Music, women, history – Dr Jennifer Gall

Dr Jennifer Gall is Assistant Curator, Documents and Artefacts at the National Film and Sound Archive, completed her doctorate at the ANU School of Music, and was the recipient of an ACT Heritage grant in 2014. We caught up with her about music, women and her research.

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I grew up in Lismore in northern NSW after leaving Melbourne, and it was like being in paradise! I had the benefit of an excellent state school education with dedicated teachers. My history teachers in particular, taught me to always question established facts, and introduced me to using oral history as a research methodology. In year 10, I did my first oral history with women, about music in their lives, in the early days of the Northern Rivers.

The intersection of music, dance and social history has been the most important theme in my education, and in my research. Growing up in the country made me aware firsthand of how important the arts are in constructing social life in a community. Even singing in something like a school choir concert brings together people of all ages and backgrounds to share in the celebration of the event.

There are thousands of women from different walks of life whose stories have been neglected because they weren’t ‘famous’, or simply because they were women in an era where men’s lives were the ones that were recorded in official histories. In particular, the musical careers of these women made life better for everyone living around them. The same goes for many other professions were women have not been acknowledged. This continues to fuel my research.

In fact, I am travelling to Lismore this weekend to give a talk to the Richmond River Historical Society, about the Chisholm sisters, students at St Mary’s Presentation Convent, who won scholarships to the Royal College of Music in London in 1914.

Last year you received funding from the ACT Heritage Grants program – can you tell us a bit about the work you’ll be doing and how far in you are?

It is a 12-month project, looking at the historic musical instruments, the sheet music collections, and the oral histories and other written documentation belonging to three ACT house museums: Mugga Mugga Homestead, Lanyon Homestead, and Calthorpes’ House. The idea is to recreate the musical life of each house. Different kinds of music were made by the different classes and the age groups of household members throughout the years of occupancy. The outcomes will be: three recorded sound-worlds for each house; lecture recitals, and school holiday programs.

I getting the pianos at Mugga Mugga and Lanyon restored, so that these instruments may be heard in the house to recreate a sense of the life of the house.

I am almost halfway through the project. Restoration of the piano at Mugga Mugga is completed, and the Lanyon piano will begin the restoration process next week.

Your research has also been engaged with the connection between women in a domestic setting and music – why do you think it’s important that we look at these areas of interest?

Women often taught their children music, particularly in times of economic restraint, and if they were living in remote locations. Owning a piano was a high priority for even the poorest families, and was valued as a symbol of civilization and culture, of living a life that wasn’t just surviving.

Conventional histories focus on the musicians who made a successful career on the performance stage or on concert tours in a professional capacity. However, there were many highly accomplished women musicians who were never paid, and yet they maintained the fabric of society by providing musical entertainment and assisting others to sing or dance.

Women of all classes made – and make – music to entertain children, sing them to sleep, or to help with monotonous tasks around the house. For women working in factories, or in domestic service, music had other liberating powers.

What do you think music tells us about society and culture?

The musical life of a city or a community is the measure of its cultural awareness. Music is perhaps the greatest force in uniting people across different classes, ages and educational backgrounds. Musical ensembles like symphony orchestras or popular rock bands are a source of pride for the people who invest as audience members, as well as those who perform in them. Music allows us to inhabit a world that is non-verbal, and it is important that we have the ability to enter this world regularly, to be able to understand our lives.

What’s something you’d most like to achieve this year?

I’d like to complete the series of concerts that I have planned for the house museums, and attract good audiences, as I have done for the first concert at Mugga Mugga.

How can people find out more about your work?

Keep an eye on the ACT Historic Places website, for details of events associated with this project. You can read my music reviews in the Canberra Times, and an article about the Chisholm sisters will appear in the next edition of the Australian Folklore Journal. Also, in the current edition of the NLA news, there is an article about Ned Kelly’s sister Kate – herself the subject of bush ballads.

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  • Lisa commented on June 11, 2015 Reply

    Very interesting read!

  • Gillian Alcock commented on June 11, 2015 Reply

    Right on Jennifer! Music is the centre of many lives. I’ve spent the past 40 years giving people the tools (instruments) to make themselves happy. I have to retire though thanks to MS.

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