Interview with Genevieve Arkle
Genevieve Arkle is currently a final-year PhD researcher at The University of Surrey, where she is writing her thesis on the musical allusions to Richard Wagner’s Parsifal in Gustav Mahler’s songs and symphonies. She has worked as an Associate Lecturer at the UoS and as a Visiting Lecturer at City, University of London. She is a Co-Founder and Deputy-Director of the Institute of Austrian and German Music Research, and in January 2020 she was the winner of the Wagner Society Young Lecturer’s Prize. Genevieve is also a founding member of the EDI in Music Studies Network and has recently been appointed as the PGR Representative for the newly-formed Gustav Mahler Research Centre at the University of Innsbruck. Her work has seen her published in a number of academic journals, as well as presented at significant musicology conferences around the world.
I was lucky to catch some of Genevieve’s time so we could chat about her research, career and what’s on the horizon for this dynamic researcher:
We’ll open with the million pound question: Why Mahler?
Why Mahler…a very good question! When I was in school and studying for my A Level Music, I really struggled to get on board with classical music. I wanted to be a singer, and I found the history and analysis parts of my course to be quite uninteresting honestly! But in the summer after I completed my A levels I was invited to take part in a BBC Prom with the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain to sing in the chorus for a performance of Mahler 2 with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, led by Gustavo Dudamel. I learned my part, and when we started the full rehearsals with the orchestra and I heard the whole thing come together the penny dropped for me. I finally understood why people enjoy classical music, as up until that point, I had never heard anything that moved me the way that that Finale had.
Since then, I’ve tried to bring Mahler in some way into my studies so that I can try and better understand his music and why it moves me. My PhD is in many ways just an extension of that. However, my PhD research extends beyond Mahler, and also looks at his relationship with (both musically and aesthetically) Richard Wagner. My interest in this particular relationship came again from a performance, as I attended a concert of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that was programmed with the Prelude of Wagner’s ‘Parsifal.’ With the Prelude in my mind, I listened to the Ninth and heard (particularly in the Finale) what I thought to be a quotation of (that I believe now to be instead an allusion to) Wagner’s Prelude. This sparked my curiosity for looking at the Wagnerian allusions and references in Mahler’s songs and symphonies and … here I am!
What’s the impact you’re looking to have with your PhD research?
Well, my research focuses on one particular musical ornament and it’s role in Mahler and Wagner’s works (specifically the Finale of the Ninth Symphony and Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’), and I am arguing that this figure is not merely a superficial embellishment, but rather a deeply significant musical motif that functions as a carrier of wider meaning or expression (particularly the notion of suffering, which is a central feature of Wagner’s music drama.)
My hope would be that this study offers a new insight into Mahler and Wagner’s works and that it prompts scholars to rethink the importance of this figure in future readings and interpretations of these (and other!) works. Similarly, if this figure can be thought to offer significant extra-musical associations, it could be a valuable tool for discussions of musical narrative, semantics and topic theory in nineteenth-century compositions. But, more generally, I just hope that other people find it interesting! I certainly do, and I love that I’ve got an opportunity to share something that I think is quite exciting with other people.
You chose to do your PhD at The University of Surrey after studying elsewhere beforehand on your Undergraduate and Masters’ degrees – what made you choose this university for your PhD?
Yes, so I went to Surrey primarily so that I could work with my supervisor, Prof. Jeremy Barham. I contacted him while I was putting together PhD proposals as I wanted to borrow a copy of his PhD thesis that talked about philosophical influences in Mahler’s Third Symphony. He invited me to the department to pick up a copy to borrow and also to chat about my project, and I found that discussion to be so valuable for shaping the project that I wanted to apply there to work on it with him. I also hadn’t been to the campus before, but it felt really friendly and welcoming, and so I think a part of me was also drawn to sense of community that the department has, too.
How has lockdown affected the course of your research/study (if at all?)
Well, it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster for us all, hasn’t it? But certainly it’s impacted PhD life for me. In terms of the day to day (aside from trips to the library) things seem very much the same as I often felt comfortable working from my home office set up. But I think the isolation and the lack of opportunities to go out on the weekend and socialise to ‘escape the thesis’ really took its toll. PhD life can be incredibly isolating, and I think this lockdown time has really reinforced that at times. The university has been great about it and have been offering extensions to PhD students which is great, and they’ve been incredibly supportive of us all trying to crack on with our work remotely. But yes, I’d say the biggest toll it’s taken has been on mental health and sanity really.
I’ve also been doing some teaching at City University alongside the research and in March I got to trial my first ever online lecture, which was quite interesting ! And I’m doing some more teaching for them in the Autumn as a Visiting Lecturer, all of which will be done online. So I’m in the process of getting some video content recorded and making some digital activities and so on, so I can try and recreate my teaching style in a virtual sense. In many ways it will never come close to an in-person lecture and discussion, but I think it’s incredible that technology has the ability to keep us all connected and learning during this tricky period.
Alongside your research you have been doing some teaching at the university – has that had any reflection on your own learning?
Oh absolutely! I learned a lot in my lecturing roles, not only about teaching itself but also about my own work and research. I ran a Gustav Mahler module for the first year undergrads and they asked so many important questions that really made me step back and rethink some of Mahler’s compositions and the articles written about them. I really enjoyed just starting off a discussion with them about something and hearing their views and perspectives -we all hear music differently and interpret it differently, and I think we can learn a lot from listening to the perspectives of others, no matter how old or young or at what stage of their career/ education they are.
I also found that lecturing gave me a real sense of purpose. It enabled me to take these things that I find interesting but often sit mulling over on my own for many hours and share them with other people and get them excited about it, too. It gives your research purpose, and it’s incredible to see other people become inspired by the thing that you’ve been working on. So teaching definitely gave me that little boost I needed to remind myself of why what we do here in academia is important.
When you complete your PhD – what’s next?
Ah, the dreaded question! So I’m doing some teaching this year at City University as I finish writing up my thesis, after that…it’s anyone’s guess! I’d really love to get a job lecturing at a University – positions are so competitive (especially with the aftermath of Covid) but I keep putting myself up for things in the hope that something more permanent will bite eventually.
I also have an idea for a postdoctoral project that I would love to pursue at some point too, so I will be keeping my eyes open for opportunities to try and get that started too. But mainly, after it’s all wrapped up, I’d like to spend some time readying some chapters of the thesis for publication and just continue developing my experiences in this field and see where it all takes me!
©Alex Burns 2020