Resounding Cities: Music, sound, noise in urban environments (1500-1800) 
Last week I was invited to present at a conference organised by the University of Valencia entitled Resounding Cities: Music, sound, noise in urban environments (1500-1800) - Although a number of presentations were in English, including mine mercifully, much of the conference was conducted in Spanish. Unfortunately, this means that my observations offer at best only a limited view of the whole. 
Reinhard Strohm was one of the first to invite us to consider how music ‘helped order time and space within urban life’ (Music in late medieval Bruges, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985). Developing on this theme, the conference examined the communicative processes of urban music across the 16th to 18th centuries, presenting the city as a place of negotiation between individuals and institutions. Discussion was focused on how these processes might be reconstructed, including topics as diverse as sound perception and listening, the intellectual and sensory response of the inhabitants, and the reconstruction of soundscapes. There were also presentations on the implications of urban musicology in other research fields, including cartographic application and digital humanities. 
Urban musicology has been a very active field of research amongst Spanish and Portuguese musicologists over the last twenty years or so., and the organisers were keen for the conference to develop a shift in perception from ‘conceptualisations of urban space as a geometric container of the dynamics between musical institutions to approaches that are based on the acoustic dimension of urban space itself’. A major challenge facing academics studying soundscapes prior to the end of the nineteenth century is of course their reliance on sources that are inevitably coloured by a variety of listening practices and historical differences in meaning. For example, there is little historical, geographocal or cultural consistency in concepts as fundamental as sound, music and noise. A major theme that ran throughout the conference was how the range of these materials requires an intellectual approach that is both individual and imaginative. To cite the conference materials, ‘The diversity of sources and traces, their allusive and elusive character, also invites us to interpret the sources imaginatively, often "against the grain" (which, obviously, does not mean opening the door to arbitrariness, but quite the opposite –an auditory history that is not critical and reflexive is condemned in advance to failure)’. Much of the discussion certainly had an abstract, poetic element that reminded me of the literary style of the Annales school. 
My presentation was concerned with the changing power structure of patronage over eighteenth-century concert life in London, based on a comparison of the reception of the Mozart family concerts with the evolution of the JC Bach-Abel subscription concert series. The main point of discussion after the paper was its focus on the importance of venue and accessibility for urban concert performance and on the mechanics of production and consumption as opposed to the creative process. Certainly, my perception is that there is significant opportunity to conduct further research on the receptive aspects of urban musicology: in particular, how the masses, as opposed to the urban elite, listened and responded to what Strohm described as the ‘life, motion and sound’ of the city. 
Tagged as: Urban Musicology
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