Music and the body: Review of a Conference at Hong Kong University’s Centre for the Humanities and Medicine and Department of Music, 9-11 March 2012

As if visiting an extraordinary city like Hong Kong for the first time were not pleasure enough, it was a treat to have an unusually gratifying excuse to do so in the form of participating in this timely, unusual and in many ways visionary conference: the title ‘Music and the body’ promised an intriguing event and so it proved. Benefiting from excellent organisation by accomplished and delightful academic staff and postgraduates (primarily from the Hong Kong University’s Dept of Music, with the arrangements being most closely guided by Assistant Prof Yuon Kim), and with an intriguingly eclectic programme assembled by a panel that included recent Durham IAS Fellow Prof Sander Gilman (who is a Visiting Professor currently in Hong Kong), the conference was perceptively compered by Prof Daniel Chua, a composer and eminent Beethoven Scholar (and now also Head of the School of Humanities for his pains). Daniel somehow manages to combine these roles with strategic involvement in Hong Kong University’s recently-established Centre for the Humanities and Medicine, a landmark development in the growth and consolidation of medical humanities as a field of enquiry with increasingly global reach.

Held in the rather prosaically-titled Main Building of the University, a truly beautiful colonial courtyard-villa-cloister of a building dating from the inter-war period, the ‘Music and the Body’ conference brought together scholars from Hong Kong and predominantly Anglophone countries including the United States, Canada and the UK; these folk flourish mainly in music departments but included a few disciplinary waifs and strays such as myself. The programme was deliberately un-themed in a frank and sensible response to the cornucopia of abstracts the convening panel had received, reflecting the path-finding nature of this conference. More than one speaker reminded us that as recently as thirty, perhaps event twenty, years ago a conference on this subject would have been ignored as pointless or incomprehensible; only since then has music’s obvious embodied fundament been recognised, taken seriously and – now – studied in anything like a systematic fashion.

Session topics ranged widely across the military origins of musical rhythm and functional posture, the history of operatic voice production, the use of ‘screaming’ saxophones in the free jazz of such as Coltrane, the puzzle of whatever happened to castrati (and why), pantomimes and liberty, masochism and transcendence (yes, really!), the body’s postures in varieties of Indian classical dance, how electric guitar playing gave identity to black women exponents of the blues, searching for the transcendental in the opening of Beethoven’s penultimate sonata, how sound constitutes skin (yes, again, really!), music as a threat to health, and why music might have a therapeutic role through helping ill bodies to ‘remember’ what it was like to be well. A number of these sessions involved tantalising sound/video clips (of which a number left the audience wanting more!) but sadly there was no live music during the programme; this, together with the obvious drawbacks of sequencing some twenty-seven consecutive papers in three days with relatively little discussion time, produces the only criticism I could level at an otherwise outstanding occasion.

Somehow the eclectic has to be drawn together to make sense, a daunting but vital task. It was elegantly (indeed, suavely) done via Daniel Chua’s thoughtful posing of three core enquiries to be articulated and considered by the panel in the closing round-table plenary, these being in his (compelling) view the key issues to emerge overall – recognisable, persistent but not settled – from the three days’ deliberations. First, have we a clear delimitation of the meanings of ‘music’ and ‘the body,’ and in general how should we think of their relation? Second, is there (as most of us tacitly supposed but few had the nerve to propose) really anything special about music’s relation to the body as distinct from relations coupling the body with any of the other arts? And, third, in what sense might music be thought of as an extension of the body? (Looking ahead, for me this was the most suggestive of the three questions, given my inclination to think of the human body as in itself one of music’s possible expressive forms – the body as music. Of which perplexing-sounding thought, more from me anon, perhaps – one day…). For the present, given the normal pitfalls of round-table discussions, I found this a really thoughtful and progressive synoptic discussion which encapsulated just how fruitful an agenda beckons for a study of the relations between music and the body – a medical humanities enquiry if ever there were one!

As well as the direct content of the programme, other pleasures for me included seeing old friends again (among them Prof LC Chan, first met in 2006 in Byron Bay, Australia at the inaugural conference of the Australia-New Zealand Association for Medical Humanities, LC’s colleague Dr Robert Peckham, from a memorable Beijing meeting on east-west dialogue in medical humanities in 2009, Prof Sander Gilman, most recently in Durham in November), and meeting new friends – though perhaps it would be incautious of me to name them here just in case I’ve misread the signs! And, of course, there was the extraordinary delight in encountering the city of Hong Kong for the first time – something that I will perhaps describe in instalment two of this Hong Kong travel-blog…

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2 Responses to Music and the body: Review of a Conference at Hong Kong University’s Centre for the Humanities and Medicine and Department of Music, 9-11 March 2012

  1. Pingback: A postcard from Hong Kong | Centre for Medical Humanities Blog

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