A role for contingent histories in teaching electronic music?

Owen Green

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

This theoretical paper comes from observing the experiences of my postgraduate students over a number of years as they struggle to relate their own work (commonly in live electronics) to the various 'official' histories of electronic musicking. I ask whether what might be called for is to encourage a proliferation of contingent histories to emerge as a central part of a pedagogy of practice, and whether this could also be of more general benefit to the live electronic discipline.

The suggestion rests on a number of assumptions and observations. First, that although, in principle, the old normative hierarchies have been displaced that unapologetically privileged 'serious' music over all others (Emmerson, 2001), this does not seem to be operationally true insofar as students still arrive with the assumption that this hierarchy remains and, moreover, it is surprisingly difficult to persuade them otherwise. Second, that this state of affairs is due, at least in part, to the discipline's few canonical texts being still very much concerned with the standard histories and that, assuming this will remain the case for some time, some other more agile approach is needed to deal with the problems that arise. Third, that having students that are in the process of forming their voices contorting to account for their work in terms of traditions with which they have no resonance may well be not so much character building as confidence sapping and that, consequently our schooling remains narrowly normative and insular. Finally, that this is not just a pedagogical issue but has a disciplinary manifestation also, insofar as the range of musical relationships and valences that live electronic researchers have in practice is conspicuously broader than what appears in formal discourse.

What I suggest is needed is some structured and sustained way of admitting in to our discourse with students accounts of and relations to musics that they can make sense of and that can help them make sense of their own work. This is not, I think as trivial as it sounds. We do not simply wish to abandon all electronic music history to date to be replaced with an individuated and solipsistic corpus of musical autobiographies. Rather, I’m assuming we want to foster robust criticality in the ways that students engage aurally, practically and discursively with received histories, musical encounters and with their own work, and that an omnivorous but reflective attitude to music is to be encouraged.

One possible way this could be pursued is to have a much more overt focus in teaching on linkages rather than isolated incidents. In particular, I wonder if the approaches demonstrated by Eshun (1998) – creating speculative ‘sonic fictions’ that traverse unlikely interconnections and relations – or by Norman (2004) – similarly exploring alternative pathways of works and artists – could offer useful pointers as a way to proceed. This, in turn, evokes the approach taken by Gell (1998; also Born, 2005) in treating collections of work as objects distributed in time and space. It may be that by working hard with students to probe such (possibly speculative) distributions we can enable better and easier engagement with their own and others’ work, and possibly enrich our own collective notions of what musicking is worth discussing, and how.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 14 Apr 2016
EventAlternative Histories of Electronic Music - Science Museum Research Centre, London, United Kingdom
Duration: 14 Apr 201616 Oct 2016


ConferenceAlternative Histories of Electronic Music
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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