Laura Risk: Performance, Research and the Governor General’s Gold Medal


(Blog post by Chris Maskell)

Sometimes, it feels best to be recognized for your hard work when you least expect it. For fiddler and recent doctoral graduate Laura Risk (Ph.D, 2017), this surprise came in the form of an email from McGill University announcing that she had been awarded not only the McGill Alumni Association Graduate Award (valued at $1500), but also the Governor General’s Gold Medal – the university’s highest honour.

As the award is given only to the year’s top doctoral students in Natural Sciences and Human Sciences, Gold Medal recipients must hold a remarkable academic record, conduct top-quality research and demonstrate leadership abilities, among other things. According to her supervisor, Prof. David Brackett, Risk’s thesis on traditional music in Quebec stood out by being “thoroughly researched,” “theoretically innovative” and “unusually subtle.”

To discuss her reaction to the news, thoughts on music research and more, we spoke to Risk through a recent email exchange.

You just received the Governor General’s Gold Medal, which is a remarkable achievement. What was your reaction to getting the award?

It was a complete surprise and, honestly, I didn’t really believe it at first. I got the news late at night so I went to bed and waited to see if there’d be another email in the morning saying that it had all been a mistake! Even now I’m not sure that it has completely sunk in. I feel extremely honoured and also very humbled to have received this award.

Your thesis was in the running against papers from all disciplines in the Human Sciences. Why do you think yours got the award? Why is humanities-based research so important in today’s society?

I should probably preface my answer to this question by saying that my undergraduate degree was in Applied Mathematics. There’s a part of me that loves elegant and precise solutions and at times I’ve felt frustrated by the inexact nature of humanities research, including my own. That said, I think the humanities have the potential to help us understand how certain ideas or frameworks that we take for granted today—for instance, the relationship between traditional music and national identity—were shaped by specific historical decisions, and how our present-day actions contribute to maintaining or challenging those ideas and frameworks. Sometimes understanding how we got to this point as a society can help us figure out how to move forward.

The performance studies scholar Diana Taylor writes about “meaning-making paradigms” that “structure social environments, behaviors, and potential outcomes.” I think humanities-based research is one way of understanding the paradigms that “make meaning” for us, as communities, as societies, or as nations.

What inspired the concept for your thesis?

I knew when I started my graduate studies that I wanted to write about traditional music in Quebec. My original idea was to look at Scottish fiddle tunes that had migrated to Quebec, and I do trace one such tune in my dissertation: the well-known “Money Musk” (called “Monymusk” in Scotland). My research ended up focusing on the construction of folk, or traditional, music as a genre in Quebec, however, and for that I need to thank my supervisor, David Brackett. David is a popular music specialist and has written extensively on musical genre. He introduced me, and many other music graduate students, to some very thought-provoking and wide-ranging writings—including his own—on how musical genres are created and maintained, and on the complex relationships between, as he would say, categories of music and categories of people. I was particularly attracted to the idea of studying how, when, and why a given musical category comes into being.

The first part of my dissertation looks at how the musical repertoire that we think of as “folk” or “traditional” in Quebec came together under the generic heading of “folklore” in the early 20th century. Much of this happened in a very public space: on stage, here in Montreal, at a series of performances that purported to recreate rural “veillées,” or informal community gatherings centered around music and dance. These early staged veillées led me to early commercial recordings of fiddle music, and then to later staged veillées on radio and television. I was also interested in the difference between these mediated representations of traditional music and what happened when families and friends gathered informally to play traditional music, sing, and dance: what I call “unstaged veillées.”

Did you find that having such a high-level performance career influenced your approach to your research? How are the two fields related?

I definitely think that my work as a musician influenced my research. My interests and experiences as a performer shaped many of my research questions and approaches. I also work frequently with dancers and I think that perspective influenced my research as well.

Music research plays an important role in the day-to-day work of many musicians: every time you get a score from a library, listen to a field recording, read a biography of a performer or composer, or browse through a reprint edition of an eighteenth-century fiddle tune collection (one of my favourite musical activities!), you’re enjoying the results of music research. That said, many working musicians and dancers harbour what I’d consider to be a healthy scepticism with regards to musicology. Sharing and discussing my research with my music and dance colleagues has helped me refine my ideas, clarify my focus, and, I hope, keep my writing streamlined and engaging.

Were there particular professors that you found to be particularly helpful during the research/writing process? What resources does Schulich offer that you found particularly useful?

I’ve already mentioned my supervisor, David Brackett, whose seminars on musical genre were invaluable. We’ve had many long conversations about fiddle music, musical categories, and national identity over the years. I am deeply indebted to him for patiently working through all of these ideas with me.

The musicology area at McGill is exceptionally strong and very diverse, and I was fortunate to learn from a number of professors whose research interests are quite different from my own. To give one example: Julie Cumming specializes in Medieval and Renaissance polyphony. Her seminar on sixteenth-century music printing influenced my own research on printed and manuscript collections of fiddle tunes. I realized that I needed to study not only the tunes but also the media: page size, binding, typesetting, handwriting, etc. That seminar also introduced me to digital musicology—my final project used networking visualization software to graphically represent reprints of Renaissance Masses—and when I started work on my dissertation, it was Julie who suggested that I collaborate with a computer programmer to identify melodic variants in fiddle tunes, and who found funding for that collaboration under the SIMSSA project.

I also need to mention Cynthia Leive and the other amazing librarians at the Marvin Duchow Music Library. I went to them with many obscure requests over the years and they were always unfailingly helpful and genuinely engaged by my questions. I don’t think I ever got “no” for an answer at the library: they always found a way to help me access the resources I needed. At one point I was planning a trip to the Gaspé and wanted to be able to make digital transfers of homemade cassettes of fiddle tunes while I was there, so they lent me a high quality tape deck for the summer and taught me to repair broken cassette tapes (you just need Scotch tape and a small screwdriver).

Now that you’ve completed your thesis, what are your next plans? Where can we look for you next in your academic and performing careers?

I’d like to continue working on some areas of my dissertation research and eventually turn that into a book. I also have a few other research projects on the go, including some that are not about traditional music!

For instance, I’ve been researching the life and music of jazz violinist Ginger Smock. She was one of the first women to record hot jazz on the violin, back in the 1940s, and also one of the first African American women to host her own television show (as a bandleader). I began this research in Professor Lisa Barg’s “Gender and Jazz” seminar in 2010. Currently I’m working with Smock’s extended family and with the family of Canadian jazz violin collector John Reeves to digitize and catalogue a number of Smock’s personal and professional effects, and then deposit those at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. I’d like to write more about Smock, for both academic and non-academic publications, and perhaps organize an exhibit/concert and some educational outreach materials.

I continue to perform and teach fiddle music and I’ll be all across the U.S. this summer (check my website:  I’m also currently working as program manager for the community music organization Encore!Sistema Québec.

Laura Risk’s dissertation research was generously funded by a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), a Doctoral Award from Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, masters-level grants from SSHRC and the Fonds de recherche du Québec—Société et culture, and ongoing support from McGill University.