End of an era

On Friday 6 September 2019 I tendered my resignation, bringing to an end nearly twenty-five years’ work at Newcastle University, first as lecturer in what was then called the Music Department, then as senior lecturer and finally as professor in the by now renamed International Centre for Music Studies. The resignation was accepted.

A quarter of a century’s worth of work could fill a book if recounted in detail, but that would not be the book audiences would want to read. Suffice it to say that I worked and, for much of the time, I overworked. One does not leave employment to go on to discuss institutional matters in a blog, so I only offer some personal recollections by way of valediction.

Periods of particular frenzy were two: the early years when, as a youngish sapper, I ran admissions, the Hopkins Studios and the music technology front, as well as my own discipline of composition and a contribution to the pool of general music teaching. The other especially frenzied time was my three-and-a-half years as Head of Music. These were dramatic in more than one way. The rest of the time was challenging, but not titanically so.

The number of students I taught in all these years would be hard to estimate. There were brilliant ones, there were average ones, there were those who struggled and there were a few difficult ones. It would be invidious to single any individuals out, but I will allow myself to mention groups. The Year Two in what was the only available music programme (BA) the year of my arrival, (1995-6) was a very colourful collection of individuals with whom I achieved a special rapport. They welcomed me with warmth and humour. I still have occasional contact with some of them. As was not uncommon at the time, there was a fair smattering of mature students in the group, and they were among the more interesting personalities.

Over the years, there were two or three absolutely outstanding composition students to whom I owe many hours of delight reading through their work and discussing it with them as I followed their progress. I hope that they will continue to do justice to their potential and, if they remain in England, I hope that today’s harsh realities will not succeed in snuffing out their talent. 

There were students on the Folk Degree who filled the air with music-making of a high calibre; I remember a number of them with admiration.

As to my colleagues, what can I say. I learned an awful lot from them. The most important and influential one of them I will not name. As the majority of staff in my time, I remain in awe of Richard Middleton. He transformed the place with his intellect and drive. On a more localised level, in the folk area, Alistair Anderson showed a similar single-mindedness and transformative power. Other than that, to mention only the veterans from my time, I admired the flair and formidable linguistic ability of Ian Biddle, the intellectual capacity of David Clarke, the decency and rectitude of Eric Cross, the musicianship and passion of Bennett Hogg, the rigour and productivity of Goffredo Plastino, the exquisite wit of Magnus Williamson. Inevitably over a long period interpersonal relationships fluctuate; much of the time we each got on with our own thing, leaving each other alone. But I do owe each of these colleagues, and some of the others, moments of fond warmth and inspiring conversations, seminars and meetings. 

Being a sucker for grand old architecture, I enjoyed the Armstrong Building and having an office overlooking the quad. The King’s Hall was the venue for numerous concerts I enjoyed as a listener and other events I instigated or played in or conducted. A particularly fond memory is conducting the University Orchestra in one of its better ever line-ups in two programmes of mostly Russian music, including Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto with the excellent Robert Markham as soloist. My A Northumbrian Anthem, written for the new Aubertin organ, was to be my most intimate engagement with this space, as well as a homage to the most important ever adult in my life. That the piece was not performed lies outside the intended scope of this post.

In my last two years I worked with relish to set up the interdisciplinary Eastern European and Russian Research Group (EERRG). This gave me the opportunity to interact with colleagues from other disciplines, including some brilliant minds and wonderful people such as Robert Dale, Joanne Sayner, Valentina Feklyunina and others. EERRG also enabled me to deepen pre-existing professional relationships with much liked and much admired personalities from outside Newcastle: Marina Frolova-Walker, Valentina Sandu Dediu and Adrian Pop. I had ambitious plans for this group and I am sad to have had to leave it in its infancy, but I am very pleased to see signs that it is still up and running and I wish it much success.

This self-obituary would not be complete if I failed to mention that, on my arrival in 1995, the Music Department was a small unit, still recovering from a recent attempt to close it down, having performed unremarkably at the recent research assessment exercise. During my time it grew in size and in performance to be one of the most successful music departments in the country, becoming a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and achieving some of the highest research-assessment results in the Kingdom. I am sure any attempt by me to claim any particular credit for that transformation would be contested, but that I was an active participant in that growth and that success is undeniable.   

There is any number of ways I might have imagined my time at Newcastle University to come to an end, but not the way it happened. If we were not well-bred people who respect each other and if recriminations were to fly across the ether, I do wonder what recrimination the institution would find to throw my way. That misfortune struck, perhaps, and that there is a limit to how far an institution can sustain a situation of misfortune. If that was a reprehensible act on my part, I have paid for it by falling on my sword.  


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