Performing social relationships: the materialism of collective music-making

Wistreich, R. (2023) Performing social relationships: the materialism of collective music-making. In: University of Birmingham Centre for Reformation and Early Modern Studies, 25 October 2023, Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon. (Unpublished)


The great music sociologist, Christoper Small, coined the now ubiquitous neologism ‘musicking’ to describe ‘taking part, in any capacity, in a musical performance’, going on to propose that ‘The act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies.’ (It is not hard to imagine extrapolating this to other arenas of performance – theatrical or ceremonial, for example). But what if those acts happened hundreds of years ago, and are only discernible today in the form of opaque images, fragmentary literary descriptions, or the occasional displaced domestic object? This paper takes examples of representations of informal collective music-making drawn from relatively marginal genres of evidence such as novels, friendship albums, emblem catalogues, frontispieces, and household objects. Taking up Christopher Small’s dictum always to begin by asking ‘What’s really going on here?' I attempt to read them both as records of musical practices (and thus what they might tell us about the materiality of early modern musicking) and also as metaphors that may refer to the deeper social meanings of the relationships they celebrate.

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