Balancing academia and music

This post first appeared on The Exeter Blog.

The life of an academic is full of deadlines and conflicting priorities; however, how do you balance these priorities, if you add an emerging band and a record contract?

This is the situation which PhD researcher, and member of The Echo and The Always, Angela Muir finds herself in. In this blog post she talks about how these different roles have become intertwined.

Photo courtesy of Polly Thomas
Photo courtesy of Polly Thomas

Like most PhDs and career academics I lead a very busy life with conflicting deadlines and priorities, and an endless struggle to find the time and inspiration to write, all of which needs to be managed with an eye on future opportunities and the endless funding applications they require. Like most (if not all) academics this is balanced against other personal and professional commitments outside academia. For me, that second commitment is music.

I’m in a very fortunate situation. I’m funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada to pursue my PhD on the experience of childbirth for unmarried mothers in eighteenth-century England and Wales. Outside academia I’m in a signed indie band called The Echo and the Always which has been funded by the Arts Council of Wales to promote the release of our debut album ‘…and After That the Dark’.

The first two weeks in December highlight just how busy these two careers can be. In addition to the inevitable endless marking that comes with the end of term I was also writing an academic article, writing funding applications, fulfilling my duties as PGR Liaison for History, and preparing for upgrade before I left to spend Christmas in Canada. At the same time, the band was chosen to be BBC Wales Artist of the Week. In addition to this I stepped in as a session musician for a BBC Horizons Maida Vale session, which involved travelling to West Wales for practice sessions with another band, then to London to record and film. At one point I showed up to an Ex Historia colloquium with my trumpet on my back because I had to leave straight after to catch a train to London.

This is just one example. On several occasions when we’ve been on tour I’ve spent my morning on my laptop in a hotel room analysing statistics on infant mortality or writing a conference paper, or making a detour so I can spend my day in the archives before meeting the band at the venue we’re playing that night. I spent part of the weekend of Green Man Festival sat backstage reading secondary literature for a chapter. This may not be for everyone, but I find it exhilarating.

For the past five years my academic and musical careers have been intertwined. I moved from Canada to the UK in 2010 to pursue my MA in Early Modern History, and even before I landed I was in a band with friends I had made on previous trips. Although our line-up has change over the years the academic links are still there – I met our guitarist (and my partner) during our MAs Swansea University.

It hasn’t always been easy, and the fortunes of the band and academia seem to mirror one another. The band had a great debut year at the same time I graduate with my MA and published my first academic article. Things slowed a bit with the band as we cycled through members trying to find the line-up that ‘clicked’. During this time I was turned down twice for international PhD funding. When I finally secured Wellcome funding the band signed to the independent record label, Jealous Lovers Club. Finally, not long after I was awarded SSHRC funding from Canada the band was awarded Arts Council funding. Surely this is just coincidence, but it’s been an interesting pattern nonetheless.

My schedule may seem hectic or unmanageable to some, but I’m one of those people who thrives when I’m at my busiest. Other than the never-ending worries about funding and constant self-promotion academia and music are very different, which is a blessing as each gives me an opportunity to clear my head of the other. This juggling act is also helping me learn how to make the best use of my time, and when necessary learn when and how to say no. The problem of major conflicting priorities has been mitigated by extensive planning and by making choices such as releasing our album at the end of October, which meant we could tour during reading week to promote it.
Photo courtesy of Gemma Conde

Swn-Festival-Photo-Credit-Gemma-Conde-224x300My schedule may seem hectic or unmanageable to some, but I’m one of those people who thrives when I’m at my busiest. Other than the never-ending worries about funding and constant self-promotion academia and music are very different, which is a blessing as each gives me an opportunity to clear my head of the other. This juggling act is also helping me learn how to make the best use of my time, and when necessary learn when and how to say no. The problem of major conflicting priorities has been mitigated by extensive planning and by making choices such as releasing our album at the end of October, which meant we could tour during reading week to promote it.

This balancing act is also made possible by the support networks I have working around me. I have a great relationship with my supervisory team, Dr Sarah Toulalan and Dr Alun Withey, and there is a fantastic community of PhDs and early career researchers at Exeter. The band serves as a surrogate family for me, and the music community in Cardiff is incredibly supportive and inclusive. Plus we have great management behind us.

I may be busy, but I’m also fully aware of the privileged position I’m in – I get to pursue not one, but two of my passions at the same time.

Exeter alumnus, Jonathan Holloway, recalls fond memories of his time at university

Jonathan Holloway is an artistic director and writer. Following his recent appointment to the role of Artistic Director of the Melbourne Festival (from 2016 onwards), he recalls fond memories of his time at the University of Exeter.

Jonathan Holloway

Jonathan Holloway cr. Frances Andrijich

I’ve had the extraordinary good fortune to do some amazing things over the past two decades, but I would still say that my years as an undergraduate at Exeter University were a life highlight.

I read Drama from 1988 – 1991, which my peers and I think of as “the great years” in Exeter – although I’m guessing that others, before and since, may just say the same thing. I say I “read” Drama, but it wasn’t all reading. The course was very practical, and its content has had a direct and ongoing influence on my work.

From Brecht to Butoh, each five-week unit was totally immersive and focused, each one approaching a subject from every angle.  We were regularly encouraged to dive into something new and confront it, learn it, and become confident in it. As soon as we felt comfortable, the content would change completely – who knew what would be next?

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Royal de Luxe in Perth

The course began with basic anthropological questions about the arts: why do we sing, or dance, or tell stories?  Over 25 years later, these questions still form the basis of my approach to festival direction. Now that I work in Australia, this context is particularly important, as ancient traditions live on through the Aboriginal custodians of the land and their stories.

Some of my greatest memories come from extra-curricular activities: the beautiful walk between the Thornlea Studio and the Guild offices; working on promotions and security every weekend at the Lemon Grove; and trips to Dawlish Warren with friends who would go on to be rockstars, radio presenters and academics.

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Royal de Luxe in Perth cr. Scott Weir

Drama at Exeter is rightly hailed as one of the great theoretical and action-based training grounds for practical theatre makers in the UK and beyond. I found that the course produced world-aware and highly communicative people, all with cultivated skills, beliefs and intellectual stand-points.

After graduation, I spent several years as a director, writer and curator of arts programmes, culminating in co-writing and directing Robin Hood at the National Theatre in London (under my stage name Jack Holloway), and establishing and directing the National Theatre’s “Watch This Space” Festival. Festivals are unique in their ability to unite and uplift a city, and so the invitation to come to Melbourne was irresistible: the cultural capital of Australia, with the Melbourne Festival at its creative centre.

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Studio Cirque ‘Place des Anges’, cr. Toni Wilkinson

For a number of weeks a year, a festival can transform a city, turn it on its head, and in so doing can change the perceptions of the city from both inside and far away.Festivals have the ability to curate extraordinary experiences and stories, to explore what really defines and challenges a city and its communities. I believe that the role of the arts is changing as rapidly as the world around it, and festivals have a pivotal role to play in helping people to navigate and re-map the modern world.  The arts need to occupy all platforms, from the digital and virtual to the purpose built and the unexpectedly occupied found space.

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Studio Cirque ‘Place des Anges’, cr. Toni Wilkinson

Now, I find myself reflecting on the University of Exeter, and how it helped me to develop resilience, knowledge, curiosity and confidence; as well as the set of principles by which I live my life. The skills and approaches I learned at Exeter were useful throughout my work in Bracknell, London, Norwich and Perth. Now I’m in Melbourne – who knows where I’ll be next?


 

For more information on the Melbourne Festival, please visit the Melbourne Festival website.

Frank Barlow’s The Feudal Kingdom of England: 60 years in print

Written by University of Exeter alumnus David Bates (BA History 1966; PhD 1970)

2015 marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Feudal Kingdom of England, Exeter Historian Frank Barlow’s influential account of the Anglo-Norman world, a text which has been instrumental in the study of the subject ever since. Frank Barlow (1911-2009) is among the most distinguished of the academics who have worked for the University of Exeter and its previous incarnation, the University College of the South West of England. The recipient of many honours, his recent inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography elevates him to the status of being one of the men and women identified as having made an outstanding contribution to British national life over the last two millennia.

Frank Barlow

Professor Frank Barlow at his desk. Photograph courtesy of Marjorie Bowen and Bob Higham.

First appointed at Exeter as Lecturer in History in 1946, while holding the rank of Major after war service, he became Professor of History and Head of the Department of History in 1953, holding both positions until his retirement in 1976. For those who studied History at Exeter in those days, the predominant memory will probably be of Frank striding into the Queen’s Building Lecture Theatre to lecture to the Medieval British History class, often held at 9 o’clock on a Tuesday morning. A tall man, he would arrive in the Lecture Theatre standing bolt upright, exuding seriousness of purpose, and always wearing a gown. Spell-bindingly brilliant and on those Tuesdays a magnificent antidote to residual sleepiness, the lectures would be laced with anecdotes that illuminated the distant past through the use of modern analogies and jokes at the expensive of the academic stars of his day. Each one of these would be accompanied by an infectious high-pitched laugh.

Probably less apparent to those who studied History as undergraduates was that Frank was an extremely productive and highly original historian. That his text-book, The Feudal Kingdom of England, first published in 1955, is still in print may well constitute some kind of record. Its incisiveness and its clear exposition of complex themes have inspired many towards the study of the Middle Ages. His three biographies of Edward the Confessor (1970), William Rufus (1983), and Archbishop Thomas Becket (1986), also all still in print, have dominated interpretation of their subjects ever since. There is surely a remarkable irony in the fact that Frank was writing royal biographies during the supposedly revolutionary 1960s and 1970s. A first impression might be that this was old-fashioned, but in fact he was doing it in a way that now seems very modern and far ahead of its time. His capacity to explore personality and contextualise a life places his books in the forefront of the genre. Also a magnificent editor of difficult Latin texts, he continued to publish outstandingly important work into his nineties. He was a dedicated servant of the University of Exeter, serving as Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Public Orator. He also continued to be active nationally as a Fellow of the British Academy and regionally in the Devonshire Association in his nineties. The continued and present high standing nationally and internationally of Exeter’s History Department owes a huge amount to his skilful use of the opportunities for expansion presented by the post-Robbins expansion of universities in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The recent deposit of Frank Barlow’s papers in the University Archives makes accessible to the wider world not only the record of the career of an outstanding scholar and academic, but also a remarkable witness to the life of the University during a very important period.


Those who wish to know more about Frank Barlow should consult, David Bates, ‘Frank Barlow (1911-2009)’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 172 (2011), 3-24.

Luke Hagan, Exeter alumnus reflects on his film debut

Exeter alumnus Luke Hagan studied for an undergraduate degree at the University of Exeter in History and Archaeology (2007) before completing a Masters degree in Film Studies (2008). Luke then went on to work as a freelance filmmaker. All in the Valley is Luke’s first feature film, in which he acted as writer, director, and editor.

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Photograph courtesy of Luke Hagan.

The film was shot between September and December 2012, along with several day’s reshoots and pickups in the summer of 2013. Luke and his team hope that All in the Valley will facilitate their move onto other projects; “All in the Valley was self-funded and the idea from the beginning was to make the best film we could with relatively little money, which we could then show to people and say “imagine what we could achieve with funding.”

Set in Cornwall in 1855, All in the Valley follows Joseph Ballam, a Crimean war veteran who returns home with no money, no job and no prospects. He meets Mr. Lincoln, a wealthy mine owner, who offers him the chance to emigrate to the colony of Van Dieman’s Land. However, in exchange for a new life, Ballam must explore deep into the Cornish landscape in order to hunt down the Tallack brothers, a dangerous gang of thieves, and return the money they have stolen from Lincoln’s company. All in the Valley is an exciting new take on the classic western genre. The film takes the common western themes of migration, wilderness and lawlessness and transports them to Victorian Cornwall – a frontier just as treacherous and wild as the old west.

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Photograph courtesy of Luke Hagan.

Luke was recognised for his work last year, receiving the Best Feature Film accolade at the Cornwall Film Festival. Luke, who is familiar with the Cornish landscape, says that All in the Valley was inspired by its setting; “When we were looking for ideas for a film it dawned on me that we had access to this beautiful and dramatic backdrop.”

He explained that his experiences studying at the University came into use preparing for the film, adding: “Once we had figured that out I called back on my days studying History at Exeter and started doing some research into the history of the Cornish moors, the mining industry and the large scale emigration that took place in the region. The parallels between what I learnt and the traditional narratives of the American western soon became apparent and the rest of the film fell into place.”

Speaking about his experience and future work, Luke said: “We have several ideas that we’re working on at the moment, including other feature films and web based projects. I think our next step will be a short film. Making All in the Valley was a fantastic experience but feature films take a long time to complete so we’d like to do something we can see finished on shorter timescale. We’re hoping to start work on our new project in 2015, and we’ll see where things go from there.”


 

For more information about Luke’s film All in the Valley, please visit his website.

Hilary Mantel reads her latest piece

Hilary Mantel (centre) flanked by Professor Nick Kaye and Professor Helen Taylor

Hilary Mantel CBE, one of the country’s most distinguished living novelists and a University of Exeter honorary graduate, read from her latest Man Booker Prize winning novel Bring Up the Bodies to a packed Alumni Auditorium last Thursday, 11 October. Bring Up the Bodies was announced as the latest winner of the prestigious literary accolade on Tuesday 16 October.

Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to Mantel’s previous Man Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall, which is a study of Thomas Cromwell, the man who engineered the dissolution of the monasteries and the execution of Anne Boleyn. Wolf Hall won not only the Man Booker 2010 but also the inaugural Walter Scott Prize and the US National Book Critics Circle Award. Testimony to Mantel’s gifts as a great storyteller, Wolf Hall is also the biggest-selling Booker prize winner to date.

The evening was introduced by Professor Helen Taylor, the College of Humanities Fellow for Arts and Culture. Professor Taylor gave an introduction to Hilary Mantel, talking about her career in general and her recent successes. When asked what she would spend her Booker Prize money on, Hilary replied “sex, drugs & rock ‘n’ roll”, before acknowledging that there wasn’t much of this to be found in East Devon so she would pay off her mortgage instead.

Hilary read an excerpt from Bring Up the Bodies, humorously bringing the characters to life. There was time for a few questions from the packed audience, which comprised of members of the public, students and staff of the University, and members of the University Council, including Chair of Council and alumna Sarah Turvill. Hilary spoke about how her recent works are being adapted for the stage and BBC television, and how she would like to work on more big historical fiction once the Cromwell trilogy is completed.

Mantel, a former teacher and social worker, is only the third double winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and was made an honorary graduate of the University in a ceremony at the Streatham Campus on July 17 2012. She moved to the westcountry in the spring of 2011.

Professor Helen Taylor said: “Hilary Mantel’s literary output is the most brilliantly original and varied of any contemporary writer. In 2011, Hilary Mantel became an honorary graduate of the University of Exeter and we in the College of Humanities are delighted to appoint her as Honorary Visiting Professor.”