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Doctoral Research

Three students received full funding to carry out doctoral research as part of the CMPCP team: Mats Küssner commenced his studies at King’s College London in 2010, whereas Michael Byrne and Myles Eastwood enrolled at the University of Cambridge in 2011. Other PhD students working on cognate topics under the supervision of members of the CMPCP Directorate included Eugene Feygelson (King’s College London); Emily Payne (University of Oxford); Laryssa Whittaker, Stephanie Vos and Jennie Porton (Royal Holloway, University of London); and John McKean, Sheila Guymer, Floris Schuiling, Roderick Chadwick, Ana Llorens and Naomi Woo (University of Cambridge).

Michael Byrne: ‘Embodied history and intergenerational (re)creativity within the dance-dramas of Helpmann, Bliss and Benthall’

Few can dispute that ageing is devalued within Western culture, illustrated most saliently through the body-based domains of professional ballet – an artistic practice underpinned by ‘tacit ageist assumptions’ that force senior performers to exit a career sanctifying the athleticism and technical perfection of the human form. My employment as an actor within many of The Royal Ballet narrative works has afforded the opportunity to engage with various communities of elderly performers whose participation contradicts the assumption that ballet is – in its most elementary form – a youth-prized discipline. Whilst this study is fuelled by the desire to create new ways of understanding an unrepresented group of artists, this thesis examines how the mature dancer’s somatic knowledge becomes a site for creative transmutability and provides opportunities to problematise the relationships between dance and drama during re-performance.

Furthermore, the history of Classical ballet can be contextualised as a history of ‘lost dances’, enforcing the belief that dance is unlike the other arts through its inability to leave a record in the form of a tangible object such as a painting, a script or a musical score. This act of self-erasure was evidenced by Robert Helpmann’s dance-drama Miracle in the Gorbals, where the closure of the 1958 revival in Covent Garden rendered the ballet’s choreographical imprint traceless. Arthur Bliss’s composition, Michael Benthall’s scenario, and Edward Burra’s designs remain today as vestiges from Helpmann’s 1944 original; however, the affective textures and dramatic impulses behind the choreography can continue to exist only within the memories of those who originally performed in the production itself. David Drew’s determination to reconstruct Miracle between 2011 and 2014 highlighted certain archival frictions, for without dance notation or a video recording, the ballet’s ‘re-assembly’ was contingent on the living histories of first-generation cast members – all of whom are in their 80s or 90s. The transmission of creativity from dancer to dancer is, therefore, reliant on performance practice as a systematic means to collect, preserve and share embodied works. This doctoral study attempts to analyse how the intergenerational reclaiming of Helpmann’s choreography operates as form of ‘social technology.’

Oral history and participant observation methodologies are used to document the rehearsal/performance processes of senior artists and the full reconstruction of Miracle by Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) in 2014. It is worth noting that David Bintley’s company proved the ideal collaborator in advancing Drew’s desires for an authentic recreation, as the size, ethos and itinerant schedule of BRB best represented the touring model, led by de Valois through the turbulent years of war. Having first performed in the ballet as a teenager, Gillian Lynne was tasked with re-choreographing Miracle for BRB at the age of 88, thereby subverting many of the ageist norms the predominate the discipline.

The following key questions underlie the research agenda, which is elucidated further through a secondary case study: the reworking of Helpmann, Bliss and Benthall’s 1946 dance-drama, Adam Zero, in London (by Andrew McNicol at the Royal Ballet School) and Germany (by Sergei Vanaev with Ballet Bremerhaven).

  • Re-choreographing history: how does creativity operate as a discourse between continuity and change during the revival processes of ballet?
  • What is the significance of late-life/intergenerational creativity within the domains of classical dance?
  • How does the senior dancer challenge the ontological foundations of what could be considered a ‘corporeal museum’?
  • How do we collect, preserve, curate and re-exhibit performance through embodied practice?

Myles Eastwood: ‘Phonography as Craft: Recording Studio Practices in London, c. 1957–67’

Two problems plague the study of ‘phonography’, a term coined by Evan Eisenberg to denote the activities of sound engineers, producers and their assistants. First, academics struggle to translate between the tacit knowledge, technical expertise and time-honoured techniques that define the field. Secondly, conventional historical accounts have tended to celebrate technological innovation and anomalous achievements, bracketing out the professional efforts of an anonymous majority. Despite their modesty, these practitioners defined the basic sound image of recorded music – the way consumers expect music to sound – for the second half of the twentieth century.

This dissertation tackles these shortcomings by drawing on original interviews, unpublished session logs and other neglected sources. The aim is to highlight phonography’s immanent craftsmanship – its reliance on repetition, intuition and iterative adjustments in technique – and to present a series of novel historical trajectories that intersect with conventional musical narratives. An entire generation of postwar phonographers honed transferable skills across multiple musical genres, from mainstream repertoire to commercial jingles, yet this network remains completely unexplored. By examining the phonographic structuring of seemingly unrelated records, it is possible to sketch out genealogies that span years, even decades, of praxis.

The first two chapters examine the in-house apprenticeships of large labels and independent studios operating in London during the late-1950s and 1960s. Practitioners cultivated unique forms of material and spatial awareness as they learnt to handle various mediums, formats, rooms and equipment. The third chapter posits alternative models of musicianship, including an ecological analysis of the emic subject-positions afforded by tape recording. The fourth and final chapter presents an untold history of hardware design, unveiling the links between postwar audio circuitry and nineteenth-century developments in telecommunications and psychoacoustics. Ultimately, the thesis demonstrates the extent to which audio is inherently multimodal – fostering expert forms of listening, sight and touch – and suggests that musicology has only begun to scratch the surface of this condition.

Mats Küssner: ‘Shape, drawing and gesture: cross-modal mappings of sound and music’

This thesis investigated the notion of shape in music from a psychological perspective. Belonging to a body of research on embodied cognition, it sought to understand what kinds of shapes listeners with varying levels of musical expertise perceive in sound and music by engaging them in overt actions. To that end, two empirical studies were carried out. In the first experiment, a sample of musically trained and untrained participants was asked to represent visually a series of pure tones varied in pitch, loudness and tempo – as well as two short musical excerpts – by means of an electronic graphics tablet. In the second experiment, a new sample of musically trained and untrained participants was asked to represent gesturally a series of pure tones varied in pitch, loudness and tempo, as well as sixteen short musical excerpts. In one of two experimental conditions, participants’ gestures – captured with Microsoft® KinectTM and Nintendo® WiiTM Remote Controller – created a real-time visualisation on a screen in front of them. In order to shed light on cross-modal mappings between drawing/gesturing features (x-, y- and z-coordinates) and sound features (pitch, loudness), correlation analyses, as well as more advanced mathematical tools such as Gaussian processes, were applied. Results revealed that musically trained participants are generally more consistent in representing sound features cross-modally (e.g., pitch–height) but also less diverse in their approaches than untrained participants. Most participants mapped pitch onto the vertical axis and time onto the horizontal axis. Loudness was mostly represented by size in drawings and by various mapping strategies in gestures such as height, size and muscular energy. Representing musical excerpts gesturally led to a wide range of strategies including, dancing, conducting, air instrument playing and tracing of musical features. Findings were discussed in light of embodied music cognition and current theoretical developments within the cognitive sciences.

More about Mats’ academic work can be found here.