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Oxford Arts Blog


Francesca Moll meets the pioneering songwriter on a mission to prove that opera is for everyone.

What do you think of when you think of opera? 'I think we're past the "fat lady with horns" now,' says Dr Toby Young, the Gianturco Junior Research Fellow researching Music and Philosophy at Linacre College.

But while other genres of classical music have been undergoing something of a renaissance, opera remains a niche interest, hampered by the perception of it as a difficult genre reserved for the privileged few. This is something that Toby, a true music lover who appreciates everything from 13th-century Armenian folk music to the grime artists recently so instrumental in Jeremy Corbyn's election campaign, is determined to change.

'Opera was for a long time very much the music of the people,' he says. 'Now, stereotypically, the audience is white, middle-aged and fairly wealthy. I want to say that opera is for everyone, but at the moment it clearly isn't.'

Nobody could be better placed to change this. In addition to his academic work, Toby is also a songwriter exploring the boundary between pop and classical music. As well as writing for the London Symphony Orchestra and King's College Cambridge choir, he has worked with a variety of big names including drum and bass group Chase and Status, Duran Duran and the Rolling Stones ('They're just amazing musicians, Mick is just an amazing performer').

As part of a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship with The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), Toby has been working with McCaldin Arts, a group of professional opera singers, to explore precisely what it is that makes opera so difficult to engage with.

Apparently, the issue is not simply the cost of going to the opera: 'Actually it's cheaper to go to the opera more often than it is to go to the football.'

It also is not a question of opera being especially removed from the rest of modern music. In the course of workshops with singers from a wide range of genres, Toby and his partner at McCaldin Arts, Clare McCaldin, discovered something rather surprising. Technically speaking, there is actually very little difference between opera and pop, with singers from both genres making use of a similar set of skills. A lot of the distinctiveness simply lies in how a piece of music is presented: for example, whether there is a piano accompaniment or a drum and bass beat playing in the background.

Actually, according to Toby, 'pop and opera aren't that different after all'.

It seems opera's problem is far more complex: often it's simply the case that people are raised in certain cultural worlds and are unwilling to stray out of their comfort zone. This is not helped by the fact that traditional opera, with its lengthy run times and big, over-the-top subject matter, can often seem out of touch with modern people's everyday lives.

Toby says: 'Especially now, as society speeds up, we're dealing with people's short attention spans. Opera requires you to slow down a bit.

'It's not so much that they don't understand it. But people haven't experienced a good one, or else they've seen one that put them off for life. You know, they went with school, and they just went, "Why am I seeing this slightly weird hammy thing with someone just standing and singing at me?"

'I think when it's done well, opera is such an effective, emotional, moving and wonderful thing. When it's not done well, it can be really strange, off-putting and distancing. It's such a fine balancing act between a really amazing effective thing where you leave there and go, "wow, that has inspired me in so many ways" versus something where you leave going "oh my God, that was a waste of three hours of my life."'

Work has been done by groups such as Opera Up Close and Silent Opera to bring opera to communities that might be unfamiliar with it, but Toby thinks it requires more than just playing a traditional opera in a new setting to truly engage people. He believes that opera also needs to create a fresh sound that is closer to music people recognise. This is something he hopes to work on in the future, drawing on his experience of popular and classical songwriting to create an original piece that fuses elements of both.

Despite all the challenges, Toby is convinced that opera can be a vital, relevant genre, in a unique position to hold up a mirror to the problems modern society faces.

'There's no other art form that's so complete,' he says. 'You have interesting visuals, you have the acting, and you have the dramatic music all coming together in a truly unique way.

'Because it has to work so hard to draw you in, when you're drawn in I think you're hooked.'

Sounds of South Asia

Des Oliver is a composer and has recently completed his doctorate in composition and critical writing at Worcester College, Oxford. He is currently the curator of the Oxford Music Faculty's 'Sounds of South Asia' series. Des went into music because he is creative but says 'it could have been anything: painting, music, architecture, anything that involved creation'.

The 'Sounds of South Asia' series is a new addition to the events calendar at the Faculty of Music that came, according to Des 'out of a long journey with many legs'.

During study for his DPhil in composition, Des had to complete both a thesis and a portfolio of work. His thesis concentrated on a 20th-century French composer called Olivier Messiaen and on post-colonial discourse in art – particularly the ethics of cultural appropriation by musicians. It was important to Des as a way to consider and challenge his own cultural appropriation and to open a dialogue as to why artists do it.

The final part of his thesis was to consider cultural appropriation from a viewpoint other than his own – a Western classical composer – so he contacted Dr Shruti Jauhari, an Indian Hindustani vocalist. This meeting led to the formation of the 'Sounds of South Asia' series and Dr Jauhari's performance in the first concert.

The first concert of the series on the theme of 'appropriation, cross-pollination and cultural transmission' took place in April at Oxford's Holywell Music Room. This was formed of three parts: first,
Maurice Delages' del Quatre poèmes hindous (Four Hindu poems), each named after a city in India that he had travelled through during his tour of the country in 1911-1913. The third part was a traditional Hindustani work performed by Dr Jauhari. Between these two pieces was a composition of Des's own, Malli Kamoda, which was created to act as a bridge between the Western composition and the Hindustani, pulling in aspects from both.

'The most interesting part of setting up this series has been seeing how very different artists share similarities, how different traditions like to push the envelope and challenge themselves,' says Des. 'I was also overwhelmed by the amount of interest we have had in the series from BME students around the University and from schools throughout Oxford who have been in touch to set up workshops around this topic.'

Des's next aim is to get funding in order to record his Malli Kamoda piece so that more people can experience the mix of cultures that the piece covers. He is also writing a monograph based on his thesis, concentrating on Messiaen and cultural appropriation in music.

Find out more about Des and his work here. 


How good are we at predicting upcoming words during a conversation? If someone begins a sentence with the words 'You never forget how to ride', you'll be surprised if it doesn't end with 'a bike'. But if the sentence begins with 'You never forget how to ride an', then, phonologically, the bike is out of the question – but an elephant isn't.

In a new study published in the journal eLife, an international team including Oxford's Dr Matt Husband investigated, using neuroimaging techniques, whether our brains have the capacity to make very specific predictions about upcoming words, such as their initial sound.

Dr Husband, from the Language and Brain Laboratory in Oxford's Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, talks to Arts Blog about the research.

What was the prevailing wisdom on our ability to predict upcoming words?

For the last decade, our ability to predict upcoming words has become integral to our understanding of language comprehension. The idea that we predict upcoming words has gone from the fuzzy intuition that we all, more-or-less, seem to experience during conversations to a detailed mechanism proposing that we comprehend language in part by predicting what will be said next.

The key empirical questions of the last decade have moved from 'do we predict?' to 'what is it that we predict?' We might, for instance, only predict a very abstract, high-level meaning of what will be said, or our predictions could be quite fine-grained – perhaps even all the way down to the probability for what specific form a word will take.

Arguably the most high profile evidence for this 'specific word' view of prediction is DeLong, Urbach and Kutas' 2005 Nature Neuroscience paper titled 'Probabilistic word pre-activation during language comprehension inferred from electrical brain activity'. They investigated how the brain responded to the expectations set up by sentence fragments such as 'The day was breezy so the boy went outside to fly…' when it continued with the expected phrase 'a kite' or an unexpected phrase like 'an airplane'.

DeLong and colleagues cleverly manipulated the indefinite article in their study, taking advantage of a phonological rule of English in which the indefinite article is realised as 'a' before consonant-initial words and as 'an' before vowel-initial words. This allowed them to ask whether the brain was predicting the sound form of a word before actually seeing that word. They examined electrical brain activity elicited by articles that were comparable with the highly expected yet unseen noun ('a', followed by 'kite'), or by articles that were incompatible with the highly expected noun and heralded a less expected one ('an', followed by 'airplane'). They reported increased brain activity for articles that were incompatible with the highly expected noun compared with those that were compatible with the highly expected noun, suggesting that predictions could be very specific and fine-grained.

What does this new research find?

It is perhaps surprising given how foundational and widely cited the DeLong, Urbach and Kutas study is that a direct replication of this effect on 'a/an' had not been reported in the published, peer-reviewed experimental literature. The study reported in our paper is the first large-scale attempt to directly replicate these results, using both their original methods and analysis and new analysis techniques currently available to us. This was a massive effort, coordinated between nine UK university labs and collecting 334 participants – ten times what an experimental study of this type would normally have. The participants read sentences that were presented one word at a time, while electrical brain activity was recorded at the scalp. Each sentence contained an expected or unexpected combination of an article and a noun, such as in the kite/airplane example given earlier.

Surprisingly, even with such high statistical power, our study did not replicate the key finding of DeLong, Urbach and Kutas, suggesting that either the effect on 'a/an' is, in general, too weak to detect using current neuroimaging techniques, or that the predictions we make during language comprehension are not so specific as to single out a particular word.

What are the implications of this study?

Our failure to find the 'a/an' prediction effect stands as an important reminder that it should take a large body of research to fully convince a field to adopt a new theoretical proposal. The results of a single published study, even in a high-impact journal, need to be considered with care.

Our failure to find the 'a/an' prediction effect should also caution us when it comes to how detailed our predictions can be. It may be that we still predict broad meanings and perhaps some specific features of upcoming words, but very fine-grained, phonetically detailed predictions may be out of reach for the human mind.

The study was led by Mante Nieuwland, cognitive neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics (MPI) and the University of Edinburgh, and involved researchers from nine UK laboratories: University of Birmingham, University of Bristol, University of Edinburgh University of Glasgow, University of Kent, University College London, University of Oxford, University of Stirling, and University of York.

The Oxford laboratory research was supported by the John Fell Fund.

Corfe Castle

From defending a besieged castle to spying for an exiled king, a new project is discovering the untold story of female activism during the British Civil Wars...

It wasn't easy to be born female in the early modern period. The ideology of the era held that women should be controlled by their father or their husband, and that the ideal woman was obedient and quiet, concerned chiefly with domestic matters and the rearing of children.

But don't be fooled by the dominant narrative, says Dr Emma Turnbull, lecturer at Jesus College, Oxford. When you look more closely at actual women's lives, it's clear the picture is far more complicated.

As part of a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship with The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), Emma has been working with the National Trust to take a closer look at the stories of some of the fascinating women associated with their properties. Focusing on the English Civil War and Interregnum period (1640-1660), she has been examining how some women were able to break out of the confining boundaries of their society's gender roles in this era of huge social upheaval.

Take Lady Mary Bankes, who defended Corfe Castle against the first of two Parliamentarian sieges, beginning in May 1643. Along with her maidservants and a small group of soldiers, she personally patrolled the battlements, heaving rocks and hot embers over the walls. She died in 1661, and a memorial plaque in the church where she was buried commemorates her 'courage and constancy above her sex'.

Then there was Katherine Murray, mistress of Ham House. Left behind when her husband, William Murray, a close personal friend of Charles I, went away with him to war, she was forced to rely on her wits to preserve the family property in Richmond, right beside the heart of Parliamentarian power in London.

Or her daughter, Elizabeth Murray, who took over the property after her parents' deaths. In the period of Cromwell's rule she became a kind of double agent, joining the secret royalist organisation the Sealed Knot to work towards the restoration of the monarchy, while also keeping the company of Cromwell. Later, along with her second husband, she would become one of Charles II's most trusted advisers.

What is particularly fascinating about all of these stories, according to Dr Turnbull, is how all of these women used and manipulated traditional notions of femininity to serve their own ends. This is something that has often been missed in traditional accounts of these women, which take their outward affirmation of conventional gender roles at face value.

Katherine Murray and Elizabeth Bankes, for example, claimed they were only safeguarding their children's or their husband's rights when they were defending their property. Although Elizabeth Murray was suspected several times of being a double agent, she was never intercepted. 'What she intends I have not learnt', Sir Richard Browne, Charles II's agent in Paris, reported in the autumn of 1656. Elizabeth thus skilfully exploited the inability of male agents, on both sides, to decode her political motives.

'Focusing on them as mothers or as wives or as domestic beings doesn't really do justice to the level of their engagement and activity. Often they represented themselves in a way that has led us to undermine them. And we've kind of fallen for that,' says Dr Turnbull.

It is also important to recognise that these women were a part of a wider female culture. For example, Elizabeth's later political manoeuvring would not have been possible without the example of her mother. 'It's clear that Elizabeth was learning her craft from her mother. There's a sense of continuity between strong women in the family.'

Dr Turnbull has also drawn parallels between a miniature of Katherine Murray, painted by John Hoskins in 1638 and kept at Ham House, and similar portraits of Charles I's Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria. The fact that Katherine should choose to present herself in an analogous way to the queen, despite their different faiths, suggests that there was a distinct feminine culture at court that bound women together across divisions of religion and politics.

Dr Turnbull hopes that this fresh perspective will inform how this period is presented at heritage properties in the future. Her work has already contributed to a new 'Object in Focus' tour at Ham House, telling Katherine Murray's story through her portrait miniature.

'So often women in the early modern period are presented, in heritage properties, as domestic beings,' she says. But what I wanted to emphasise in this project is that, in spite of the formal and informal barriers to their activities, women had a stake in the political conflict. Elite women, like Katherine Murray and Mary Bankes, were moving around the country, they were visible, and they had a role in protecting themselves and their property.'

Read Dr Turnbull's articles on Katherine Murray, Elizabeth Murray and Mary Bankes here, here and here.

Tom Fetherstonhaugh and Athena Hawksley-Walker

Athena Hawksley-Walker and Tom Fetherstonhaugh, both second-year music students at Merton College, Oxford, are currently performing the complete Beethoven violin sonatas in a series of concerts taking place in the Holywell Music Room, Oxford. They tell Arts Blog about this unique project.

Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas, composed between 1798 and 1812, are regarded as the cornerstone of the violin and piano repertory, and are hugely important works in the western classical music canon. They are unmatched in terms of a large-scale cycle of works for a violin and piano duo. Although their composition spans a somewhat smaller time period than some of his other works – for example his string quartets – they offer a huge insight into Beethoven’s development as a composer, with Sonata No.10 in G major sitting on the cusp of his movement into his fragmentary and transcendent so-called ‘late style’.

As well as being arguably the most important single body of works for violin and piano, the pieces demand both extreme technical skill from the performers and an ability to communicate effectively with each other in order to capture and express, through music, the full range of human emotion.

The very first time we played together it was in ‘opposite formation’: Tom on violin and Athena on piano. In fact, the first piece we performed was Beethoven’s violin Sonata No. 5, ‘Spring’. Our artistic partnership continues to grow and this series is our most ambitious yet.

The first three concerts in the series have already taken place, with the remaining sonatas set to be performed across the rest of the year. Sonatas 6 and 10 will be performed on Monday 14 May, and numbers 8 and 9 on Monday 22 October. Each concert will commence at 7.30pm.

On Monday 14 May a pre-concert talk will be given by Daniel Grimley, Professor of Music at the University of Oxford. Professor Grimley is an expert on European classical music and has particular research interests in the links between music, landscape, and geographical culture, covering music from the classical period up to 20th-century works.

Click here for more information on the concerts.

Athena Hawksley-Walker studied violin and piano at the Royal College of Music Junior Department for nine years with Ani Schnarch and Neil Roxburgh, winning prizes in violin, piano and theory, both at the RCM and from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. In addition, she was awarded Kingston Young Musician of the Year and Richmond Young Pianist of the Year and distinction in both violin and piano dipABRSM diplomas. Athena was in the National Youth Orchestra for four years, co-leading in her final year. She now studies with Michael Foyle at the Royal Academy of Music through the Oxford Music Faculty’s RAM scheme.

Tom Fetherstonhaugh is organ scholar at Merton College, Oxford, where is he is responsible for accompanying the college choir for BBC broadcasts, concerts, tours and services. He is a busy recitalist, giving solo concerts around the UK and Europe. Alongside his organ-playing, Tom is a conductor. He founded Fantasia Orchestra, a group of London musicians whose concerts have won critical acclaim: the Arts Desk has called the strings sound ‘already a thing of wonder’. Tom is about to start his second season as conductor of the Oxford University Sinfonietta.