Aural Histories: Coventry 1451-1642

Lead Research Organisation: Birmingham City University
Department Name: ADM Birmingham Conservatoire


Aural Histories: Coventry 1451-1642 is an interdisciplinary project that seeks new insights into the experience of music in the City of Coventry during a period of immense cultural change. Taking the visit of King Henry VI to Coventry in 1451 as its starting point, the project will map the changing musical experiences of those living and performing in the city onto the socio-economic, historical, and religious-political landscape of this important provincial location, informed by a rich but under-researched seam of fragmentary primary sources. Medieval Coventry has been the subject of intense scholarly interest by art historians, archaeologists, and social historians due to its status as an important trading centre throughout the fifteenth century, but the musical culture which undoubtedly thrived, as documents suggest, in a city well provided with religious institutions, civic guilds, and royal patronage, has not received scholarly attention until now. Furthermore, archival evidence hints at continuing civic and ecclesiastical performance traditions that persisted into the seventeenth century, spanning the Reformation and counter-Reformation movements that contributed to the outbreak of the English Civil Wars. No attempt has yet been made to place the trends and practices hinted at by Coventry's historical records in this later period into their wider national context.

This project combines expertise in musicology, architecture, acoustics, historical performance, and practice-led research to fill these gaps in knowledge. By addressing the relationship between Coventry's historic buildings, the spaces between them, and the music with which they were filled, we will situate the multi-sensory experience of the listener at the centre of our research. We will construct case studies around key points of change through the project's timeline, asking what music might have been heard, how it might have been performed, and how it might have sounded in its material and spatial context, advancing our understanding of the cultural experiences that defined lives across the social spectrum during this period. Some of Coventry's historic buildings - most notably St Michael's Cathedral, ruined in the Blitz of 1940 - are fragmentary or have been altered considerably over time. We will use established VR architectural and acoustic modelling techniques to rebuild these spaces as virtual research environments. We will add specially recorded audio of relevant historical repertoires to our VR models and use emergent 3D audio technology to model changing listener and performer perspectives within VR historical spaces for the first time. We will use archival evidence of architectural changes, such as the addition of rood screens in churches, the use of wall hangings and tapestries in civic spaces, which often reflect the prevailing religious-political sentiment of the day, to manipulate our VR space and assess the effect on the listener of material changes as they occurred over time.

On a technical level, this project will advance the use of combined VR and 3D-audio processes as tools for creating research environments, shedding considerable new light on the day-to-day effects of shifting cultural practices on the listening and performing public of late-Medieval and Reformation Coventry. The methods we develop will also have significant potential application for historical performance research in other locations in the future. Additionally, we will assess the potential for an immersive VR user experience based on our research for use by the heritage sector, adding a novel interactive sonic dimension to existing VR technologies for connecting people with history. The practice-led research methods our project embraces involve extensive community participation as part of the research process, with impacts and benefits for academic and community stakeholders alike as we involve local people in research about the place in which they live.


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