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Tom Smith (St Andrews) reports on this conference held in September, supported by the IMLR’s Regional Conference grant scheme

Words, Music and Marginalisation was initially scheduled to take place in person in September 2020 in St Andrews, hosted by the School of Modern Languages and our new Laidlaw Music Centre at the University. Due to the coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent lockdown and travel restrictions, the conference was moved online via Microsoft Teams. Although we were disappointed not to come together as a community in Scotland, this online solution enabled us to bring together more scholars and remove financial and travel barriers that early-career scholars and other colleagues might have faced.

As part of this switch to online delivery, I am very grateful to the Institute of Modern Languages Research for their support and patience as we adapted to the new situation. Our budget funded bursaries to enable access to the online conference for early career and postgraduate scholars.

In order to achieve the broadest reach within Modern Languages and across disciplines, I was delighted to secure the collaboration of the Forum of the International Association of Word and Music Studies (WMAF). The WMAF is a network of early- and mid-career scholars who meet regularly to explore the intersections between music, literature and contemporary theory. Working with the WMAF enabled the conference to support early career and postgraduate scholars as much as possible and to create a supportive environment where academic hierarchies were minimised.

The conference attracted 43 submissions for papers from scholars based across the world. In the end, we were able to accommodate 31 separate papers with 36 speakers. 70 people attended in total. Speakers and attendees joined us from Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Korea, Turkey, the UK and the USA. Within the UK, we placed a particular emphasis on encouraging attendees from Scotland and the North of England, with speakers or attendees from the Universities of Aberdeen, Durham, Edinburgh, Liverpool Hope, Manchester Metropolitan, Northumbria, St Andrews, from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and from one (then) independent scholar in Aberdeenshire (since at the University of Reading).

The keynote lecture, ‘Listening at the Margins: Hearing Identity in Opera’ from Imani Danielle Mosley, Assistant Professor of Music and Music History at the University of Florida, provided a valuable theoretical reflection on the meaning of ‘marginalisation’ for artists who find themselves at the centre of the cultural canon. It was just a shame that her focus on Benjamin Britten’s operas Peter Grimes and Billy Budd could not be complemented on this occasion by the sound of the sea from the clifftops in St Andrews! The keynote lecture was extremely well received and attended by 70 people. It can be viewed on the University of St Andrews YouTube channel here:


Scholars gave papers on a range of literature, film and music, including German and French Studies, but also on Modern Languages research in a broader context: Cambodian/Khmer, Chinese, Hawaiian, Indian, Māori, Turkish. In line with our focus on marginalisation, several participants proposed to focus not only on European languages and cultures but on non-Western and Indigenous writing, film and music, facilitated by an overarching shared interest in music as a cultural phenomenon. To complement our virtual location in Scotland, a number of speakers focused on Scottish culture from postcolonial (Cherry and Hoene) and feminist (Haller-Shannon) perspectives, including Hoene’s engagement with Gaelic-language musical culture and ceòl mòr.

Throughout the conference, methods from Modern Languages, especially literary, film and cultural studies, proved invaluable tools in analysing, challenging and circumventing the discourses in musical and literary culture that marginalise certain people. Of particular note were the methodological reflections on trans scholarship and composition (Allphin), feminist history (Haller-Shannon) and film aesthetics (Hart and Ertan). The particularly high standard of methodological innovation by postgraduate students was impressive, and speaks to the vibrant state of the broader discipline. Queer studies and post- and decolonial methods were central to many papers, and there was a productive mix of historical work, close readings and theoretical analysis.

We were greatly inspired by the conference and look forward to building on the networks and relationships formed. Our thanks to the IMLR’s Regional Conference Grant scheme and for the Institute’s support throughout the process!

Dr Tom Smith, Lecturer in German, University of St Andrews