Institute of Musical Research starts life anew at Royal Holloway

The new-look IMR aims to support and showcase studies across the musical spectrum

October 8, 2015
Alice Glass, Crystal Castles, crowd surfing at O2 Academy, Brixton
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The band plays on: themed series at the IMR will include exploring the process and meaning of music in performance

“My approach to music research and study is very pluralistic,” says Geoff Baker, new director of the Institute of Musical Research.

Now a reader in musicology and ethnomusicology at Royal Holloway, University of London, Baker has always specialised in Latin American music, but that has included “everything from colonial church music to hip hop”. As a result, he has never drawn sharp distinctions between Western art music, popular music and ethnomusicology, and he believes that it is not the job of the IMR to “police what does or doesn’t count as musical research”. Its role, rather, is to “foster high-quality research” of any relevant kind and, in the longer term, to “build bridges with the world outside academia”.

The IMR was one of the constituent institutes of the University of London’s School of Advanced Studies until a feasibility study in 2014 suggested that both it and the Institute of English Studies should be merged into some of the others. In the event, Royal Holloway stepped into the breach to save the IMR and Baker took over as part-time director in July with the support of a PhD student who acts as an administrative assistant six hours a week.

By maintaining links with the University of London, the IMR can still offer free or very cheap space at Senate House in Central London, an excellent venue for the one-day conferences, seminars, workshops, networking meetings and book launches that Baker describes as “the showcasing end of the research process”.

But although his three predecessors as directors all serve on the advisory board alongside many fresh faces, he is now in charge of what is in essence a new institution. So what is already in the pipeline and at planning stages?

One major initiative, reports Baker, is a “scheme for early career researchers” who have completed PhDs within the past three years but “haven’t yet got their feet on the employment ladder of their first academic jobs”. These are “the most vulnerable group of scholars, in danger of falling through the cracks in the profession”.

Applicants to become IMR early career fellows have to find a sponsoring music department for a co-organised event where they can present their own work and join forces with other scholars to broaden their networks. (They are also specifically asked to think about the public-facing aspect of such events, and finding ways to communicate – beyond fellow specialists – to performers, instrument-makers, audiences and so on.)

The first five “winners” have recently been announced, in research areas ranging from instrument-making to music and politics. Although the institute can currently afford to give them only £500 each, Baker sees this as “a minor leg-up for people at a crucial stage in their careers. Helping such people should be central to what the IMR does.”

Although it is now attached to Royal Holloway, the IMR is very much a national institute that is designed to build synergies with music departments across the country, with its website acting as central hub for anyone working in music studies who is keen to make contacts, and put on and publicise events.

A new distinguished lecture series will allow senior scholars to describe a research project in depth. This will be launched in May-June 2016 by Nicholas Cook, 1684 professor of music at the University of Cambridge, who will be speaking on “Musical Encounters: Studies in Relational Musicology”.

When it comes to seminars, Baker hopes to focus on “themed series pursuing a particular vein of research through the year”. These can be “difficult for individual music departments to put on”, since they often “have to cater to a wide variety of interests” and so end up including “everything from 16th-century music to music in the Sudan”. 

Two such themed series are already scheduled by the IMR. One is being organised by John Rink, director of the AHRC Research Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice at Cambridge, and will explore the process and meaning of music in performance. The other is the international composers series, led by Paul Archbold, reader in performance and screen studies at Kingston University (as well as a composer and outgoing director of the IMR), which will bring in renowned composers from around the world to talk about their work.

More generally, Baker sees a role for the IMR as “an honest broker between departments so they can put on things they couldn’t afford individually”. Under discussion for the future are “discipline-specific research training for PhD students” and events (perhaps on the model of cafés philosophiques) to promote “public understanding of musical research”.

In numbers

Five scholarships in research areas including instrument-making and music in politics 

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