Dr Sean Curran awarded prestigious prizes in musical research

Trinity Fellow, Dr Sean Curran, has been awarded two prestigious prizes for his research in the history of music.

In June 2018 he received the Jerome Roche Prize from the Royal Musical Association, and in November 2018 Dr Curran was awarded the Alfred Einstein Award by the American Musicological Society.

The prizes – for a musicological article of exceptional merit by an early-career scholar – were awarded for Dr Curran’s article in Early Music History (2017), ‘Hockets Broken and Integrated in Early Mensural Theory and an Early Motet.’

Hockets were a musical phenomenon characterised by the sudden alternation of sound and silence in one voice or in several. The device was popular in polyphonic songs, such as motets, of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Dr Curran’s award-winning article investigates the meaning of the hocket to audiences at the time and its significance in the context of a particular medieval motet. Katharine Ellis, 1684 Professor of Music at Cambridge, sees it as a ‘landmark article’ and has characterised it as a ‘mini monograph in weight and significance’.

According to the citation for the Jerome Roche Prize 2018:

Founded on a carefully constructed case that, in contrast to received opinion, the earliest theorists concerned with hocket viewed it as a brief, single-voiced phenomenon, Curran provides a meticulous interpretation of the narrative and structural functioning of a brief hocket in a single piece.

As well as radically rethinking what the hocket meant to thirteenth-century audiences and theorists, Dr Curran ‘nimbly demonstrates competing methodologies of “knowing and hearing” and masterfully integrates them,’ according to the Alfred Einstein Award citation, which concludes, ‘The ethics of listening in which Curran deftly embeds the hocket turns out to have startlingly modern resonances.’

Dr Curran studied at the University of California Berkeley before being elected to a Junior Research Fellowship at Trinity. With training in historical musicology, music analysis, ethnomusicology, and in literary studies, Dr Curran has a wide range of research interests in the history of music, especially in the period 1100-1450, and particularly of France.

‘No question: medieval music is an esoteric field,’ says Dr Curran, ‘especially as we cannot hear exactly what thirteenth-century audiences heard, and often have to do a lot of legwork to read the notations that survive, or to understand the theoretical texts in which medieval musicians discussed their songs.’

But, says Dr Curran, the research can reveal unexpected connections with modern concerns.

Hockets involve a kind of silence that surprises listeners, one which makes them ask, “What’s going on here?”, or, “Why is this happening?” You could say that a hocket is a pause of voice that encourages a reciprocal pause for thought, and that it offers an opportunity to listen more carefully. In a noisy world, old invitations to pause and to listen seem timely again.

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