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Interview: Leah Broad

Over the course of the next ten weeks we'll be publishing interviews with all of the ten 2016 AHRC and BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers. We'll be delving more into their passions, inspirations and hopes; getting an insight into their expertise and plans for the future. We start the series with Leah Broad from the University of Oxford.


Leah Broad’s research is on Nordic modernism, exploring the music written for the theatre at the turn of the 20th century, taking her to Finland and Scandinavia to search out scores which have not been heard since the early 1900s. As a journalist Leah won the Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism in 2015. She is the founder of The Oxford Culture Review, a website communicating arts and humanities research and arts reviews.

AH: When you pitched to become one of the New Generation Thinkers you focused on Nordic modernism and the links between music and theatre. Can you explain more about how and where this research interest developed?

LB: I took a course on Scandinavian music when I was an undergraduate, and absolutely fell in love with it. Reading for the lectures, I found a small reference to some theatre music written by the Finnish composer Sibelius. I tried to look for more books on theatre music, as the crossover between the arts seemed to be so important to understanding this period of history, from about 1880-1930. But I couldn’t find anything! There’s plenty on plays, and lots on concert music, but very little about what the theatre would actually have sounded like. At first I thought this might be because not much music written for theatre, but all my subsequent research has shown completely the opposite to be true.

It opened my eyes to a whole history I didn’t even know was there. I think that’s what has kept me researching this particular area — it’s so important to write forgotten stories. Not only are they usually fascinating, but they make you reassess everything you thought you knew before.

AH: Was there a Eureka moment when you knew that you wanted to become an academic?

LB: Bizarrely, yes. I’d originally been training as a concert pianist, and that was the career I was intent on building. But I applied to universities as well as music colleges, and my Oxford interviews completely changed my mind. They were challenging in a fascinating and exciting way — I think it was a bit of a shock for my family when I decided to go to university instead of music college! Since then it’s been more of a slow and steady process that I’m still working through.

AH: Can you tell me about a key area of research that you’re working on at the moment that really excites you?

LB: Many of the personalities that I’m studying at the minute — playwrights, producers, composers — were incredibly politically engaged. Their work helped to shape the most prominent social debates of their age, and they’re topics we’re still discussing 100 years later, from feminism to socialism. At the minute I’m researching a Swedish director, Per Lindberg. He worked throughout his career to build what he called a “democratic” theatre. He wanted to widen access to the arts both through education, and by keeping his ticket prices as low as possible. Balancing financial prudence and arts education to make sure the arts aren’t the preserve of the wealthy is particularly on my mind at the minute. As and when Brexit goes ahead, universities and arts projects in the UK stand to lose a lot of funding and the cross-border movement they rely on. So I’m fascinated by what Lindberg came up with on this, a century ago, in a completely different economic and social climate.

AH: Do you have a favourite composer or piece of music that has inspired your passion for music?

LB: It was really performing that got me interested in studying music, rather than any one piece or composer. Expressing yourself in sound — whether by yourself or with others — is a wonderfully unique experience. Of course, there are composers I enjoy: Tosca by Puccini showed me how political music can be, as did Janacek’s Piano Sonata — a piece that I love playing.

But most of all I think it’s the sheer diversity of music available that makes me care about it so much. What is counted as “music” is different the world over — some cultures don’t have a word for “music” per se. What we do with sound is a direct inroad in to the way we conceptualise the world around us, and that’s why I’m fascinated by how music’s been thought about historically.

AH: Is there a historical figure that you particularly identify with?

LB: I don’t know that I identify with any one figure, but I deeply admire the Finnish author Minna Canth. She fought for social equality and women’s rights in a time and place when it was not easy to do so, especially as a woman. Her writing is extraordinarily frank — Anna Liisa deals with rape and infanticide, while Children of Misfortune tried to raise awareness about extreme poverty. In Finland, she’s remembered as one of the country’s foremost writers — and she managed her career while being a widower raising seven children!

AH: What advice would you give to someone thinking of following an academic career path?

LB: Put yourself forward for everything, and be prepared for setbacks. Academia’s as tough as it is rewarding, and there will be times when things don’t go according to plan. But everybody has had those moments, even the most senior of academics. It’s worth stepping back, and then coming at the problem with a fresh set of eyes. On which note, make sure you leave the library sometimes. You can get some of your best ideas from discussions with friends, or things that might seem entirely unrelated to your work.

AH: What role do you see for academics in helping us to understand the lessons of history and meet the challenges of the future?

LB: This is an immensely far-reaching question! I think academia’s just been given quite a wake-up call after Michael Gove’s comment that the UK has ‘had enough of experts’. Researchers have a real responsibility to engage across university walls, not just within them. We need to think harder, and be more practical, about how we go about doing this. The future will be shaped by how we learn from history; to take just one example, America's high court ruling on legalising gay marriage cited historical precedent, based on academic research. Academics are vital if we don’t want to repeat history’s mistakes, especially when we’re in an age of truly global challenges. People researching the cultural history of the Cold War, the development of civil rights movements — it’s quite dangerous to think we have ‘had enough’ of what they might have to say.

AH: If you could travel back in time to a particular period of history, where would you go?

LB: Is it too obvious to say the period I’m studying? That would be the ultimate academic birthday present. Or France about 1200, to see troubadours perform. I’d love to know what the 13th century equivalent of a rap battle looked like.

AH: Do you have any top tips for early career researchers that want to get into radio and TV?

LB: Practice writing for audiences outside your field. Use whatever outlets you can find — edited blogs are a good place to start, and a great way of getting constructive feedback on tone. And before you send anything off, record yourself reading what you’ve written. Writing for radio and academic conferences is so entirely different that it can be quite surprising when you first hear yourself back. It might take a while to write the way you speak naturally.

AH: How have your found your voice when talking and being interviewed on Radio 3?

LB: I think I’m still finding it! So far it’s been an exciting and rewarding process, and I’ve really appreciated working with the production teams, and getting to discuss the other New Gen Thinkers’ research with them. I’m very much looking forward to doing more.

If you have been inspired by the stories of our 2016 New Generation Thinkers and are an Early Career Researcher yourself, why not apply for the 2017 New Generation Thinkers scheme.

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