Graduate Research Colloquium: Professor Andrew Kirkman (Peyton and Barber Professor of Music, University of Birmingham)

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The two sides of Bowie’s 1977 album Low famously pit ‘conventional’ pop songs (most of side A) against a series of ambient electro-acoustic sketches (side B). Perplexing to many early reviewers (and even more so to his record label), the album’s non-lyric tracks were at least semantically propped up by titles suggesting a basic narrative, encouraged by Bowie’s autobiographical comments to interviewees and well worn in the literature: a coke-addled rock star leaves LA for a fresh start in Berlin (‘A New Career in a New Town’), and psychological self (re-)discovery against the backdrop of an alien, anonymising cold-war landscape. Emblematised most evocatively by ‘Warszawa’, purportedly memorialising a walk through the Żoliborz region of that shattered city, the narrative acquires further profile through allusions to a fractured Berlin and the east-west divide it locally articulated and more broadly symbolised (‘Art Decade’, ‘Weeping Wall’).

That general picture was clearly meaningful to its author (at least as the framework for a persona) and it remains evocative; but of course as always with Bowie it was never that simple. The titles of the instrumental tracks seem in at least some cases to have been added post facto, while their material owes much to Brian Eno, his work conducted at least some of the time in their ostensible author’s absence. Flipping over to side A, the words came (not atypically for Bowie) late to the party, with—for example—the half-hearted lyrics of ‘Be My Wife’ being added only once the rest of the track was complete. Elsewhere, the sub-two-minute ‘Breaking Glass’ indulges Bowie’s widely deployed psychological distancing tactic of mis-accentuated, halting word setting, its lyrics adding perhaps less in terms of semantic content than in rhythmic accent and groove. 

Widening the lens beyond their constitutive album, moreover, Low’s lyric and ambient components look less like articulations of opposites than a canvas for one instantiation of their author’s career-long psychic/sonic exploration and the wider field of interpretative possibility that it affords. Using Low as a springboard, therefore, this talk will draw out a range of Bowie’s manipulations of sounds—lyric, instrumental, electronic and pure ‘noise’— and interrogate (some of) their possible meanings.

Andrew Kirkman is Peyton and Barber Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham (UK). His publications include Music and Musicians at the Collegiate Church of St Omer (Cambridge, 2020) The Cultural Life of the Early Polyphonic Mass (Cambridge, 2010), The Three-voice Mass in the Later Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries (Garland, 1995), Binchois Studies, edited with Dennis Slavin (Oxford, 2000), and Contemplating Shostakovich: Life, Music and Film (Ashgate, 2012), edited with Alexander Ivashkin. His articles have appeared in numerous journals, including the Journal of the American Musicological Society, Journal of Musicology, Early Music History, Music and Letters, and 19th-Century Music. A longer version of the present paper will shortly appear in The Cambridge Companion to Davie Bowie.

He has directed a wide range of ensembles, including choirs, orchestras and various period-instrument ensembles. While at Birmingham he has conducted the modern premieres of Porpora’s opera L’Agrippina, and, on 12, 14 and 15 April, Stradella’s The Power of Paternal Love (La Forza dell’amor paterno). His scholarly work has been closely entwined with his work as a performer, chiefly with The Binchois Consort, a small professional Renaissance vocal ensemble which he founded in 1995. Programmes by the Consort focus on music’s role in specific historical and cultural contexts, including the Court of Savoy, the Hundred Years’ War, and a series of projects juxtaposing late-medieval English music and alabaster. The Consort has performed widely in Europe and the United States, and its thirteen recordings to date, all on the Hyperion label, have received universally strong critical approbation and many music industry prizes, including Gramophone's ‘Early Music Recording of the Year’ and ‘Recording of the Month’ and a ‘Diapason d’or’. Andrew has also been active as a freelance violinist, and, with pianist Clipper Erickson, in 2013 released on the Affetto label (distributed by Naxos) a recording of world premiere performances of violin sonatas by Cyril Scott.

About the series:
The Colloquia feature leading figures, as well as younger scholars, from across the world. They present their research in papers on all kinds of music-related topics. Graduate students Chuyu Zhang and Eugenie Dalgleish organise the series. Presentations are followed by a discussion and drinks reception. If you would like more information, please email Chuyu Zhang.