Researching Modern Music
Alexandra Kolesnik, Junior Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer at HSE’s Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities recently completed her post graduate studies in History and successfully defended her PhD thesis entitled ‘Historical representations in British popular musical culture of the 1960-1980s’. Here, Alexandra talks about her research into modern pop-culture.
Rarely do historians refer to the study of pop culture – this field is generally reserved for culturologists and sociologists. And, if a historian should delve into this area, their work is often linked to cinematography or mainstream literature.
Popular music has been touched upon indirectly before by historians. For example, British rock was regularly included in descriptions of the cultural revolution in the UK in the 1960s, as well as in material dating back to the Soviet underground movement of the 1970s-80s, illustrating the nature of censorship in the USSR and criticism of the regime that was expressed in music. It should be noted that, over the past 5 years, several papers by historians have been published that address popular music as the main theme (in most cases, rock music). However, these papers have only dealt with American and British music.
Alexandra Kolesnik began to examine pop culture and focus on British rock after having studied the history of socialist revolutionaries at the turn of 20th century. This change in the direction of her research was made possible both by Alexandra’s highly motivated approach, as well as by the support of her colleagues at the Poletayev Institute and the Doctoral School of History. Her research now looks at how musicians interpreted national history in their songs and performances, how various audiences reacted to this music, and how and why various historical images became popular at different times in the UK.
A new look at British rock
Researchers in the UK are enthralled by British pop music history and value it highly. Brits themselves consider it to be a part of their cultural legacy. Indeed, starting in the 1980s, many artists were officially recognized as part of the national heritage. However, Alexandra notes, for the most part, rock music is studied by musicologists, cultural researchers (as part of cultural studies) and sociologists. In her opinion, this is why questions around historical representations tended to be left by the wayside.
‘I am not only researching which historical images were used by musicians and how, nor am I not only looking at how these historical images were played out on stage and their manifestations on album covers and in promo companies,’ explains Alexandra. ‘I try to go one step further and consider how we can see and track changes, using the research material, in the relationship between Brits and their own history from 1960 to 1980.’
Looking at these 30 years of British rock music history, we clearly see a change in the national and international identities of Brits, and we also observe the impact of post-imperialism and new social, political and economic post-industrial realities. Alexandra shows, in her thesis, how issues around various socio-political, economical and cultural processes that were current at the time were often reflected in the music, and later, in other cultural media also (mostly in cinema, mainstream literature and television).
This approach to researching British pop music is completely new among British researchers. Alexandra went on student exchange to University College London in 2015 and also attended several conferences in the UK and the USA between 2013 and 2015, where her project was met with a lot of interest and deemed to be novel by her colleagues in the field.
Prepared by Anna Chernyakovskaya
Jessica Werneke, who completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Iowa and her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, joined the International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and its Consequences as a Research Fellow in 2016. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, she has spent a considerable amount of time living internationally – in both the UK and Latvia – and following her post-doc plans to start a new position as a Newton International Fellow of the British Academy at Loughborough University, where she will continue her research on Soviet photography clubs and amateur photographers in the RSFSR and the Baltic Republics.
The October Revolution created a new cinema. At first, 'the most important of all arts' struggled to keep up with social transformations and was not yet used as a weapon in the fight for a communist culture. But the mid-1920s, an innovative, cutting-edge film industry had emerged from sources such as theatre, street performance, posters, poetry and circus shows. This industry was able to do what the politicians had failed to achieve, namely trigger a world revolution.
On October 11, Professor Dominic Lieven of the University of Cambridge, where he serves as Senior Research Fellow, Trinity College, gave a public lecture at HSE St Petersburg entitled ‘Reflections on empire, Russia and historical comparison’. The event was organized by the Center for Historical Research.
A hundred years has passed since the October Revolution of 1917, but this event still hasn’t reached its logical conclusion. Its consequences are still crucial in defining the political system in Russia today and fostering divisions in society, believes Andrey Medushevsky, Professor at the HSE Faculty of Social Sciences, political scientist, historian and author of the book A Political History of the Russian Revolution: Norms, Institutions and Forms of Social Mobilization in the 20th Century.
Department of History at HSE St. Petersburg is focusing on a global, comparative and transnational approach to historical studies, and cooperates with several European and American research centers. One of its primary partners is German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which sponsors a position of an Associate Professor for a German scholar, and Dietmar Wulff, the current resident, told The HSE Look about his three years at the department and plans for the future.
On October 10, Stephen Wheatcroft, Professor of the School of Historical Studies at the University of Melbourne delivered a lecture on ‘The importance of the grain problem in the Russian Revolution and for the next 40 years of Soviet Economics' at HSE Moscow as part of a long and busy schedule. A participant at previous April Conferences at HSE, Professor Wheatcroft is one of the world’s foremost experts on Soviet social, economic and demographic history, as well as famine and food supply problems in modern world history.
Samrat Sil is a recent graduate of the English-taught Master's programme in Applied and Interdisciplinary History ‘Usable Pasts’ at HSE St. Petersburg. David Datmar, a native of Ghana, decided to join the programme to help him prepare for eventual study at the PhD level, which he plans to undertake soon at the University of Oxford. Both gentlemen were recently awarded certificates of recognition for their role as ambassadors contributing to the university’s internationalization agenda.
International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences, Higher School of Economics and The Friedrich Ebert Foundation held 'A Memory Revolution’: Soviet History Through the Lens of Personal Documents' in Moscow on 7-8 June, 2017. The conference brought together distinguished historians and sociologists from across the globe. Michael David-Fox, Professor of History, Georgetown University, and Academic Advisor of HSE International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences shares his reflections and considerations on the main topic and discussions at the conference and his own research
On May 31, Valerie Kivelson, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, will be delivering a seminar entitled ‘Visualizing Empire: Muscovite Images of Race’. Professor Kivelson is an expert in Medieval and early modern Russia, history of cartography, history of witchcraft, religion, and political culture, among other topics. She is the author of 'Desperate Magic: The Moral Economy of Witchcraft in Seventeenth Century Russia' and a guest editor of 'Witchcraft Casebook: Magic in Russia, Poland and Ukraine. 15-21st Centuries'.
A group of 20 undergraduates from the United States visited St. Petersburg, 'the northern Venice', this January, taking part in a programme that blended the history, society and culture of the Russian Empire’s capital. Participants arrived from Mount Holyoke College and Smith College, opting to spend two weeks of their winter holidays here (6 – 22 January) learning about this city. Participants were diverse in their fields of studies, Russian knowledge, and travel experience, some even choosing this trip as their first chance to travel outside the borders of the United States.