Geography, Music, Space Conference

Natalie Hyacinth

On Wednesday 25th January I embarked on a 3 hour train journey from Kings Cross to Durham for the one day Geography, Music, Space conference at Durham University.
The conference, supported by the Institute of Musical Research and Durham University’s Department of Geography, was a stimulating day of talks and discussion of all things Geography, Music and Space, just perfect for me!

I was motivated and inspired by the diverse collection of papers that in various ways, reflected on music’s complex spatial associations.

The conference was divided into 3 sessions;
♣ The political spaces of music
♣ Music and everyday space making
♣ Performance spaces: hearing, playing, feeling

Jun Wang, an urban geographer from the Public Policy Department at City University of Hong Kong, gave a fascinating account of the spatial politics of Chinese rock music in the first session, entitled: Practicing Music, Practicing Musical City: Spatial Politics of Chinese Rock in Shenzhen.

I learned that Chinese rock, beginning in the late 1980s, became a by product of China’s open door policy and increasing influence from the Western world. Jun described the birth of Chinese rock as a form of political protest and dissent. Chinese rock therefore is still not generally considered socially acceptable and is mostly performed in underground, hidden urban city spaces. As foreigners often own these underground performance spaces, June interestingly noted that this made them harder for government agencies to “shut down”.

Jun’s use of the term “shut down” drew parallels in my mind to Grime, London’s very own homegrown form of hip hop. Tottenham Grime MC, Skepta, in his most well-known song Shut Down, similarly reflects the frustration Grime musicians encounter in securing live music venues to perform and the experiences of frequent government and local council “shut downs” of Grime events. June’s talk stimulated much thought on the various struggles artists often face around the world within the politics of performance and right to creative city spaces and venues.

Maria Lindmäe from Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona opened the second session with a talk entitled: The Impact of Collective Practice of Music on Young People’s Behaviour Towards their Everyday Environment: A Case Study in Medellín

Maria’s description of hip hop in the city of Medellín, Colombia was particularly interesting to me and my research into the practice of hip hop in Ealing. Maria discussed some of the systemic crime and violence issues faced by neighbourhoods of low socio-economic income in the city. I was intrigued by Maria’s proposition that due to the at times challenging everyday reality, residents developed an acute territorial awareness of their districts. Maria then described how hip hop is used as a way to redraw the tense spatial lines and zones of the city through creatively reclaiming territory.

I was also interested to learn of the Argo Arte initiative in Medellín that seeks to bring together horticulture and hip hop, who’d have thought! I particularly enjoyed a quote from one of the rappers involved in the project who said:

“Hip hop is performed in the street, under the street is soil, in the soil we find our stories, our memories and battles. That is why whoever wants to learn how to rap must learn to sow, as it is in the ground where real stories are found.”

Maria’s talk initiated new dimensions in my thoughts on urban space and creativity and to my developing concept of a “geography of the streets” and the ways in which hip hop seems to engender a particular and unique spatial awareness.

Gretchen Larsen of the Business School, Durham University and Maurice Patterson of the Business School, University of Limerick presented a great talk entitled: Creolized Sonic Ecologies: Sound, Space and Consumer Subjectivities in New Orleans.

Gretchen and Maurice described their ethnographic exploration into the interplay of space and sound in New Orleans, a city renowned as the birthplace of jazz. They centred their research on two distinct spaces in the city; Burbon Street and Frenchman Street. The former is known for tourism and consumption and the latter well known for its diverse music culture. Gretchen and Maurice described how tourists visiting both streets were encouraged to consume and experience the spaces through “functional” music, a concept I found interesting.
They also discussed what it means to be branded a “musical city” and introduced the concept of sonic ecology and how it can be applied to the streets at carnival time. I found it interesting to hear these concepts and critiques of consumption particularly contextualised by their backgrounds in business and consumer studies. After hearing the sounds and seeing photos from New Orleans I felt even more inspired about visiting the city with the Making Suburban Faith team at AAG 2018!

Emily Falconer from University of Westminster closed the final session with a talk entitled: In Harmony or Out of Tune? Affective and Emotional Geographies of All-Male Choirs. Emily’s talk was an interesting discussion of the affective moments that occur in all male choirs and why these are crucial to creative social bonding. Emily discussed the possible reasons all male choirs were appealing, describing how the Chaps Choir she works with acts as a vocal projection of masculinity.
I was also interested in the idea that the recent rise of all male choirs ‘re-masculinize’ singing and make it appear more ‘manly. These interesting reflections on masculinity chimed with my own research on masculinity, music and space in Ealing. Emily’s work with all male choirs also made me think more about researching masculinity and male centered spaces as a woman.

I was also very pleased to see Emily again whom I first met at the beginning of my PhD in January 2015. Emily organised the Singing from the Same Hymn Sheet? The Role of Choirs and Collective Belonging symposium at Southbank University that myself and Professor David Gilbert presented at a paper to. We could not believe it had been 2 years since the Choirs symposium and my very first experience of academic presenting!

There was also a film screening of Fausto Di Quarto’s short film entitled: Reclaiming Democratic (Public) Spaces through Music: The Case of Viaduto Santa Tereza in Belo Horizonte. The shorter title of the film is “Under the Bridge” and centres around the creative musical practices that have developed under a bridge in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is an absorbing ethnographic tale of hip hop musicians reclaiming unused spaces of the city through music and community. Again this connected much with my own research into hip hop and spatial politics.

The final session was followed by a keynote lecture by Dr George Revill, Senior Lecturer of Geography at the Open University. His talk entitled, Geographies of Voice, touched upon the ways in which voice works within the materiality of space. I enjoyed learning a new concept, “vocalic space”, which seemed particularly related to my research case studies who all in some ways centre the voice as a form of worship or connection to God. Dr George Revill co-edited the influential 1998 book, The Place of Music which has some great connections to my work on musical creativity in the borough of Ealing.

Overall I enjoyed a wonderful day of stimulating talks on topics closely related to my research. Durham is a beautiful town and seeing the castle for the first time during the day and at night was a remarkable experience. Thank you Durham and the conference organising team!

Durham Castle at night