was made up for in his ability to make astute comments about the quality of the singing and acting. In the remaining letters written during the period under consideration, he brings more of an appreciation of the whole theatrical experience into his writings, and gradually focuses more on the visual impact of the event.

A few of the performances that William attended are recorded in both his personal diaries and in his letters to Hannah, and it is interesting to compare the details in each. In the diaries, he writes brief comments and rarely writes in fully-formed sentences. Sometimes the entry comprises simply a list of performers; sometimes there are one or two words about either the music or one of the opera singers. This is typical of his way of recording other events, and the overall impression of William’s diaries during this period is that they are being written as a personal record of his activities and experiences. There is no suggestion that he intended someone else to read them, or that the contents will be used to support a later publication. This is borne out in the entry for 16 February 1839:

Left off my Journal as a useless formality!!!!! 177

In his letters to Hannah, on the other hand, he provides more insight into his reactions to the music or an appraisal of some of the performers.

Establishing their musical credentials

One of the earliest letters in the collection provides the type of information that allows us to begin to understand the respective musical credentials of Hannah Ann and William. Although there is clearly a lacuna at this point, it is easy to pick up the conversation in which the 16 year old William is obviously writing a response to his sister’s comments about his musical knowledge:

Friday October 31st 1834, Coss[ington] Rect[ory], Leicester
You do me wrong, sister Hannah, in supposing me altogether an ignoramus in musical common places, and particularly in the fame of Monsieur Herz the premier pianist to Louis Philippe & the first composer of his age in so much that I have read his name many tens of times upon the flourished and illuminated backs or title pages of music books. 178

Presumably the ‘Monsieur Herz’ mentioned is Henri Herz (1803–1888) one of the famed piano virtuosi of the nineteenth century. 179 Hannah replies to this comment about ‘Monsieur Herz’ in a letter dated five months later, in March of the following year:

I have been to several concerts [in Edinburgh], but you, who are deaf as the dead to harmony care not for such trifling nonsense: so I will not torment you about the ‘Pianist to Louis Philippe, and the first Composer of his age’, nor a string of names to you unintelligible … 180

This short exchange speaks volumes of their respective knowledge of music. Yet it could equally provide insight to a private joke, one in which Hannah is regarded as the expert, while William defers to his sister’s knowledge and pleads the part of the less-informed party. Thus, Hannah is quick to indicate that her brother has no interest in music, and her statement appears to be endorsed in one of William’s letters written two years later in June 1837 where he says, with reference to attending the opera in London:

I wish you were here, to enjoy all these musicians, who are thrown away upon me, I suppose. 181

Later again in February 1841 while in Paris he continues to protest his lack of musical understanding:

I have seen almost every opera that is ever given & am not passionately musical (as you know) I never go there, except when a seat in a box is given to me. 182

These examples are typical of the tone of their epistolary relationship over eight or nine years until Hannah’s untimely death in July 1843 just before her 27th birthday. Rarely, among the surviving documents, do we read any descriptions of musical performances from the pen of Hannah Ann, while William strives to write about the music he hears, particularly opera, knowing that this will please his sister. In spite of his protestations that he is ‘not passionately musical’, William does attend the opera regularly both in London and during his tours on the continent, even when he is required to pay for the tickets himself (as recorded in his expenses). These do not seem to be the actions of one with no interest in music. On the contrary, he does appear to have a certain interest in music, even if he considered himself to lack the insider knowledge of one who plays an instrument. Indeed, it is likely that through frequent exposure to performances of works by, for example, Bellini, Donizetti, Cimarosa, Mozart, and Weber, William did acquire some musical knowledge, albeit not the same level of privileged knowledge that Hannah possessed as a player.

Hannah Ann’s musical ability

Before going any further, it will be helpful to give some indication of Hannah’s own musical education and proficiency since this provides the context in which William writes to her, and may even have influenced his choice of musical matters to write about. From her diaries, Hannah comes across as a young woman who took her practising seriously, spending hours at the harp or piano. David Johnson suggests that harmonically self-supporting instruments such as the piano and harp were considered as suitable instruments for ladies to play, at least among the societies that he investigated in the southern parts of Scotland; a fact that holds true for the rest of Britain and the continent into the nineteenth century. 183 Her letters to William include some details about her practising, her music teachers, and their father, Archibald Stirling (1769–1847), buying her a harp. For example, in February 1835, she writes:

… I intended writing to you yesterday as I promised dear William but I found it to be a moral impossibility; & as my fingers are too sore to practise the Harp, owing to a hard practice of three hours and a half on Tuesday, I seize time by the fore locks … You must be informed that partly by my Father’s desire I have added a singing Master to my other teachers of polite accomplishments – by name [Theophilus Anthony] Bucher, a name famous, I believe, in the Musical World. 184

Hannah’s harp is the most written about instrument in all of the family archive. Her father bought her a new instrument in May or June 1835, as recorded in the household accounts for 26 May, that is, a few months after her letter to William in February:

Paid Robert Purdie, Music Seller Edinburgh for a double action Harp by Erard No. 4545, £177. 185

The cost of the harp itself seems to be at the more expensive end of the price range. Erard was a London-based harp and piano manufactory, and the price tag of £177 is well in excess of one of their London competitors, namely Baldwin-Erat, where in the late 1820s the most expensive double-action harp cost £115. 186

In June 1835, Hannah Ann wrote to William of her new instrument almost in passing:

Have you heard any thing of your allowance lately – I have got a Harp – Aunt Charles begs, with her love that you will take a box of pills in your pocket, on your tour … 187

The exclamation ‘I have got a Harp’ indicates that Hannah did not have her own instrument when she wrote about her harp practice in February. Although she must have had access to an instrument before this Erard was bought, it is not clear from the Stirling family documents where the earlier instrument came from. None of the existing household inventories includes a harp, and the accounts do not make any reference to buying or hiring an instrument, or even maintaining one by buying harp strings.

As for the singing teacher named in this letter, Theophilus Anthony Bucher (c. 1802–1871), he was indeed a renowned voice teacher in Edinburgh at this time. He was French, originally a flautist and something of a composer publishing vocal exercises and:

several highly-artistic songs 188

There are very few references to Hannah’s musical education in letters from family members. One relative, whose name is difficult to decipher, writes from Mannheim am Rhein in December 1837:

How are you getting on with music. Did you not take lessons upon the Harp? It is not an instrument much played in Germany. 189

Unfortunately, some months prior to receiving this encouraging letter from Mannheim, her father had written rather unfavourably of her harp playing:

27 M[  ] 1837

My dear you might have had lessons from Miss Gelsin at this time – after all the past expenses of the Harp &c. &c. … consequently if I had known the little proficiency you have had I should not have permitted the measure at all. 190

As to Hannah Ann’s proficiency at the piano, there seems to be no reference in the surviving family documents. However, her diaries do show again that she practised several hours a day, as demonstrated, for example, from entries in her 1843 diary:

17 January, … I practised Schubert yesterday and today …

18 January, … practised Beethoven …

23 January, Late in the morning, mild day, practised Beethoven’s two pieces 1 ½ hours …

24 January, … practised Chopin … 191

It is frustrating that these diary entries do not record which pieces she was practising, although if writing for herself there would be no reason to do so. However, there are receipts from various music shops in Edinburgh and London among the many payment vouchers relating to her personal expenses that provide some clues. These show that Hannah’s purchases included Beethoven Sonatas Op. 13, Op. 26, and Op. 27 No 1, each of which is manageable by any competent player, Chopin’s Mazurkas Set 2, and various sets of studies by Henri-Jérôme Bertini (1798–1876) and Sir Julius Benedict (1804–1885). William also bought some music for Hannah, for example, writing from Brussels during one of his continental tours:

I had asked Jessy [Paterson] about music for you before your letter came, & have a cylinder of tuneful novelties buried among my books … 192

If Hannah Ann was able to play piano works such as those named in the purchase vouchers, then she will have possessed enough musical knowledge to be able to describe the music that she heard at the various concerts recorded among the ticket purchases in her personal accounts, a skill that, from the exchanges in their letters, William claims to lack.

Given the length and regularity of Hannah’s practice sessions, others in the household must have been listening to her at the piano. Yet it has so far proved impossible to find anyone who describes her playing in writing.

Hannah Ann’s listening experiences

Hannah’s letters do not provide much information about the concerts that she attended, although her personal expenses record regular spending on musical activities. Taking the 1841 London Season as a sample year, she bought tickets for two performances of ‘Ancient Music’, attended the festival at St Paul’s, took a box at the German opera, and heard Liszt in recital. 193 None of these experiences are included in her letters to William. Instead, she tends to refer to music as incidental to family and social events particularly in Edinburgh, Kinfauns Castle, and the family home at Keir. 194

Hannah depicts Edinburgh as a place for formal balls, tea drinking, and private musical soirées. In contrast, life at Keir and Kinfauns exudes a more relaxed atmosphere, for example:

… At Keir … music & dancing, & bagpiping & reeling & jigging in the Drawing Room … (11 August 1835) 195

A similarly relaxed evening is recounted from Kinfauns in May 1836 when Hannah writes:

… I was highly amused the other Evening with a would be young man in the shape of an officer of the 25 Highlanders – who distracted our ears with chattering nonsense & playing infamously on the piano! Thank goodness you don’t practice to be musical … 196

Each of these events focuses on music-making for those most easily described as ‘above stairs’. However, in one second-hand report, Hannah refers to a letter from their Aunt Marnie describing the New Year celebrations of 1839 at Kinfauns. From this we learn that one of the house guests, a Miss Macgregor, asked permission to join the celebrations below stairs and joined the dancing in the laundry and took supper in the housekeeper’s room. 197 It may have been the spirit of the season that allowed such mixing to take place and receive a positive report.

A couple of Hannah’s letters from her foreign holidays indicate that she did seek out musical performances while on her travels. For example, the thwarted attempt in June 1837 to hear the choir at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin:

I have met with a disappointment to day, having resolved to hear the singing at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Milne & I sallied forth, about 3 o’clock; which the people here told us was the proper time, & after giving us directions where to find the Cathedral, we quickly reached it, went in & found a regiment of charity children receiving instruction from teachers of different sizes & ages, & from not one … could we learn distinctly whither this was the cathedral … 198

The only other surviving instance of Hannah writing about music to William comes a few years later while on a tour of the continent in June 1840. When she reached Switzerland, she writes from Thun:

You will have heard therefore all about our travels. I need not go over my raptures at … sailing on the lake [Geneva], seeing Chillon [Castle] & hearing that most wonderful & delightful organ at Fribourg. It is important to describe the effect that organ produced in its power & sweetness when the organist played the Hallelujah Chorus. The Cathedral in which it is, is a great deal too small a building for it, & Louis Philippe, like a second Napoleon, is doing all he can to get the organ into France, Which it is to be hoped the Fribourglians will have spirit enough to resist. 199

The organ that Hannah Ann heard at St Nicholas Cathedral was still relatively new, having been completed in 1834 by Aloys Mooser. 200 It is interesting that she writes not only about the quality of the sound, but the effect of the instrument within the space. It is difficult to establish from her letters and diaries how well qualified she was to judge the suitability of the size of the instrument for the building, since this is an isolated comment on this particular issue. Her comments may instead be a general comparison of the sound of a continental organ with those that she heard in various British cities. Nowhere among her existing papers is there any description of the effect of the sound of any instrument or ensemble within a performing space.

William’s listening experiences

Turning now to William, we find him creating a language that communicates what he is experiencing at musical performances, not only in his letters to Hannah Ann, but also in his personal diaries. What also emerges from these documents is some evidence of William’s close listening skills, despite his continued protestations of knowing little about music. His earliest surviving descriptions of these listening experiences come in two letters written in April and June 1837.

In London, on 4 April 1837, he attended a performance of Belisario, by Donizetti, which The Times describes as having had its first performance in Britain a few days earlier on 1 April. 201 William wrote to Hannah the following day:

I went last night to the opera Belisario [by Donizetti] was acted there were no particularly great performers. It is not a favourite opera. Yet there were two or three pieces which I admired – a Madlle De Angioli was the prima donna – she was pretty and sometimes sang well. But the great fault I find with second rate singers is that they imitate their betters in their bad acting and not in their good singing. Duvernay danced beautifully – particularly in one dance with Castanets – it was a pas seul but I forget the name of it … 202

His diary entry on 4 April for the same performance simply records the barest facts of the event and reads:

To opera ‘Belisario’ Sigr Galli, [Signor] De Val, Made Giannoni ,Mlle De Angioli (very pretty) Ballet ‘Beniowsky’ Mlle Duvernay (in Cachoucha) & [Mlle Herminie] Elsler. 203

The contrast in William’s approach to recording this event in his diary and in the letter to Hannah is typical of his writing style in different types of document. As mentioned above, William seems to use the diary as a simple personal record, as an aide memoire that was not created to be read by others or to provide notes for later use, although he may have referred to it when composing his letters. He rarely writes in sentences, and the barest details are written down, as in the example above.

The letter to Hannah, on the other hand, strives to convey his experience of the evening and includes some perceptive comments on the singing and effect of the acting and dancing. His appraisal of Madlle De Angioli as one who ‘sometimes sang well’ suggests that William had developed a discerning ear and a more sophisticated appreciation of opera singing than he considered to be within his ability. This phrase may also suggest that he was capable of a certain level of concentrated listening that allowed him to make an immediate assessment of the performance of a single voice within the whole and identify which pieces were sung better than others. The telling statement ‘second rate singers … imitate their betters in their bad acting and not in their good singing’ again indicates an ability for focused listening and observing, as well as a familiarity with operatic performances and the expectations he formed by frequently attending throughout the season.

There is no explicit evidence in William’s diaries and letters to suggest that he went to the opera in London in the company of friends or relatives, in other words, because of a social expectation. On the contrary, he often seems to go alone, which in itself indicates a genuine interest in music. Additionally, his writings demonstrate that he had the ability to carry previous listening experiences in his head, which equipped him to compare different performers and performances.

He does not explain why Belisario is not ‘a favourite opera’. The first British performance had taken place only a few days earlier and he may have been influenced by local reports or conversation within his social circle. Or perhaps this is his more personal view based on his judgement of talent when he tells Hannah that there were ‘no particularly great performers’. This letter also shows his effort to describe the whole event, referring to the singers, dancers, and something of the visual impact, an approach developed more fully in later letters discussed below. Indeed, one could speculate that the reason William’s listening experiences are dominated by opera performances is because of his interest in the spectacle of the event which satisfied his growing interest in the visual arts.

A couple of months later, in June 1837, he writes again to Hannah:

I have seen several operas – the Characters by the same people that were here last year with the exception of Albertazzi, who is a great addition. He both acts & sings well – Pasta is at Covent Garden & Madame Schroeder Devrient at Drury Lane – I like Pasta’s singing better than any I have ever heard – I wish you were here, to enjoy all these musicians, who are thrown away upon me, I suppose. 204

Again, this is a much more detailed account than the record in his diary:

7th June 1837 … to Drury Lane Theatre in evening & saw Taglioni in La Sylphid – danced beautifully … also Made Schroeder Devrient fine singer in Opera. 205

There are several points worth pulling out when comparing these two documents. Firstly, there is an attempt in the letter to compare Pasta’s singing with that of Madame Schroeder Devrient, even if only at a superficial level. This provides further evidence that William had a certain ability to hold a previously-heard sound in his mind while listening to a new performance and comparing the two. Or, at the very least, to compare his emotional and physical reactions to different performers, and use this rounder experience to create a listening memory that allowed him to express a preference.

His reference to Pasta being at Covent Garden, and to her singing in general, presents something of a puzzle. The diary for 1837 refers only to attending performances at Drury Lane; there is no mention of him going to Covent Garden. Also, there is no evidence in any of William’s surviving documents of attending a performance involving a singer by the name of Pasta. This is presumably Giuditta Pasta (1798–1865), one of the most celebrated sopranos of her generation, who created title roles in works by, among others, Bellini and Donizetti. 206

Secondly, the letter and diary differ in their choice of performers to describe. While Hannah is told about Albertazzi’s abilities as an opera singer who ‘both acts & sings well’, for himself, William records his estimation of the dancer Taglioni who ‘danced beautifully’ and the ‘fine singer’ Madame Schroeder Devrient. Perhaps he chose to return to the issue raised in his April letter of singers being able to act, or not, when writing to Hannah to continue that thread of discussion. As for his record of Taglioni in his diary, again one might speculate that the more purely visual impact of the dance captured his developing appreciation of the visual arts.

Within these records of operatic and ballet experiences, we can see William’s listening developing along two distinct and complementary paths: his listening skills and his listening memory. His listening skills were clearly being developed through frequent exposure to music. By this means, he will have been able to accumulate a knowledge of vocal proficiency and discern the style of music that he preferred. This is demonstrated in his writings where, for example, he tells Hannah that De Angioli ‘sometimes sang well’. This suggests that he had a mental standard that De Angioli sometimes met during a single performance. His listening memory allowed him to compare performances, singers, and styles of music, across a longer time span, for example, his comparative comments on Pasta and Schroeder Devrient.

Parallel to these listening skills, we can see William’s developing appreciation of the visual side of theatrical performances through his notes about the ballet.

Another instance where William demonstrates his ability to recall a particular sound that can be compared with a more recent listening experience is found in his diary for 19 June 1838, when he writes about hearing the famous organ in the Grote Kerk, or St-Bavokerk, Haarlem:

… went to the Church & saw & heard the great organ. The organist played for us for about an hour. Magnificent tones & almost equal in effect to a quier [sic] of voices Tho’ I believe the new organs [at] Birmingham & York are almost as powerful, I should think this has greater variety of notes. The Maker [Christiaan Müller] of this one built [one] also in Trin[ity] Coll[ege]. The outside is magnificently ornamented, the pipes are partly left their natural colour & partly gilded & there is an heraldic & other devices in wood painted white, which has the effect of silver – if anything it is too elaborately ornamented. 207

A visit to the St Bavokerk and hearing the organ was popular with British travellers on their continental tours during the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Those who wrote about this instrument comment on its size, tone, and power, such as Lowell Mason who heard it in 1853 and like William compared it to the instrument in Birmingham Town Hall:

It [the Haarlem organ] … is famed for its size the world over. We thought it as good as it is great, and listened to its tones with delight. It is indeed very powerful … There are now several organs as large, or larger, for example, the organ in the Town Hall, at Birmingham … 208

William’s account presents more of a challenge to one’s musical memory, recalling the sound of two organs in different cities in England and managing to write a comparison with that being heard at Haarlem. A comparison with an instrument at Trinity College may have been easier for William, since he must have had many opportunities to become familiar with its sound while studying there. Although this was, no doubt, a much smaller instrument at the time than that at Haarlem. Much more difficult is the recall of the sound of instruments that may have been heard less frequently and possibly with the experiences separated by the passage of time, that is the organs in Birmingham and York. However, the difference in construction between British and continental organ builders combined with the aural impact of each instrument in their respective space may have helped to imprint the sound in William’s musical memory. Once again, it seems unlikely that someone with little interest in music would write in this manner for themselves. That William does so demonstrates an ability to recall the overall effect and range of stops on these organs.

As with his earlier descriptions of opera and ballet performances, we see William striving to capture the full experience of the musical and the visual impact of the instrument at Haarlem. He writes about the manner of decoration on the casing and pipes, all of which he considers to be excessive. He may himself have been conscious of his drifting between writing about the musical and visual experience of an occasion. When writing to Hannah from Munich in September 1839, William astutely comments that he:

saw & heard some opera & ballet 209

and likens this to his:

doings or rather seeings & hearings at Vienna. 210

There is more behind these comments than trying to find a common visual reference point that will help Hannah understand his experiences. Instead, what emerges is one who is developing as an art historian, and who fixes on specific visual effects which may not have been within Hannah’s experience, at least as far as can be determined from her personal archive. For example, William’s description of the rooftop promenades of Milan Cathedral:

I climbed among the thousand spires of the glorious white marble cathedral of this city 211

While in Milan, he attended the opera, choosing to describe the opera house …

the magnificent La Scala 212

… instead of the performance of Donizetti’s Robert Devereux.

William’s descriptive language

On the whole, William’s language is never gushing, either in the letters or his diaries, no matter what he is writing about – music, art works, reading, or his various travelling adventures. The word he tends to use most often among the earliest documents to describe enjoyable musical experiences is ‘fine’. 213 This use of ‘fine’ is restricted to his diaries; it is never found in his letters to Hannah Ann. For example, he describes the singing at Trinity College, Cambridge, as:

18th October 1835, Evening chapel, fine singing 214

And that at another unnamed Cambridge college:

17th October 1835 … the whole music very fine 215

As already seen above, his diary descriptions of more public performances are equally brief, both in terms of his reaction to individual performers as well as his estimation of the music itself. Thus, the dancer Carlotta Grisi, on 12 April 1836:

came out fine 216

While the last act of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena on 18 June 1836 is:

very fine 217

Even when William does not rate the performance highly, his description remains brief:

22nd March 1837, at the Opera in the evening very dull 218

Reading through all of William’s diaries for the period under investigation, it is noticeable that from 1838 he changes his favoured adjective from ‘fine’ to ‘good’. Could it be that ‘fine’ was the standard vocabulary among his contemporaries at Trinity College, Cambridge, during his early years there? His use of ‘good’ is a straightforward replacement and it is easy to find comparable examples with his previous use of ‘fine’. An orchestral concert on 13 March 1838 is:

pretty good 219

while a performance by the ballet dancer Taglioni on 1 May 1838 is:

very good 220

and an opera performance at Leipzig on 7 July 1838 is recorded as:

Music very good 221

William’s descriptive language is quite different and richer when referring to buildings and towns. For example, Bristol Cathedral is ‘handsome’ and many of the towns and gardens that he visits on his travels are ‘beautiful’. In his letters to Hannah Ann, William does at times strive to give her a more rounded description of his experiences and, although his language remains quite restricted, he does develop a more expanded style that more fully conjures up the scene as it was before his eyes.

An example of this combination of William describing the musical and visual is found in a letter to Hannah dated 2 December 1841, where we find a rather scathing account of an opera performance in Seville:

At Seville I saw an opera called Il Solitario by an ecclesiastic [Miguel Hilarión Eslava (1807–1878)] of great musical genius there – which is esteemed a masterpiece of music – It seemed pretty good – but not being a judge of these matters can not say how far this Prophet deserved the singular good fortune of being of ‘honour in his own country’ – The Theatre was fitted up in the Moorish style of architecture – arches & slender columns admirably adapted for such buildings. – Then light galleries covered with gilding & coloured tracery and fitted with the beauties of Seville all of a flutter with faces & mantillas would have afforded a very pleasant hours amusement, had the curtain never risen, nor the orchestra struck up … 222

By this date, William had attended many opera performances, and was probably more equipped to offer judgement on the quality of the music than he suggests here. Yet he does not attempt to describe the sound of the music, or even the performers. Instead, he focuses on the architectural details around him in which he is able to perceive the distinctive Moorish elements in the design of the arches and columns. He then writes about the audience, and the fashions worn by the ladies and their antics in their seats. All of this was clearly more appealing to him than the music and seems to have provided more entertainment. It was soon after this first visit to Spain that William decided to make a serious study of Spanish art, for which he is now best remembered both as a scholar and collector.

There is, however, one letter where William writes more clearly about the sound of the music he heard and its effect. During a visit to Rome in January 1840, he encountered two instances of music in the streets: a funeral procession, and the traditional itinerant folk bands that emerge at Christmas:

Another of the sights of the street are the funerals with their processions of torch-bearing dolefully chanting priests before – the coffinless body borne on a bier & covered only with a pall, and a number of mourners ghastly ghostly looking pagans wrapped from head to foot in black or white cloth … Then about Christmas for two or three months there come bag-pipes ‘pifferari’ – from the hills of Calabria – dressed in sheep skins and other old age sober attire and pour forth their wailing melodies at the shrines of the Virgin at the corners of the streets. The company usually consists of three persons – 2 men & a boy – & the performance of the concert is a wild melancholy air to condole with the blessed Virgin and afterward a merrier measure to awake the Baby. At least this is the reason themselves assign for unvaryingly following such an order of music. The Calabrian Pipes are much larger & have much more serenity and modulation than ours – they are not very sightly instruments but I daresay might be made very smart by means of silver keys & silken streamers. I am so fond of them that if I ever learn any instrument I think I shall choose the said pipes. Don’t you think a duet with Sir John Mackenzie on his violincello [sic] would much promote the harmony of a Christmas party. For the present I have contented myself with causing to be painted the portraits of the three most illustrious pifferari who … make a very pretty little picture. 223

This document is rich with musical information, especially with respect to the folk musicians, their music, and instruments. William clearly uses the term ‘pifferari’ to refer to the musicians and indicates the composition of each team, two men and a boy. His description of their instruments and comparison with the Scottish bagpipes is accurate. He must have seen the larger version of the Italian bagpipes which has two chanters, the longer of the two often being over 150cm; the single chanter on the Scottish pipes is about one third of that length, at around 50cm. 224 Finally, he notes that each performance comprises a set of two tunes that are always played in the same order: the more melancholic for the Virgin followed by something more sprightly for the infant Christ.

This letter also conveys information about William and his social circle at home. Although he confirms that he does not play an instrument himself, obviously other men in their normal company did. (There are numerous entries in Hannah’s and William’s diaries, as well as in their letters, that indicate some kind of family performance was a normal part of their Christmas and New Year celebrations. However, it appears that these were more likely to be theatrical performances.)

Conclusion

The recorded listening experiences of Hannah Ann and William Stirling present something of a conundrum. While Hannah is the one who received instrumental tuition and diligently practised, she writes little to William about her experience of going to concerts. William, on the other hand, is content to present himself as completely ignorant in musical matters in this long-running private joke with his older sister. Yet it is William who writes more frequently about music, and develops a more intensive language to conjure up the whole experience. This may be a disservice to Hannah Ann since we do not have her side of the correspondence written to her friends. She may have written more fully about music to those whom she considered to be more interested in it than William. However, within the confines of this set of letters, it is William who, contrary to his protestations, displays a genuine interest in music. His are not the writings of one who is being forced to attend such performances as a social norm, allowing the music to pass by without due attention. Through his regular listening experiences he develops a useful musical memory whereby he can create his own benchmarks and determine when a singer is performing well, which pieces he prefers, and the comparable effects of British and continental organs. These descriptions combine well with his emerging skills as an art historian, conjuring up a tangible scene of the whole musical and visual experience.

Select bibliography

Baptie, David. Musical Scotland Past and Present. Reprinted Hildesheim & New York: Georg Olms, 1972.

Chase, Gilbert. The Music of Spain. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1959.

Fraser, William. The Stirlings of Keir and their Family Papers. Edinburgh: privately printed, 1868.

Green, Lucy. Music, Gender, Education. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Johnson, David. Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century. Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 2003.

Macartney, Hilary. ‘Maxwell, Sir William Stirling’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com, accessed 11 May 2016.

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Download: Hannah Ann and William Stirling: exchanging views on their listening experiences 1834–1842

Listening and the senses

Musicking – conversing – writing: towards a cultural perspective on music listening in eighteenth-century Britain

Ina Knoth

Ina Knoth is a postdoctoral lecturer at Hamburg University working on a book project on music listening in England, c. 1670–1750. She studied musicology in Weimar, as well as English literature and economics in Jena. As a recipient of a Georg Christoph Lichtenberg scholarship she finished her dissertation on Paul Hindemith’s ‘Harmonie der Welt’ in Oldenburg in 2014. She has published on Hindemith, English music culture around 1700, as well as on the history and sociology of German musicology.

Abstract

The listening sense is the predominant but not the only sense with the help of which musicians as well as all kinds of ‘bystanders’ experience music. However, sensual perception doesn’t leave an easy trace for historians. The task of tracking transformations from listening experiences to their written testimonies is a challenge which has to be revisited within any individual cultural frame. In this context, English accounts of music listening from the first half of the eighteenth century are particularly demanding due to their brevity. This chapter reflects on this challenge and proposes new solutions for how to read these accounts. Following methodological approaches by Christopher Small (‘musicking’) to overcome traditional lines between ‘the performer’ and ‘the listener’, as well as reflecting on tacit sensual knowledge, it outlines ways to understand music listening in Britain in the eighteenth century. 225

Introduction

‘I believe, dear madam, you will be tired of my account of music, which does not describe so well as it sounds.’ 226 These words by Mary Pendarves (later Delany), 227 addressed to her mother in 1735, point to a familiar problem when dealing with testimonies of music listening: how is it possible to transform aural impressions into language? At the same time, written accounts are succinct summaries of sensual experiences and therefore a central source for music listening history, as the Listening Experience Database (LED) project justly points out. However, these testimonies need to be ‘decoded’. While it is obvious that any such account has to be evaluated based on its ideological premises and the type of writing (private letter, official report, personal diary, and so on), descriptions of music listening experiences in British diaries and letters from the first half of the eighteenth century present a further and severe challenge: namely, their brevity. Often, these descriptions are restricted to the date of the event, names of performers and composers and a succinct judgement such as ‘very good’, ‘charming’ or ‘poorly performed’. At first sight they seem to be formulaic and can be discouraging to work with in order to uncover modes of listening or even listening experiences. 228 In my chapter, I will propose a method for reading them as worthwhile sources for a cultural history of music listening in Britain in the eighteenth century. Tracing the three practices named in my title – namely musicking, conversing, and writing – I will point out interrelations between the focus of sensual attention during listening situations and the written word of personal accounts in diaries and letters.

Music listening – a joint venture of the senses

Music listening has gained a lot of attention in historical studies over the last decades. It has become common to treat ‘music listening’ as a general term not only focusing on strictly physiological listening, but also on the perception of, for instance, musical performances in their multisensory dimension. 229 Furthermore, music listening has become understood as a practice highly defined by its social context. 230 Taking this general definition of music listening as my starting point, I will focus on the interplay of the senses during listening processes, as described or at least hinted at in personal accounts.

Regarding the interplay of the senses, the cultural historian is faced with a complicated mixture of relevant phenomenological as well as cultural information which needs to be taken into account. For example, Walter J. Ong’s appeal ‘to think of cultures in terms of the organization of the sensorium’ 231 is based on the human mechanism which filters the innumerable impressions a certain experience makes on all senses. This mostly unconscious selection decides which stimuli on which senses are most consciously felt and is highly preconditioned by cultural standards – a finding which has gained ample scholarly attention and various means of methodological application. 232 On a very basic level, Ong as well as many others has concentrated on the shift from the dominance of the hearing sense to the visual sense in the Age of Enlightenment. 233 This shift is basically argued on the notion that words as the central media of knowledge communication were transferred mainly orally – as sound – up to the late Middle Ages, but that the invention of the press and the increase of literacy in the seventeenth century made reading information – understanding information through the more restricted and partial sense of sight – more important to education. Especially in works on intellectual history, these studies have contributed to a broad consensus regarding the hegemony of vision within Modernity. 234

As Lawrence Sterne has pointed out, however, this does not negate the importance of the audible within Modernity but rather that it led to its disregard in scholarly work. 235 To address this problem, the definition of ‘knowledge’ has been notably elevated from its former scholarly restriction to intellectual knowledge. In cultural studies, definitions of ‘knowledge’ include all imaginable ways of how to do or understand things – through all senses. In this context, different scholars have pointed out how aural knowledge, defined as knowledge of how to listen to music, 236 is practised – as for instance in the way in which the beau monde of the eighteenth century listened to music sufficiently frequently to develop a routine – but largely remains inarticulate and can therefore be regarded as a form of tacit knowledge. 237

Furthermore, some methods have been developed to study these forms of tacit knowledge and make them explicit to a certain extent. For example, Richard Sennett, among others, underlines the importance of the body for all kinds of tacit learning and skills. 238 Accordingly, tacit knowledge even though it is inarticulate can become traceable by paying close attention to social practices.

While paying attention to social practices in the field of music listening is not a novelty, the level at which the body and its tacit knowledge are acknowledged needs to be intensified. The crucial co-operation between the senses and the social situation has recently been underlined by Andreas Reckwitz. According to him, the body not only harbours the senses and the tacit knowledge of how to regulate their perception, but also the social knowledge of how to use them in specific social constellations. This has its silent effect on the perception itself or, coincidentally, the experience. 239 If we want to learn more about music listening experiences, therefore, all practices which taught the body how to handle a specific music listening situation as rendered in historical sources need to be taken into account carefully.

In the field of music listening, these concepts of tacit knowledge can easily be connected to Christopher Small’s concept of ‘musicking’. This might seem misleading at first, since Small’s definition of ‘musicking’ admittedly is quite broad:

To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing. […] 240

What this definition points out, however, is that music listening is not an isolated activity but one that normally overlaps and interacts with other music-related activities. Just as Small proposes to pay full attention to all sorts of relationships before, during and after a musical performance to analyse musicking, narrowing the task down to all activities which coincide or interact with listening as one aspect of musicking is a more complex goal than is often acknowledged – especially when it is combined with a concept of tacit knowledge which comprises a large component of memory. 241

On the most basic level, listening to music and making music are not necessarily separate things but are often practised at the same time by the same person. Patterns of experience of practising music repetitiously while simultaneously listening to the outcome influence each other as they both feed into the ‘tacit musicking knowledge’. Accordingly, even if in a specific situation listeners might not play they will still use the tacit knowledge of how to listen to music which they gained while practising music. More specifically, as they have learned listening to a specific kind of music by playing it they are likely to handle and experience the same kind of music in a very similar way to the way in which they became accustomed by practising. This may comprise various combinations of sensual focus: for example, tactile stimuli with regard to a certain instrument, heightened attention to pitch and other musical aspects repeatedly worked on, a visual image of how one should look while playing, the idea of a social setting appropriate to a specific kind of music, and so on. If listening while practising is the dominant way in which the listeners learned to listen to music in general, when first confronted with unknown music, they are likely to try to handle it in the same way, that is, with the same kind of interplay of the senses while listening – but probably with certain moments of irritation.

Writing conversationally about music

However, the contorted situation regarding historical accounts of music listening remains: in the accounts it is in fact words that convey and abstract the bodily experience. 242 These words, even in brief renderings, are still likely to grant a glimpse of the tacit knowledge of which kind of interplay of the senses was used, while at the same time these words adhere to standards of verbal communication. To gain a better insight into listening experiences it is therefore possible and necessary to differentiate the aspects of sensual perception and the premises of their depiction in written accounts. Concurring with Reckwitz, however, the tacit knowledge of how to listen due to experience in practising music, for example, overlaps with tacit social knowledge of how one should listen to as well as describe certain music in order to fulfil conversational standards. 243 Therefore, even if a specific part of the wording might adhere to specific conversational standards, it is likely to not only depict a ‘rhetoric without consequences’ but actually hint at tacit knowledge which does influence the experience of music listening. 244

To get a better grasp of why and how music might be mentioned at all in letters and diaries it is noteworthy that the personal accounts of music listening still available from the first half of the eighteenth century predominantly stem from the better-off classes for which music listening has to be regarded as a part of their everyday experiences. 245 This included both visiting entertainments with musical components as well as education which, especially for women, regularly comprised singing, harpsichord practice and dancing. 246 Furthermore, common social gatherings with music – such as communal singing of songs and ballads, or psalms at church – were regular occasions for music practice.

Turning to the descriptive level of eighteenth-century letters, we can first observe that news about entertainments was expected in correspondence. Second, this information was selected according to the writer’s and addressee’s specific interests. Only if either one had any interest in music were musical entertainments actually described – otherwise they would not be mentioned at all. If it was the writer who liked music, he or she normally also played some instrument himself/herself. If it was the addressee who favoured music the writer would at least know how the addressee expected to be informed about music. Accordingly, some kind of tacit musicking knowledge can be expected, more often than not with a component of bodily experience of singing or playing an instrument, in any account of music in diaries and letters. Third, any information about entertainments needed to be rendered as succinct judgements. 247 This normally led to the dominance of the visual sense in description as it was linked most closely to everyday perception, as Joseph Addison’s ranking of the senses in his ‘Essay on the Pleasures of the Imagination’, printed in the Spectator in 1712, underlines. 248

However, the dominance of a certain sense does not only determine the focus of any description, but it also influences the way in which aspects perceived by different senses are described. Granting for now that visible objects often dominated descriptions of entertainments (even though the interplay of the senses during the experience involved more senses than only sight), even the wording of musical aspects in an account can be linked to the qualities of different senses.

I will attempt to explain this crucial point by comparing how descriptions of musical aspects can be linked to the qualities – or ‘logic’ – of the two prominent senses, in this case, sound and sight. First, I will try to outline characteristics of descriptions which follow the logic of aural perception in their wording: according to the ability of the ear to receive stimuli from all directions at once, accounts rooted in this kind of description logic are likely to render more general notions of phenomena that pass away swiftly – such as music. Aural perception is unlikely to recur precisely, a common experience of anyone practising an instrument. Listening trained by personal practice of music will expect variety with regard to repetition of the same musical work as well as music of the same style. 249 At the very least, accounts following ‘aural perception logic’ in their wording will not describe music as if it were a fixed object.

Sight, on the other hand, perceives its objects as comparatively fixed objects, mostly concentrating on a specific aspect of it. Vision is predominantly fixed on objects which change much more slowly than sound. Therefore, these objects do not need to be recreated to be re-experienced. This is a fundamental difference from anything experienced by hearing which ceases the moment it is heard and needs repetition in the form of re-creation to be re-experienced. Therefore, accounts of musical performances which describe aspects of sound as if they were fixed and not prone to variety follow ‘visual perception logic’ – and also point to a noticeably different quality of music experience.

This last point is best proven by way of a specific example. To illustrate both, wordings of accounts following ‘aural perception logic’ and ‘visual perception logic’, as well as comparing them, I will examine accounts of two examples of musical entertainment in England in the first half of the eighteenth century which share quite a range of similarities: they were listened to by more or less the same audience and they both offered the possibility for the perceiver to either focus on musical, textual, decorative, spatial or performative aspects: namely, ballad opera and Italian opera.

Tracing ‘aural perception logic’ in written accounts: transience and variation

John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera had a massive public reception. It had a run of 62 performances in its first season in Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in 1728. It was soon played in different cities and towns all over Britain and stayed in the repertoire of London’s theatres until the end of the century. 250 Shortly before it was first staged, Alexander Pope predicted in a letter to Jonathan Swift, ‘whether it succeeds or not, it will make a great noise, but whether of Claps or Hisses I know not.’ 251 The noise it made, however, was not restricted to the immediate reaction of the audience as Pope suggests. Descriptions in diaries and letters point to different aspects of practical rather than intellectual reflection on the sensual experience.

Many accounts show how the listening experience was remembered with varied imitation. For example, Gertrude Savile’s diary records multiple visits to the Beggar’s Opera and follow-ups. Additionally, she used printed editions of the text and music to listen to it herself, performing it over and over again, alone as well as in social circles. For example, shortly after the first edition of the Beggar’s Opera was published, she writes in her diary:

Mrs. Newton, Lady Palmerston, Lady Clavering and 2 Daughters (great fortunes), and 3 Mrs. Fox’s here. While the 2 last were here, and Mrs.D.Enly alone in Mother’s room, I read ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ to them in intervalls, before and after supper. 252

The experience of the Beggar’s Opera obviously enticed her into hearing the words aloud in a sociable atmosphere, producing the sound herself. Furthermore, she noted in her diary that she frequently practised and ‘pricked’ tunes from the Beggar’s Opera on the harpsichord. Here are some examples: ‘Writt morn. Play’d tunes in ‘the Beggar’s Opera’ 2 hours after dinner;’ ‘Harpsichord from dark till 1/2 past 12 – 5 hours with a great deal of pleasure;’ ‘This day imploy’d as of late viz:- Mend Lace, Harpsichord, pricking ‘Beggar’s Opera’;’ or ‘harpsichord and prick’d Tunes out of ‘Beggar’s Opera’. 253

Following the logic of the hearing sense, the same event could never be reproduced exactly, but variations of all kinds were inevitable – and acceptable – when this familiar experience was repeated. This listening practice was new in its extent with respect to the Beggar’s Opera, but it wasn’t new as a (prolonged) listening practice. On the contrary, as is well known the music of the Beggar’s Opera was mostly arranged from ballad tunes as collected and published in collections such as Thomas D’Urfey’s Pills to Purge Melancholy (1719–20) and Playford’s Dancing Master (various editions 1751–c. 1728). 254 Accordingly, the ballad opera was designed and probably also listened to in a similar way to the tradition of public as well as private ballad singing which was not just a lower class practice, but probably the biggest musical mass phenomenon of its time. 255 Singing various texts to the same tune was not only common but a main part of the associative fun any new text for an old tune created – even though the spirit of these different texts was adjusted to the tune. 256 The music in its combination needed to be open to variation and was highly transferrable as to the singer’s qualities, instrumentation, place of performance and textual choice. These qualities of variation and their close connection to (semi-)oral cultures can most easily be linked to the qualities of the hearing sense. Savile not only joined in this general aural variation already known from ballad singing but incorporated her remembrance of the Beggar’s Opera in her solitary as well as social variants of domestic music (and reading). Therefore, stimuli of the sense of vision (as, for instance, the importance of a certain spatial setting would suggest) or a specified sense of touch (as, for instance, a close connection to a specific instrument would suggest) seem to have been less important to the musical experience than the versatile audible sensation as well as a general corporal involvement variably related to singing or playing the harpsichord.

Savile was not an exception. Re-‘musicking’ this way was a common way of dealing with listening experiences as well as describing them. Further letters by other authors prove how even self-proclaimed followers of the Italian opera, which was ridiculed in the Beggar’s Opera, enticed relatives outside the city to join in musicking the piece. Mary Pendarves, for instance, one of George Frideric Handel’s most faithful supporters, sent its score to her sister in Gloucester, writing:

I desire you will introduce the Beggar’s Opera at Glocester; you must sing it everywhere but at church, if you have a mind to be like the polite world. 257

Likewise, Pendarves did not refrain from musicking the Beggar’s Opera herself:

Yesterday Mrs. Peyton and I went to Court in the morning; I afterwards dined with the family of the Peytons and Dashwoods, and supped. […] We were very merry, and sung the Beggars’ Opera, talked, and wished for my mama and you, but all in vain. 258

Pendarves’ challenges to spread the music by encouraging others as well as repeating it herself in social circles underline how the variation of musical realisations was a part of a prolonged, positive experience. Her mischievous remark to her sister to at least spare the church from a performance of the Beggar’s Opera points to the influence polite manners had on musical descriptions of this kind of music – manners might be mentioned but were disregarded as to the personal practice since the experience obviously was too entertaining and widespread to be suppressed by moral considerations. On the contrary, Pendarves insinuates that listening to as well as performing the Beggar’s Opera was in fact part of ‘polite’ music listening.

The recollection of the sensual experience of this kind of music as performed on stage while one could ‘only’ listen was nourished by imitating it with one’s own body and friends as the common practice of ballad singing suggests. One listening focus this implies for the listening experience is on the difficulty of the piece, its performative challenges – necessitating a sober evaluation of one’s own capacities to recreate, vary, and reproduce the music heard. This is a sensual stimulation which can potentially also be self-reflective based on one’s musical skills. In summary, the listening experience these descriptions imply is quite immediate as hearing is most prominent in the interplay of senses. The experience is of an interactive nature and strongly provokes necessarily corporeal imitation. The description in accounts is brief. However, the brevity of the description is appropriate to its function which is based on the challenge to action. The intensity of the listening experience is prone to differ with respect to the listener’s own musical skills to imitate and thereby be part of the music heard, the amount of experience already gathered with respect to ballad listening and performing, and with the specific musical performance.

Tracing ‘visual perception logic’ in written accounts: music as a fixed object

The musical accounts I chose as examples for wordings of ‘aural perception logic’ lack one point I formerly identified as specific to written conversational communication: they did not pass judgements on the music but rather conveyed a merry atmosphere about the musical situation in general. Accounts of music listening, including judgements on the music, at times point to a slowly shifting or rather varying quality of descriptions of listening experiences. In the first half of the eighteenth century, this is traceable most easily in accounts of what is often described as the rivalry between, on the one hand, English songs like many of those from the Beggar’s Opera and, on the other hand, Italian opera which was introduced in London in the beginning of the eighteenth century. While dealing with airs from Italian operas the same way as with ballads, by re-musicking them with the help of scores, was possible and probably practised by some – airs from operas were printed just as ballads were – there are accounts which evidence first indications of differences gradually developing between listening to Italian opera as opposed to ballad opera. By way of example, I will turn to one listener who already served as an example for listeners of the Beggar’s Opera, Mary Pendarves.

In December 1729, almost two years after the premiere of the Beggar’s Opera, Mary Pendarves wrote to her sister about the ongoing competition – as she conceives it – between the Italian opera and the Beggar’s Opera as well as other ballad operas:

We are to have some old [Italian] opera revived, which I am sorry for, it will put people upon making comparisons between these singers and those that performed before, which will be a disadvantage among the ill-judging multitude. The present opera [= Handel’s Lotario] is disliked because it is too much studied, and they love nothing but minuets and ballads, in short the Beggar’s Opera and Hurlothrumbo are only worthy of applause. 259

This description hints at a mode of listening influenced by ‘visual perception logic’ to some degree, in close relation to expected criticism on re-staging an ‘old’ opera. Pendarves expects ‘the ill-judging multitude’ to compare the performative qualities of the old with the new set of singers. This kind of comparison of a repeated experience, visiting the same opera at least twice, would be quite normal to any kind of listening description which is led by the characteristics of the aural sense – a quality of listening she obviously encouraged herself in her reception of the Beggar’s Opera. We don’t know what the people Pendarves describes as ‘the ill-judging multitude’ would actually have done. However, bearing in mind the cultural practice of re-musicking music heard on stage, it can be argued that there were two obstacles to Handel’s operas being approached with the same listening mode as described above for listening to ballad operas: First, performing practices play a role. During the first half of the eighteenth century, the use of vocal embellishments, which clearly could not easily be imitated by only moderately educated singers, increased, enlarging the gap between opera performance and private imitation. This might be one reason why a revival might have led to an artistically more demanding rendering of the same opera which, consequently, might be harder to imitate at home. Second, and in connection to this argument, it is noteworthy that Pendarves mentions that critics thought Handel’s Lotario was ‘too much studied’. While this may well mean that it was too complex or ‘scientific’, the practical consequence is, again, that it is also harder to imitate at home than ballads are. 260

In short, the arguments Pendarves used to criticise the ‘ill-judging multitude’ can be understood as a criticism of their likely way to listen to Italian opera the same way she listens to ballad opera. Since she expected negative judgement with respect to Italian opera from this, Pendarves obviously intended to oppose this mode of listening and suggested a different attitude. The consequence is that she implicitly stylised the composition the way it was first performed as something like a fixed object which would be wronged if recreated in a varied ‘revival’. Furthermore, there isn’t a single notion in her diaries of singing opera songs at home. This places greater emphasis on the performance during the first listening situation (and similarly when it was repeatedly performed in the same season by the same set of singers) as opposed to her discussion of the Beggar’s Opera where the emphasis was on varied imitations of the performance by herself as well as others.

This different kind of depiction of the experience is highly influenced by social standards of polite judgements. When discussing the Beggar’s Opera alone, it seemed to suffice to warn her sister not to sing it in church to stay within polite boundaries. When there is a situation of competition between two kinds of music, however, she seemed to have forgotten her joyful listening experiences of the Beggar’s Opera.

On the whole, Pendarves seemed to listen to Italian opera differently from the way in which she listened to the Beggar’s Opera. With Italian opera, she was opposed to variation as she was opposed to revivals. Thereby, she remembers the listening experience as a fixed impression of its first staged performance and desired no major variation. She might have only applied this line of argument to account for her partiality to Italian opera within a broader listening practice with other preferences, of course. However, concurring with Reckwitz this must have had an effect on her ‘real’ listening experiences, too. As Italian opera is harder to enjoy in the same way as ballad operas, she adjusted her way of listening when focused on Italian opera music.

The difference between Pendarves’ description of listening to the Beggar’s Opera and Handel’s operas and the probable listening experience itself becomes even clearer in the description with which I started my chapter. The complete account is as follows:

Yesterday morning my sister and I went with Mrs. Donellan to Mr. Handel’s house to hear the first rehearsal of the new opera Alcina. I think it the best he ever made, but I have thought so of so many, that I will not say positively ’tis the finest, but ’tis so fine I have not words to describe it. Strada has a whole scene of charming recitative – there are a thousand beauties. Whilst Mr. Handel was playing his part, I could not help thinking him a necromancer in the midst of his own enchantments. I believe, dear madam, you will be tired of my account of music, which does not describe so well as it sounds. 261

While Pendarves finds it hard to describe her impressions of the rehearsal, her description obviously is designed following ‘visual perception logic’. The individual performance is nearly left out and Handel’s operas are compared against each other as if they were objects. The only musical aspect she names – the recitative – is just as far away from normal vocal skills as the picture of Handel as a necromancer is from common harpsichord playing. Moreover, Pendarves turns to the subject of the opera to create this image of Handel as a necromancer in accordance with, if not as an enhancement of, the sorcerer Alcina (played and sung by Anna Maria Strada). Thereby, of the different possibilities to reflect the listening experience, she chooses visual imagery to mentally reinforce the distance between her as a listener and the spatially as well as socially rather intimate listening situation at the composer’s home. Her reception therefore is one of distant admiration – which is not characteristic of ‘aural perception logic’, as aural impressions are never distant at the moment of perception. One listening focus this implies is on what seems impossible to recreate, implying fascination with the unattainable. This fascination, however, is only possible if the listener creates an inner distance between the sensual impressions entering the body through the aural sense and instead draws on a more partial mode of perception – such as vision offers. The music is taken in, aurally as otherwise, but the interplay and hierarchy of the senses while listening to this kind of music has clearly been reordered.

Conclusion

There are no theoretical reflections on certain types of music listeners by English writers up to the middle of the eighteenth century. 262 Personal accounts from music listeners are unlikely to fill that gap but they grant insight into other dimensions of listening experiences. Even though most of these accounts are very brief, when analysed within their ‘musicking’ context at least two broad modes of listening can be distinguished. They can be characterised by their describing a specific musical experience as something fixed or fleeting and on the way repetition of the experience is implied – by varied imitation or just revisiting as a listener without musical participation. Accounts rooted in ‘aural perception logic’ present an immediate relation to the music while ‘visual perception logic’ rather presents the listener as a bystander. They point to fundamental differences in listening with regard to personal involvement depending on which sense is dominant in the interplay of the senses during listening. The intensity of the listening experience in both cases seems to be defined by the listener’s practical musical skills and their relation to the level of performative difficulty of the music. It is quite significant that Pendarves’ descriptions of listening to the Beggar’s Opera and Handel’s operas differentiated between music which she could easily imitate and music which any humble music lover would have to leave to professional musicians.

It is important to emphasise, though, that it doesn’t prove to be a historic shift from the one listening mode to the other. As the example of Mary Pendarves illustrates, the same person would listen to different kinds of music in noticeably divergent ways. Furthermore, even the examples of this chapter cannot be reduced to clear and exclusively aurally or visually characterised modes of music perception. However, they point to aural or visual accentuations in music perception. The two models, therefore, can serve as a point of orientation to differentiate intermediate or mixed modes of listening.

Both ‘perception logics’ lead to brief descriptions as they are both testimonies of a cultural knowledge of how to listen to music which has to be regarded as a mostly tacit knowledge. This tacit knowledge can, however, be reconstructed by bearing in mind the musical skills and practices of the listener as well as considering the amount of cultural knowledge which remained unmentioned – either because it was unconscious or because it was a matter of course.

There is still a lot to learn from specific case studies in order to gain more insight into the interplay of the senses and their effect on the listening experience in order to develop a differentiated view of music listening in eighteenth-century England. While any listener typology which has been developed, from Adorno’s ‘Hörertypen’ to Simon Frith’s grouping of three basic ways of listening, presumed a listener who is ‘only’ listening, 263 the brevity of accounts from the eighteenth century strongly suggests that we should take more than ‘just’ the moment of listening into consideration.

Select bibliography

Collins, Harry. Tacit and Explicit Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Loenhoff, Jens (ed.). Implizites Wissen. Epistemologische und handlungstheoretische Perspektiven. Weilerswist: Velbrück, 2012.

Marsh, Christopher. Music and Society in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Netzwerk ‘Hör-Wissen im Wandel’ (ed.). Wissensgeschichte des Hörens in der Moderne. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017.

Ong, Walter J. The Presence of the World. Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1967.

Small, Christopher. Musicking. The Meaning of Performing and Listening. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1998.

Reckwitz, Andreas. ‘Sinne und Praktiken. Die sinnliche Organisation des Sozialen’, in Prinz, Sophia and Göbel, Hanna Katharina (eds). Die Sinnlichkeit des Sozialen. Bielefeld: transcript, 2014.

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Download: Musicking – conversing – writing: towards a cultural perspective on music listening in eighteenth-century Britain

Listening and the senses

Beyond the aesthetic: the ‘sensory turn’ and models of music listening today

Rebecca Rinsema

Rebecca Rinsema, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Music in General Studies at Northern Arizona University, where she teaches courses on the cultural study of rock and popular music. She is author of the book Listening in Action: Teaching Music in the Digital Age (Ashgate/Routledge, 2017), as well as chapters and articles relating to music listening technology and experience, enactive perception, popular music, and pedagogy. As a singer, she specialises in early music. She has taught music to students ranging from pre-k to the university level.

Abstract

In this chapter I compare Simon Frith’s music listening typology, Ola Stockfelt’s Possible Modes of Listening Model, and my Integration in Consciousness Model as they relate to the question: ‘how do we listen to music today?’ I identify ways in which each model/typology reflects or does not reflect the ‘sensory turn’ in the academy. According to David Howes and others, the sensory turn has granted a more important place to the human senses across the disciplines, challenging the primacy of the sense of sight. The distinctions I make here contextualise these models of music listening for practitioner/researchers in the field of music therapy, the field of music education, the field of participatory/community music-making in social work contexts, and, broadly, those who engage with music and wellbeing, among others. In that these models/typologies fall in step with the sensory turn, they seem especially applicable to the practitioner/researchers in these fields, as the promotion of aesthetic ideals is not the sole outcome (or an outcome at all) of their work.

Introduction

David Howes and others have argued that we have witnessed a ‘sensory turn’ across the academic disciplines in recent decades. For Howes, the sensory turn entails two major shifts in how the human senses are treated in the academy. First, it challenges the presumed primacy of sight and the visual over and against the other senses. Second, it grants a more significant place to the senses within the disciplines of history, geography, anthropology, communications and the arts, including as we will see music and music listening. 264

Within scholarship pertaining to music and music listening, one might reasonably expect that sound has always been granted primacy over sight. But this has not been the case. Indeed, even in theories of music listening, sight has been a primary driver, via principles and ideals of the aesthetic paradigm that hinge on the ‘musical work’ and the visual representation of it. In this article, I will not be directly challenging the ideals of the aesthetic paradigm in music or related to music listening; several scholars have done so in the past decades. 265 Instead, I will lay out how recent models and typologies of music listening move past the aesthetic, in ways that are in keeping with the sensory turn described by Howes.

The models and typologies described herein were developed in response to the aesthetic paradigm; as such, it behooves me to provide a brief description of it. As well, I delineate how other scholars, namely Marta Garcia Quiñones, have already conceived of the sensory turn in music listening scholarship.

The aesthetic paradigm, stemming from the Western classical music tradition, has placed a significant emphasis on musical works and their structures as they exist, ultimately, in notated scores, visual representations of the sounds. The driving assumption behind aesthetic ideals of music listening is as follows: musical meaning resides exclusively in the structure of the musical work; the ‘work’ is viewed as an autonomous object that has meaning beyond its contexts. When it comes to ideal listening, the most extreme view resulting from the aesthetic paradigm is that those who can read and audiate the sounds in their heads are the most ideal listeners (of course, one wonders if this can really be called listening at all). The dominant, less extreme view within the aesthetic paradigm is that ideal listeners are those that listen to a work without distraction, in order to realise the structure of the work. ‘Concert-hall listening’ is one manifestation of this conception of ideal listening, but there are others as well. Aesthetic ideals underpin pop and rock aficionado arguments for listening to albums (works) from beginning to end in one sitting or in high fidelity. Aesthetic ideals also underpin arguments for such practices as ‘attentive listening,’ ‘focused listening’, and, to some extent ‘deep listening’, that are promoted in music education contexts. 266

Over the past decades, challenges to this paradigm its ideals and practices associated with them, across musical genres have come from many directions within and outside the discipline of music. However, only recently have scholars contextualised these challenges as part of the larger sensory turn across academia. For Marta Garcia Quiñones, when it comes to music listening, the sensory turn can be viewed as a turn away from the musical work as it was theorised to be connected to the composer’s intentions, and thus also away from the visual representations of the music via notation and/or the score, and toward the idiosyncratic sensory experiences of listeners. 267 Garcia Quiñones points to the emergence of the field of Sound Studies, also known as Auditory Culture, as an example of this turn in music listening. I should note, as a whole, Sound Studies and Auditory Culture scholars investigate all heard phenomena and experiences associated with them, not just music listening.

There seems to be a trend across disciplines and schools of thought that begins with a focus of attention on the object (in this case, the music and/or the written score), then moves to the mind of the subject (the listener), and finally to the body of the subject (the senses). For example, in the rhetoric of the music appreciation movement in the United States, as well as in the philosophy of music education, there was first an emphasis on listening to the great works from the Western classical music tradition. 268 Listeners were to listen to the great works for the purposes of cultural elevation. Soon after, with decolonisation efforts, scholars emphasised ‘how’ one should be listening with focus and attention to a wide variety of musics. 269 Thus, there was a focus on the mind of the subject. Not long after, listening was near completely abandoned for a focus on ‘praxis’ what one does with the body primarily as it related to making music. 270 Most recently, music education scholars are identifying ways in which listening is a bodily, sensory activity, not exclusively related to the mind.

A similar trajectory can also be identified in phenomenology. Husserl’s phenomenology focused on the object of the experience; it entailed ‘bracketing out’ the idiosyncratic experiences of subjects; the ‘essence’ of the experience was only found in the object. 271 Next, Heidegger’s phenomenology focused on the interpretive role of the subject, interpretation being a process related to the mind. 272 And, finally, Merleau-Ponty focused on the body of the subject as related to phenomenological experience. 273 Indeed, David Howes identifies contemporary phenomenological research as one of the approaches that he considers part of the sensory turn. 274 The sensory turn and attributes of it can thus be identified in a wide variety of methods and theoretical frameworks.

As I mentioned earlier, recently published typographies and models of music listening, including those of Simon Frith and Ola Stockfelt, and my own, demonstrate aspects of the sensory turn as described by Garcia Quiñones and Howes. Thus, the main objective of this chapter is to outline how they do so. In fulfilling this objective, I compare how these models address a central question related to contemporary music listening: ‘how do we listen to music today?’ 275

My hope is that these comparisons contextualise the models for practitioner/researchers in the field of music therapy, the field of music education, the field of participatory/community music-making in social work contexts, and, broadly, those who engage with music and wellbeing. In that these models and typologies fall in step with the sensory turn, they seem especially applicable to the practitioner researchers in these fields, as the promotion of aesthetic ideals is not the sole outcome of their work (or, in many cases, an outcome that is promoted at all). That said, I imagine that the distinctions that I make here could be of use to anyone who is interested in the phenomenon of music listening or is interested in continuing to move conversations about music listening past the aesthetic paradigm. This is an interdisciplinary effort; I include models and typologies that have arisen from the areas of sociology of music, music education, and music theory.

I begin with Simon Frith’s model, which draws heavily from Theodor Adorno’s taxonomy of music listeners. Next, I introduce the Integration in Consciousness model (IC model), which I developed in response to hierarchies intrinsic to Adorno’s taxonomy and other modern approaches to music listening. I conclude with Stockfelt’s models, which can be viewed as alternatives to Adorno and Frith, much like the IC model. A comparison of the IC model and Stockfelt’s models raises questions for further research from the vantage point of the sensory turn.

Simon Frith’s typology (sociology of music)

In the first Listening Experience Database project publication, the prolific and highly influential sociologist Simon Frith described a music listener typology that he developed from decades of researching live music scenes across Britain. He focused on the disputes of those in the industry related to listening practices in live performance settings in order to determine the distinctions between listener/listening types. 276 Thus, the listener typology described by Frith is one that relates specifically to live music contexts. Additionally, Frith used Theodor Adorno’s listener typology (along with Peter Szendy’s commentary on Adorno), 277 as a point of departure for his listener typology. Adorno, a pioneer in bringing sociological methods to issues in music, developed a typology that was firmly rooted in the aesthetic paradigm. Remnants of the aesthetic paradigm, thus, persist in Frith’s typology (for example, the values-laden language used to identify each type), but there are indeed ways in which Frith’s typology also reflects, at the very least, movement toward the sensory paradigm.

Frith first lays out Adorno’s three types: the expert listener, the good listener, and the fallen listener. The expert listener comprehends the logic and structure of musical works as they listen, being able to relate past, present, and future (predictions) in each moment. The good listener is one that comprehends the implications of the musical structures while not being able to fully conceptualise the structures themselves. And, finally, the fallen listener is one that cannot comprehend the structure of the work. It’s important to note here that Adorno’s types appear rigid, such that individuals are classified as one or the other, and can only move ‘up’ the typology as they develop their skills. I don’t believe that Adorno imagined listeners could at one moment be expert listeners and at other moments be fallen listeners. This is an important difference between Adorno’s listener typology and Frith’s listening typology, a fluid categorisation of types of engagements rather than a relatively rigid categorisation of people.

Frith’s three listening types include: serious listening, participatory listening, and secondary listening. Serious listening is correlated with Adorno’s good listener, while participatory and secondary listening have no correlation in Adorno’s model. Frith writes:

Serious listening is akin to Adorno’s good listening, but, whereas for him the ‘good’ listener is taking the musical work seriously, for me the ‘serious’ listener is taking the work of listening seriously, which, from a promoter’s perspective, means removing distractions to the listening process. 278

For Frith, to engage in serious listening, one must take the listening seriously within a specific type of sensory environment, one that is void of certain kinds of distractions. Thus, there is a move away from the object of the work, or even the music, and toward the act of listening, with a focus on limiting sensory input as a way to promote that act. Frith is vague when it comes to what the act of serious listening entails beyond limiting other sensory inputs. Although, he suggests near the end of his chapter that listening seriously might entail ‘thoughtlessness.’ Perhaps this means that listeners are to focus on the sensations of the sounds as they are heard in each moment, without additional thoughts or ruminations that an individual might normally have. If this is what Frith has in mind, it further demonstrates the sensory turn.

In participatory listening and secondary listening, Frith places emphasis on additional sensory modalities that can be involved while listening to music, instead of on filtering input from other sensory modalities out. One example of participatory listening is musicians who, naturally, listen while they play. Frith emphasises ensembles here, such as orchestras, jazz trios, rock bands, and so on. For such musicians, visual cues and communications are important, in addition to the auditory cues. But, it seems that Frith would include solo performers here as well, as they also listen while playing, which includes the tactile sense or, at the very least, motion. Another example of participatory listening that Frith mentions is when audiences participate with the performers by clapping along, singing, or even dancing. For Frith participatory listening includes even those participations that do not result in sound. For example, he discusses forms of participatory listening that have emerged as a result of social media, where listeners physically absent from live performance provide running commentary about the performance as they watch/listen to a live stream. Increasingly, those present at such events contribute to this kind of commentary.

For Frith, secondary listening occurs when the music is subordinate to other sensory inputs. In order to define secondary listening, Frith spends most of the time discussing art forms where sight and sound are integrated by the author/creator/artist, for example, circuses and vaudeville performances or, more contemporarily, shows performed by Beyoncé Pink Floyd, or Madonna. Here, Frith seems to revert back to a focus on the nature of the object (Husserl’s phenomenology) as opposed to the overall sensory environment experienced by the listener. At the same time, I think Frith’s point is that listeners can listen in the secondary way no matter the artist’s intention. For example, one could take in a symphony in a way that prioritises the visual over the auditory; indeed this would be the case for someone who has hearing loss. Even so, it’s not clear that in the shows that Frith describes (Pink Floyd, Madonna, and so on) the sounds are subordinate to the visuals. One could argue that they are fully integrated and dependent on one another – of equal importance. In this case, I’m not sure it makes sense to call what many audience members do at these types of events secondary listening. Further, these kinds of shows typically encourage audience participation in the ways he describes in his section on participatory listening, which makes the distinction Frith is making here even more blurry.

The terminologies that Frith uses to describe each of his listening types certainly raise some questions. The term ‘serious’ has a connotation of value as opposed to ‘participatory’ or, perhaps more obviously, ‘secondary’. It seems that Adorno’s hierarchical listener typology (expert, good, fallen) continues to influence the choice of terminology for Frith’s first type of music listening. After all, isn’t it possible to engage in participatory listening ‘seriously’ or even secondary listening ‘seriously’? Why should the filtering out of the other sensory modalities, or not, have an impact on seriousness? Are those attending an opera less serious about music listening than those attending a symphony?

I think Frith might respond to this concern by reminding the reader that his typologies are developed in and through the distinctions that are made by those who attend and promote live music performances, and the ‘disputes’ that he has witnessed among those constituents. Put another way, he is reporting on the social phenomena/debates that arise around listening to music in live contexts. I think it’s also important to note that these debates might be far more important for (there is far more at stake for) those on the conservative side of these debates and, thus, that the debates are framed from that conservative perspective. This is a perspective that arises from the aesthetic paradigm, a paradigm that has been used in and outside the academy to distinguish and elevate some people and some musics over others. There is power in the aesthetic paradigm; this is also a sociological phenomenon. Finally, Frith indicates that shows/spectacles (like a Pink Floyd or Beyoncé performance where sight and sound are integrated) do not take away from ‘real musical experience’; however, as a whole, the typology communicates otherwise.

Generally, Frith’s typology hinges on how sensory inputs are filtered (or not) within the art object, within the environment, and/or in the mind of the listener. In this regard Frith’s typology reflects the sensory turn.

Integration in Consciousness (IC) model (music education)

The IC model resulted from a grounded theory study of digital music listening experiences with mobile devices, namely iphones, ipods, and other similar devices. The model contrasts with Frith’s typology in that it does not deal with live music listening contexts. Even so there are certainly areas of conceptual overlap; I discuss these later in this section. My goal in conducting the study was to provide recommendations for how music educators should respond to the twenty-first century musical engagements of their students within the classroom. 279

The sensory turn is evidenced in a number of ways in which I developed and conducted the study. First, I utilised a phenomenological framework to structure the method of the study; I conducted iterative interviews with ten college students (participants), encouraging them at each interview stage to interpret their own reports of their experiences. As I mentioned earlier, Howes includes modern phenomenology under the umbrella of the sensory turn. Second, I developed the interview topics and questions from McCarthy and Wright’s Deweyan method for investigating user experiences with technology. McCarthy and Wright’s method emphasises the sensorium. The four threads of experiences that comprise the method include the sensual, the emotional, the spatiotemporal, and the compositional, of which the sensual thread is basic to the others. An additional aspect of McCarthy and Wright’s method is the way in which users make sense of their experiences of technology, which I identify as a fifth ‘metasensual’ thread. The model resulted primarily from questions related to the sensual and the metasensual threads. The method that I used to develop the model thus reflects the sensory turn first in the inclusion of the sensorium as one of the experiential threads, and second in that the sensorium is considered basic to the other threads of experience.

In what follows, I 1) describe the concept of integration in consciousness as it relates to music listening and other activities, 2) describe the features of the model, and 3) indicate how the model moves past the aesthetic paradigm, comparing it to Frith’s typology.

Integration in Consciousness (IC)

Music and activities are ‘integrated in consciousness’ when listeners maintain a degree of awareness of both the music and the activity during the music listening experience. While it is difficult to know exactly what is going on in the mental lives of the participants, there is evidence, based on the participants’ reports, that when the participants paired music and another activity, they were conscious and aware of both. Consider the following evidence. When the participants walk to class and listen to music on their devices, they report audiating, reciting the lyrics in their heads and bopping their heads to the music. At the same time, they report having some awareness of walking to class. Likewise, when participants use their playlists for the purpose of helping them fall asleep or when getting ready for the day, they report having a consistent awareness of whether the music is working for them. This awareness of whether the music is working for them seems to indicate that the participants maintain some degree of awareness of the music, as well as some degree of awareness of the other activity in which they are engaged. Even when using music to facilitate focus for studying, the participants indicate that they have some awareness of the music. One of the participants, for example, maintained that she is able to ‘follow along’ with the music that she listens to while also being consciously engaged with her schoolwork. ‘Following along’ seems to entail being conscious of the music.

The examples listed above are varied with respect to how the music and the activity are integrated. One way to conceptualise this variation is through the degree to which the participants engage with the music, the activity, or both together. Resulting from this conceptualizing, we get balanced and imbalanced integration in consciousness.

Balanced Integration in Consciousness

When participants listen to music on their devices while getting ready for the day, while falling asleep, while working out or while winding down at the end of the day, they engage consciously with the music and the activity in a balanced way. The listeners seem equally aware of the music that they are listening to and the activity that they are engaged with. The participants’ responses to the music are funnelled directly into the activity. For example, music with a quick pulse incites participants to move their bodies. When participants paired quick-pulsed music with the activity of working out, the natural physical response of moving one’s body is funnelled directly into working out. This response to the music enhances the quality of the work out.

The figure below models Balanced Integration in Consciousness. The circle labeled Nature of the Experience has been shaded grey in order to represent how the music and the activity are blended together in equal parts.

Balanced Integration in Consciousness
Figure 1: Balanced Integration in Consciousness (Source: Listening in Action. Reproduced with permission of the licensor through PLS Clear. See licensing details)

Imbalanced Integration in Consciousness

When participants listen to music on their devices while walking, riding a bus or studying, they engage consciously with the music and the activity in an imbalanced way. In the case of walking or riding a bus, the degree of conscious engagement with the music is higher than the degree of conscious engagement with the activity. This is evidenced by the nature of the participants’ responses to the music they listen to while walking or riding the bus. When participants listen to music during these types of low-order activities, their responses to music tend to be the most music specific. It is in these instances that participants reported audiation, tapping along to the music and bopping their heads. Naturally, participants also reported listening to the greatest variety of music during these types of activities. The music the participants told me they choose for walking or riding on the bus usually coincided with the type of music they reported was their favorite type of music.

The figure below models Imbalanced Integration in Consciousness with an emphasis on the music. The circle is shaded dark grey in order to represent the blending of the activity and the music in unequal parts, with the music having a greater influence on the nature of the experience.

Imbalanced Integration in Consciousness, music emphasis.
Figure 2: Imbalanced Integration in Consciousness, music emphasis (Source: Listening in Action. Reproduced with permission of the licensor through PLS Clear. See licensing details)

In the case of studying while listening to music, the degree of conscious engagement with the activity is higher than the degree of conscious engagement with the music. When participants listen to music while studying, which tends to be a high-order activity, their responses to the music tend to be the least music specific. In fact, many times the participants did not report any conscious response to the music that they listened to while studying. However, this does not necessarily mean that these participants maintained no conscious connection to the music they listened to while studying.

Naturally, participants reported listening to the least variety of musical types while studying. In most cases, participants indicated that instrumental music was their preferred type of music for studying.

The figure below models Imbalanced Integration in Consciousness with an emphasis on the activity. The circle is shaded light grey in order to represent the blending of the activity and the music in unequal parts, with the activity having a greater influence on the nature of the experience.

Imbalanced Integration in Consciousness, activity emphasis
Figure 3: Imbalanced Integration in Consciousness, activity emphasis (Source: Listening in Action. Reproduced with permission of the licensor through PLS Clear. See licensing details)

Causal Interaction

In addition to being integrated in listeners’ consciousness, music and activity are in ‘causal interaction’ with each other, meaning they can influence each other. The causal interaction between the music and the activity is represented by the horizontal arrow in the model. The influence works in both directions. Some examples of this are as follows: Participants indicated that the music they heard on their devices sometimes caused them to walk faster or slower depending on the type of music. The activity the participants engaged in influenced the music they listened to, including what they chose to listen to and how they listened to it. One participant, Leon, reported that he turned up the volume of his music when he was sitting in a coffee shop and the conversation near him became louder.

Integration in Consciousness, causal interaction
Figure 4: Integration in Consciousness, causal interaction (Source: Listening in Action. Reproduced with permission of the licensor through PLS Clear. See licensing details)

The Lens of Affordances and the Ecological View of Perception

The ecological view of perception initially developed by James Gibson and then also Susan Hurley and Eric Clarke (in the area of music) helps to further illuminate how the participants utilised the musical sounds in relation to the activities. 280 Participant responses point to the idea that the sounds of the music afford certain activities better than others. Some music affords falling asleep better than other types of music, and some music affords getting pumped up to play basketball better than other types of music. Of course, there are variations among listeners and listeners can exercise agency in choosing music for getting pumped up for basketball that many would use for falling asleep, but there seems to be some pattern here in how music is used in relationship to activities and the idea of affordances can be used as a tool to make sense of that pattern.

Also, using the ecological view of perception, we can theorise the music and the activity as being two distinct spaces: the musical space is a virtual one while the activity space is a physical one. In their experiences, participants chose to either associate the two spaces or dissociate the two spaces. For associating the two spaces, the virtual space can inspire imaginative responses. Listeners, then, map that imaginative response onto the physical space. Or, listeners map the motion implied by the music, which exists within the virtual space of the music, onto the physical space, their bodies becoming the physical conduits for the virtual motion of the music. Finally, listeners link the aesthetic aspects of the virtual space to the aesthetic aspects of the physical space, mapping the aesthetic qualities of the virtual space onto the physical space. Here is an example of dissociation: when it is cold outside, participants might turn up their music very loud on their headphones, drowning out the physical space with the virtual space.

Other Virtual Spaces: Memories

The virtual space of music can conjure up other virtual spaces as well. Participants report that music can remind them of past listening experiences that are very often associated with people and relationships. The richness of the listening experience, thus, comes into view. When listening to music, participants navigate the real, physical space that surrounds them, the virtual space of music, and the virtual space of memories. The time element is represented in the instantiation of the IC model found below, where all past listening experiences can have an influence on a present listening experience.

Integration in Consciousness, through time
Figure 5: Integration in Consciousness, through time (Source: Listening in Action. Reproduced with permission of the licensor through PLS Clear. See licensing details)

The IC Model, Aesthetic Paradigm, and the Sensory Turn

The IC model represents a distinct departure from the aesthetic paradigm. While the aesthetic paradigm dictates a hierarchical relationship between listeners and ways of listening, based on theoretical ideals, the IC model implies no such hierarchical relationship. Rather, the model indicates a range of ways of listening along a horizontal spectrum that moves from imbalanced (emphasis on the music), to balanced (emphasis on music and activity), to imbalanced (emphasis on the activity), thereby disrupting the foreground/background distinction. Furthermore, this horizontal spectrum is not rigid, as is the case with Adorno’s typology. Instead, individuals move along the spectrum regularly depending on their emotional, physical, and psychological needs, among others (these needs are not directly specified on the model, but are addressed in the larger study).

There is some conceptual overlap between Frith’s typology and the IC model. For example, serious listening in Frith’s typology could be mapped onto the imbalanced instantiation of the model (emphasis on the music). For Frith, those who engage in serious listening attend concerts, but prefer, at least during the performance, to filter out those sensory inputs related to the activity of being at the concert (other than the performed sounds/music, of course). Furthermore, some instances of what Frith calls participatory listening could map onto the balanced instantiation of the model, for example, dancing. And, some instances of what Frith calls secondary listening could be mapped onto the imbalanced instantiation of the model, emphasis activity. However, much of what Frith calls secondary listening at live music events, I might well place toward the center of the spectrum.

Returning to how the IC model relates to the sensory turn, the ecological view of perception and its use within the IC model reflect the sensory turn. The ecological view was developed in response to the computational view of perception which privileges the sense of sight as well as the construction of an internal representation of the external world. The ecological view of perception, on the other hand, emphasises sensory input and feedback from all the senses; rather than constructing internal representations, organisms continually act and respond within environments based on continuous and direct sensory information. The ecological view of perception emerged from a quite straightforward question: ‘why would an organism develop a complicated internal representation of the external world, when it can act and engage with the external world directly?’ On the ecological view, the sensorium is the bridge between the internal and the external world, rather than an internal representation, thus reflecting the sensory turn.

Ola Stockfelt’s Possible Modes of Listening (PML) model (music theory)

Like the IC model, Stockfelt’s Possible Modes of Listening (PML) model and accompanying Foreground, Background, and Simultaneity (FBS) model, can be viewed as alternatives to Adorno and Frith’s taxonomies. The PML model was first published in 1988 as part of his dissertation, but the model, as well as Stockfelt’s concept of ‘adequate modes of listening,’ have been revisited in print several times since. They have been included in anthologies that developed and defined the area of inquiry now known as auditory culture and/or sound studies. 281 As I mentioned earlier, Garcia Quiñones makes a direct link between the sensory turn and the development of auditory culture/sound studies. Also, Howes, a major contributor to the development of the idea of the sensory turn, has contributed to anthologies related to auditory culture/sound studies. In what follows, I describe the PML model and compare it to Frith’s typology and the IC model.

The PML model describes listener engagements primarily with recorded musics. As such it relates more directly with the IC model than it does Frith’s typology, which focuses on live music performances. However, again there are areas of conceptual overlap. Like Frith’s typology, Stockfelt’s concept of ‘adequate modes of listening’ was developed in contrast to Adorno’s views on ‘adequate’ and ‘expert’ listeners. For Stockfelt, adequate listening depends on four factors: the situation, the music, the listener’s strategy at any given moment, and the listener’s learned repertoire of modes. The first three factors are related to one another in the way of a Venn diagram, with the adequate modes of listening located in the area of the overlap. This area of overlap is further defined and influenced by a central circle representing the listener’s learned repertoire of modes. It seems that Stockfelt’s inclusion of the learned repertoire of modes has roots in Adorno’s views, where some listeners have learned to hear structure and others have not. Generally, though, Stockfelt’s adequate listening is meant to challenge the hierarchy of Adorno’s view:

To listen adequately hence does not mean any particular, better, or ‘more musical,’ ‘more intellectual,’ or ‘culturally superior’ way of listening…Adequate listening is not a prerequisite of assimilating or enjoying music…it is (emphasis in original) a prerequisite of using music as a language in a broader sense, as a medium of real communication from composer, musician, or programmer to audience/listener. 282

Possible Modes of Listening
Figure 6: Possible Modes of Listening (Source: Listening in Action. Reproduced with permission of the licensor through PLS Clear. See licensing details)

The PML model has been criticised for not taking into account the aesthetic listening values or other values that might guide a listener in their choice of strategy. 283 This criticism seems to be missing what I take to be Stockfelt’s main contribution: to establish a new value system for determining ‘good’/‘adequate’ listening. Furthermore, while the aesthetic paradigm has been deeply influential, it does not have a monopoly on all listeners’ perspectives on music listening. Indeed, I have come across a great many individuals who have no awareness of the aesthetic paradigm, concert-listening or a sense that they should be striving for the ideals resulting from them. The model proposes a way to legitimise ordinary music listening practices in reaction to the aesthetic paradigm, and the influence of the aesthetic paradigm would be sometimes present in the factor ‘listener strategy’ and/or ‘learned repertoire.’

While the PML model indicates factors for adequate listening via the Venn diagram, it does not provide a detailed account of how these factors relate to one another in practice. This is likely due to methodological constraints. The PML model resulted from an analysis of Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 and its reception. The IC model, however, provides some of this fine-grained detail; ‘activity’ in the IC model is by and large akin to ‘situation’ in the PML model. Thus, the relationship of the music and the situation in the PML model are described by the relationship of the music and the activity within the IC model. Here are a few points of contrast related to the PML and IC models. First, the agency and idiosyncratic features of the listener as represented in Stockfelt’s ‘repertoire’ and ‘strategy’ factors are taken as givens in the IC model. 284 Second, the PML model does not directly take into account factors relating to ‘time’ (although one might argue that the ‘learned repertoire of modes’ depends on an element of time) or how each of the PML factors might have an influence on each other, as does the IC model. Finally, there remains in the PML model an emphasis on artists’ intentions and communications with audiences/listeners; the IC model does not take this into account, instead focusing on ways in which listeners create their own meanings with the music, which sometimes, but not always, fall outside artists’ intentions.

In his dissertation, Stockfelt included a companion model to the PML model called Foreground, Background, and Simultaneity (FBS) model. 285 It has received considerably less attention in the literature, but it covers some important territory, having to do with the relationship between listener modes, the nature of the musical object and artists’ intentions. In the model, Stockfelt makes a distinction between ‘composed-in’ music, where the composer intends for the music to be integrated with other art forms, for example, in opera, music videos, or film music, and ‘simultaneous’ music, in which the listener chooses to pair musics with certain activities (as in the IC model). The model implies that both ‘composed-in’ music and ‘simultaneous’ music can be in the foreground or in the background; foreground and background seem to be examples of modes of listening in the PML model.

The emphasis in the companion model on the nature of the music as an object, the artist’s intentions, as well as the usage of the terms ‘foreground’ and ‘background’ are remnants of the aesthetic paradigm. Even so, this model raises an important question for those working on music listening during and after the sensory turn: how do the musical sounds themselves influence the nature of listeners’ experiences? The IC model and its accompanying explanation appeal to the concept of affordances from the ecological view of perception to answer this question. For example, some musics are said to afford falling asleep better than other musics, and some musics are said to afford ‘getting pumped up for playing basketball’ better than others. But this explanation seems far from adequate; there is more to be said about how and why certain musics afford certain things, and just how universal such affordances tend to be. These areas of inquiry necessitate scholars to reflect back on the musical sounds themselves as well as artists’ intentions, from the new vantage point of the sensory turn.

Conclusion

Frith’s typology, the IC model and the PML model reflect the sensory turn in their primary focus on the listener, as opposed to the composer/artist, in order to describe the music listening today. To varying degrees, each typology/model undermines the value-laden aesthetic paradigm, which deems concert-listening superior to other forms of listening. The IC model provides the most comprehensive shift away from the aesthetic paradigm. Falling in step with the sensory turn, the IC model proposes an alternative to the reductive ‘foreground’/‘background’ distinction, which does not capture the plethora of roles music can play in everyday life in relationship to other aspects of daily life and does not leave room for the unconscious ways in which music can influence listeners. The IC model provides the opportunity to explore such things. As such, the IC model proposes a less prescriptive framework for communicating about how music is meaningful to listeners in their everyday lives when compared to the aesthetic paradigm. Stockfelt’s models and the IC model can be viewed as complementary to one another, with Stockfelt’s models directly addressing artist intentions and the IC model directly addressing the relationship between ‘activity’ and ‘music’ in real time. Stockfelt’s emphasis on artist intentions in the FBS model raises questions for those working from the ecological perspective related to how the sounds of music afford certain things and not others. This is an important area for further research.

Select bibliography

Clarke, Eric F. Ways of Listening: An Ecological Approach to the Perception of Musical Meaning. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Frith, Simon. ‘More than meets the ear: on listening as a social practice’ in Helen Barlow and David Rowland (eds), Listening to Music: People, Practices and Experiences. Milton Keynes, UK: The Open University, 2017.

Howes, David. Senses and Sensation: Critical and Primary Sources. New York: Bloomsbury, 2018.

Rinsema, Rebecca. Listening in Action: Teaching Music in the Digital Age. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Stockfelt, Ola. ‘Adequate modes of listening’ in Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (eds), Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. New York: Continuum, 2004.

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Download: Beyond the aesthetic: the ‘sensory turn’ and models of music listening today

Re-examining histories

Progress and tradition: listening to the singing of the Welsh c.1870 to c.1920

Helen Barlow

Helen Barlow is a Research Associate in the Music Department of The Open University and a member of the Listening Experience Database Project Team. While her academic background was originally in literature and art history, her research interests have since expanded to include music iconography, and the social and cultural history of music in nineteenth-century Britain, and Wales in particular. Her publications include Music and the British Military in the Long Nineteenth-Century (Oxford University Press, 2013), co-written with Trevor Herbert.

Abstract

Wales in the period c.1870 to c.1920 was home to massive heavy industry, accompanied by a huge upsurge of population and the growth of large and thriving towns. Many Welsh people saw it as a time of unparalleled national progress. It was also a period of ascendancy for the Liberal Party, in Britain generally, but nowhere more so than in Wales, where the Welsh Liberals articulated a vision of the potential of Wales as a progressive, modern nation. Welsh music and the supposed musicality of the Welsh became part of a discourse about progress, cultural achievement and the promise of future greatness. Choral and congregational singing, which flourished in the buoyant chapel culture of the expanding towns and villages, was often cited as evidence not just of innate Welsh musicality but also of cultural development. But most intriguing is the apparently contradictory belief, articulated particularly by the newly-founded Welsh Folk-Song Society (WFSS), that Welsh traditional song could be harnessed to the cause of progress. How did Welsh people understand Welsh singing in this period? What did it mean to them? What did listeners think they were hearing – the voice of progress, or the voice of tradition?

Introduction

This chapter comes out of the work of the Listening Experience Database (LED) project, and specifically a phase of that project which took as its focus ‘Listening and British cultures: listeners’ responses to music in Britain, c.1700–2018’. As David Rowland explains in the Introduction to this collection, the project’s main concern lies in uncovering the voices of historical ‘ordinary listeners’ – in other words, people who have not typically been in the foreground of music history – conveying their experience of listening to music in their everyday lives. Within that overarching framework, this chapter pursues a number of themes, some related to Welsh history and Welsh music, others to the broader methodological concerns of the project.

Underpinning my approach is an interest in the ways in which the myth of Wales as a specially musical nation has been expressed and used historically, by both Welsh and non-Welsh listeners. This chapter looks specifically at the reactions of listeners to Welsh singing practices in the period from about 1870 until just after the First World War. In so doing, it illustrates how the accounts of listeners can illuminate the politicisation of musical practices, locating them in this instance within the historical context of a period of economic buoyancy and cultural confidence in Wales, unparalleled either before or, arguably, since. It considers the ways in which these practices were marshalled as evidence of that optimistic, progressive national mood.

The initial signs of this interpretation of the significance of Welsh singing emerge in commentary on Welsh choirs and congregational hymn-singing, so it is to this world that the chapter turns first. We then move on to a musical world perhaps less well known outside Wales – the world of Welsh traditional music, and specifically the mission of the Welsh Folk-Song Society (Cymdeithas Alawon Gwerin Cymru), which was founded precisely during this period, in the firm, if apparently contradictory, belief that the collection and performance of Welsh traditional music had a vital role to play in the development of a modern Welsh nation.

The LED project stresses the importance of close reading of the language used by listeners to describe their experiences of music, and accordingly in this chapter I am concerned particularly with the language that people used to articulate what they felt they were hearing when they listened to Welsh singing. The language of newspapers, periodicals and speeches of the period gives an insight into public discourse on Welsh singing and its place and significance in a modern Wales, but to try to find the voices of ordinary listeners expressing a personal response to music, the chapter turns to the evidence of oral history. In so doing, it seeks to illustrate a broader point about the gap that may be found between public discourse about the purpose of music and personal experience of it.

A progressive nation

…[I]n their love of music, poetry, and culture, for every man, the Celt stands pre-eminent. Throughout the length and breadth of Wales the holidays are consecrated to the enjoyment of music, poetry and literature by all the people, by all the workers, by the poor…. This is a force in the making of Britain… And [the Celt] will yet have much to say and do in the re-making of Britain. 286

This resounding declaration was made by the charismatic Welsh Liberal MP Tom Ellis (1859–1899), in an address entitled ’The Influence of the Celt in the Making of Britain’, which he gave in 1889 to the Welsh community in Manchester. In it, he characterised Welsh musicality (alongside poetry and culture generally) as not just a long-established national tradition but also a force, an active and indeed democratic element (‘for every man’, ‘by all the people’) in the shaping and development of Britain as a whole, into the future. Quite how music was to have this effect, Ellis didn’t spell out, but that is not unusual in this kind of romantic, visionary discourse about the potential of Wales at this time.

The period from about 1870 through the First World War was one of unprecedented cultural and national confidence in Wales. Industrial Wales – particularly the south Wales valleys – experienced a massive influx of population, including significant numbers from rural Wales, along with the growth of large and thriving towns. Alongside this, religious revivals in 1840 and 1859 (there was to be another in 1904) fed a buoyant Nonconformist religious culture. New chapels proliferated, 287 and in 1851, when the religious census was taken, it was found that, of those attending a place of worship in Wales on census Sunday, more than 80% had gone to a Nonconformist chapel, not to an Anglican church.

A quarter of a century later, statistics confirmed a very similar picture: in 1905, of the two in five people in Wales who were members of a religious denomination, 25.9% were Anglicans, and nearly 75% were Nonconformists. 288 These were figures that rendered more than a little hollow the official position of the Anglican Church, or Church of England, as the established or state church of Wales.

The religious statistics also had profound political implications, which R. Tudur Jones summarises succinctly:

[The growth of Nonconformity] created an opportunity for common folk to organize their religious life in an unprecedented way. The [Nonconformist] churches nurtured for themselves many thousands of leaders from among people who throughout the centuries had been voiceless and powerless… This development was revolutionary, to say the least. Now the former leaders of society, the [Tory] squire and [Anglican] parson, were forced to share their kingdom with new princes who had risen from the land. 289

To dissent in religious terms from the Anglican Tory hegemony that had prevailed for centuries in Wales did not necessarily also imply a particularly radical political position – indeed, Nonconformity was generally ‘a conservative force in society’ in Wales. 290 Rather, Welsh Nonconformists found their political home in the only other British parliamentary party of the time, the Liberal Party. During the second half of the nineteenth century, not only the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884, but also significant local government reorganisation, saw the traditional Welsh Tory authority of ‘squire and parson’ displaced by a Liberal, Nonconformist ascendancy under which more people lower down the social scale were politically engaged and had more self-determination – and they were well-versed in democratic modes of participation (broadly speaking), having learned them through the organisation and governance of their chapels.

Liberalism became the political voice of the ‘common folk’ of Wales, and they returned Welsh Liberal MPs to Westminster in numbers that far outweighed the Welsh Tories who had historically dominated there, creating an influential and challenging presence which congregated around the charismatic figures of David Lloyd George (1864–1945) and, until his premature death in 1899, Tom Ellis. The spearhead of the Welsh Liberals’ demand for reform was, unsurprisingly, the call for disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales.

Despite the buoyant national mood, the period was certainly also one of significant industrial and political unrest, and I have written elsewhere about the deployment of the idea of Welsh musicality as a counterweight to fears of Welsh militancy. 291 But to many it was indeed pre-eminently a period of unprecedented progress, marked by vigorous campaigning, principally but not exclusively by Welsh Liberals, for the foundation of national institutions as evidence of a disinctive and mature culture – in particular, a national university, a national museum and a national library. There was, in effect, a national conversation – and not only in Liberal discourse – that revolved around the idea of progress and Wales as a modern, progressive nation.

The Welsh Outlook - Cover
Figure 1: Title page of The Welsh Outlook, just one of a number of periodicals in both languages that capitalised on the national mood of progress and looking outwards (Source: Author’s own photo).

This was the backdrop to Welsh cultural life. A populist musical culture of congregational and choral-singing flourished, rooted in the thriving chapels, and the first decade of the twentieth century saw the foundation of the Welsh Folk-Song Society, its mission being to preserve the traditional songs that it was feared would be lost, as people born in rural Wales migrated to industrial Wales and lost touch with their rural culture. Both choral-singing and the performance of folk song were fostered by competition in the National Eisteddfod, which had come into being as a national rather than simply a local institution in 1861 – another example of the preoccupation of the times with the establishment of national cultural institutions.

Music and the much-vaunted musicality of the Welsh were harnessed to the cause of progress. It became commonplace to characterise music not merely as a national talent or a source of national pride, but as an active means of developing a progressive Welsh identity with a contribution to make to modern Britain, very much in the spirit of Ellis’s sense of music as an active cultural force. A frequent caveat among professional Welsh musicians and music journalists was that a truly sophisticated and progressive nation would be developing an instrumental, orchestral tradition as well as a vocal one. But that is not the focus of this essay. My interest here is in what people said and wrote about the Welsh music they did hear, rather than what some thought was missing.

‘A new epoch’: the Côr Mawr and the cymanfa ganu

The famous Côr Mawr victories at the Crystal Palace in the summers of 1872 and 1873 are an early illustration of the tendency to interpret Welsh musicality as a measure of Welsh cultural progress. In those two summers, a choral competition was organised at the Crystal Palace in London, as part of a British ‘National Music Meeting’. Being well-versed in the culture of the Eisteddfod, for the Welsh the idea of choral competition was a familiar one, and they needed no persuasion to enter. The choir of 1872 numbered more than 450 voices, and was called the South Wales Choral Union but more popularly known in Welsh as the Côr Mawr (the Great Choir). 292 It was conducted by Griffith Rhys Jones (1834–1897), better known by the nickname Caradog, a gifted musician who had been an apprentice blacksmith. In both years the Côr Mawr won the Crystal Palace competition – although little was said about the fact that it was the only choir competing in 1872, and had only one competitor in 1873.

The periodical Y Cerddor Cymreig (The Welsh Musician) reported at length on the winning performances, and in 1872 felt moved to add:

We are grateful to the South Wales Choir for opening the eyes of our neighbours, yes, and of many of our fellow countrymen too…. The English nation has been used to think lowly and speak contemptuously of the Welsh… This choir proved that here is life, here is ability, and here is achievement; and the Welsh in Wales are not to be despised anymore…. Once one of our talented sons or daughters goes to live in England, or expresses their thoughts in the English language, [to the English] they become English, and the Englishman insists that they don’t belong to us. They trample on us in Wales, and plunder what belongs to us in England. But another era has begun: and the victory of the Welsh Choir will have no small effect in raising the Welshman in his own country in the sight of the world.

Yr ydym yn ddiolchgar i Gor y Deheudir am agorwyd llygaid ein cymydogion, ie, a llawer o’n cydwladwyr hefyd…. Y mae corph cenedl y Saeson wedi arfer meddwl yn isel a siarad yn ddiystyrllyd am y Cymry…. Profodd y cor hwn fod yma fywyd, fod yma allu, a bod yma waith; ac nad ydyw y Cymry yng Nghymru i’w dirmygu mwyach…. Unwaith yr a un o’n meibion neu ein merched galluog i drigo i Loegr, neu i roddi allan ei feddyliau yn yr iaith Saesneg, y mae yn myned yn Sais, a thaera y Saeson mae nid ein heiddo ni yndynt. Sathrant arnom yn Nghymru, ac ysbeiliant ni o’n heiddo yn Lloegr. Ond y mae cyfnod arall wedi dechreu: ac nid ychydig fydd effaith buddugoliaeth y Cor Cymreig tuag at godi y Cymro yn ei wlad ei hun yn ngolwg y byd. 293

Perhaps it seems excessive to hang a new era on a prize won in a choral competition, but the sense of historical and current grievance is impassioned and unmistakeable. Wales, the writer insists, has been exploited by the English for its industrial potential, and any achievement by Welsh people is recognised only in those who leave Wales for England, where they are appropriated as English. Welsh culture in and of itself (‘the Welshman in his own country’) has no merit in English eyes. So for the Welsh to triumph on an English stage as the Côr Mawr had just done was heralded as a cultural and indeed moral victory, and as the writer has it, the dawn of a new era: a sign that, through cultural achievement, Wales was establishing its identity among other modern nations.

Similarly, in a report of a Côr Mawr rehearsal at Aberdare in 1873, written for the Conservative Cardiff newspaper the Western Mail, the prominent journalist ‘Morien’ (Owen Morgan) stresses the wider cultural promise – on a ‘world’ stage – represented by the advance in musical knowledge and achievement embodied in the Côr Mawr:

A great many in the throng had music books in their hands and were following the singing, indicating how great a knowledge of music has extended among all classes in Wales. It was most interesting to watch ladies of aristocratic bearing, poring over the same kind of books as were in the horny hands of miners. It made me proud of the little old nationality which has produced such people. The world is justified in anticipating in the future great results from this little nation among the mountains. Its knowledge of music must exercise a vast influence on the people in stimulating them to other branches of mental superiority. 294

The idea that the choral and congregational singing of the Welsh could be interpreted as an expression of cultural aspiration and progress crops up repeatedly in this period. We find similar language in accounts of that most Welsh of singing events, the annual cymanfa ganu or hymn-singing assembly – a product of the proliferating chapel culture, and the place where almost all of the Côr Mawr singers would have cut their musical teeth. As described by Moses Owen Jones, a greatly respected choral conductor of the period:

It commences, as a rule, with a children’s service in the morning, when light and suitable tunes are sung and the catechism gone through….

The afternoon and evening meetings are devoted to adults. A number of congregational tunes are sung at each meeting, interspersed with anthems, chants and choruses. The choir, which is made of those of the several chapels in the Union, ranges from 300 to 800, according to the population of the district, and, after a thorough training, the singing, which is always devotional, is often very majestic and highly impressive….

Strangers labour under the impression that the best Welsh singing is to be heard at the National Eisteddfod. Picked choirs sing there, but the masses are to be heard at the Cymanfa Ganu, and anyone who would make himself acquainted with the musical life of Wales should visit some of our popular Cymanfaoedd. 295

In 1875, several newspapers published reports of a cymanfa ganu held in Penygraig in the Rhondda, and here again we find the idea that the singing in some sense represented a milestone in the upward progress of Welsh musical culture:

[The chairman] repeatedly complimented the singers upon the feeling they displayed, and the singing appeared to make a deep impression upon all present. The reverend chairman stated that he had never attended meetings of this kind where the audience entered more thoroughly ‘through the letter to the spirit’ of what they sang. The great feature of these meetings was anthem singing and Psalm chanting. The rendering of the Psalms by the choirs was simply grand beyond description. There may have been room for technical [sic], but the volume for melody was superb…. [He] said they were now entering upon a new epoch in Welsh music…. 296

The cymanfa ganu literally became a national institution in its own right when the National Cymanfa Ganu was constituted in 1916 at the National Eisteddfod. In typically populist, crowd-pleasing style, Lloyd George, who was by then Prime Minister, and who made a point of always attending the National Eisteddfod, described the singing of ‘the old tunes’ at the 1917 National Cymanfa as ‘full of life and vigour and outpouring the beautiful hopes and aspirations and faith of the Welsh people’. 297 It is notable that his first instinct is to link the cymanfa singing with what can readily be interpreted as political preoccupations – cultural aspiration and progress – and only then with religion and faith.

‘The real power of the Folk-song’: the foundation of the Welsh Folk-Song Society

The cymanfa and mass choral and congregational singing were relatively recent developments in Welsh music culture. Harnessing a much older musical tradition to the cause of progress seems on the surface to be something of a contradiction in terms, but that is what happened with Welsh traditional music or folk song in this period. The Welsh were not the only people to look to folk culture for the basis of a national identity – this was already well established in many European countries. The Folk Song Society had been founded as a pan-British endeavour in 1898, though its Irish members seceded to form their own society in 1904. 298

Alfred Perceval Graves (1846–1931), 299 an Irishman, and a founder member of both the Folk Song Society and the Irish Folk Song Society, may also be said to have planted the seed of the Welsh Folk-Song Society, having been charged by the Folk Song Society (presumably on the basis of his existing Welsh connections) 300 with trying ‘to capture a strong Welsh contingent’. 301 As Graves knew, Welsh traditional music was already an interest at Bangor’s University College through the activities of its Director of Music, John Lloyd Williams, and the support of the College’s Irish Principal, Harry Reichel. Lloyd Williams was appointed to the College as a botany lecturer in 1897, but he was also an amateur musician and choral conductor, and as such was invited to take on the voluntary music directorship.

In his ‘History of the Welsh Folk-Song Society’, written for the Society’s journal, Lloyd Williams describes how he suggested to Reichel ‘the desirability of confining the music sung at important College functions to arrangements of Welsh National Melodies’. 302 However, he found the published eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collections flawed in several respects. Having largely been arranged for performance on the harp in fashionable salons and concerts, they were ‘distinctly diatonic, modern in tonality’ and ‘nearly all without words’. 303 One solution was to select some of the melodies and have words written for them (Alfred Graves was one of the poets to whom he turned). This proved successful in so far as the songs were well received by audiences. But the fact that they lacked their original words continued to trouble him. Then he tried another experiment – he arranged for the College choir a folk song he had noted down years before, while listening to his wife and her sister singing it – ‘Tra Bo Dau’ (‘While there are two’). Its success encouraged him to try more of these ‘songs of the people’ (as he described them), 304 and to form a choir specifically for their performance, ‘Y Canorion’ (‘The Singers’).

All this activity must have happened between 1897 when he began his career at Bangor and 1906 when the Society was founded, and it was this work – and in particular, a specific performance at a College garden party – that he claims first opened his eyes to the ‘real power of the Folk-Song’:

The first Society that was ever formed with the prime object of collecting and singing Welsh Folk-songs was a small Society of Students at the Bangor University College… The little group of Students called themselves ‘Y CANORION’… At that time our professional Welsh musicians pooh-poohed the whole thing. It was said and written that all important Welsh airs were already known, and that in any case the chief interest of Folk Music was antiquarian. If I may make a personal confession – it was in one of these College functions held in the grounds of the old College that I first fully realised the significance of the work in which we were engaged. A Brass Band was playing in the grounds, but as is usual in such places, conversation filled the air. Our small group of ‘CANORION’ assembled quietly under a tree and started singing. There was a sudden hush. The guests drew nearer. Tune after tune were sung; and it was with difficulty that we were allowed to leave off. Then it was that the real power of the Folk-song first revealed itself to me. 305

Far from being an antiquarian preoccupation, he saw that folk songs had the capacity to make a connection with both singers and listeners now, in the present day – a capacity which he put down to their ‘vocal origin… spontanteity and … preoccupation with words’. 306

Thus Graves’s overtures on behalf of the Folk Song Society certainly fell on fertile ground, but they actually resulted in a decision – with which Graves himself seems to have been entirely sympathetic – to establish a specifically Welsh society. It was launched at the 1906 Caernarfon Eisteddfod, and Lloyd Williams was its editor and guiding light until his death in 1945.

Lloyd Williams had first-hand knowledge not only of the Welsh folk song tradition but also of its vulnerability. In a note in the Journal of the Welsh Folk-Song Society, he remembered the abrupt end of his father’s career as a local ballad singer:

When I was about five years old, my father used to sing in the public-houses to the accompaniment of Ifan y Gorlan’s harp-playing. Soon after, he joined the Calvinistic Methodists and gave up the drink and the old songs. My mother burnt all the printed ballads in the house; and it was only with the greatest difficulty that father could be persuaded to sing to us, even the most innocuous of the old ballads. 307

He tells the story at greater length in his autobiography, linking it specifically to the impact of the 1859 religious revival and its associated temperance campaign. Traditional music was tainted by association with the inns in which it was played and sung, and the drinking that inevitably accompanied it, and his mother’s act of destruction was far from an unusual one. An almost identical incident is recounted of a ballad singer called Joseff Rees who ‘sang ballads until 1903 until the revival came. [Then] he burnt the ballads…’ (‘Odd e’n canu baledi nes 1903 nes i’r diwygiad ddod. Fe llosgodd y baledi…’). 308 A number of Welsh Folk-Song Society members set out to collect songs (particularly the less well-known and unpublished ones) by recording them being sung by those who remembered them, but found that it was common for elderly people to refuse to acknowledge that they had ever even heard ‘the old songs’. On her collecting trips in the early years of the twentieth century, for example, Ruth Herbert Lewis encountered ‘a pious old man’ who insisted he ‘could only remember hymns’, and an old man ‘much to [sic] respectable to “canu maswedd” [sing rude songs]’. 309

While Nonconformity fostered a thriving mass culture of religious singing, its impact on the traditional, secular songs was little short of disastrous. It bred a real and widespread belief that the traditional music was sinful and specifically that it would draw sober, God-fearing people under the influence of alcohol. Years after the event, Lloyd Williams’s mother, seeing that her husband did not in fact stray from the path of sobriety and that her sons were growing up to be studious young men interested in their traditions and culture, told him ‘many times how much she regretted the burning’ (‘Pan welodd fy mam mor sicr ydoedd troediad fy nhad ar y llwybr newydd, a gweld hefyd ei meibion yn tyfu i fyny’n ddarllengar, dywedodd wrthyf lawer gwaith faint ei hedifeirwch am y llosgi.’). Poignantly he adds:

…when my eyes were opened to the interest of the old songs, my father had left us, and his abundance of songs was lost.

…pan agorwyd fy llygaid i ddiddordeb yr hen ganu, yr oedd fy nhad wedi ein gadael, a’i doreth caneuon ar goll. 310

Little wonder then, that for Lloyd Williams the work of the Society was much more than mere antiquarian curiosity, but rather the rescue of a strand of Welsh cultural identity that had been vital and vibrant within living memory and in his own family and community. Amidst all the enormous endeavour he put into the Welsh Folk-Song Society and all the influence he had on it, this belief in traditional song as a living force that resonated in ordinary people’s experience was arguably his most significant and distinctive contribution.

The Welsh Folk-Song Society was embedded in the cultural nationalism of the Welsh Liberals, and reflected their progressive agenda. The Welsh Liberal network that underpinned the Society is not hard to uncover. To name just some of the most obvious figures, one of Lloyd Williams’s most important early colleagues was Ruth Herbert Lewis, a significant collector of Welsh folk songs 311 and married to the Welsh Liberal MP, John Herbert Lewis. 312 John Herbert Lewis was instrumental in the campaigns for a national university, library and museum, and a close colleague of Tom Ellis and Lloyd George. The Ellises and the Herbert Lewises were particularly good friends, and after Tom’s death ‘the friendship between Ruth Lewis and Annie Ellis [Tom’s widow] became a close one’, with the two women going out together on folk song collecting trips. 313 The membership list of the Welsh Folk-Song Society is full of their Liberal friends and colleagues, with Lloyd George listed as a Vice President.

WFSS membership - Document
Figure 2: Welsh Folk-Song Society membership list (Source: Author’s own photo)

John Lloyd Williams was himself on friendly terms with Lloyd George, perhaps through their participation in local chapel activities in Cricieth, 314 and Lloyd George apparently considered that he owed much of his charismatic trademark oratory to Lloyd Williams’s skills as a singing teacher, if Lloyd Williams’s journal for Sunday 26 December 1909 is to be believed:

Ev[ening] to Seion [Chapel]… sing nicely except the men who are very poor. Lloyd George sits the whole time on the steps of the pulpit – Megan [Lloyd George, his daughter] before his knees.

Up w. Ll. G. to his new house to supper….

[He describes their conversation over supper, then starts to quote Lloyd George:]

Importance of voice in speaking. ‘Bonar Law and I are g[rea]t friends and he always tells me that I have an unfair advantage…in my voice – but many of them never study voice prod[uctio]n – I owe most to you for showing me the importance of voice prod[uctio]n… Tom Ellis had a very limited range – only 2 or 3 notes but he used them in a very effective manner…’ 315

Lloyd Williams is not explicit about his own political persuasion, but he clearly had connections with prominent Welsh Liberals and shared his interest in and knowledge of folk songs with them – as a journal entry for 1 September 1913 notes, ‘Lloyd George and I had a short talk ab[ou]t F[olk] S[ong]s. He wanted me to get two songs sung to him week last Sunday…’. 316

‘The upward progress of a country’: John Lloyd Williams’s philosophy for the Welsh Folk-Song Society

In the first volume of the Society’s journal, Lloyd Williams set out a philosophy which saw Welsh folk song not just as part of the nation’s heritage but as a constituent of a distinctive and modern Welsh cultural identity, and went yet further in presenting it as a contribution to a wider British and even world musical culture. In essence, he argued that folk song was not a nostalgic but a progressive musical and cultural practice:

We maintain that folk-songs form a valuable national asset, and that it would be madness to ignore them – folk-music is one of many factors which help in a nation’s development.

… In spite of the clever English critic and his Welsh followers, I believe there are great possibilities in Welsh folk-song from a national point of view… May the day soon come when a Welshman, well equipped with all the resources of modern technique will also have drunk deep of the spirit of its literature and of its national songs, until his own personality and genius discovers to the world some new aspect of music that will both advance the credit of our little nation, and contribute to the development of the world’s music. 317

He also positioned the Welsh Folk-Song Society in the context of the other recently established national cultural institutions, pointing out that the Society had a comparable mission to that of the National Library and National Museum, and suggesting that it offered invaluable source material to the students and academics of the Welsh university colleges – not only historians, but also anthropologists and psychologists:

But what of the value of these songs?… We have now in our Welsh Library and our Welsh Museum the opportunity of collecting and preserving everything that pertains to the life of the past – old implements, vessels, articles of furniture and clothing, and old MSS. of every kind. Are the old songs of the people of less importance than their old drinking cups?…

Our Colleges are now turning out young people trained in scientific methods of study – who are closely investigating the history of our people and language from different points of view. We are providing rich material for him who will undertake to unravel the ethnology, the history, and the psychology wrapped up in these rescued songs. 318

It is interesting to set the founding philosophy of the Welsh Folk-Song Society alongside the ways in which some key English contemporaries conceptualised folk song. 319 The idea that it could form the basis of a new national school of composition was something that the Welsh and English had in common, but in other ways their preoccupations differed. For the English, the ‘threat’ posed by the music hall was a powerful factor. In his ‘Inaugural Address’ to the Folk Song Society, Hubert Parry (one of its Vice Presidents) explicitly presented folk song as an antidote to the vulgarity of the urban, capitalist popular culture of the music hall, which he described in rather startlingly apocalyptic terms:

… this enemy is one of the most repulsive and most insidious [in]… the outer circumference of our terribly overgrown towns where the jerry-builder holds sway; where one sees all around the tawdriness of sham jewellery and shoddy clothes, pawnshops and flaming gin-palaces. 320

By contrast, ‘the old folk-music is among the purest products of the human mind [because it] grew in the hearts of the people before they devoted themselves so assiduously to the making of quick returns’. 321

In the course of a more extended and complex argument, Cecil Sharp makes the same point in his influential book, English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions (1907):

… good music purifies, just as bad music vulgarizes… [T]he mind that has been fed upon the pure melody of the folk will instinctively detect the poverty-stricken tunes of the music-hall, and refuse to be captivated by their superficial attractiveness…. [Folk songs will] effect an improvement in the musical taste of the people, and… refine and strengthen the national character. 322

There was a paternalistic slant to the English vision, 323 according to which, folk song was a product of ‘unsophisticated humanity’ with the power to remedy ‘the sordid vulgarity of our great city-populations’ as Parry put it 324 or, in Sharp’s terms, while it might be appreciated by ‘cultivated people’, it also had the merit of appealing to and educating ‘the uncritical’, and ‘will do incalculable good in civilizing the masses’. 325 Sharp also saw folk song as a means of ‘stimulating the feeling of patriotism’, and by this he meant very specifically English patriotism. English education was, he said, ‘too cosmopolitan’ and bred ‘citizens of the world rather than Englishmen. And it is Englishmen, English citizens, that we want’. 326

Seen in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that the Welsh had certain reservations about Cecil Sharp. 327 The working relationships of the folk song collectors of the four British nations were generally close and collaborative, as the mutual contributions to their various journals reveal,328 but Lloyd Williams thought Sharp proprietorial and domineering in his attitude to the study of folk song, and noted in his journal for 24 October 1909:

Mrs D [Mary Davies, then secretary of the Welsh Folk-Song Society and a noted singer] interviewed C. Sharp. (No one likes him – he is dictatorial and headlong.) Dictated to her – told her that if she wanted to know about Welsh ballads to go to Wynne Jones Carnarvon [!] His astonishment when Mrs D had gone to discover she was ‘the singer’. 329

Like Sharp, Lloyd Williams emphasised the utility of folk songs in developing musical taste, and regarded them as a means of nurturing patriotism, but for the latter, patriotism in the British context was ‘the sum of the local patriotisms within it’ and was rooted in ‘the love of family’. 330 He also took a distinctive path in his vision of Welsh folk song as Wales’s contribution to what he called the ‘culture fund’ of Britain. 331 That contribution would, he felt, stamp the ‘individuality’ of Wales on that general culture, by which he surely meant that it would establish a cultural identity distinct from and equal to that of England, and in so doing would contribute to ‘the upward progress of a country’. 332 By ‘a country’, he probably meant Wales – but it is possible to interpret this as a suggestion that a ‘culture fund’ in which the four nations were established as equals would be progressive for Britain as a whole.

It was widely seen as important that folk song should be instilled into the young and should form part of the school curriculum, and both Sharp and Lloyd Williams arranged and published folk songs for schools. 333 Sharp insisted that:

Educationalists are agreed that the inclusion of music in the curriculum of the elementary school will not only tend to cultivate a taste for music, but will also, by exciting and training the imagination, react beneficially upon character…. [And since] folk-music came first and provided the foundations upon which the superstructure of art-music was subsequently reared… folk-music is clearly the best and most natural basis upon which to found a musical education. 334

Lloyd Williams was in sympathy with the musical aspects of this – folk music as the basis of a musical education and a means of cultivating musical taste – but the idea that it might have an impact on ‘character’ is notably lacking from his thinking. Folk song is never regarded by him as a means of educating the uncultivated ‘masses’; for him, these are the ‘songs of the people’, and an expression of a living cultural identity with a positive contribution to make to the modern world.

Lloyd Williams’s vision found sympathetic minds in government circles. The place of folk song in the curriculum acquired particular relevance in Wales against a backdrop of concern that education, which was delivered through the medium of English, was ‘betraying the linguistic, cultural and social needs of Wales’. 335 The Liberal Government of 1906–1915 moved early on to create a Welsh Department within the Board of Education, and in 1907 Alfred T. Davies, another close associate of John Herbert Lewis, 336 became its first Permanent Secretary (a post which he held until 1925). In 1913, we find him writing to Mary Davies in the following terms:

I am sorry I cannot be present at the Annual Meeting, to-morrow, of Cymdeithas Alawon Gwerin Cymru [the Welsh Folk-Song Society]… [I]f I may venture on a suggestion it would be to concentrate more effort during the coming year on cultivating Folk-Songs among the children. It is with them that all hope for the perpetuation of these national melodies lies. Unless Welsh Folk-Songs are sung on the hearth, in the school, in the smithy and on the mountain side, as the kine are being brought home, and the children are being nursed, they will not really flourish but only have that exotic existence which is, after all, but the prelude to their ultimate disappearance….

Are the Council quite sure that they have yet done all that is necessary (1) to enable every Head Teacher in Wales to put on the Requisition List for his or her school a thoroughly well-edited and standard edition of the best Welsh Folk-Songs and (2) to enable school teachers, in every county, to learn how these songs should be rendered?… 337

His imagined listening scenarios – ‘on the hearth, in the school, in the smithy and on the mountain side, as the kine are being brought home, and the children are being nursed’ – derive from the same strain of romantic cultural nationalism as Ellis’s vision of music as a ‘force in the making of Britain’. The romanticism is tempered, however – on one level by the practical concern of the civil servant with schoolbook requisition lists and standard editions, but more profoundly by his sense that folk songs were not – or should not be – ‘exotic’ or antiquarian, but retained their relevance to daily life.

‘My mother used to sing us to sleep with that song’: listening to traditional songs

At the risk of over-stretching the point, what the Welsh Folk-Song Society and its supporters often seemed to think they heard in Welsh folk song was as much the voice of the future as the voice of the past. This may not be quite how ‘ordinary listeners’ heard it, and I want finally to look at some of those more instinctive, less conceptualised or less politicised reactions.

In 1923, Grace Gwyneddon Davies (1879–1944), a singer and collector of Welsh folk songs, 338 travelled for three months in the USA and Canada, giving talks about the Society’s work to expatriate Welsh communities in Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, among a number of others. 339 She reported back to her colleagues:

I do not know that the truth of the old adage, Goreu Cymro, Cymro oddicartref [the best Welshman is an expatriate Welshman], ever came home to me more forcibly than during the three months in which my husband and I were touring America… [W]e took the opportunity of meeting our fellow-countrymen at different points on our journey, to tell them of the work of the W.F.S.S., and to let them hear some of our finds. Those meetings will always stand out in my memory as a touching proof of the deep and abiding love of the Welshman for his own country. They were usually opened by the singing of ‘My Country, ‘tis of Thee,’ but they always ended with ‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau,’ and their loyalty to the one was as unmistakeable as their hiraeth [longing] for the other. Perhaps it was because we carried them right back into the old days. They did not know that my singing of these old songs was going to revive memories of childhood, of loved parents and of localities endeared to them, and those memories moved them over and over again to tears.

They listened with the greatest interest to what we had to say about the songs, and picked up the airs quickly, joining in the singing with a heartiness that added more than a little to the success and homeliness of the meetings…. [The songs] were familiar to many, as one could easily see by the way their faces lit up and their heads moved to the lilt of the song; and after the meeting was over they would come to tell us where they had heard them. ‘I come from Llanrhystyd; my mother used to sing us to sleep with that song;’ or ‘My father sang Dibyn a Dobyn, but he used to say: ‘A ddoi di’r coed? meddai Richie pen Stryd,’ [‘Are you coming to the wood? said Richie pen Stryd’] and not ‘A ddoi di’r coed? meddai cwbl i gyd.’ [‘Are you coming to the wood? said everybody.’] 340

Lloyd Williams had inculcated in the Society the belief that folk songs had the power to resonate with the experiences of ordinary people, and Grace Gwyneddon Davies’s account provides valuable evidence of their actual impact. It is, of course, a second-hand account and one could argue that, in any case, an audience of expatriate Welsh people was always likely to respond emotionally to music that took them back to their Welsh childhoods. However, there are some corroborating first-hand accounts that tend to confirm that their reaction was not simply prompted by expatriate sentimentality.

The National History Museum in Cardiff holds an important collection of oral history interviews, conducted largely in the 1960s to capture the memories of people who had been children in Wales at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Many of these focused on traditional music, and the interviewers invariably asked their subjects, ‘Where did you hear this song?’ or ‘Who did you learn it from?’ – and the answers, though almost always brief and factual, often give a glimpse of an emotional reaction, because usually the songs were learned from close relatives.

The following are a brief sample of many similar testimonies. Evan Evans (born 1877, Denbighshire) learned ‘lots’ of carols from his aunt, who learned them from her father, ‘a great carol singer’ (‘carolwr mawr’). Wallis Evans (born 1910, Aberdare) recalled hearing ‘Dydd Llun, Dydd Mawrth, Dydd Mercher’ (‘Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday’), now a standard of Welsh folk song, ‘in Aberdare from my father at home… when I was a small child… about six or seven years old’, (‘yn Aberdâr o ‘Nhad gartref… yn blentyn bach… rhyw chwech neu saith’). (A recording of another interviewee, E. Thomas Evans, singing a version of ‘Dydd Llun, Dydd Mawrth, Dydd Mercher’ can be heard on the Museum’s website, along with a number of other songs recorded in the course of the oral history project.) Jane Owen (born 1879, Port Talbot) remembered her father singing ‘Bore fory coda i’n fore’ (‘Tomorrow morning I will get up early’) to the children ‘when they were little’. Maud Ellen Davies (born 1894, Cardiganshire) recalled ‘hearing Nana singing this when I was a child…in Rhydlewis’ (‘…clywed Mamgu yn ei chanu amser o’n i’n plentyn…yn Rhydlewis’); and David Miles (born 1913, Pembrokeshire) ‘heard my Grandad singing [‘Ceiliog Beti’ (‘Beti’s cockerel’)] … at home when we lived in Croesgoch’ (‘clywa’ ‘Nhadcu yn ei chanu… gartref pan ni’n byw yn Croesgoch’). Arthur Stanley Parry (born 1896, Carmarthenshire) remembered his mother singing the lullaby ‘Hei lwli, babi’, ‘to sing my little sisters to sleep’ (‘i ganu fy chwiorydd bach i gysgu’). Typically, these responses offer a memory of the person and often the place brought to mind by the act of remembering the song. 341

One account gives us a more specific and detailed memory. Owen Morgan (born 1887, Anglesey) remembered how his grandmother would sing an ‘action song’ to him, ‘Gyrru, gyrru, gyrru i Gaer’ (‘Drive, drive, drive to Chester’), bouncing him up and down to mimic the rhythm of the horse and cart:

… and of course nana would lift me up and down while singing that one – ‘gyrru, gyrru, gyrru i Gaer’.

(…a wrth gwrs fydda nain ‘n nghodi fi i fyny ag i lawr wrth ganu honna’n te – ‘gyrru, gyrru, gyrru i Gaer.’) 342

These are, of course, no more than snippets – none of the interviewees elaborates on the emotions and memories these songs evoked – and this points to some of the drawbacks of oral history evidence, and more broadly to the difficulties of finding the evidence of ‘ordinary voices’. The interviews were of course recorded many decades after the remembered events, and memories are patchy and unreliable. Furthermore, like any oral history project, there is an underlying rationale that shapes the interviews and leads to the inclusion of some topics and the exclusion of others: in this case, the collection was created particularly to capture memories of Welsh rural traditions and practices that it was feared would be lost as a consequence of industrialisation. Thus, though the learning of songs and hymns from older relatives features strongly in the interviews, the emphasis is on the words and melodies, and on recording when and in what part of Wales they were sung. The emotional significance of the music per se is not generally pursued with the interviewees. Nonetheless, these memories of children being sung to sleep and grandmothers dancing grandchildren up and down on their laps are surely full of emotional meaning – flashes of insight cast by music into people’s childhood experience.

Conclusion

In the late nineteenth century and the first couple of decades of the twentieth, the propensity for hitching Welsh musical achievement to the wagon of national progress was strong. The first signs can be detected in the often overstated reactions of listeners to Welsh choral and congregational singing, with all it could be said to imply about the social respectability, piety, (musical) literacy and intellectual aspiration of the masses. While choirs and cymanfoedd ganu were to be found all over Wales in both rural and industrial communities, these were singing practices that were crucially linked to industrial expansion and the burgeoning chapel congregations it bred. As such, they were readily linked in people’s perceptions with what was for many (though not all) an optimistic period of economic prosperity and cultural development, which, as Morien put it, justified the world in anticipating ‘in the future great results from this little nation among the mountains’. 343

Traditional song seems at first glance to be a less easy fit within a discourse about national progress, and it seems doubtful that many of those ‘ordinary listeners’ had conceptualised the songs of their childhoods as part of such a discourse. It is, however, exactly in terms of the connection with family and community, with the human, the emotional and the personal, that John Lloyd Williams understood and articulated the underpinning vitality of traditional music, and its potential to contribute to ‘the upward progress of a country’. Nonetheless, the reactions of ordinary listeners, in their focus on past experience, express something more like a sense of tradition, certainly very distant from the way in which Welsh music was brought into a wider cultural and political discourse about a vision for a nation by the politicians, journalists and scholars. Thus, while the public discourse about music in Wales in this period is clear from, among other sources, newspaper and periodical articles, oral history evidence gives us another set of voices that speak of everyday encounters with music, and in so doing, point to a notable gap between that ‘national conversation’ about music and ‘ordinary’ people’s personal experience of it.

Select bibliography

Graves, Alfred Perceval. ‘Folk Song: An address delivered before the Cymmrodorion Section of the Welsh National Eisteddfod of 1906 at Carnarvon, and brought up to date’, in Irish Literary and Musical Studies. London: Elkin Matthews, 1913, pp. 175–190.

Herbert, Trevor, and Jones, Gareth Elwyn (eds). People and Protest: Wales 18151880, Welsh History and its Sources series. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1988.

Herbert, Trevor, and Jones, Gareth Elwyn (eds). Wales 18801914, Welsh History and its Sources series. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1988.

James, E. Wyn. ‘An “English” Lady among Welsh Folk: Ruth Herbert Lewis and the Welsh Folk-Song Society’, in Ian Russell and David Atkinson (eds), Folk-Song: Tradition, Revival, and Re-Creation. Aberdeen: The Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen, 2004, pp. 266–283, http://orca.cf.ac.uk/42463/1/insrv-scolar-an-english-lady-among-welsh-folk.html, accessed 12 February 2019.

Jones, Kitty Idwal. ‘Adventures in Folk-Song Collecting’, Welsh Music/Cerddoriaeth Cymru, 5/5, Spring/Gwanwyn 1977, pp. 35–52.

Kinney, Phyllis. Welsh Traditional Music. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011.

Morgan, Kenneth O. Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 18801980. New York: Oxford University Press; Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1981.

Sharp, Cecil. English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions. London: Simpkin & Co., Ltd; Novello & Co., Ltd; Taunton: Barnicott & Pearce, Athenaeum Press, 1907.

Williams, John Lloyd. ‘The History of the Welsh Folk-Song Society’, Journal of the Welsh Folk-Song Society, 3/2 (1934), pp. 89–102 and 146–157.

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Download: Progress and tradition: listening to the singing of the Welsh c.1870 to c.1920

Re-examining histories

The historical influence of white listeners’ aural perspectives on African American hollers

Lorenzo Vanelli

Lorenzo Vanelli is a PhD student at the University of Bologna, Italy. His research focuses on the African American holler tradition in the Jim Crow era, in order to propose a definition of the techniques and complexities of the genre while accounting for the opacity of the available resources. In 2016 and 2017 he worked as a researcher in Morocco on Gnawa music, as part of the DRUM project, co-ordinated by Professor Domenico Staiti. In 2018 he worked as a visiting scholar at the University of Columbia, New York, on the historical and contemporary relationships between music and the US prison system.

Abstract

The history of the documentation of African American hollers, a genre of songs used until the 1960s, comprises complex and unbalanced power relationships between performers and listeners. It is possible to outline some information about these relationships by studying the documentation produced by the listeners, comprising their personal account of the situation that led to the listening experience itself. These relationships shaped the first accounts of the genre, which in turn informed the projects that later researchers developed to record these holler traditions, and supported narratives about the songs and performers. The outcome was that white listeners’ aural perspectives on African American hollers produced generic and problematic discussions and limited diversity in the archived materials, thus hindering our ability today to look back and try to challenge the narratives on the genre.

Introduction

Hollers were a genre of solo-singing renditions of short poetic compositions, sung only by African American men and women in the south of the United States until the middle of the last century. Two examples which demonstrate in their differences of style and content how wide the spectrum of hollers can be are Henry Ratcliff, (Look for me in) Louisiana (1959), 344 and Stewart W.D. ‘Bama’, Levee camp Holler (1947). 345 (Many more recordings of hollers, along with their reference information, are freely available on the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) website.) 346 Musicologists have mainly considered these songs as examples of musical antecedents of the blues or suggested comparisons with African music practices. None of the hypotheses proposed on the subject have been proved yet: researchers documented hollers only after the birth of the blues, 347 and the opacity of information (or lack thereof) about African Americans’ private or secular music practices during slavery makes it impossible to trace their legacy with precision to Africa. A way to address the subject could be to go through comparative studies between hollers and specific musical traditions from areas involved in the slave trade in Africa, but we would still first need a deeper understanding of how hollers were composed. What techniques did the singers apply? How did the techniques complement each other? What kind of music materials were used and/or produced in the process? Until we achieve a step forward in the musical analysis of the holler genre per se, any kind of comparative discourse is based on nothing more than supposition.

Today, post-modern musicological perspectives on hollers have gone as far as viewing them not as a genre that we could distinguish from others based on a precise definition, but as a generic sum of disconnected practices, from which musicians ‘borrowed’ techniques to enhance their style. The very existence of a genre is questioned without even starting a deeper discussion about the documentation sources.

These perspectives (the discussions about their relation to Africa or to the blues, and the dismissal of hollers as a genre) derive from the institutionalisation of observations made by white listeners and are based on faulty listening practices. Some of the earliest imperfect listening experiences of hollers became canonical after scholars repeatedly quoted them to support their discourse on African American music. These listening experiences then also became preconceptions that guided the hands of the researchers who collected documentation on hollers. This, in turn, reinforced the preconceptions themselves and negatively affected our ability (or capability) to open a proper discussion on the matter. 348

One exemplar case: the legacy of Charles Peabody’s observations in 1903

One of the most quoted earlier sources referenced in hollers literature is a brief article written by Charles Peabody in 1903. A professional archaeologist, during the first years of the century Peabody was working on an excavation project of a mound in Coahoma Country, in the northern region of Mississippi, with the aid of local African American workers who dug up the terrain and moved debris from the site with mules and carts. Although busy in their archaeological work, Peabody and his fellow researchers took some interest in the work and leisure songs of ‘the true sons of the torrid zones’ as they ‘had some opportunity to observe the Negroes and their way at close range.’349 In the course of his amused observations, the author jotted down ‘notes, suggestions for future study in classification, and incidents of interest in the recollecting, possibly in the telling’ of the African American workers’ songs. Peabody classified the music he heard under:

three heads: the songs sung by our men when at work digging or wheeling on the mound, unaccompanied; the songs of the same men at quarters or on the march, with guitar accompaniment; and the songs, unaccompanied, of the indigenous Negroes, – indigenous opposed to our men imported from Clarksdale, fifteen miles distant. 350

The part of the article that is most quoted in relation to hollers is a passage where Peabody gives us information regarding the ‘autochthonous music’:

Our best model for the study of this was a diligent Negro living near called by our men ‘Five Dollars’ (suggestive of craps), and by us ‘Haman’s Man,’ from his persistent following from sunrise to sunset of the mule of that name. 351

Passing over the racist and objectifying overtones in Peabody’s use of language, the description of Five Dollars’ music has been quoted as direct and reliable information about holler practices. Although he clarified that it was ‘hard to give an exact account’ of the intricacies of the music, Peabody affirmed that:

directions intoned to [the mule] melted into strains of apparently genuine African music, sometimes with words, sometimes without. Long phrases there were without apparent measured rhythm, singularly hard to copy in notes. When such sung by him and by others could be reduced to form, a few motives were made to appear, and these copied out were usually quite simple, based for the most part on the major or minor triad. 352

After some samples of those ‘hymns’ transcribed in notation, he added:

the best single recollection I have of this music is one evening when a negress was singing her baby to sleep in her cabin just above our tents. [..] Her song was to me quite impossible to copy, weird in interval and strange in rhythm, peculiarly beautiful. 353

Here we have, in one single take, and in the first published and most quoted listening experience of hollers, all the problems that afflicted the scholarly view on the subject. The author suggests a generic reference to Africa, recognises his inability to give an account of the complex time, intonation and structural formulas used to control the performance, attempts nevertheless to reduce that complexity to notated transcription, and ends up exoticising the singers. Above all, the author is convinced of being able to penetrate African Americans’ opaque expression during the Jim Crow Years 354 by ‘observation’, and of his entitlement to represent it.

The legacy of this short article is evident in the scholarly view on the hollers. 355 One example of this legacy can be read in the way Alan Lomax wrote, while redacting a few pages as a reference manual for the researchers who would accompany him in the 1941 and 1942 field recording trip with Fisk University: 356

[…]

2. Work Songs

a. rhythmic songs of the road gang, chain gang from Parchman [prison], etc.

b. rhythmic songs of the older generation such as paddling, ax cutting, cotton picking, corn husking, etc.

c. railroad section gang, and extra gang songs.

d. Levee camp songs, corn songs, mule-skinning songs, etc. (These songs are generally in the form of moans, are very free rhythmically, as opposed to the above)

At the time hollers were not referred to by one single word, and taken broadly they are referred to in the point (d). As we can see, even if Alan Lomax had heard hollers before (as he surely did when he accompanied his father, the folklorist John Lomax, during a research trip to the southern states in 1939), he still categorized them as rhythmically free, which is technically a non-definition that stems from the inability of the researcher to give an account of the complex rhythm used to structure the flow of hollers. This, in turn, reflects the continuity with Peabody’s observations: they were both putting their own categorizing perspective on the genre without having understood it.

Another more recent and direct example of how Peabody’s article became well known in the field of African American music studies can be found in Africa and the Blues by Gerhard Kubik:

[..] secular song forms, hollers and lullabies ‘weird in intervals and strange in rhythm’ (as stated by Harvard archaeologist Charles Peabody in 1903), whose melodic materials eventually contributed to the genesis of the blues. 357

Interestingly enough, it seems that the scholars who referred to this article as documentation on hollers failed to notice the part where the author gave some real and reliable information on a song form that the singers themselves will later define as part of the holler genre. In the article (Peabody, 1903, p. 149) the author goes on a long digression on the ‘distichs and improvisations in rhythm more or less phrased sung to an intoning more or less approaching melody’. The evident inability of the author to get the pulse of the music he was listening to is again evident, but the lyrics of the extemporaneous renditions of short poetic forms quoted here by Peabody return often in later documentation on hollers, and their poetic structure suggests closeness, if not identity, with the holler tradition. It should not be particularly surprising that later scholars blatantly missed this passage, as the analysis of hollers has relied mainly on bibliographical references rather than on the study of the available documentation, where this connection would become clear.

An ‘accurate picture’ of African American folklore

A number of folklorists combed the southern states between the two world wars and up until the sixties, looking for traditional music forms to record and archive. Howard Odum in the 1910s, Lawrence Gellert from the twenties to the forties, David Cohn in the twenties, John Lomax until the end of the thirties, his son Alan taking up after him, Herbert Halpert in the thirties, Harry Oster and Harold Courlander in the fifties and Bruce Jackson in the sixties: with different methods but similar objectives, all of these researchers collected a wealth of documentation on African American music, including hollers. Their work and the archived materials they produced stand today as both monumental and problematic. Monumental, because the amount and variety of music samples they collected is a testament to the depth and complexity of the history of African American music. Problematic, because the methods and epistemologies that guided their research often failed to recognise the layers of opacity that marked negotiations across the race lines in the segregated Jim Crow south. These white researchers often worked with the singers as if complete and objective understanding was achievable, where instead the conditions of the exchange hindered both the capacity of the singers to expose their perspective, and the ability of the interviewers to grasp it. 358

One of the many facets of this unbalanced negotiation between white researchers and African American singers was the ability of the former to choose when, where and what to document as relevant about the music practices of the latter. One of the things that all these research projects have in common is that they were at least partially conducted inside southern prisons. The motivation for looking for folklore materials inside institutions of violent oppression was first expressed by Odum (1926, pp. 7173), who wrote:

if one wishes to obtain anything like an accurate picture of the workaday Negro he will surely find his best setting in the chain gang, prison, or in the situation of the ever-fleeing fugitive [..] For these prison and road songs, policeman and sheriff epics, jail and chain gang ballads constitute an eloquent cross-section of the whole field of Negro songs.

This quote clearly demonstrates how the researchers were working towards an impossibly objective description of hollers. Their objectifying approach is explicit in the choice of words about the ‘accurate picture’ and the ‘eloquent cross-section’, and hints at the reason behind the researchers’ decision to look for music inside prisons: to gain access to what they saw as untapped treasure troves of folklore classics.

On top of the choice of location for the research, once in contact with the singers, the politics that guided the hands of the researchers in choosing when to turn on the recording machine were based on their take on what they believed to be representative of the subject of music folklore. From this point of view, the composition and variety of the archived materials is tied to the selectiveness of their research practices, based on their pre-formed conceptualisation of the materials.

An important source of information on the subject is the Southern Recording Trip Fieldnotes, 359 written by John Lomax and colleagues during their 1939 research in the southern states. These field notes tell the story of the difficulties of the research, the complexities of the relationship between the researchers, the singers, and the institutions that supported or limited the development of the research project, and also of the choices that they had to make during the selection and collection of folklore documentation in general, and hollers in particular. The Fieldnotes are then a fundamental document on the methodology of the researcher and his associates, containing summaries of the daily activities, references to places visited, to the individuals encountered, the settings behind the recordings, and the exchanges with the singers. They are also an extremely valuable source of information on hollers recordings, as Lomax has been the researcher who recorded the highest number of this genre of songs.

John Lomax’s Fieldnotes: choosy habits, power relationships, opaque negotiations

Reading the Fieldnotes, two elements stand out and help us get a better sense of the research dynamics that informed the production of John Lomax’s collection.

The first one is the selectiveness applied by Lomax. He was strictly interested in folkloric materials: the older, the better. He clearly communicated it with his interlocutors:

[April 1517, West Columbia and Clemens State Farm, Brazoria Country, Texas]: After suggestions from Mr. Lomax as to what kind of music he wished to record, musicians and singers volunteered or were pushed forward by their companions

[April 23, Ramsey State Farm, Otey, Texas]: This trip was fruitless. The old crowd had scattered, the new boys sang less fewer of the old songs and in performance imitated radio artists. We did not set up the machine. We found about the same situation in Darrington Farm some thirty miles away, few singers and these not interested in old songs or the old manner of singing.

[..] Iron Head broke into a group’s singing of some popular music-hall ditty, ‘No he don’t want that kind o’ stuff. This kindly what he’s after’, and he started off on an old-time spiritual.

[May 2021, Cummins State Farm, near Varner, Arkansas]: Through the bars, Mr. Lomax explained to the boys the purpose of his trip and what kind of songs he wished to record. He asked for volunteers. After several rejections, a big fellow timidly offered a children’s song, which proved good enough to start on anyway.

[..] a big fellow, one of the quartet who had sung a lined hymn, offered to sing John Henry hesitatingly ‘I don’t reckon you’d want John Henry, would you? I guess you already got that.’ Mr. Lomax asked for a sample of his version; this head-rider, Arthur Bell, had sung only three lines [..] when Mr. Lomax called excitedly, ‘Wait there! Get you a hammer ready, and start back at the beginning.’ Obediently and quietly, Arthur picked up a ‘billy’, [..] tried it out on the barrack bars, nodded, and at Mr. Lomax’s ‘Ready’, started in again [..] an interesting version of John Henry, which appears in full in Our Singing Country.

[May 2325, State Farms, Parchman, Mississippi]: They were all more willing, but they had very few interesting songs of which we did not already have more interesting versions.

These notes show how John Lomax operated in the field by selecting the materials to record based on his decision of whether or not they fitted his idea of ‘old’ materials. The facts that he was an experienced researcher with years of practice in the field, and that producing a recording was a complicated and taxing task, do not change the results: the composition of the content of the archive illuminates Lomax’s own projection on the subjects, but does not coincide with the totality of expressive traditions he encountered. It is also important to note how the musicians he interviewed reacted to the researcher’s disposition, sometimes by themselves selecting what to offer for recording to appeal to Lomax’s interests. This relationship created a double layer of opacity in the materials produced: one constructed by the researcher’s gaze, which rested only on the objects that interested him, and the other put up by the singers, who offered to that gaze only a portion of their knowledge.

The Fieldnotes give us also an idea of how the relationships with the authorities shaped the context of Lomax’s research. John Lomax was already a well-known researcher in the field of music folklore when he embarked on the ’39 trip: just to give an example, President Theodore Roosevelt himself had only words of praise for him when he wrote the introduction to his book Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads from 1910. When he embarked on the research trip, he was backed up by the Library of Congress, commissioning the recordings for the archives, and had political contacts all over the south. Lomax also clearly benefitted from being a white man from Texas, as shown in his ability to have pleasant exchanges with authorities and move without many constraints through the southern states at the height of the Jim Crow era:

[May 2021, Cummins State Farm, near Varner, Arkansas]: Mr. Lomax’s conference with the office was only long enough to explain his mission, and present his letter of introduction from the Governor of Texas, get permission to proceed and get necessary information about the location of camps and the names of some of the captains. Captain Acklin, who, it seems was in general charge of the Negro farm workers, offered us a bed for the night and breakfast. We went at once to Camp #6, [..] There we found Captain Allen in charge, who [..] recognized Mr. Lomax at once. Cap’n Allen had formerly been in charge of a camp near Little Rock where Mr. Lomax had recorded previously. [..] On this occasion Captain Allen seemed glad to see somebody from Texas and his family also seemed glad of a diversion.

[May 21, Cummins State Farm Negro Women’s Camp]: After lunch in the home of Captain Miller, [..] we returned to Camp #1 [..] Midafternoon we packed up to move on; finding Supt. Reed at home, we received his permission to interview the Negro women who were housed in the rear of the superintendent’s residence under the supervision of Mrs. Reed.

[May 22 State Farm, Camp #9, near Arkansas City, Arkansas]: Captain Burt Clayton, in charge of the camp and his wife were very gracious, inviting us to dinner and extending the noon rest period so that the boys might sing for Mr. Lomax.

The benefits granted to Lomax by his skin colour and southern upbringing had the secondary effect of automatically building a stronger connection between him and the authorities, which had repercussions on how the research was framed and conducted. The relationship with the authorities did not stop at the request of permission to interview the prisoners or at the eventual security and logistics support: many ‘captains’ 360 participated actively by pointing out camps 361 or specific individuals whom the researcher should interview for songs, and were often present during the recording sessions:

[April 23, Ramsey State Farm, Otey, Texas]: we drove to the Central State Farm near Sugarland. The Captain had a good dinner served us and assisted Mr. Lomax in trying to locate singers. [..] Our next stop was at Camp Four of the Ramsey State Farm [..] With the help of the Captain and some of his guards we located some singers, who were admitted one by one or by small groups into a small office where the recording machine was set up. One of these groups included Columbus Christopher, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, who sang for us under guard, behind three sets of locks.

[May 2021, Cummins State Farm, near Varner, Arkansas]: After a bountiful supper we, the Lomaxes, the Allens and some guests adjourned to the Negro barracks. By the aid of kerosene lamps and flash-lights we set up the machine. [..]The Captain had been generous in letting us stay past nine o’clock. It was Saturday night and the boys could catch up with their sleep the next day.

[May 21, Cummins State Farm, Camp #1, Verner, Arkansas]: Sunday, we talked to Captain Miller who had charge of the Negro barracks of Camp #1 nearby. Trusties sat on guard with guns ready in case of a break. Other trusties helped get the men together. [..]The boys seemed fond of their immediate supervisor, Captain Miller, and requested that we let him have a six-inch record of their songs of his choosing. The sons of Capt. Acklin and of Capt. Miller were interested spectators.

We have no way to assess to what extent the intervention or physical presence of the authorities in charge of the very institutions responsible for the imprisonment of the singers influenced the negotiation that occurred during the recordings. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that the impact was relevant. The singers might have actively refrained from singing about certain topics, as all the parties involved knew that the recordings would then go to Washington D.C. to be archived as a lasting representation of the prison institution. At the same time, when the authorities referred individuals or groups to the researchers, they automatically obliged them to record something. Some of the singers were physically brought to Lomax in chains. The singers were then stuck in a tight spot, between the risk of being held accountable for what they sung, and the inability to withdraw from singing. No wonder then that Lomax sometimes thought that the ‘Singers were not plentiful or enthusiastic’. 362

From this point of view, even if Lomax’s connections helped him get around and make contact with the singers, at the same time they hindered the ability of the musicians to have a meaningful interaction with him. It should come as no surprise then that, even after having repeatedly visited a number of southern prisons, parts of a system that Blackmon defined as ‘Slavery by another name’ (2008), Lomax came back with the conviction that ‘no instance of physical brutality in all my experiences have come under my personal notice’, except for the incident that, to be fair, he condemned, where the singers were brought to him for the interview chained together with others.363

The politics of archived knowledge

The case of the research by John Lomax tells us something about the way our understanding of spirituals, worksongs and hollers is shaped by the politics that informed the production of the documentation. On those recordings subsequent narratives, musicological and non-musicological, were and are built. None of the complexities of the exchange that happened between the researcher and the singers is evident in the recording. Still, they are there: in the opacity of the content, and in the way the documents, although produced in a complicated context of unequal negotiation, are meant to represent the singers and their art.

The documentation carries the burden of the Jim Crow context in the relationship of power that presided over its creation, but also of Lomax’s listening habits. He was ultimately the one who decided whether to record a song, and he did so by relying on his experience. In the act of choosing what was more appropriate to be documented, he unwittingly operated like a censor. The effects of this selectiveness transferred over to the composition of the archived materials, and from there to the academic studies that relied on that documentation as sources for proposing narratives on African American music.

In relation to the study of the hollers genre, this had two major impacts. The first is about the variety of the songs collected. From the fragments of information in the Fieldnotes we get to know that Lomax preferred not to record a song twice unless there were major changes in the lyrics. But what if there were major changes in the music techniques implied? Or even minor changes? The elaboration of the details of a performance is one of the most important elements in popular music, as it shows the singer’s competences and preferences, while pointing out the eventual spaces for idiolect expression within a recognisable tradition. In my research on the subject I was able to locate 112 recordings of hollers, and they are all different: no second version of the same one by another singer.

In a similar way, the preference of the researchers to collect only materials previously unrecorded limited the opportunity to have different takes of the same song by the same singer. Of the 112 hollers recordings that I located, only eight of them have been recorded in more than one version. This means that for the other 104 we only have access to one, very brief sample (the average duration of hollers recordings is around two minutes), thus limiting our ability to get deeper into the analysis of the music techniques used by the singers.

The second fundamental element is a matter of the politics of representation. Even if the connection has never been explained in full detail, scholars referred to the holler genre, alongside worksongs and spirituals, as some of the components that gave birth to the blues, one of the most well-known American music genres worldwide. By force of iterated references, hollers achieved a relative relevance in the history of the development of African American music. As I was collecting and analysing the available recordings to suggest a better description of the technical features of the genre, the opacity of the documentation and the story of how the recordings were produced constantly reminded me of the issues that could arise from scholarly mis-representation. If the objective of my work was to bring back into focus the hollers’ singers and the complexity of their art, the ideal result would be that their names could finally achieve some deserved level of recognition for the historical relevance of their cultural production.

After two years of research on the subject I started to notice something odd about the materials that I had found: all the singers were men. Then I stumbled across a recording of a holler by Mattie May Thomas, an African American woman. I believe that the process of how I came to realise the existence of women’s hollers is quite telling in itself. At that point in my research, I had already consulted the archives for recordings directly referenced, tagged or named as hollers. This had given me some numerically relevant results, but no sign of holler practices by women. The recording I found was instead in a randomly generated compilation of ‘prison blues songs’ on Spotify, and the song Dangerous Blues by Mattie May Thomas, 364 was clearly a holler. By following the categorisation system used by others to archive materials I had missed recordings that had not been archived as hollers because they weren’t recognised as part of the genre. After all, a proper definition of what a holler is has yet to be fully discussed.

In an article from 2013 Shobana Shankar wrote:

The fact that these women have remained largely invisible, despite their public performances for men who became eminent figures in musicology, suggests a great deal about layers of inequality and silences – racial and gendered – in the very projects that aimed to reveal and record the Delta Blues. 365

This newfound notion prompted me to look back in the archives, this time listening one by one to all the recordings produced in those years by the researchers. 366 The results were relevant: the number of hollers recordings I could refer to became three times bigger, and I started to find other documents by African American women.

I believe that the problem in this case was that when the documentation was archived, the hollers genre was defined as something related to the origins of the blues, and the listening habits of the archivists prompted them to place the women’s production in the generic category of ‘blues’ recordings, failing to recognise them as examples of a distinct music form. Again, in the words of Shankar (2013, p. 184), ‘Scholars of music understand well the gendering of blues as masculine’, and this led to the failure to recognise the women’s production as samples of a genre that was thought of as being at the origins of the blues.

My second look at the archived materials also gave two other relevant results. The first result is about the complexity of the women’s musical production. As I was working on an interpretation of the techniques and features that could distinguish hollers production from contiguous music forms, I was well aware that the classification I was going to suggest, if taken in a normative way, could prompt subjective distinctions between practices that were instead fluidly interconnected. For this reason I constantly strove to highlight the recordings that would fall on the borders of my own definition: songs where the singers expressed lyrical content forms and used techniques mainly found in hollers, but mixed and matched materials and methods from other genres too. These recordings are extremely valuable because they demonstrate the vitality of the genre and the ability of the singers to find new and different uses for hollers techniques.

Quite tellingly, the number of recordings by African American women that fell on the borders of the classification I was proposing outnumbered by three to one those that my definition would outline as hollers in a more strict and traditional sense, leading me to agree with Shankar’s observation (2013, p. 198) that in ‘Parchman women’s music [..] diversity defied easy simplification’. This is even acknowledged in John Lomax’s Fieldnotes:

[May 21, Cummins State Farm, Negro Women’s Camp]: Some of the songs offered, we felt sure, came from the radio or from the phonograph, but in most cases these girls had changed them and improvised them to suit their own fancy and to make them their own.

The second result of my deeper look at the archived materials was in terms of the different proportion of hollers recordings by women and by men. Of the 112 documents of hollers that represent the genre in its stricter sense, only six are from women. 367

This proportion of course is not caused by women’s inability to produce hollers. On the contrary, the most complex holler recording I found was by a woman, Bessie Tucker, who in 1928 and 1929 recorded in various sessions a number of songs which are all based on the same music structure, with the same materials and techniques, but different lyrical subjects. If we consider these recordings as one single holler conjugated into different versions to express different topics, Tucker’s holler is three times longer than the second longest recording of a holler that I found, and 21 times the average duration of the other recordings.

So why is the number of documents by women so thin? I believe the answer to lie in the perspectives that guided the researchers to look for folklore materials mainly inside prisons and levee camps. The prison population in the southern states was for the greatest part composed of men:

The biennial prison report for 1935 noted that the prison’s entire population nearly turned completely over every two years. Out of nearly 3,500 prisoners at Parchman in 1935, just 26 were women. During the Depression years, the women prisoners numbered between 20 and 60, a fraction of the total, which rose from about 3,000 to as many as 6,000. 368

In the context of these figures, the proportion of six to 106 hollers by women and men is a few times higher than that of the proportion of men to women in the prison population. If we take into account also the number of documents that fall on the borders of the genre, women were able to produce proportionally much more documentation than men about the holler genre. But, because the researchers focused mainly on the prison context, where men vastly outnumbered women, or, as Shankar expressively puts it (2013, p. 198), because of the ‘love affair that had emerged between the down-and-out male prisoner and the musicologists’, the composition of the archives regarding the hollers genre suffers in diversity, greatly limiting our ability today to properly assess women’s contribution to the history of African American music.

Conclusion

Holler literature has suffered from the continuous reference to earlier listening experiences that were not based on, or expressed with, scientifically acceptable methods. The repeated reference to these experiences reinforced their value in the academic field, until they became canonical as part of the accepted view of the genre’s forms and practices, even against the evidences of later holler direct documentation.

These perspectives also had an influence in shaping the aural expectations of the researchers who produced documentation on hollers, guiding their choices in the selection of the materials as well as in the choice of the places to look for this and other traditional genres. As the reports from John Lomax’s Fieldnotes show, the political, social and historical context within which the researchers worked had a vast impact on the unbalanced negotiation between them and the singers whose music production they wanted to portray with their research. These reports, detailing the issues of power relationships and suggesting the layers of opacity in the singers’ performances, give us fundamental information to interpret how the researchers came to experience what the singers decided to offer them when they were obliged to, and what they decided to take away from it. This information also make us aware of how these power relationships continued to influence the narratives around the holler genre, the singers, and the history of African American music in general.

Select bibliography

Blackmon, Douglas. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War Two. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Kubik, Gerhard. Africa and the Blues. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Lomax, John. Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads. New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1910.

Odum, Howard Washington. Negro Workaday Songs. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1926.

Oforlea, Aaron. ‘[Un]veiling the White Gaze: Revealing Self and Other in The Land Where the Blues Began’, Western Journal of Black Studies, 36(4), 2012.

Peabody, Charles. ‘Notes on Negro Music’, Journal of American Folk-lore, 16, 1903.

Shankar, Shobana. ‘Parchman Women Write the Blues? What Became of Black Women’s Prison Music in Mississippi in the 1930s’, American Music, 31(2), 2013.

Vanelli, Lorenzo. ‘Between the Blues and Africa: transformation of narratives about African-American Hollers’, Sound Ethnographies, 1(1), 2018.

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Download: The historical influence of white listeners’ aural perspectives on African American hollers
Listening and digital technologies

‘O Lord, open thou our lips’: listeners’ experiences of BBC Radio 3’s Choral Evensong on The New Radio 3 Forum

Martin V. Clarke

Martin V. Clarke is a Lecturer in Music at The Open University, UK, and a Co-Investigator on the second phase of the Listening Experience Database (LED) project. His research interests lie in the intersections of music, theology, and religious practice, with a particular focus on congregational music-making and experience. His monograph British Methodist Hymnody: Theology, Heritage, and Experience was published by Routledge in 2017. He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Abstract

This chapter examines the listening experiences shared by contributors to The New Radio 3 Forum on threads related to BBC Radio 3’s Choral Evensong. Focusing on the musical, liturgical, and spiritual content of the experiences, it argues that they represent a community of highly engaged, committed, experienced, and knowledgeable listeners. It also demonstrates that engagement with the forum is a key part of the extended listening experience for regular contributors. While listeners demonstrate a variety of musical preferences and attitudes towards religious matters, their loyalty to Choral Evensong is shown to override such differences, enabling them to engage in informed and opinionated debate. The chapter draws on studies of communication patterns and engagement in online special-interest groups, the internet’s shaping of musical fandom, and the nature of online Christian communities to argue that the committed listening community that has developed on the forum and the detailed and discursive nature of its interactions exist in a symbiotic and self-sustaining relationship. The richness of the listening experiences both generates the strong sense of community and is enabled and perpetuated by it.

Introduction

[L]istened to the Byrd again. Notes all there, mic / acoustic balance good – this time heard via headphones. But it was a scramble, as if against the clock. I kept asking myself whether they truly understood what they were singing: this is an impassioned, desperate cry from a faith embattled, pursued, and feeling hunted, abandoned not so much by the rest of Anglican England, as by God. ‘Sion deserta,’ then ‘desolata’ repeated so many times with increasing intensity and then falling to that almost unresolved murmured emptiness at the close. We got none of that. Disappointing. 369

This rich and detailed listening experience is but one of many similar accounts posted each week to The Choir section of The New Radio 3 Forum hosted on the Friends of Radio 3 website. This post, made by a user and forum host who has contributed more than 7,000 individual posts, is focused on the anthem ‘Ne irascaris Domine’ by William Byrd (1543–1623), sung by Durham Cathedral Consort of Singers as part of the Choral Evensong programme broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 28 February 2018. 370 It encapsulates many of the characteristics of the listening experiences found within the forum in its attention to multiple different aspects of the broadcast. The listener expresses an opinion on musical matters, concerning both musical interpretation and sound engineering, and draws on a clearly deep understanding of the religious and historical contexts of the repertoire. Opinions are expressed firmly and with detailed explanation. One important aspect is not reflected in this account, however. This message forms part of a conversation, in this case between nine active participants over 23 individual posts, in which experiences are shared and debated. The depth and regularity of such postings make the weekly forum threads concerning Choral Evensong an unusually rich and growing source of listening experiences, which reveal much about listeners’ attitudes to this particular programme and the value they attach to being part of a community of like-minded listeners.

Figure 1: The Book of Common Prayer (Source: By John Baskerville – The Book of the Common Prayer printed by John Baskerville, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12130813)

Following brief overviews of choral evensong and The New Radio 3 Forum, this chapter explores three principal aspects of the listening experiences found within the forum. First, they are considered as musical experiences in which attentive listening coupled with extensive musical knowledge and experience is used to express forthright critical judgements on each broadcast. A notable feature of this aspect of the listening experiences is the attention given both to matters of musical performance and interpretation, and to the recording techniques and sound engineering employed in the broadcasts. Second, the accounts are interpreted as religious experiences in two distinct ways; alongside musical observations, many posts comment on the liturgical suitability of repertoire and other liturgical aspects of individual broadcasts. Meanwhile, comments directly indicating engagement with the broadcasts on a spiritual level are less common, but reveal a diverse range of attitudes. Finally, the importance of the listening community is examined, showing that participation and interactivity are important to many contributors, and that such engagement sustains the community and generates further contributions.

Choral evensong is arguably the most distinctive liturgical and musical service of the Church of England. Utilising the order for Evening Prayer found in The Book of Common Prayer, most of its principal elements are sung by the choir: the preces and responses, the psalms (typically set to Anglican chant), the canticles (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) and an anthem. Though neither is specified in The Book of Common Prayer, the Radio 3 broadcasts, and indeed many services held in cathedrals and churches, also typically include an introit sung by the choir, and a congregational hymn. Much original choral music has been written for evensong, especially by British composers, most notably paired settings of the canticles, commonly known as an Evening Service. Sung almost daily in many cathedrals, it also remains popular in many parish churches that still maintain a choir, though typically focused on Sundays only, and with varying frequency. The broadcasting history of Choral Evensong dates back to 1926, and one or more weekly programmes have been broadcast by the BBC with only occasional interruptions ever since. Since 1970, the programme has found a home on BBC Radio 3, and the current pattern consists of a weekly broadcast on Wednesday afternoons, which is repeated on Sundays. Programmes are also available via the BBC iPlayer. Most Wednesday services are broadcast live, and the most common venues are Church of England cathedrals and the chapels of some colleges of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Friends of Radio 3 was set up in 2003, emerging from discussion on an internet forum hosted on the BBC Radio 3 website. The New Radio 3 Forum, run under the aegis of the Friends of Radio 3 website, was set up in 2010, replacing an earlier forum. The BBC’s own message boards for Radio 3 were closed down in 2013. The Choir forum is heavily dominated by the weekly threads about Choral Evensong. While the Friends of Radio 3 states its aims to be concerned with championing the station and holding it to account in terms of its official remit, the forum’s own aims are more social in nature: ‘The main purpose of this forum is to promote discussion of BBC Radio 3 and its programming.’ 371 This statement contains two important points for understanding the nature of the forum: ‘discussion’ implies a level of communal engagement that is an end in itself; this is not a forum for advice or information. Furthermore, that discussion has a specific focus, which threads such as ‘The Choir’ narrow further; while membership is open to all aged over 16, this statement sends a clear message about the focus and limits of the discussion that members may expect to find and engage in.

The Choral Evensong threads are the only regular item on The Choir forum. Early each week, one of the forum hosts pastes the music list for the Wednesday broadcast from the BBC Radio 3 listings into a new thread. While there are occasionally further messages posted ahead of the broadcast and often a few during it, the majority of the discussion takes place in the hours and days afterwards. Analysis of the 39 threads relating to services broadcast from January to mid-September 2018 shows that on average there are 23 posts per thread, and each thread is viewed on average 1,669 times. 372 This represents a substantial body of listening experiences, actively managed and maintained, and with full details of the listening event itself. Importantly, the very nature of the forum and its systematic organisation by its hosts facilitates and encourages participants to engage in shared listening experiences related to the same event; discrete listening events and the experiences associated with them provide the substance of the forum and its rationale for existence. The detailed consideration of the content of posts to the forum will demonstrate that participants have a wide range of preferences and motivations in choosing to listen to Choral Evensong, but their choice to contribute to the forum indicates a common desire and willingness to share personal listening experiences and engage directly with those submitted by others.

Musical experiences

Many of the listening experiences shared on the forum are predominantly concerned with the musical experience of listening to a particular broadcast, covering the compositional qualities of the repertoire and aspects of the particular performance, including matters of interpretation and technique. Participants also frequently engage with the nature of their listening experience as a radio broadcast, commenting on how aspects of the sound engineering and recording affect their enjoyment of the programme. The attention given to musical matters is unsurprising given both the centrality of music in choral evensong, and the programme’s home on a radio station primarily devoted to broadcasting classical music. Examination of the listening experiences shows that many participants have extensive musical knowledge and experience, and firm preferences and opinions that they are able to articulate clearly, and that their engagement as listeners is deliberate, attentive, and often highly focused. The characteristics of Simon Frith’s category of ‘serious listening’ are frequently evident in the accounts, as well as Adorno’s concept of ‘good listening,’ from which Frith’s concept is developed. 373 Adorno’s emphasis is on the listener taking the musical work seriously, while Frith draws attention to the ways in which listeners take the process of listening seriously. Attention to both is abundantly evident in these experiences; comments on repertoire, interpretation and technique are work-focused, whereas remarks on sound engineering and the individual circumstances of listening make clear that the listening itself is a serious endeavour.

Several comments posted in response to a broadcast from St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on 24 January 2018 exemplify the breadth of focus on the musical experience of listening. One participant expresses their personal dislike of the canticles, S. S. Wesley’s Evening Service in E, to which another responds ‘At least for you, […], they’re using the shortened Nunc Gloria,’ followed immediately by a point of correction from a third participant: ‘This is the Gloria written for the Nunc. The longer version you sometimes hear is interpolated from the rarely heard Jubilate from the Service in E. (I sang on what was believed to be the first recording of this Jubilate).’ 374 Within this short exchange, participants express musical opinions and display detailed knowledge of performance conventions and the compositional background of the repertoire. Later, other contributors challenge the negative view of Wesley’s music, expressing their admiration for this piece and his oeuvre more widely, and noting a trend on the forum to disparage both Wesley’s music and that of Mendelssohn. After further discussion, one contributor comments:

I wouldn’t want to compare Wesley with Mendelssohn! The latter is a world-class composer (many of whose orchestral works I’ve conducted), and as a kid I was blown away by being at a rehearsal of his youthful Octet. Wesley not quite in the same league, methinks. 375

Frith notes that Adorno’s ideas about listening were linked to the perceived quality of the music, but goes on to argue that serious listening is not confined to any particular genre, in part owing to the radio and subsequent technological developments that have allowed listeners to practise serious listening privately, making their own choices of repertoire and listening environment. As well as indicating a variety of listening environments, some forum participants also engage critically with ideas about the quality of a particular work. The comments about Wesley indicate this, as does a reflective comment on a broadcast from Salisbury Cathedral on 1 November 2017: ‘Old story: standard repertoire sung as well as this is worth ten services where the ‘difficult’ is assayed maybe to catch the eye / ear? Today, the standard material was riches enough.’ 376

Similarly, the frequent critical attention paid to the quality of the chanting of the psalms testifies that it is not merely the substantial repertoire items such as the canticles and anthems that are of interest to listeners, but the totality of the musical offering. What emerges is a clear sense of listeners who value excellence in musical performance, have opinions, sometimes strongly expressed, about the merits of particular works and composers, but whose fundamental interest and loyalty is to choral evensong as a complete entity.

Two posts on a broadcast from Merton College, Oxford, on 12 September 2018 are typical of the level of musical detail contained within forum posts. One contributor gives an overview of the whole broadcast, before making more precise comments about individual musical elements:

That was a very well-directed CE with notably excellent diction in the Psalms. The choral sound was perhaps a bit treble-dominated, but that may have been an engineering issue. The Canticles, of the Latvian tendency [Eriks Esenvalds’ Merton College Service], were very well done I thought. (One would hardly guess that Eriks E. had studied with Michael Finnissy and Jonathan Harvey!) If anything, the Brahms (although very tidily sung) was least suited to the choir, needing maybe a little more warmth of tone and sense of line. 377

Another contributor responds by quoting the above post, highlighting the comment about diction in the psalms, and responding with the observation ‘Rather odd pronunciation of ‘people’ (Let the people praise thee …), I thought: brought back ghastly memories of Michael Howard!’ 378 This brief exchange covers aspects of vocal technique, balance, interpretation, and suitability of repertoire in musical terms, indicating that the opportunity to make such observations is part of the appeal of listening and of participating in the forum.

The knowledge and experience of many contributors is especially apparent in the ways in which they connect comments on vocal technique, repertoire, interpretation and other contextual factors. The thread concerning a service broadcast from St Pancras Church, London on 16 May 2018, as part of the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music provoked considerable discussion that demonstrated such interconnectedness. Reactions to the broadcast were mixed, with some participants questioning the value of Choral Evensong’s annual link with the festival. One listener drew particular attention to vocal technique in connection with Judith Bingham’s anthem ‘The morning star fades from the sky’:

as before in this annual relay of this event from St Pancras, I’m afraid it was the vibrato on the top line that absolutely did for me, and possibly the Judith Bingham anthem which needed such uncluttered delivery. I’d love to have heard that sung by a Baltic choir. Oh dear, I’m go[i]ng to get bashed for even thinking it, let alone saying it. 379

Other contributors empathise on the matter of vibrato, though not all report finding it distracting. The anthem itself attracts further comment, including one remark that expresses a positive opinion of it within the broader context of contemporary choral composition:

The Bingham was top notch stuff and sounded to me as if it might be quite readily approachable for cathedral choirs. As a general point, how lovely not to have to endure pieces that were nothing more than a succession of ‘beautiful’, atmospheric chords. Anyone can do that (and I certainly have). Everything here had more substance than that, especially the Bingham. 380

Regarding the use of vibrato, another contributor explains this contextually, showing a broader knowledge of contemporary patterns of employment and engagement in professional church music circles:

As for the soprano sound, that can be explained by the makeup of the choir. There are a lot of singers around in London trained at a music college with opera in mind and trying to make a singing career. Paid church services are a useful source of income for them, and they have a place in an octet at a wealthy church, or get depping gigs. We used to get broadcasts from St Bride’s Fleet St, and occasionally other churches such as St Clement Dane’s, with a choir made up of this sort of singer. It’s a specifically metropolitan phenomenon. 381

This level of musical insight and discussion, covering technical, interpretative, and contextual factors, is a crucial factor in the ongoing flourishing of the forum. Contributors have the experience and vocabulary to articulate their musical experiences in detail and use their knowledge to engage with the opinions of their fellow listeners. Contributions based on such levels of knowledge and experience are commonly found and valued in such special-interest online groups, as noted by Lee and Peterson in a study of alt.country music: ‘one’s standing in the group is maintained by the quality and quantity of one’s written communication. Having wide-ranging information is valued, and those who chime in without having the facts are quickly contradicted.’ 382 While incorrect information is corrected on the Choral Evensong threads, it is equally the case that participants unsure of particular facts ask others for clarification or confirmation.

As noted above, some participants display technical knowledge that extends beyond the repertoire and its performance to matters of sound engineering and broadcasting technology. Extensive discussion of these aspects of the broadcast from St Paul’s Cathedral, referred to above, reveal listeners acutely sensitive to the ways in which their experience is affected by their own listening environment and the choices made in recording and broadcasting. In-depth comments on binaural recording, FM, DAB, stereo, mono, and other factors concerning techniques and equipment reveal not only the depth of knowledge present within the forum, but also the high value participants place on Choral Evensong as a listening experience. One listener, though not using the technical terminology employed in other posts, explicitly links the technical and the musical elements of the listening experience:

At times I felt the sound was doing the aural equivalent of the awful camera swoops that certain producers seem to favour. A non echo passage would suddenly morph into aircraft hangar then lunge back to something smaller scale. I found it disconcerting and distracting, and difficult to tell if what I wasn’t liking too much about the singing was the result of that or the singers. The snippet I heard on my car radio on Wednesday (last section of [S. S. Wesley’s anthem ‘]Ascribe [unto the Lord’]) sounded much better than what I heard at home on Sunday. 383

The depth of musical discussion highlights the importance of engagement with the substance of Choral Evensong for the ongoing life of the forum. The vitality of the listening community will be considered in detail below, but the conscious awareness of the listening environment demonstrated draws attention to the dispersed nature of the community.

Religious experiences

As observed above, the totality of the broadcast is clearly important to forum members. This indicates that they are aware that they are listening to something that, unlike much of Radio 3’s output, is not simply about the performance of music itself, whether live or recorded, but that the music is part of a religious broadcast of a liturgical office. While most comments are focused on some aspect of the musical experience, some other posts nonetheless provide evidence that listeners also engage with broadcasts in religious terms. Posts dealing with religious matters directly tend to demonstrate two distinct types of engagement: liturgical experiences, which share some characteristics of the musical experiences noted above, and spiritual experiences, in which listeners share more personal reactions.

Liturgical experiences, like those of a musical nature, tend to be grounded in the listeners’ knowledge and preferences. The thread concerning a broadcast from Salisbury Cathedral on All Saints’ Day, 1 November 2017, provides two examples.

Figure 2:  Salisbury Cathedral (Source: By Antony McCallum, who is the uploader, photographer, full copyright owner and proprietor of WyrdLight.com – https://www.wyrdlight.com Author: Antony McCallum, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48172236)

One emerges as part of a series of messages bemoaning the truncation of the hymn at the end of the service:

It’s the second week in a row we’ve had a truncated hymn. Last week was post-service editing which left us with just 3 verses of ‘Praise to the Holiest’. And this week ‘For All the Saints’ sounded very odd without its final verse, which alludes to the Doxology. 384

This remark goes beyond frustration at the truncation of part of the service, a frequent complaint on the forum, especially concerning the organ voluntary. It shows awareness of the liturgical inappropriateness of cutting the final stanza of this particular hymn, which in addition to providing a sense of culmination also concludes with a Trinitarian doxological formula, a traditional way of concluding many texts in liturgical contexts:

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, alleluia! 385

The same service included a setting of the Te Deum sung after the anthem, which is not a standard part of the liturgy for choral evensong. One contributor asks ‘Anyone know of the liturgical whys and wherefores of bolting on a Te Deum at the end? High days and holidays?’ 386 In answer, another suggests, ‘I guess it’s in celebration of the glorious company of the Apostles … the goodly fellowship of the Prophets … the noble army of Martyrs … all being Saints, to whom the day is dedicated.’ 387 Another member praises the singing of the Te Deum but expresses liturgical reservations:

The Te Deum was excellent, in my opinion. Exciting, gripping and the ‘piano’ bits were expertly done. I have, however, my reservations towards having a Te Deum whacked on at the end of an evensong, even if Matins isn’t sung as often nowadays. It makes little liturgical sense in my opinion. Again, I’m prepared to be corrected. 388

Later, a more definitive answer is provided by another member, essentially affirming the suggestion previously made:

A Solemn Te Deum may be sung at the end of Mass or the Office, or as a stand-alone service, to mark occasions of particular rejoicing.

An instance of the last may be found in your Book of Common Prayer under ‘Forms of Prayer for Day of Accession’ – the third section, ‘The following Service may also be used on the same day at any convenient time.’ 389

Once again, the discussion is enhanced and sustained by contributions reflecting considered opinion, openness to new insights and reasoning, and informed clarification. Listeners’ familiarity with the liturgical context of the broadcast is a key part in their engagement with the programme in its totality, and not just the musical content.

A thread concerning a broadcast by Royal Holloway Chapel Choir on 8 November 2017 includes several comments indicating that for some listeners, the listening experience has a distinctly spiritual element. One comments, ‘I turned my radio on just as the Ave Maria introit started and was transported far away to another world, which was balm for the soul, where troubles and worldly concerns are left aside for awhile.’ 390 Another remarks, ‘Really enjoyed the anthem, fresh, striking and spiritually uplifting. Only the dull and unfelt intercessions spoilt the hour for me.’ 391

Such comments show another way in which some listeners engage with Choral Evensong; as in the comment about the introit, this spiritual aspect may be closely linked with the type of aesthetic or interpretative musical opinions discussed above.

The comment on the anthem and prayers, meanwhile, reveals both that listeners’ engagement may be on a spiritual level, and that it is not confined to the musical content of the broadcast. A post on a thread relating to a broadcast from Hereford Cathedral addresses the prayers specifically: ‘Liked the strikingly worded prayers too. I don’t often comment on them on these threads, but today, they will have spoken to and for many.’ 392 The remark that ‘I don’t often comment on [the prayers]’ suggests that this is not recognised as one of the main functions of the forum, but that listeners understand, and in some cases appreciate, their inclusion in the broadcasts. More negative reactions to the spiritual content of programmes are also expressed by some contributors. Responding to a thread about a programme entitled Music and Readings for Epiphany that replaced Choral Evensong on 3 January 2018, one listener indicates that the spiritual element is something they prefer not to be overly prominent:

As for today’s ‘broadcast,’ it verged (for my taste anyway) on religiosity; especially inappropriate as it’s not Epiphany yet, and as it was recorded in August. The two ‘Reflections’ (read ‘Sermons’) were IMHO hammering home very trad. Christian dogma. I know that Radio 3’s CE is technically part of the BBC’s religious broadcasting quota, but I don’t think most of us regard it as such. 393

Although one further member expresses agreement with this remark, neither these comments downplaying the spiritual value of the broadcast nor those elsewhere affirming it can be assumed to be representative, as most participants refrain from direct comment on such matters. Moreover, the viewing figures for the forum suggest that many more people read it than contribute posts, which makes any claim about the general views of participants difficult to sustain.

The objections to the more overt spirituality perceived in the Music and Readings for Epiphany broadcast need to be understood in the context of the normative format of Choral Evensong, which is, of course, thoroughly liturgical and, as such, rooted in and expressive of the historic Christian doctrines of the Church of England. Both the content of the liturgy and listeners’ familiarity with it may affect their perceptions of it from a spiritual point of view. The comment about the ‘religiosity’ of the Epiphany broadcast, made by a frequent contributor to the forum, may imply that they do not generally regard Choral Evensong as displaying such characteristics. This may be an important factor in interpreting the popularity of choral evensong in cathedrals and greater churches more broadly, beyond the BBC Radio 3 broadcasts. 394

Midweek services of choral evensong were identified as an area of numerical growth in a 2013 report published by the Centre for Church Growth Research, Durham University. The report highlights responses from worshippers at several cathedrals that stressed the importance of the musical style, quality and professionalism found in worship; the authors summarised that ‘Not only was Choral Evensong listed as growing; it was identified as the most consistently well-attended weekday service in nearly half of the cathedrals in our survey. This enthusiasm reflects the popularity of cathedral music.’ 395 Aside from the style and professionalism of the music, and the liturgy more generally, the particular nature of congregational engagement may also contribute to the growth and popularity of choral evensong. Beyond the recitation of the creed and any congregational hymns, attendees largely participate by listening to the words and music spoken and sung by the clergy and choir. In an interview with author Jonathan Arnold on performing sacred music, organist and choral director Stephen Farr reflects on congregational engagement in choral evensong:

I’ve heard it expressed by several people that one of the reasons why Choral Evensong and cathedrals are, in a sense, thriving is because they allow people to choose the degree in which they want to engage with the worship and if they do want to just sit in the back and listen to it then it’s a framework in which they can just be, have some space … I think that’s why a lot of people are drawn to cathedral, formal, worship more than they might be to other forms. That idea of being able to keep at an arm’s length but being able to approach as close as you want to is, for some people, what they need and who’s to say that that’s better or worse? 396

Listening to Choral Evensong enables a further degree of detachment between the listener and the spiritual content of the worship, while engagement with the online forum allows a different form of participation and interaction. The negative reactions to the Epiphany broadcast indicate that some listeners favour the type of arm’s length engagement, at least with regard to overtly spiritual content, to which Farr refers. The level of discussion about the music, however, shows that, in other ways, listeners are deeply engaged, not just on aesthetic matters of musical interpretation, but also on the music’s role and suitability within the liturgy as a whole. Arnold makes an implicit link between the musical nature of choral evensong and some congregants’ desire to engage in a very private way:

With the resources at their disposal cathedral chapters are able to offer a high standard of spiritual worship, within the context of beautiful architecture and with sublime music. If one wishes, one can attend a service at any cathedral in Britain with relative anonymity without fear of being coerced into joining a church group or rota. 397

Participation in the forum acknowledges some level of engagement with a religious broadcast, which, for some listeners, goes beyond a solely musical experience. The online nature of the forum, however, enables participants to retain the anonymity to which Arnold refers by choosing a pseudonymous avatar rather than revealing their own name. This practice, common in internet forums, gives participants an additional element of control over the ways in which they share information, opinions and ideas with fellow members. Using an alternative identity allows participants to remain somewhat distant from one another, which may suit well those disinclined to comment on more spiritual matters, or indeed resistant to them. Other members, however, use names that appear to be their own, so this cannot be regarded as a general principle among the membership. More generally, though, the infrequency of comments describing spiritual experiences may be seen as reflecting something of the perceived appeal of choral evensong more broadly by those attempting to interpret growth in attendance at cathedrals. The quality of the musical performance within the liturgy is obviously of considerable value to forum members, and provides the main stimulus for discussion. Similarly, just as the liturgy itself, with its regular structure and content, does not demand visibly active participation from congregation members, so too its familiarity and regularity means that it does not require extensive debate or discussion on the forum.

The varied means of engagement with choral evensong were highlighted by the Bishop of Chelmsford in an address to the National Cathedrals Conference in September 2018; the bishop urged cathedrals to respect worshippers’ privacy, arguing that this was a positive element of services such as choral evensong. 398 Similarly, the relatively small amount of spiritual content on the forum does not necessarily indicate that participants are not engaging with broadcasts in this way. For some, the combination of remote listening and the forum’s dispersed and partly-anonymised membership may provide an appealing way of keeping spiritual or devotional aspects largely private while still enjoying the opportunity for interaction.

A listening community

By sharing their listening experiences on the forum, members are voluntarily participating in a community of listeners. As illustrated above, members of the community have different musical tastes and opinions and differing attitudes towards liturgical and spiritual matters, but are connected by their appreciation of Choral Evensong and the enjoyment of discussing broadcasts with each other. The persistence of the forum in the era of social media sites highlights the importance of both the object of discussion and the discussion itself for members. While the shared interest in Choral Evensong is the obvious common factor among all members, the continued activity on the forum despite the development of social media sites such as Facebook is striking. While this may reflect preferences on the parts of users, the nature of the topic is also significant. Although Facebook does enable conversation and discussion between strangers on topics of mutual interest, it is predicated on the concept of ‘friends,’ and thus most connections made are between people known to each other offline. Boundaries are less clearly delineated than on the forum, and usage for topic-based debate is therefore often less intentional. In many ways, the forum exhibits the qualities of the earliest generation of online communities: ‘This first generation of virtual communities was, for the most part, built upon people encountering one another for the first time in an online context that grouped people by interest, not geography.’ 399 While special-interest groups abound on Facebook, including the Choral Evensong Appreciation Society, the key difference is that The Choir forum is dedicated solely to discussion of choral music broadcast on BBC Radio 3, whereas Facebook gathers together multiple different strands of users’ lives in one site. Although the Facebook group is occasionally mentioned within the forum, it does not have the same narrow focus; while there is often some discussion of Choral Evensong, it also includes many posts from members promoting services being sung by their own choirs. The forum, as a distinct entity, demands conscious engagement from participants; as they are acutely aware of their listening environments, so too the deliberate act of logging on to the forum focuses their attention on the listening experience to the exclusion of other considerations.

The nature of the community established on the forum shares characteristics with other online special-interest communities, including faith communities, and fan communities more broadly. The content of the listening experiences, the interaction between participants, and their obvious commitment to both Choral Evensong and the forum itself are all important elements in understanding the ways in which the listening community functions and the value placed upon it by its members.

As noted earlier, the forum and these particular threads devoted to Choral Evensong use self-definition to create a community based on shared interests. While participants’ activity varies in its intensity, the weekly threads bear witness to a core group of listeners who typically share their experiences following each broadcast, and engage in detail with each other’s comments. The willingness and desire of members to keep contributing to the forum is essential for its ongoing existence, and demonstrates their commitment to it as part of the totality of the listening experience. Nancy Baym’s observations of an online group of soap opera fans also applies to the behaviour and attitudes of forum participants: ‘The community of r.a.t.s. is founded in more than “the experience of shared pleasure”; it is in part a group identity constructed through ongoing communicative practices.’ 400 By asking questions and expressing and debating opinions, forum contributors can find their listening experiences enriched, either through enhancing their knowledge, or having their reactions shaped by other participants. For example, one member initially described Basil Harwood’s anthem ‘O how glorious is the kingdom’ as ‘instantly forgettable,’ but following a positive response to it from another contributor, went on to post that ‘I’m going to listen again on the strength of some of your comments.’ Some hours later, the same listener posted the following:

If I may recant somewhat on the steps of the scaffold, having had another listen this afternoon, I do take back some of what I said about the Harwood anthem – it’s a better piece than I gave it credit for first time around. It opens very well, especially on the organ, and then when the choir come in. Old Basil was well advised to bring this material back later in the piece, because around the middle it does seem to me to sag into less interesting material, which I suspect my attention was on first time through. Worth an airing though, so I would modify my intemperate initial judgement. 401

This kind of extended listening experience, in which opinions are shared, challenged, and modified, is made possible by the forum. The listening context may vary considerably from listener to listener, and may well not facilitate such debate by itself, whereas the forum draws together different reactions and ideas in stimulating ways. As Mark Duffett observes, albeit in relation to a different medium and genre, the growth of online communication has had profound effect on fan culture: ‘When people used online discussion boards alongside their television viewing, technologies of convergence enabled communal rather than individualistic modes of reception.’ 402

In the above example, the listener’s reaction to Harwood’s anthem is shaped by another member’s post, which itself begins from a position of scepticism, but reaches a different conclusion:

Having never [heard?] the Harwood, I was pleasantly surprised! Never been the biggest fan of Basil’s works, but this did keep my attention for the most part. Also a welcome rendition of the English words of the ancient antiphon, rather than the more common ‘O Quam Gloriosum’. 403

This conforms to Duffett’s observation that shared online experience ‘enables people to understand what they see or hear through novel frames of references and sets in train a productive multiplication of perspectives.’ 404 This process is also an example of the type of interactivity that Rafaeli and Sudweeks identify as important in prompting continued engagement with an online forum. They describe interactivity as an ‘iterative process’ that involves both speaking and listening, which, in online forum terms is demonstrated by direct engagement with a previous post in the thread. 405 This is precisely how the change of opinion has come about in this case, and it is a mark of the forum more generally; opinions are posted in the knowledge that they will not necessarily be uniformly shared by all members, but rather that they will be taken seriously as material for debate, discussion, and reflection.

The listening community has also established its own boundaries. In part, these are shared across the whole of The New Radio 3 Forum, as set out in the ‘House Rules,’ which provide a code of conduct concerning the tone of discussions and indications of what is considered suitable for discussion. Boundaries are also established informally within The Choir forum, however. In response to a light-hearted debate about the merits of particular composers, in which several participants made use of football-related metaphors, one of the forum’s hosts expresses disapproval: ‘Disappointed that experienced posters on The Choir threads have turned this one into silliness.’ 406 The discussion thereafter reverts to more direct discussion of the broadcast in the usual manner, indicating that participants respect the forum’s central purpose and acknowledge the shared value derived from it.

The high regard participants have for the forum is an extension of the value they place on the weekly broadcasts of Choral Evensong. While they are sometimes critical of repertoire choices or matters of interpretation and performance, this is typically expressed within the broader context of appreciation for and loyalty to both the programme and the ongoing work of the choral foundations whose services are broadcast. This loyalty to the programme is sometimes revealed in statements of frustration and anxiety at disruptions to the broadcasts, irregular programmes within the schedule, and the use of pre-recorded services in place of live broadcasts. As noted above, members resent truncation of elements such as the hymn or the concluding organ voluntary, revealing the importance they attach to hearing the service in its entirety.

Occasional broadcasts that depart from the usual liturgy of choral evensong meet with mixed reactions. While irregular liturgies such as the Epiphany service mentioned above attract some criticism, the regular choral liturgies of other Christian traditions are often met with approval. For example, a broadcast of The Office of Tenebrae for Holy Week from Westminster Cathedral in March 2018 received considerable praise for both the repertoire and its performance, as illustrated by one contributor’s effusive post: ‘Wow. Thrilling, passionate singing, plus suberb [sic] unobtrusive engineering. A fitting offering for the season plus last Sunday’s Holy Week programming. Radio 3 has come up with the goods this week and can (almost) be forgiven the repeats.’ 407 By contrast, a broadcast of Vespers from Montserrat Abbey attracted considerable criticism for not using the Abbey’s own choir and for the way in which Anglican elements were interpolated within the liturgy:

Montserrat Abbey has a very fine 1000+ yr old tradition in its own right / rite, has fine idiomatic and at times idiosyncratic monastic chanting, and a globally famous men and boys choir, so to have this awkward Anglican-flavoured mish-mash foisted [?] to celebrate the day became almost a parody. 408

The remark about repeated broadcasts in the above example concerning the Tenebrae service exemplifies the most consistent negative reaction on the forum. Live broadcasts are valued and expected, and the distinction between these and repeats of recorded services is often actively highlighted by the forum host starting the thread each week. While members still engage with the musical content of repeated services in the ways described above, they do so alongside expressions of dissatisfaction and anxiety that repeats are being scheduled more frequently. This sometimes leads to expressions of concern that Choral Evensong, or at least the continuation of live broadcasts, is not a high priority for those responsible for BBC Radio 3’s programming; summarising a post about a live broadcast from Salisbury Cathedral, one contributor commented ‘Overall a great service, and just shows on what BBC3 will be missing out when they cut out Live services …’. 409 The high value placed on live broadcasts is separate from that placed on high standards of performance, which may be found in live and repeated services. Rather, it suggests that the listening community considers it important that Choral Evensong continues to represent the living musical and liturgical tradition maintained in cathedrals, churches, and chapels. Such a view might be motivated simply by the desire to continue having new broadcasts to hear and discuss, but, given listeners’ attitudes towards Choral Evensong as a broadcast liturgy rather than simply a musical performance, for some, it may also have devotional or spiritual motivation.

Heidi Campbell’s study of online Christian communities offers several useful parallels for understanding the nature of the Choral Evensong forum threads, including listeners’ attitudes to live broadcasts. She notes that, for many, participation in online church communities served as a supplement to their participation in an offline church, but for others, the experience was a substitute for offline engagement. Her work identifies three basic reasons people articulated for the latter: ‘being unable to locate churches that would accept them; being unable to find a church that could provide the teaching or interaction they wanted; and being unable to overcome previous negative church experiences.’ 410 The importance listeners attach to live broadcasts may, in part, reflect the decline in services of choral evensong in parish churches over recent decades. Depending on their location or situation, listeners may be unable to attend such services in person, so listening to live broadcasts provides a way of continuing to participate in a valued tradition, whether for aesthetic, liturgical, or devotional reasons.

Similarly, Campbell discovered that many participants in online religious communities found aspects of value in their online interactions that they could not easily replicable offline, including having their personal contributions valued by other members, and being able to engage in deeper communication. 411 Understood in this way, the forum’s sustained popularity may indicate that it provides participants with access to a community like-minded in its musical and liturgical preferences that is not so readily found in physically-located parish churches, given both the diminished provision of choral evensong and the associated decline in the number of parishes maintaining a choir.

Conclusion

The weekly threads of The New Radio 3 Forum dedicated to discussion of Choral Evensong are a rich source of listening experiences from a body of knowledgeable, opinionated, and committed listeners. Listeners’ knowledge and experience manifests itself in the detailed levels of musical and liturgical discussion frequently found within the forum. While their musical and religious attitudes and preferences may vary considerably, participants share a commitment to the programme and the perpetuation of the choral and liturgical tradition its live broadcasts represent. This commitment overrides differences of opinion and taste; such differences are in fact embraced and encouraged as a way of furthering discussions. The willingness of participants to make such detailed postings and to engage with one another’s contrasting views and interpretations points to the importance of the forum as a listening community.

The forum’s online existence is crucial in attracting a large body of like-minded listeners, while also enabling those listeners to manage their identity and participation individually. In common with other special-interest online groups, the quality and quantity of discussion is key to its ongoing success; members are drawn back in the expectation of finding stimulating points for discussion, and by contributing to that discussion, especially if they do so frequently, help to ensure its perpetuation. These forum threads are founded on and sustained by the sharing of listening experiences that bind together a dispersed virtual community of listeners. While individual listeners may be motivated to differing degrees by a combination of musical, liturgical, and spiritual factors, they are united by a common ability, willingness, and commitment to share and debate listening experiences that are technically detailed, contextually rich, and dialogically engaging. The listening experiences are intentionally expressed in ways that will stimulate the community of listeners, participation in which itself extends and enriches the experience of listening.

Select bibliography

Arnold, Jonathan. Sacred Music in Secular Society. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.

Baym, Nancy K. Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000.

Bennett, Andy and Peterson, Richard A. (eds). Music Scenes: Local, Translocal, and Virtual. Nashville, TN: Vanderbildt University Press, 2004.

Campbell, Heidi. Exploring Religious Community Online: We are One in the Network. New York: Peter Lang, 2005.

Ellison, Nicole B. and Boyd, Danah M. ‘Sociality Through Social Network Sites.’ In The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies, edited by William H. Dutton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199589074.001.0001.

The New Radio 3 Forum. ‘The Choir’, http://www.for3.org/forums/forumdisplay.php?40-The-Choir, accessed 28 September 2018.

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Download: ‘O Lord, open thou our lips’: listeners’ experiences of BBC Radio 3’s Choral Evensong on The New Radio 3 Forum
Listening and digital technologies

#areyoulistening: mining social media to collate people’s listening experiences

Simon Brown

Simon Brown is a Research Associate at the Royal College of Music working on the Listening Experience Database (LED) project, an Associate Lecturer with The Open University, and teaches Music Technology, Sound and Audio Theory at the Confetti Institute of Creative Technologies, which is part of Nottingham Trent University. He has recently submitted his PhD in Music at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire on Benjamin Britten’s performance annotations in his Mozart scores.

Abstract

The advent of social media is one of the iconoclastic events in communication. The content is opinionated and often (apparently) trivial and imitative, and is therefore regarded by many as ephemeral. But where people might once have written a letter or kept a private diary to record their response to a piece of music, many are now turning to social media to share their thoughts and opinions about what they have experienced in a more immediate and open forum.

Different social media platforms offer different types of evidence. Whilst some enable the listener to engage and interact with the music more directly (such as YouTube and SoundCloud), other platforms allow the user simply to leave their own response or to engage in a discussion with other listeners (such as on Twitter, Facebook or a discussion forum), but there is a multitude of other data that is often connected to these responses. One of the challenges is to identify source data (for example, based on specific hashtags or surrounding an event) and to build a collection of that data for further analysis.

This chapter will address how we might develop a methodology for the mining and analysis of social media as primary source material for responses to music. It will consider the impact these various social media platforms might have on the way the listening experience is being captured.

Introduction

One of the objectives of the Listening Experience Database (LED) project is to develop a methodology for the mining and analysis of social media as primary source material for responses to music. The challenges are to identify source data (for example, based on specific hashtags, music or events) and to build a collection of that data from sources such as blogs, Twitter and other social media platforms for further analysis. Developing a methodology will offer a means of understanding what is potentially a rich primary source for people’s listening experiences.

Before considering how listening experiences might be captured via such platforms, it is worth considering the factors to be considered in approaching this type of source material. Due to the large volume of material available from any given platform, the first consideration is to define what, precisely, is to be examined in order to provide a manageable focus for the study. For instance, we might decide to investigate comments or online conversations surrounding an artist, performer or composer; alternatively, we might focus on the musical work such as a song, album, or a specific performance or recording; or we could choose to focus on a particular venue, location, event or topic. All of these will inevitably yield different results and there will often be overlaps between many of them, but any one of them offers a starting point, at least, for this large dataset.

The challenge here is to filter these accounts sufficiently to avoid large amounts of ‘noise’ or semantically poor results, and to focus the search on accounts of experiences that support the research questions or topics being addressed. In this chapter my research questions are twofold: firstly, how might we mine and subsequently analyse evidence of people’s responses to live music on social media platforms; and secondly, how useful is social media data as a primary source for listening experiences? There is an incongruity here, in the sense that on the one hand the material is ‘born-digital’, 412 making it easier to mine and analyse (particularly in comparison with older texts that might need to undergo a digitisation process); but on the other hand, its quality as evidence might be questioned, as it is often ephemeral, imitative and therefore regarded by some as trivial.

Microblogging

For the purpose of this chapter, I will focus on microblogs. According to Kaplan and Haenlein (2011), a microblog is commonly understood as being typically smaller than a traditional blog (in terms of both content and file size), ‘allow[ing] users to exchange small elements of content such as short sentences, individual images, or video links’. 413 It is worth considering the elements of a microblog, and in this chapter I shall focus on two of the most commonly used platforms, Twitter and Facebook, because of the wealth of data that can be extracted from them. 414 But many of the elements that make up a Tweet are consistent across other social media platforms.

In any given Tweet there will be several elements, or what I shall refer to as dimensions, including: the text, a URL to external content, mentions of other Twitter users or accounts using the ‘@’ symbol, and hashtags that are often used to exemplify the emotion or sentiment being expressed or to alert other members of the Twitter community to a particular topic or item of interest. These dimensions that form the content of a Tweet can (and usually do) occur in any order.

In 2017, Twitter increased the number of characters that are permitted in each Tweet from 140 to 280. For the purpose of analysing listening experiences, we might assume that focusing on the textual evidence within a microblog would yield the most interesting results, and that longer microblogs might be more informative, as more text might provide more information, but this is not necessarily the case. According to Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, ‘the expanded tweet length hasn’t actually changed the length of messages people are sending out—but it has led to more engagement’. 415 By ‘engagement’, Dorsey is presumably referring to the fact that, during the pilot at least, people who were able to Tweet with the longer character count found they received more Likes, Retweets and @mentions, but also gained more followers and spent more time on Twitter. Twitter published further evidence of this in a series of blog posts. 416 Furthermore, due to the still relatively tight restrictions on Twitter’s character count, there is an argument that Tweets tend to be highly relevant, with a focused use of language.

Social media posts are often rich in personal listening accounts, but some are more informative than others. So how might we differentiate between them? How might we deal with spam or uninformative microblogs, where a person writes a string of words such as ‘love love love’, for instance, which will have an impact on the analysis of term frequency? There is evidence that the order in which the dimensions (as described above) are presented in a microblog matters and is connected with the informativeness or relevance. 417 Examining the order of these dimensions can assist in finding more informative microblogs during searches or when filtering the live stream. There is also an issue about repetitiveness in Tweets, particularly where people Retweet one another’s posts, which can affect the results and often ceases to be informative.

There are several platforms available that allow the interaction with Twitter data, including online tools that capture or monitor the live stream, and both free and paid-for services are now commonplace. Depending on the requirements, many offer a similar feature, that is, the ability to capture large portions of data given a specific search criterion.

Methodology for the mining of social media data

The Chorus Software Suite was developed by Dr Timothy Cribbin at the Department of Computer Science, Brunel University, and Professor Julie Barnett and Dr Phillip Brooker at the Department of Psychology, University of Bath. 418

Chorus Tweet-Catcher (Desktop Edition)

The Chorus package comprises two distinct programs. Firstly, Tweet-Catcher uses the Twitter API and allows users to mine the Twitter archive for relevant data in two distinct ways. According to Brooker, this can either be achieved by:

topical keywords appearing in Twitter conversations (i.e. semantically-driven data) or by identifying a network of Twitter users and following their daily ‘Twitter lives’ (i.e. user-driven data). 419

Depending on the search criteria, the results of this facility can provide large datasets that are rich in detail and include various metadata associated with either the Tweet or Twitter user.

Some of the metadata fields tend to be more populated than others (as highlighted in the User Manual by the Chorus Project Team, the GeoCordinates, for instance, are rarely disclosed by the Twitter user and are therefore usually blank, and the sentiment analysis score relies on the user of the software suite having Java installed, otherwise it will result in a score of zero). What is useful, for the purposes of collating and analysing listening experiences, is that it enables us to scale the dataset up or down. In other words, the software allows the user to ‘drill’ down into individual or small collections of microblogs over a very short time span, but also to see how these fit within the wider context of relevant Twitter conversations that surround them.

Chorus-TV (TweetVis)

The second component of the Chorus Suite is Chorus-TV (or TweetVis).

figure 1
Figure 1: Chorus-TV (TweetVis) displaying 2,545 Tweets between 20 February 2018 and 2 March 2018 that mention the string ‘paulwellerHQ’, which is a visual analytic suite for facilitating both quantitative and qualitative approaches to social media data.

As Brooker suggests, the visual analytics approach is highly relevant to our aims, ‘enabling exploratory analysis of social media data in an intuitive and user-friendly fashion’. 420 The results of the mining process feed back in to the methodology in an iterative way, allowing the user to explore what the data reveals, rather than approaching it with a specific research question in mind.

It is not necessary to go into a detailed explanation of what each facility of the software does 421 but the Time-Line view essentially provides the high-level narrative of Twitter activity over the course of the study period. With reference to the figure above, the features that are of most interest here are as follows:

  • The two grey bar-charts detail the tweet count (light grey) and tweet-with-link (URL) count (dark grey) for each interval.
  • Each of the grey bars represents an hour’s worth of Twitter activity for the search term.
  • Each interval (column) can be thought of as a ‘super-tweet’ wherein the value of each cell represents the proportion of tweets in that interval containing that term.
  • The red and yellow line graphs represent novelty and homogeneity measures respectively, showing shifts in topic over time. Hence, each point on the red line is a measure of the dissimilarity in word frequency profile between that interval and other surrounding intervals. Similarly, each point on the yellow line is a measure of the similarity in word frequency profile between that interval and other surrounding intervals. 422

The Term Statistics window on the right-hand side lists various term frequencies such as words, hashtags and usernames amongst others:

  • DF refers to Document Frequency, or the number of Tweets in which the term appears.
  • GI refers to Global Incidence, or the total number of times the term appears within the dataset.
  • FI refers to First Interval, or the first interval in which the term appears.
  • LI refers to Last Interval, or the last interval in which the term appears.
  • Dur refers to Duration, or the difference between the first and last intervals in which the term appears.

Using the Chorus software to capture a dataset, which is focused on a Twitter username or hashtag (or both), the Time-Line view and Term Statistics window assist in the exploration of what the dataset reveals. This can include analysis of how the Twitter activity evolves over time, and/or word frequency and term statistics as outlined above. For the purpose of this chapter, the software enabled the study of how listeners responded on Twitter to a series of live performances by a well-established musician.

Case-study: paulwellerHQ

In order to demonstrate the application of the Chorus software, I shall use the English singer/songwriter and musician, Paul Weller (b. 1958), who first came to prominence with the punk rock/mod revival band, The Jam, between 1976 and 1982 and The Style Council between 1983 and 1989, before establishing his solo career in 1991. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, Weller is an international artist with a fan-base of over 145,000 followers on Twitter and over 467,000 Likes on Facebook. This affords the opportunity to work with different scales of data should we wish, from the individual microblog to larger datasets of word lists using n-grams, and so on; but, also, it allows us to examine a sample of online primary source material for responses to the music of a specific musician, during a live event at a specific venue, across a short time frame. By the beginning of 2018, Weller was coming to the end of an extensive world tour that took in Australia, Japan, Canada and the United States, Europe and many cities throughout the UK. In order to provide a more detailed analysis of the evidence I shall focus on the last leg of this tour, with his performances in Leeds, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Glasgow, and Nottingham in particular.

Firstly, as a point of comparison to the social media data that I shall later refer to, it is useful to consider the only published review of the concert on 27 February 2018, from the Nottingham Evening Post. It discusses Weller’s history, the set list, his persona on stage and some audience reaction, but overall it is not particularly enthusiastic:

As arena shows go, the roof remains on. But Weller holds attention throughout. Seldom addressing the crowd, he speaks most when signing-off to thank them for listening and for supporting him and his music for the past 40 years. 423

It concludes that:

His career is actually more of an art installation. And he’s in his ‘unmade bed’ phase. By definition it’s not for everyone. But it remains interesting. Different to the point of challenging. And more than anything; king-sized. 424

There are two reactions to this article in the comments section of the Evening Post website. The first reads:

Average at best shud [sic] stick to smaller venues to create a better atmosphere. Unlike noel gallagher who’s plying [sic] there soon who really blows the roof off. can’t wait. [sic] 425

The mention of Noel Gallagher (the singer/songwriter from the band Oasis) is interesting as the comment comes a day after an increase in Twitter conversations following an attack on Weller by Noel’s brother, Liam Gallagher, as reported in the Evening Standard. 426

The controversy, amongst some of Weller’s Twitter fans at least, was that he would be supporting Noel Gallagher at the 2018 Downs Festival in Bristol. Weller fans took to Twitter to express their anger at Noel Gallagher being given the headline slot. In fact, the relationship between Weller and Noel Gallagher, as documented in a recent interview with NME, 427 is one of mutual admiration and ongoing collaboration.

The second comment on the Evening Post article is more favourable:

Weller was on top form, problem is too many turn up just wanting to hear Jam songs and not interested in what Weller is doing at present. Go see Foxton if its Jam songs only you want to hear. For me after first seeing Weller in 83, last night was him sounding better than he ever has. 428

The mention of ‘Foxton’ relates to the bassist, Bruce Foxton, of The Jam, and it implies that there may have been a sense of negativity amongst some members of the audience wanting to hear more of Weller’s repertoire from his earlier years with The Jam. Further evidence of this will be found in the audience’s testimony.

Twitter data/comments

Using the Chorus software, a search was performed for Tweets from 20 February to 2 March 2018 that mention ‘paulwellerHQ’. This captured both the hashtag ‘#paulwellerHQ’ and Weller’s official Twitter account, ‘@paulwellerHQ’. This date range enables us to view the Twitter conversation during the days before and after this leg of the tour. It is interesting to capture listening experiences during the concert and to compare these in the days immediately before and after the event, so that we can understand how the content of the Tweets evolves. The search returned 4,705 results. This might sound like a substantial dataset but having removed the Retweets (2,160), which rarely contain anything of additional value in terms of listening experiences, it resulted in a dataset of 2,545 tweets. Of course, many of these were not related to the live concerts within the UK but were part of a wider community of Twitter users discussing Weller in more general terms. Returning briefly to the Term Statistics window in the figure above, it is apparent that some of the highest word frequencies amongst the dataset at a specific time include Weller’s name (as expected), the cities where he is currently performing, as well as adjectives such as ‘great’, ‘good’ and ‘brilliant’. The Term Statistics window also enables the data to be sorted by frequency of mentions, users, hashtags or links (URLs).

The concert at Nottingham Arena began at 19:30 with support by The Strypes and there is evidence that people took to Twitter to share the fact that they were at the event; we can see several comments where people were ‘waiting for the main man’ or ‘perfect Tuesday evening. [Nottingham] Motorpoint [Arena] to see @paulwellerHQ’. Others address their message directly to Weller, for example, ‘On our way to see you later. [sic] Also really looking forward to seeing @TheStrypes again too! Top night in prospect’.

From approximately 20:00 to 21:00 (during the start of Weller’s performance), there are no Tweets that relate specifically to the concert, with the frequency increasing as the night proceeds. This raises the question as to whether this is normal behaviour at a concert; as the artist begins their set, are people more inclined to focus on the performance (ignoring their smartphones), but turn their focus to recording their experience (or at the very least, sharing the fact that they are there, witnessing it live) as the gig progresses?

There is evidence of this if we look at the next interval of data from 21:00 to 22:00. At 21:15 there is the first recorded reaction, which simply reads ‘great show with @paulwellerHQ’ and the next at 21:41 reads ‘Paul’s on fire tonight, brilliant night in Nottingham’. But at 21:50 there is a noticeable change in the style of Tweets as people begin to include other hashtags or images. For instance, one listener writes ‘An evening with Paul Weller @chris[…] @paulwellerHQ @nottinghamarena #WellerLive’ and includes a photo of the tour programme. From the Twitter usernames, it is apparent that the listener is tagging their relative but also Weller’s Twitter account (despite the fact they have already mentioned him by name in the text). By including Weller’s Twitter username and the hashtag ‘#WellerLive’, which the artist often uses himself when discussing live shows over Twitter, they are both reaching out to the artist (presumably in the hope that Weller will at least see their response at some stage, or perhaps even respond directly to them, which incidentally, he is known to do quite frequently) but also highlighting to the rest of the Twitter community that they are in attendance. They also include the ‘@nottinghamarena’ Twitter account as a means to highlight where they are at that particular time, but also (presumably) to widen their reach to other followers or to the arena itself, which is likely to have many more followers than the individual currently has (at the time of writing, in March 2018, the listener has just 20 followers as opposed to the Arena’s 106,000).

As the concert draws to a close, there are a few more Tweets, such as at 22:29: ‘Awesome!! Nothing else to say!! @paulwellerHQ @BENGORDELIER Nottingham rocked!!! Thank you!!’, which includes a photo of the performers. Ben Gordelier is Weller’s drummer on the tour, and the fact that listeners can have this level of connectivity beyond Weller himself, with individual performers within the band is further testament to the immediacy (and, arguably, part of the attraction) of Twitter. Before the advent of social media, listeners at such events have rarely had this level of connectivity with the performers. Likewise, performers have rarely been in a position to receive such immediate and raw feedback on such a large scale.

Weller ends the concert with one of his best known hits from The Jam era, which is acknowledged in a Tweet at [22:53] ‘Town called Malice @paulwellerHQ @nottinghamarena #Class’ along with a video of the performance taken on their phone. The remaining Tweets from that evening all share the same positive sentiment and there is an increase in activity as people continue to record their experience immediately after the concert, including:

[23:09] @paulwellerHQ on top form in Notts. English Rose was my pick.

[23:21] What an amazing night watching the @paulwellerHQ band – got a wonderful programme with shit hot photographs and husband done some filming – thankyou very much

[23:30] Great night at @paulwellerHQ with the wifey

[23:50] Words cannot describe the performance by @paulwellerHQ at the @nottinghamarena tonight but phenomenal comes close! What a night! #PaulWeller #Notts #gigs #livemusic #singersongwriter

[23:54] Weller tonight in Nottingham #Legend @paulwellerHQ @HannahKCWeller [Hannah Weller is the musician’s wife]

[23:55] @paulwellerHQ just got home from Paul Weller Notts gig me and my son loved it thank you

What is striking about these is just how consistent the positive sentiment is. In comparison to the review from the Nottingham Evening Post critic (and the subsequent comment left by the Noel Gallagher fan, who is not entirely explicit as to whether they even attended the concert themselves or whether they are just offering their opinion), there is evidence that some of the audience appear to prefer Weller’s older (and therefore, presumably, more familiar) material. This is apparent from the mention of some of Weller’s more popular songs throughout the Tweets. But there does not appear to be any negative sentiment being expressed via these Tweets that replicate the critic’s suggestion that the ‘roof remain[ed] on’. 429 Of course, these listening accounts might simply be evidence of a captive audience of Weller fans who were bound to be positive. But it might also suggest evidence that the professional critic’s view is not necessarily the same as the fan/listener experience.

Of further interest is the behavioural pattern that emerged from the Nottingham concert, which is replicated across the other three dates in Leeds, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and Glasgow. The Twitter conversations begin with the anticipation of the show (as we might expect), but are then followed by silence (or very little Twitter activity) during the start of the performance, followed by an increase in Tweets and an expansion of the hashtags, usernames, posted photos and videos that are included in the Tweets. This trend continues into the next day although the inclusion of hashtags and relevant mentions of geographic Twitter accounts (such as @nottinghamarena) tends to trail off, which potentially highlights the importance of the time-sensitive content within the medium that people are using. Indeed, one of the attractions of posting a Tweet is that it allows users to divulge where they are at any given time (as reflected by the inclusion of geographic accounts or particular events with the use of a hashtag). In other words, it enables listeners to demonstrate the immediacy of their connection with the music – it is a way of declaring that they are actually there, listening to it live. But as time passes, the inclusion of such geographic accounts and hashtags is seemingly less relevant to users and is therefore often omitted. So how does this compare with experiences recorded on Facebook?

Facebook data/comments

One of the issues with collating microblogs of listening experiences from Facebook is that users can restrict who can see their posts. Depending on their privacy settings, this often means that only the people that they are connected with can see what they have posted. Therefore we should be cautious about drawing any firm conclusions from the data as we might only be relying on a small subset rather than the whole picture. That said, there are similarities to what was observed on Twitter in terms of the type of evidence being recorded throughout the different stages of the event.

As with Twitter, there are the usual posts before the performance written in anticipation of the event, where people are posting status updates describing how they are waiting for Weller to appear, or showing that they are at the concert by tagging the venue in their post. With regards to the Nottingham date, of the 33 posts that were visible, only five were posted during the concert, the majority (eighteen) were posted prior to the event, either late in the afternoon or immediately before (many mentioning having a meal or drinks prior to attending the concert), ten were posted either immediately after the gig had ended or the following day, and some of the discussions continued over the ensuing couple of days.

The five comments recorded on Facebook whilst the Nottingham concert took place offer little in terms of textual evidence. The first was posted at 20:34 and is a photograph of Weller and his band taken from within the crowd, accompanied by the brief statement ‘The arena Sir Paul Weller’ and the listener had tagged Weller in their post.

At 20:50 one listener is ‘feeling fabulous at Motorpoint Arena’ and states:

Here again this time for the legend that is Paul Weller xxx amazeballs.

As we saw with Twitter, the listener has tagged the venue here (commonly known as a ‘check-in’ on Facebook, as this records the user’s history of places they have frequented), which is further evidence of listeners demonstrating the immediacy of their connection with the music by acknowledging they were there. This is followed by another listener’s post at 20:52, observing ‘Motorpoint arena packed for paul weller’ (and again, the artist has been tagged). The next post tells us more about the listener’s levels of intoxication, rather than their listening experience. At 21:04 they write:

Me, kitchen Dave and Paul Weller [tagged] getting pissed!

In this post, the listener has chosen to comment on the Facebook event, which already has Weller and the venue tagged, but the listener has subsequently tagged Weller a second time within their text. And the final post at 21:42 is another photograph/selfie with their partner (presumably), and they simply tag Weller in it.

The comments that follow, after the concert has ended, appear to provide slightly more detail as people engage in more of a conversation. One listener writes immediately after the concert:

Well…Paul Weller [tagged] was epic!!

Once in a lifetime experience. Bloody smashed it lad

In response, one of his ‘friends’ comments the day after:

He’s hit n miss [sic] I think, sometimes he’s class and sometimes he looks like he can’t be arsed!

The original listener responds:

He was on it the other night though, you missed a good set mate. The new stuff not that fussed with but the classics.

This listener finishes their comment with the ‘OK Hand’ emoji.

And finally, posted the morning after the gig, another listener writes:

Blown away by Paul Weller [tagged] and his amazing musicians fabulous concert real talent

In response to someone’s comment that:

You are never disappointed with a Weller concert hope he played some of your faves x

the original listener replies:

He did Graham but the whole concert was fantastic

As before, this listener relies on emojis to express their experience.

It is apparent that these conversations appear to be about expressing emotion and how the music made the listeners feel (hence their reliance on using emojis). They are not talking about the music in itself. Perhaps we could even venture to say that these people might lack the musical language to do that. But it is absolutely about the experience they have had and central to that is the sense that social media allows them to create a community of people around and including Weller himself, who they feel able to refer to familiarly as ‘lad’, as well as referring to each other as ‘mate’ and by first name (Graham) (even though they may never have met each other). It is a useful illustration of ‘ordinary listeners’ articulating their responses and validating each others’ responses in the process.

Conclusion

So what do these accounts of listening experiences from Twitter and Facebook reveal? The fact that some people shared their experience by posting on social media is evidence that the occasion was significant to them, or at least had some impact on them (whether the sentiment was positive or negative). It is difficult to say at this stage, without further analysis across a larger dataset, whether the textual evidence posted to Facebook is sufficient to provide us with any meaningful insights into the listening experiences; other than the listener during the Nottingham concert who described themselves as ‘feeling fabulous’, and the conversations that followed immediately after the concert and into the next day, they are all, perhaps surprisingly, even more succinct than many of the Twitter posts. But this does provide some circumstantial evidence that Tweets tend to be a relevant source, with a more focused use of language. There appeared to be a more consistent use of the dimensions within a Tweet than those found on Facebook; in addition to a more succinct usage of text, listeners would be more consistent in incorporating user names (@mentions), hashtags, URLs, photos and videos. It also reveals a couple of other characteristics of Facebook users: firstly, all of the listeners seem to be content with simply stating that they are attending the concert; and secondly, every listener (at this concert, at least) ensures they tag Weller’s Facebook page in their posts.

There is some evidence on both Twitter and Facebook that listeners wanted to hear more of Weller’s hits from The Jam era. Some would simply Tweet song titles to Weller’s account, which is curious – do they believe he might be checking his phone/Twitter account during the concert, or is it merely a means to provide the artist with feedback with the hope of influencing future performances? This was not replicated on Facebook but there is an underlying sentiment from at least a couple of listeners that they were keen to hear the ‘classics’ as opposed to Weller’s more recent material.

It proved much easier to capture this evidence from Twitter than Facebook. This is partly due to the restrictions enforced by Facebook that prevent the interrogation of their data without paying for the privilege, but also because the content of Facebook posts is not made readily available to the same extent as is currently the case with Twitter. Facebook users can also restrict their accounts via their security settings, which means that search results are often affected, as not all comments are visible. It is highly likely that more experiences were posted via Facebook than were visible to this study simply because users restricted their accounts so that only their network of ‘friends’ could see their posts. The fact that Twitter currently allows anyone to mine and subsequently analyse their data via an API means that it is a useful primary source for gathering people’s listening experiences. The Chorus Software Suite proved invaluable for this purpose. The functionality of the software means that further analysis is also possible on either term or word frequency. It enables the user to track how the Twitter conversation evolves over time, either by user or topic. The most useful features for the purpose of this study were: the ability to extract all of the Tweets that used a specific username or hashtag (in the first instance); the subsequent ordering of this data by date and time; and the ability to focus on small segments of the data in order to extract them and to compare them with the wider Twitter conversation. As stated, there are other tools available (both free and paid-for services) for this type of endeavour.

It would also be useful to compare the type of evidence captured on Facebook and Twitter with other social media platforms. For instance, YouTube affords users the ability to comment on videos of specific performances (and both published and unpublished versions of songs and/or concerts). This might allow for a more thorough investigation as the performance itself can be analysed to see how these comments compare to each other, as well as to any published reviews and the analyst’s own interpretation. Similarly, SoundCloud enables its users to leave a comment on precise points within a track that has been uploaded to their platform. This gives users the potential ability to leave more precise feedback (although a preliminary study has revealed that many of these comments are very short – usually just a couple of words – and therefore might be of limited use). Nevertheless, different social media platforms offer different perspectives on how listeners record their experiences.

Of course, this was just one small group of listeners that appeared to consist of mainly longstanding (and therefore presumably loyal) fans of Weller. Therefore, it is only representative of what is probably a similar demographic of people, whose usage of social media is likely to be quite different to that of other Twitter users (for instance, much younger generations with differing musical tastes). Therefore it would be interesting to see how these results compare across other Twitter users and different genres of music. The fact that the behaviour of Twitter users appears to be consistent across each of the four concerts in Leeds, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Glasgow and Nottingham was of most significance. People followed a similar pattern of sharing their excitement in anticipation of the concert, followed by little to no activity on Twitter during the start of the concert, followed by an increase in Twitter activity and an expansion of the dimensions that continued the following day, albeit with a reduction in geographic or time-specific dimensions (such as including the event or venue). The reduction in posts being curated during the start of the concert was not replicated on Facebook, although the other behavioural patterns were. At the most simplistic level, this behaviour might suggest that listeners are most engaged with the performance during the start of the concert, with attention levels waning as time progresses, as evidenced by their decision to use their smartphones. Of course, this is not necessarily indicative of a negative response (indeed the evidence provided here suggests otherwise) but merely that listeners wish to record, capture and/or share their experience as the performance proceeds.

The fact that the content of microblogs can be opinionated and often (apparently) trivial and imitative, and is therefore regarded by many as ephemeral can be a reason why we might be reluctant to draw on it as a primary source material. However, if we look beyond the sentiment being expressed and use this in parallel with other forms of knowledge that can be extracted from the data, it can reveal useful insights into people’s behaviours and the way they record their listening experiences.

Select bibliography

Afford, A. ‘Paul Weller is ‘interesting but not for everyone’ at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena – review and photos’, Nottingham Evening Post [Online], 2018, https://www.nottinghampost.com/whats-on/music-nightlife/paul-weller-interesting-not-everyone-1274359#comments-section, accessed 10 September 2018.

Brooker, P. ‘Chorus: Twitter Data Capture and Visual Analytics for Social Science’, Digital Methods as Mainstream Methodology [Online], 2013, https://digitalmethodsnmi.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/chorus-twitter-data-capture-and-visual-analytics-for-social-science, accessed 10 September 2018.

Brooker, P. ‘User Manuals’, The Chorus Project [Online], 2013, http://chorusanalytics.co.uk/support, accessed 10 September 2018.

Jimbob1969. ‘Comments’ in Andy Afford’s ‘Paul Weller is ‘interesting but not for everyone’ at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena – review and photos’, Nottingham Evening Post [Online], 2018, https://www.nottinghampost.com/whats-on/music-nightlife/paul-weller-interesting-not-everyone-1274359#comments-section, accessed 10 September 2018.

Kastrenakes, J. ‘Twitter says people are tweeting more, but not longer, with 280-character limit’ in The Verge [Online], 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2018/2/8/16990308/twitter-280-character-tweet-length, accessed 10 September 2018.

lindsey806. ‘Comments’ in Andy Afford’s ‘Paul Weller is ‘interesting but not for everyone’ at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena – review and photos’, Nottingham Evening Post [Online], 2018, https://www.nottinghampost.com/whats-on/music-nightlife/paul-weller-interesting-not-everyone-1274359#comments-section, accessed 10 September 2018.

Perez, J. A. R. and Joemon, M. J. ‘On Microblog Dimensionality and Informativeness: Exploiting Microblogs’ Structure and Dimensions for Ad-Hoc Retrieval’ in Proceedings of the 2015 International Conference on The Theory of Information Retrieval, 2015, DOI: doi>10.1145/2808194.2809466 pp. 211-220, accessed 10 September 2018.

Powell, E. ‘What a k***’: Liam Gallagher slated by Paul Weller fans after scathing Twitter tirade’ in Evening Standard [Online], 2018, https://www.standard.co.uk/showbiz/celebrity-news/what-a-k-liam-gallagher-slated-by-paul-weller-fans-after-scathingtwitter-tirade-a3778886.html, accessed 10 September 2018.

Rosen, A. ‘Tweeting Made Easier’, Twitter.com [Online], 2017, https://blog.twitter.com/official/en_us/topics/product/2017/tweetingmadeeasier.html, accessed 10 September 2018.

The National Archives. Born-digital records and metadata [Online], 2018, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/information-management/manage-information/digital-records-transfer/what-are-born-digital-records, accessed 3 November 2018.

Trendell, A. ‘Paul Weller on why he’s such a huge fan of Noel Gallagher’ in NME [Online], 2018, https://www.nme.com/news/music/paul-weller-hes-huge-fan-noel-gallagher-2250288, accessed 10 September 2018.

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Download: #areyoulistening: mining social media to collate people’s listening experiences

Listening and digital technologies

The Harkive Project: popular music reception, digital technologies, and data analysis

Craig Hamilton

Craig Hamilton is a Research Fellow in the School of Media at Birmingham City University. His research explores contemporary popular music reception practices and the role of digital, data, and internet technologies on the business and cultural environments of music consumption. This research is built around the development of The Harkive Project, an online, crowd-sourced method of generating data from music consumers about their everyday relationships with music and technology. Craig is also the Co-Managing Editor of Riffs: Experimental Research on Popular Music.

Abstract

Through an analysis of how respondents to The Harkive Project describe their use of vinyl records, this article will demonstrate and reflect upon the development of an experimental methodological approach derived from the fields of digital humanities and cultural analytics, and show how this was applied to my ‘home’ discipline of popular music studies. Before proceeding to my analysis, I first describe the context and rationale for taking this approach. In reflecting on this approach I discuss how it enabled me to explore how data-derived knowledge creation works through practice within contemporary popular music culture, highlighting some of the issues raised by data-related technologies and techniques in both popular music culture and in arts and humanities research. My hope is that work in this area may help popular music studies begin to account for the technologies and practices that have so changed the field. Towards that aim, and in consideration of Sandvig and Hargittai’s recent work highlighting the importance of ‘benchwork’, my article links to code, sample data, and instructional blog posts that may enable scholars to replicate and/or build upon my work.

Introduction

This paper was delivered at the 2018 Listening Experience Database (LED) project conference at The Open University, Milton Keynes, on 7 March 2018. The conference took place just a few days after I completed my PhD at Birmingham City University and was in fact my first outing as a newly minted doctor. I am delighted, then, to have been invited to revisit that talk for this volume of LED proceedings.

During my AHRC-Midland3Cities-funded research project I looked at popular music reception, with a particular focus on the digital, data, and internet technologies that have over the last 20 years helped bring about such huge changes in my field of study. In this article I want to provide an overview of my research, and in particular describe how working through a number of methodological issues ultimately led me towards ideas and practices that may be more broadly understood as ‘data science’. Ultimately, and just as I did in my thesis, I want to argue that a greater practical understanding of and critical engagement with the digital, data, and internet technologies is possible, both for popular music scholars such as myself, and also for the millions of people who engage with popular music in their everyday lives. Along the way I hope to demonstrate that my work represents a small step towards that.

After briefly describing Harkive, the project that underpinned my research, I will demonstrate how I arrived at using automated data collection and computational analysis techniques in my work. By walking through an example of the type of analysis I undertook, I want to highlight some of the potential benefits and problems with such an approach. I will then reflect on some of those potential benefits and problems, and suggest some next steps. My hope is that the work undertaken during my project may provide a springboard for future work, and in particular for the creation of new tools, platforms, and research projects that may enable consumers and scholars alike to develop useful and productive epistemic responses to the role of digital, data, and internet technologies in popular music. To begin, however, I should briefly explain what The Harkive Project is.

The Harkive Project

Harkive is an online, crowd-sourced project that runs on a single day in July of each year. It invites people to provide detail and reflection on their experiences with music across the course of a single day. Since the project first ran in 2013 it has gathered over 10,000 individual entries. The reflections and detail contained within the Harkive dataset come from posts made to social media platforms, from participants who have emailed the project directly, or from people who have completed an online form. The shortest entry in the database contains only two words, the longest almost 4,000.

Taken as a whole the Harkive dataset contains descriptions and reflections on many different forms of music reception. By music reception, I am taking Keith Negus’ definition of ‘how people receive, interpret and use music as a cultural form while engaging in specific social activities.’ 430 This definition encompasses how we engage with music in our everyday lives much more usefully than perhaps the embodied act of ‘listening’, or more commercially focused ideas of ‘consumption’ could. This is because music is not just something we hear, or buy; it is also something we talk about, think about, or otherwise use in a variety of ways.

The texts collected by Harkive represent snapshots of different individuals’ engagement with music, and each (to varying degrees) contains descriptions of respondents’ use of various technologies, or the locations and everyday situations involved when engaged in music reception activity. Some stories are inspired by memories, others detail engagement with technologies, and many show how deeply experiences with music and technology are woven into the rhythms and routines of everyday life.

Before proceeding to how I analysed those texts, I should like to provide a little more context for my research. This context is crucial, because it was engaging with the broader issues of debate around contemporary popular music reception, and in particular the role of digital, data, and internet technologies within that, that ultimately informed the methodological approach I took.

Research context

Over the last two decades digital, data, and internet technologies have emerged as important and influential factors in how popular music is produced, distributed and consumed. These technologies, allied to practices of data collection and computational analysis, now play a significant role both in how audiences engage with music, and how those audiences are understood. A key point here is that popular music audiences are now highly individualised, and defined according to a growing number of new categorical variables. At the same time, however, audiences are also understood through the large-scale agglomeration of data points. An example here would be streaming services such as Spotify, which provide access to music through an interface that facilitates the capture, analysis and use of data about the daily activity of millions of people. We may also wish to consider social media platforms, where people discuss and share music, or search engines and online retailers, all of which gather data about users and derive forms of knowledge from that which is then deployed according to what Hartmann et al. call Data-Derived Business Models (DDBMs) 431 – that is, models relying on data as a key resource.

For popular music scholars these are intriguing developments, but studying these new environments is difficult. This is because the systems of data collection and analysis that facilitate them are technologically complex, subject to rapid change, and are often hidden behind commercial and legal firewalls. 432 At the same time, however, the use of online technologies by many people during the course of their everyday lives is providing scholars with new opportunities and methods for undertaking research in the humanities. This in turn is leading to questions about the role of the researcher, and – in the case of popular music studies – how we as scholars may take into account the new technologies and practices that have so changed the field. Of particular interest to me are automated recommender systems, the manner in which digital interfaces foreground (or not) content to audiences, and the new ways in which audiences are conceived of and organised.

Given the growing importance of streaming services, social media platforms, search engines, and so on, within the field, popular music scholars wishing to understand contemporary conditions of music reception are faced with the problem of exploring the consequences of systems that they presently lack sufficient access to, or else the technical knowledge and skills required to fully understand.433 Although in the case of streaming services, for example, recent work by Hagen,434 Nowak, 435 Prey, 436 and Webster et al. 437 has made progress in helping to develop our understanding, a wider question for popular music scholars is how such an inquiry into these recently emerged systems may be usefully undertaken. Through The Harkive Project, and via the methods I have developed, my intention has been to see if I could make a contribution to that wider question by discovering a little more about the new conditions of everyday music reception.

Towards a method

In terms of the practicalities of my doctoral work, the size, variety and complexity of the data I had collected through Harkive immediately presented two interrelated methodological and intellectual problems:

  • How could I derive useful information and insight from the large collection of unstructured texts I had gathered?
  • How could I do that in such a way that said something useful and interesting about contemporary popular music reception?

In attempting to deal with those questions, I decided that a potentially productive route would be to subject the Harkive data to similar computational analysis processes to those used by commercial organisations seeking to understand the way people engage with popular music. What I mean here is the idea that activities such as listening through streaming services, Googling your new favourite artist, or discussing music with friends on social media – in other words, activities that would fall under the definition of ‘music reception’ – now often take place within environments where, as Bernhard Rieder describes, data capture, analysis and output are integrated. 438

Because of this, music reception activities now create data points that can be aggregated and analysed in order to produce a form of knowledge that in turn informs interface design, or the foregrounding of certain content, which ultimately impacts upon the experiences we may have. We can consider here, for example, automated recommendation and curated playlists offered by streaming services, or product recommendations positioned within the interfaces of online retailers and social media platforms. Through analysing the Harkive texts in a similar manner, and alongside discovering what respondents were saying about their music reception, I wanted to explore the processes involved with attempts to represent complex elements of individual real-world experience through the medium of data and computational analysis.

As attractive as this proposed direction for my research was, however, it revealed an immediate problem related to my own research skills. I attempted to define this problem early on in my research journey, in this quote taken from my research notebook:

I am a reasonably tech-savvy media scholar, but I am not a data scientist, or a coder. Yet I am building a PhD research project that hinges on my ability to make sense of my data through computational techniques.

In short, I had backed myself into a practical, methodological and intellectual cul-de-sac.

The process of finding my way out of that cul-de-sac started with a period of trying to get to grips with the technologies and practices involved. Through an intense period of reading, attending conferences, listening to ‘data science’ podcasts, and several months of self-directed learning in the R programming language, I slowly got to grips with the practicalities of how data and computational techniques are used in commercial settings and academic research. A key realisation, and indeed a consideration for the purposes of the remainder of this article also, is that the texts gathered by Harkive were in a digital format and were thus reducible to data points that could be counted, analysed, and otherwise computationally processed at scale. Stripping away the unique, individual detail contained within each response, the ‘raw material’ I had to work with could be understood as data. My research project was now, concurrently, a philosophical exploration of how data-derived ‘knowledge’ is created and a data science ‘problem’ is to be solved.

Using a number of automated collection methods, 439 Harkive data was subsequently gathered into a single database organised according to the principles of tidy data, 440 which made it ready for computational analysis at the point it was collected. The dataset contained text-based submissions and quantitative survey responses, along with metadata gathered during the collection processes – including time/date stamps, and detail on which platforms each text was collected from – and additional variables generated through the use of a series of unsupervised machine learning algorithms, including topic modelling, which is described in more detail below. This meant that the data about music reception activities available to me could be understood and analysed in a number of different ways, ranging from the close readings of texts more usually associated with humanities research, through to the clustering, visualisation and analysis of abstractions generated through computational/algorithmic processes that rendered the original texts as data. The method also allowed for analyses that combined these approaches.

All of which is to say that what I ended up with was an experimental approach that conceived of Harkive as both a ‘space’ in which people could reflect upon their engagement with music, and simultaneously a ‘place’ able to replicate many of the commercial practices related to data collection and processing. Through this, I sought to critically engage with the growing role of data-related technologies associated with music reception, whilst simultaneously exploring the use of those techniques in popular music studies research. An intriguing sub-question that emerged from this methodological development was to attempt to discover what patterns, correlations and other potentially interesting insights could be derived through the use of techniques that are largely guided by their own internal mathematical logics, and less by the human researcher. In the next sections I will walk through one of the ways I explored this question.

LDA topic modelling – overview

One unsupervised algorithmic technique I employed was topic modelling, which David Blei 441defines as a process that:

provides a suite of algorithms to discover hidden thematic structure in large collections of texts. The results of topic modelling algorithms can be used to summarize, visualize, explore, and theorize about a corpus.442

Topics can better be understood as recurring data points (in this case, words) across a larger dataset (a corpus of text documents). The model, meanwhile, is a mathematical representation of the extent to which each individual entry in a dataset – that is the documents within a given corpus – contains data points – that is topics/words. Applying this to the case of my own research and the Harkive texts, the immediate potential in a process of this kind was that the larger a collection of documents is, the more difficult and labour intensive it becomes to manually explore, encode and reveal common themes within it. Beyond simply saving time and effort, however, a further potential advantage lay in the possibility that there may be themes or topics within the dataset that were not immediately apparent. In other words, these may be hidden or otherwise made ‘latent’ by the complexity and scale of the corpus. The broad rationale behind topic modelling is that latent themes in text corpora may be revealed by mathematical processing.

I employed the most commonly used approach in automated topic modelling, Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA), which was originally developed in 2003 by Blei and colleagues at Berkley. Blei has since argued that automated modelling of this kind can help humanities scholars ‘build a statistical lens that encodes…specific knowledge, theories, and assumptions about texts’. 443 Blei reveals that LDA in particular can be understood as being based on two assumptions:

  • There is a finite number of patterns of words, or groups of terms, that occur together within a corpus.
  • Each document within a corpus exhibits these to a varying degree.

Although the documents and words are observable to a manual reading, the thematic structure – in other words, the topics – may be hidden, and will be more likely to be hidden as the scale and complexity of a corpus increases.

LDA infers these hidden structures based on what can be computationally processed (that is, by counting the frequency with which unique words occur across documents), and represents these in terms of the probabilistic likelihood that a document belongs to a given topic. It was this process and rationale that was applied to the Harkive dataset from the years 2013–2016 inclusive.

LDA Topic modelling and Harkive texts

Using the topicmodels package with the R software, the LDA process described above revealed the following words associated with five topics, organised here according to frequency, with the top 20 words associated with each topic shown in Figure 1 below. The LDA process of course had no ‘knowledge’ about the contents or meaning of the document corpus and had processed it purely according to the statistical probability of words appearing in documents. Nevertheless the initial results were interesting, and I was able to interpret the topics as being relatively distinct. The appearance, for instance, of words such as morning, home, office, train, commute, and so on, were interpreted as being related to ideas of ‘Time and Place’. Another topic containing words such as love, play, sing, hear, summer and favourite was interpreted as being more closely associated with ‘Emotions and Experience’. There were other topics related to ‘Formats and Methods’, another more generally about ‘Listening’, and finally one that appeared to relate to The Harkive Project itself, with words such as post, tweet, project, blog, and write.

Top twenty frequently occurring words in each LDA topic
Figure 1: Top 20 frequently occurring words in each LDA topic. Colour-coded according to research interpretation, with words interpreted as being most closely aligned to the interpreted topics colour-coded.

To explore these initial results further it was also possible to visualise them alongside other variables, including the results of other unsupervised analyses. In Figure 2, for instance, we can see how topic allocation plays out according to the various channels by which texts were gathered, suggesting that texts gathered from Facebook, email and Flickr contained a higher proportion of texts allocated to the ‘Emotions and Experience’ topic by LDA processing.

LDA topic allocation - Graph
Figure 2: Proportion of texts gathered via each automated collection method according to LDA topic allocation

Figure 3 visualises the LDA results alongside another unsupervised algorithmic analysis, sentiment analysis, and suggested a high concentration of texts in the ‘Time and Place’ topic clustered around a neutral sentiment, while ‘Emotions and Experience’ texts appeared to exhibit a wider spread of positive and negative scores. Figure 4, meanwhile, visualises some frequent words revealed by the LDA process in terms of trends across the lifetime of the project. The rise in mentions of Spotify and vinyl since 2013, along with the downward trend in mentions of iTunes and downloads, appears to tally somewhat with what appears to be happening in popular music consumption more widely.444

Scatterplot graph
Figure 3: Scatterplot demonstrating relationship between Sentiment Analysis scores and Standard Deviation in Topic Allocation, coloured according to LDA Topic Allocation.

Percentage Chart
Figure 4: Percentage of texts containing keywords across each of the years 2013–2016, inclusive.

Although these initial results and exploratory visualisations are potentially useful and may lead to further questions, it was still necessary to delve a little deeper, both in terms of finding interesting things about music reception, but also in terms of exploring how the process of analysing data in this way produces forms of knowledge. An example of a potentially useful route towards this can be seen if we go back to the LDA topic allocation outlined in Figure 1 and look specifically at words relating to the ‘Formats and Methods’ topic. We may notice, for instance, that the word vinyl appears instead amongst the ‘Emotions and Experience’ topic, and that words related to mobile-based digital listening formats and technologies, such as ipod, shuffle and headphones, appear in the ‘Time and Place’ topic. An interesting initial observation is that these allocations seems to perhaps fit with some more widely held notions of those two modes of listening as having distinct characteristics: vinyl is often associated with a more ‘warm’, ‘authentic’ and ‘real’ experience of listening; digital listening by comparison is seen as cold, distracted, and functional. This may suggest that the texts gathered by Harkive perhaps contain descriptions that repeat similar ideas, and moreover that the LDA process has been efficient in revealing this. But is that indeed the case?

Topic scores
Figure 5: LDA Topic Allocation scores for the first 10 documents in the corpus. Each row produces 5 values, each associated with a topic, that are divisions of a total score of 1.

In fact, a closer look at the numbers behind such an observation suggests that the differences between documents, and thus their alignment with discrete topics, were perhaps less stark than the corpus-wide overview suggested. The topic modelling process is based on the assumption that documents within a corpus exhibit relationships to all topics in varying degrees, and the figures in Figure 6 show those relationships in terms of a total score that is equal to 1. We may note that there are some very marginal differences between topic allocations, and so corpus level observations – in this case about digital and analogue listening methods – need to be augmented by a further, close reading before any claims could be reasonably made. Do the assumptions we carry about the technologies of vinyl records and the iPod, for instance, that appear to have been foregrounded and validated by the results of the computational reading facilitated by the LDA process, carry over into a close, manual reading of the texts concerned? In other words, how far does Blei’s ‘statistical lens’ take us in terms of theorising about a corpus? By looking more closely at texts containing mentions of vinyl, we are able to explore this further.

Case study: music reception and vinyl

Isolating from the corpus those texts containing the word vinyl returned n=139 entries, which represented 1.83% of the total corpus. From the following visualisations we can immediately observe two things. Figure 7 reveals that not only are stories mentioning vinyl present in all topics, but that a similar number (n=40) appear in the ‘Time and Place’ topic to those appearing in the ‘Emotions and Experience’ topic (n=33). Almost immediately these results appear to challenge the conclusions suggested by the corpus-wide analysis discussed in the previous section. We can see that vinyl is discussed in many other topics than the one it was allocated to by the LDA process, and which has been interpreted as related to ideas of the emotional and experiential. To what extent, then, do texts containing the word vinyl allocated to particular topics exhibit the characteristics our interpretation has assigned to those topics? A closer reading of the 139 texts containing the word vinyl in terms of their allocation to different LDA topics reveals some interesting results.

Bar chart
Figure 6: LDA topic allocation of texts containing the word vinyl.

Of the (n=40) vinyl stories contained within the ‘Time and Place’ topic, 20% (n=8) contain only information about what the respondent had played. These were texts where the respondent mentions only the name of an artist or record they were listening to at the time, and have mentioned that they were using vinyl, but have not provided any additional context. Of the remaining 32 texts, 69% (n=22) explicitly reference listening whilst working, or being in domestic spaces, and in the examples below we can see vinyl records being used in mundane, everyday situations, including ironing school uniforms and hanging out washing. Considering first of all the topic allocation of ‘Time and Place’, the activities accompanying vinyl listening here are emblematic of what we may expect, yet appear to challenge the conclusion suggested by the corpus-level overview:

Quick coffee before next set of jobs / chores. Ornette Coleman – Twins, vinyl (#295) 445

Decided the Marvin’s too uptempo for the heat. Playing ‘One On One’ by Bob James & Earl Klugh on vinyl LP, hanging out the washing (#7040)

Working from home today so will mainly be listening to vinyl (#5764)

Ironing school uniforms ‘Toussaint’ by Allen Toussaint on vinyl and what a cracker this is (#2377)

First up for @harkive 2014, Beirut, The Rip Tide on vinyl while my daughter has her breakfast (#6056)

#harkive Whilst kids getting ready for bed, had bits of Armand Van Helden ‘Killing Puritans’ and Faith No More ‘The Real Thing’ from iTunes, then a bit of ‘American Supreme’ by Suicide on vinyl to bring them right down….(#1125)

In the ‘Emotions and Experience’ topic, meanwhile, we perhaps begin to see support for the conclusion suggested by the corpus-level analysis. Although, as in the ‘Time and Place’ topic, some texts (33% (n=11)) contain only information about what has been played and provide no further context, of the remaining 22 texts 45% (n=10) make specific reference to the aesthetics and physicality of the ‘spinning’ vinyl record as an object. These features appear to play a central role in its descriptions of its use, as evidenced by the examples below:

I really want to get this Bosconi Stallions set on vinyl as it comes in a box that looks like this [photo attached] (#3180)

It’s my Vertigo copy of Autobahn, I love this sleeve almost as much as the record (#330)

On to vinyl (must remember to take it off at the end, can’t risk warping!) (#7643)

I listen to music in all formats, CD, Cassette, MP3 but my favourite is still vinyl. I just love the ceremony of playing a record (#4159)

I’m spending Harkive Day at home with a pile of records to listen to…I love rooting through boxes of old records looking for the next addition to my..collection; it’s a great way of discovering new old music and I’ve gained loads of favourite artists this way (#5126)

Looking forward to getting home and spinning some new charity shop vinyl purchases for pleasure and #harkive (#3111)

A further 27% (n=6) of the texts made explicit reference to vinyl in terms of memory (‘I’d forgotten how good this sounded!’). In the first example below, a longer-form text about playing a record, the respondent recalls going to a Bruce Springsteen show. Meanwhile, 50% (n=11) of the texts in this topic also discussed listening to vinyl in other experiential terms, referencing physical and emotional reactions to the music they heard on vinyl:

I remember being lent Born To Run, The River, and Greetings From Asbury Park by our very musically wise youth leader with a ‘you MUST listen to these’, and I did, and loved them too. But for some reason I stopped listening to Springsteen at all a few years after that, my vinyl got put away in a cupboard. (#2155)

Mrs R out again so loud vinyl time. This one really shakes the walls (#1364)

Darn That Dream’ from ‘Undercurrent’ by Bill Evans & Jim Hall on vinyl. Music that doesn’t break a sweat whilst the rest of us do (#7039)

Little Richard & His Band Pt 2 on 7’ #vinyl (London 1957). Imagine hearing Tutti Frutti for the 1st time. (#71)

In the ‘Formats and Methods’ topic cluster, which we may recall contained almost all the other common methods through which people listen (that is, radio, Spotify, iTunes, and so on), we find 22 texts, 9% (n=2) containing only information about what has been played and provide no further context. Of the remaining 20 texts, however, 75% (n=15) discuss vinyl within the context of other technologies, services and formats. Here we can see evidence of the type of fractured and heterogeneous listening suggested by Nowak, 446 where meaning is derived not so much from the properties, affordances or perceptions of a particular format, but rather from the ‘circuit of practices’ Maguadda 447 describes that together combine to constitute cultural practices around the reception of music. Vinyl listening is variously informed by the use of streaming services, or else discussed in terms of the download codes that now accompany new vinyl releases:

I guess I make most of my musical discoveries in the evenings and then do further investigation/research during the day via Spotify (before deciding to either download the album from eMusic or buy on CD/vinyl) (#5822)

Finally streaming ‘Electric’ by Pet Shop Boys after ten annoying minutes of having to download Pandora on a new phone and resetting my password. If it’s good I’m pre ordering the vinyl. 11:34 Well that was fantastic. Aside from the ads (#162)

This morning was something from Wolves In The Throne Room, I got their new album on LP from my local indie vinyl place last week and the handy digital download means the songs live in all my devices immediately (#5560)

Taken together this brief analysis of the small number of texts containing the word vinyl demonstrates that this particular format can be seen as being described by respondents in many other ways than the initial corpus-wide computational analysis and subsequent clustering and visualisation suggested. As well as evidence of vinyl providing the types of visceral, aesthetic and emotional experiences that Barthamski and Woodward 448 suggest are defining factors of vinyl use, we can also see it being used as a background accompaniment to more mundane, everyday activities – something perhaps more commonly associated with digital technologies. 449 We also see vinyl being used as part of more complex listener practices that make use of different formats and technologies as part of individualised cultural practices. An interesting thing to observe also is the apparent absence of any qualifying statements regarding the ‘better’ or ‘more authentic’ qualities of vinyl listening in comparison to other formats and technologies. In the main we see the use of vinyl records as being narrated by respondents as part of a complex, wider landscape of music reception in a variety of everyday contexts – including in commuting, working, social and other situations. These everyday situations are what Felski calls the ‘mundane activities that frame our forays into more esoteric or exotic worlds’, 450 and here – recalling again Maguagga – we can see that vinyl is but one way the use of available technologies provide the means through which these forays occur. Perhaps more pertinently, this section has also shown that computational analyses, if used uncritically and unreflexively, could be used to generate results that may help reinforce or otherwise appear to support assumptions we may have – in this case, around the manner in which vinyl is used – when in actuality the detail beneath the abstractions reveals that in individual cases those assumptions are problematic. A key reflexive observation enabled by this analysis is that computational processes have both numerous benefits and limitations when used in humanities research and with cultural texts. The responsibility for ascertaining the difference between these two extremes falls to the critical researcher, who is required to make careful decisions at each stage of the research process, and particularly when it comes to interpreting the results of computational analyses.

Reflection and discussion

In reflecting upon the issues and questions that have informed the development of my method, I must consider first of all how as a researcher I initially lacked the technical skills required to collect, prepare and analyse data in the manner I had identified as being of potential use. As such my project became as much about how to conceive of new methods for studying the reception of music as it did about studying music reception.

The approach I arrived at drew upon similar methods to those used in the commercial environments of popular music, and to methods associated with the computational turn in humanities research. 451 Data collection processes and computational techniques have been shown in the analysis above to be in equal parts technically efficient, potentially useful in question formation, but also inherently reductive and in a manner which often prevents them from capturing and accurately reflecting complex cultural practices. In particular, text-based, qualitative data is a difficult form of data to process using computational methods and can lead to results that are problematic. I must recognise also, however, the extent to which the different modes of analysis afforded by my chosen method have enabled me to arrive at different forms of insight (and further questions) that may not have arisen through methods usually associated with the humanities alone. In other words, the observations derived from such an approach speak as much to the approach itself as they do to their application.

I still do not consider myself a coder, or a data scientist, and have attempted to utilise some complex mathematical processes from an under-privileged viewpoint. This is perhaps representative of a wider problem in the humanities when it comes to work of this kind, where as scholars we are attracted to the affordances of large datasets and computational techniques through their increasing availability and falling barriers to entry, but are simultaneously ill equipped to adequately explain and explore those methods of analysis.

By publishing regular notes on The Harkive Project website, or through the creation of interfaces such as the recently created data explorer – a resource providing both interactive access to the Harkive data and analysis and also raw code and instructional videos that enable replication of my work – I am attempting to reveal and reflect upon what Sandvig and Hargittai call the messy benchwork 452 involved when attempting to put such techniques to use. They argue that – apart from in ethnographic work – there is very little notion of ‘bench science’ in the humanities and social sciences, but that there should be. Their point is that the ‘workaday’ practices of our research processes need to be highlighted, particularly in areas of work that look at digital media and the internet, because these are producing the ‘new methods, new opportunities, and new challenges for understanding human behavior and society.’ As the authors state, the desired outcome is a space where ‘researchers can reveal the messy details of what they are actually doing, aiming towards mutual reflection, creativity, and learning that advances the state of the art’.453 It is my hope that my work around The Harkive Project may make a small contribution in this regard.

Conclusion

The analysis in this chapter will, I hope, have helped raise new questions for the reader on a general level about how we may approach the complexity of contemporary music reception and – specifically – how we may begin to critically engage with the data-derived technologies and practices that now play a key role in those music reception activities. My aim has been to provide both an argument for and perhaps even a suggested route towards a more practical engagement with data, digital, and internet technologies. The intention has been to suggest new means by which scholars may be prompted to think about the efficacy of data systems when they are applied to popular music, to challenge numerous assumptions around what a data point can and does represent, and to consider ways in which we may formulate new ways of working that are able to critically engage with digital, internet, and data technologies through practical work that attempts to understand their operations, benefits, and consequences.

In terms of the practicalities of method that may underpin such an approach, in reflecting upon the process of developing and performing my research, I can offer in the first instance that the process of learning involved with attempting work of this kind is hard – particularly if the researcher is approaching it from scratch, as I did – but, equally, that it is possible to arrive at a point where such work can be undertaken. I have shown also that when approaching data-related research projects, thinking about collection, organisation and analyses as one interrelated process is extremely useful, and probably essential.

More specifically, unsupervised machine-learning algorithms such as topic modelling can efficiently help reveal trends and patterns within a text-based corpus. However, although the results on the surface appear unequivocal, a closer examination of the numbers behind any claims related to those results reveals problems, and further questions. However, exploring both the results and the process nevertheless points towards potentially fruitful lines of enquiry that can be facilitated by further computational techniques, such as the automated extraction of specific elements based on results, keywords, and other variables, which is particularly useful with large datasets. Such processes, as I have shown, can simultaneously assist with question formation and – on a practical level – with the foregrounding of texts in large corpora. As I hope to have shown, however, it was only when considered alongside manual, close readings of texts – facilitated in part by automated process – that the results of computational processing were fully understood. As such computational techniques should be used to augment, rather than replace, close readings of texts.

As I continue to develop my own analyses into popular music reception, learning from one coding error after another through experimenting with practice and method, the limitations and affordances of working in this way are slowly revealed in the process of writing my notes, in the detail of the painfully slow, step-by-step benchwork. It is my hope that other scholars may find the resources I have made available on The Harkive Project website, and through interfaces such as the 2013–17 Data Explorer, of use. They may also find that work of this kind can be replicated, built upon, and may lead to the creation of new questions, collaborations, and projects as together we endeavour to understand the role of digital, data, and internet technologies in the field of popular music studies.

Select bibliography

Ananny, Mike. ‘Toward an Ethics of Algorithms Convening, Observation, Probability, and Timeliness,’ Science, Technology & Human Values, 2015, 0162243915606523.

Berry, David M. ‘The Computational Turn: Thinking about the Digital Humanities,’ Culture Machine 12, no. 0, 2011, p. 2.

Blei, David M. ‘Topic Modeling and Digital Humanities,’ Journal of Digital Humanities 2, no. 1, 2012, pp. 8–11.

Boyd, Danah and Crawford, Kate. ‘Critical Questions for Big Data: Provocations for a Cultural, Technological, and Scholarly Phenomenon,’ Information, Communication & Society 15, no. 5, 2012, pp. 662–679.

Felski, Rita. ‘The invention of everyday life’. New Formations (39), 1992, pp. 13–31.

Hamilton, Craig. ‘The Harkive Data Explorer v1.0’, Web application / Research Database / Scholarly Resource, http://www.harkive.org/data1317, accessed 12 February 2019.

Negus, Keith. Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1997.

Nowak, Raphaël. ‘Investigating the Interactions between Individuals and Music Technologies within Contemporary Modes of Music Consumption,’ First Monday 19, no. 10, 2014.

Prey, Robert. ‘Henri Lefebvre and the Production of Music Streaming Spaces,’ Sociologica 9, no. 3, 2015, pp. 1–22.

Sandvig, Christian and Hargittai, Eszter. ‘How to Think about Digital Research,’ Digital Research Confidential: The Secrets of Studying Behavior Online, 2015, p. 1.

Webster, Jack, Gibbins, Nicholas, Halford, Susan and Hracs, Brian J. ‘Towards a Theoretical Approach for Analysing Music Recommender Systems as Sociotechnical Cultural Intermediaries,’ in Proceedings of the 8th ACM Conference on Web Science, pp. 137–145. ACM, 2016.

Wickham, Hadley. ‘Tidy Data,’ Journal of Statistical Software 59, no. 10, 2014, pp. 1–23.

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