Monday, December 13, 2010


A few days ago, I attended a meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden, on furthering the work to set up the Artistic Research Catalog, an on-line workspace that aims at developing a high standard of referencing, storing and documenting artistic research projects.

The core forces behind this project are the Bern and The Hague Universities of the Arts, supported by a host of institutions from The Netherlands, Britain, Switzerland, Germany, the US and pan-European consortia such as the European Association of Conservatories, the European Society for Literature, Science and the Arts, and the European League of Institutes of the Arts.

Several meetings with many individuals representing these institutions are set up to gage the needs of the generic artistic researcher in order to develop the software that would attain the sought after standard. As most of the members of this project are from the visual arts sector (including representation of the art of design, of architecture and of some interdisciplinary orientations), with Dutch improviser Peter van Bergen, Flemish composer Paul Craenen and me representing music, there is a distinct gravitational force weighing in on the exchange of ideas. The imbalance has not only its effect on the topics of the discussions but on the terminology as well (‘exposition’ / ‘works’), and hence on the concepts with which the software developers will work. It remains to be seen how efficient it will be to insist on merging audio and visual culture in such an enterprise. The problem is of course inherently linked to the notion that ARC wants to be a bottom-up enterprise, interested in learning from existing artistic research projects to know what researchers and artists require for the storage and publication of their work. Apart from the ongoing or unsettled debate on what constitutes artistic research in music, making it difficult to know the wishes of the generic researcher, there are many less artistic researchers in music than in the visual arts, where the notion has been entertained more widely and for a longer period already.

Fortunately, it has been decided that a prototype of the software will be available soon for the members of this initial phase to work with and learn from. That should speed things up, so I am looking forward to seeing what is possible and what is lacking. Only then will we find out what we want this catalog to do for us.

The software is meant to be open source so that other initiatives can use it as well. If the idea of more than one such catalog based on this software is still not more than a concept, one project is being developed to use this digital ARC platform as we speak: the Journal for Artistic Research. More on JAR can be read here. The first issue is planned for publication in the coming months – it is said to be a ‘zero-issue’, probably meaning that the double-blind peer review standard will be used from the next issue onwards. The publisher of JAR is the Society for Artistic Research, of which a little information is to be read here.

As much as SAR would seem to be fundamental to both the other enterprises, it appears to be least active and only be called into existence to work out JAR, which in turn needs ARC to function. As ARC is a two-year project (at least if the supporting grant is not renewed or replaced with alternate financing) already in the beginning of its second year, it is not clear how and by whom the catalog will be exploited as an independent workspace for researchers once it is up and running. For the time being, it looks like JAR is the real aim of the community that called it into life. As for SAR, there is much potential still to be tapped. If the number of artistic researchers is still small, it feels great enough to start acting like a society, exploring its critical mass far beyond creating a channel to disseminate its findings. But the impetus is there and soon the first exploits will make history.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dr. Jed Wentz

We have a new Doctor in the Arts! Yesterday, traverso player and conductor Jed Wentz promoted at Leiden University on his research into The Relationship between Gesture, Affect and Rhythmic Freedom in the Performance of French Tragic Opera from Lully to Rameau. The dissertation is available on-line here – more info on Jed here.

Jed Wentz

As part of his defense, Jed presented a well-attended and -received concert at the Conservatory of Amsterdam with a program containing chamber music by Telemann and Blavet, and monologues from Luly's Armide as well as texts by Shakespeare and Bary. Other performers included Musica ad Rhenum with a.o. baroque dancer Jennifer Thorp and soprano Andréanne Brisson Paquin.

The concert was a delight, enabling the audience to enjoy ingenious and intriguing links between non-musical aspects of period stage craft (such as facial expressions and bodily gestures) and rhythmic freedom in the performance of the music itself. Jed has examined historical sources that treat acting and rhetorics in order to attempt at recreating a language of gesture suitable for experimentation in operatic scenes from the genre. As a flautist, he went as far as learning to master Gilbert Austin's gesture notation to perform Shakespeare's Speech of Brutus on the Death of Caesar (see the illustration at the top of this post), studying the Beauchamps-Feuillet dance notation, even consulting medical sources to understand the broader context of affect and the body within which gesture and musical performance were situated.

Jed's research proposes that the performances at the Paris opera were far from static representations of the notes on the page, but rather an exciting synthesis of word, music and gesture that strongly stirred the hearts of the listeners. By way of his own performances, Jed achieved exactly that: the meticulousness with which specific types of physical expression were linked to the meaning of a text had clearly demonstrable artistic merit and was inspiring to witness.

Jed is the second Doctor in the Arts from Leiden University and the docARTES program. Welcome to the club, buddy!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Excellence in Research conference

Many initiatives have been set up to deal with the issue of quality control in research, yet (or therefore) the EU deemed it worthwhile to devote a large-scale conference to it. As Belgium had the honor of chairing the EU in the second half of 2010, the conference was hosted in Brussels. And I went to have a look.

EU, excellence in research, artistic research

Not much of it had to do with artistic research (in any direct sense: nothing did) but it was good to see what sits in the minds of those who deal with the problems arising in the globalized research domain and  the friction that is produced when it pushes existing systems and traditions to their limits. The most notable aspect of that trend was the statement that the peer-review system has reached its own limits: its faults are no longer the result of people working with it, they are systemic (as touched upon by Dirk Van Damme in his presentation and further mentioned by at least one other speaker in discussions). The problems of this quality control mechanism and the ensuing impact factor system are of course well-known (e.g. here and here), what is of interest here, is the fact that our new discipline of artistic research is still in the process of setting up dissemination channels, and the decision to set up journals that are peer-reviewed or not is now all the more problematic. Adding the difficulty of still really not being able to rely on enough peers to choose from and to allow for a reasonable balance between the authors and the reviewers, the conclusion maybe to drop the idea all together. At least for as long as there is no alternative. For this was the most notable bit of information to have taken home with me from the conference: nobody could say anything about an alternative to the peer-review system.

Another association came to me during the session on the link between research and the economy. As far as artistic research goes, the real link will be a tough one to make for a while yet: AR is still mostly based on subsidized arts – I still have to hear about the first commercially successful musician who wants to engage in research (as opposed to keep on performing or composing) – while the artistic economy is mostly based on commerce. Despite incentives by governments to have the subsidized artistic community hunt for sponsorship deals, this is still daunting to and hardly fruitful for most if not everyone involved. A few years ago, someone cleverly thought of an argument to counter the perceived necessity for this hunt (“the turnover of the music industry runs into many billions”), claiming an already successful  implementation into the music scene of economic sustainability, but the cited numbers apply to the music industry, i.e. not the subsidized arts sector where new music is developed. I don’t see any industrial entity commissioning artistic research just yet. Even some artistic researcher’s dream to develop an iPhone application during his doctoral trajectory is backed-up by a governmental grant. And the idea that present-day popular music would not be what it is without the achievements of Stockhausen et al. is not valid to today’s situation anymore. The commercial scene does very well without the traditional, classically trained musicians and composers. And they don’t seem to need artistic researchers either, yet.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

What are we talking about?

As the term ‘artistic research’ is being used ever more widely, its meaning becomes less particular than the diverse terminology that it is replacing.

In the early days, just a few years ago, really, one read and talked about e.g.  "practice-based", "practice –led" research, research "in-and-through" practice or "practice-as-research". These do not necessarily mean the same: the first two can still be purely academic (the first only departing from practice); the third is supposed to be rooted as well as developed within practice (by producing the art), implying also that the results of the research are not merely reflective but have an impact on that practice; the last one is a special case in that it considers the practice to be the research. Many people – but not all – saw and see such concepts to be different from the paradigm shift in musicology, whereby not only the score but also the performance was taken as the object of scrutiny. Such "New Musicology" or "Performance Science" is not necessarily the same as practice-based, –led, -as or in-and-through-practice research: the way a musicologist studies a performance may be very different from the way a performer studies it, due to the difference in the nature of the perspective.

Not every institution and individual applies these nuances to their vocabulary. With the adoption of the general ‘artistic research’, it has even become difficult to do so. That can make for quite some confusion, especially since a new discipline attracts people looking for opportunities to profile their interests. It is not always easy to define ‘artist’, so any theorist who also plays an instrument can consider himself an artistic researcher. The distinction would therefore have to be found in the work. One way to establish the difference is to wonder what the artistic research would have been like if carried out by an academic. If there is no difference, then what would be the point of attributing a new name to it? Some actively use this test ("The artist makes the difference" - the motto of the Orpheus Institute ), others go against this because the artist’s perspective would be too exclusive. Still others have given up and advise to drop any attempt at defining the thing so that get on with it.

On other levels, defining characteristics of artistic research depend on nationally demarcated evolutions: Holland and Flanders are remarkably unified in their view on (and especially in their institutionalization) of the matter;  Germany does not link a doctoral degree to the notion of research, which is the prerogative of the university (and so an artist’s research is not considered legitimate if not based on an academic training); in the US neither the D.M.A. nor the compositional Ph D is linked to any notion of research; many countries are still developing their stance (e.g. France); in some countries (England, Finland, Sweden), there is already a sizeable tradition.

It all becomes more confusing when realizing that AR is not confined to music alone. In those initiatives that foster trans-national and –institutional cooperation, music and visual arts are often coupled. However, much less can be seen or heard of AR in for instance dance, literature, drama, etc. As much as it would make more sense, though, it would also complicate matters: it has become very clear how intricate the differences can be between AR in music vs. in the visual arts; imagine a group of artistic researchers from all arts, having to agree on a single mode  of dissemination.

Even in music, all is not clear yet. Performers’ AR can look at the past as much (if not more) than to the future (i.e. being concerned with historically practices vs. developing e.g. new ways of playing). Composers, on the other hand, consider creating new ways to be their default task or activity, so why, how and when is composition not always AR, then?

Such questions lead to the idea that to produce art, or to be an artist (as such allowing for "non-product-oriented research"), is the defining characteristic of a musical artistic researcher. In turn, the consequence is that some do not see any use for a dissertation : the artwork is the research, and performing it disseminates the findings. Not only visual artists are looking in that direction, also the doctoral program at the conservatory of Brussels holds the artwork to be the real result of the research. For them, a logbook is as good as a dissertation. The problem with that is, on the one hand, that such a logbook is difficult to retrieve real information from and, on the other hand, that it is easy to prove that the artwork does not transfer enough knowledge about those aspects of the research that are necessary for the listener to know exactly what the research question, the method and the results have been.

For the purpose of this blog, I will in principle consider AR to be research that departs from and is carried out through practice, leading to results that change that practice. For sure, this is not the last blog entry on that subject.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

ORCiM Research Festival 2010

The Orpheus Institute, where I coordinate the DocARTES curriculum and where I am a fellow at the Orpheus Research Center in Music (ORCiM), has just had its second incarnation of its Research Festival.
The existing conferences are not always the ideal places to present artistic research: reading an article and perhaps letting the participants listen to a recording or illustrate a little on a nearby piano is rarely enough to adequately convey artistic research results. More problematic still, the conference formats do not attract the peers that artistic researchers are looking for. Recognizing the gap in the dissemination chain, the Orpheus Institute established the first Research Festival (since then copied elsewhere), in which the products of artistic research heard, explained and discussed.

Orpheus Instituut, ORCiM, Research Festival 2010, artistic research

The ORCiM Research Festival 2010 is the second installment of this initiative. Its theme was ‘Unexpected Variations’ and it was handled by a bundle of speakers, many of whom ORCiM members, from often very different perspectives. My most vivid recollection regards what one of the two keynote speakers came from Australia for to show us. Stephen Emmerson “re-imagined” some key piano pieces from the first decade of the previous century by multi-mixing his own recordings, i.e. following up on what Glenn Gould had started in the recording studio by manipulating and mixing microphone perspectives like camera angles in cinema. Emmerson’s transposition of that principle (which Gould can be heard and seen here applying to music by Scriabin) to Schoenberg’s opus 11, Berg’s piano sonata and Bartok’s bagatelles opus 6  may not always result in the most convincing showcases for the potential of this technique, but it remains exciting to think of granting artistic license to recording techniques and taking Gould’s initial experiments one or more steps further. 

Stephen Emmerson, remixing modernism, Gould

The CD that was produced to disseminate the findings contains both the original recording and the ‘remix’, including a detailed account of how Emmerson got the idea, contextualized it and realized it. If this project stands for ideals of an artistic research festival, let there be more such events!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Wagenaar's art of presentation

In 2004 I heard a lecture by Prof. Dr. Albert Wagenaar on how ‘People don’t remember the weather forecast’. This was not the topic but the message. After all these years, every member of the audience that I still meet remembers it - how to achieve this effect was the real topic of Wagenaar’s lecture, which he gave again at the Orpheus Institute last year in front of an audience of doctoral students. 
Willem Albert Wagenaar

At the beginning, Wagenaar explained it was not really a lecture, for he wouldn’t read anything. It was going to be more of a ‘causerie’, a ‘talk.’ And that was exactly what he did: for more than a half hour, without accessories such as paper, microphone, seat, blackboard, PC or beamer, he needed only his voice and his visual presence. He is a very sweet-looking man with the type of voice that makes for excellent radio. Like Garrison Keillor, Wagenaar can draw in your attention with his voice alone, never needing to raise it to be articulate, or searching for words, always at ease and in command. For Wagenaar, to be in command of the audience is the main technique to communicate a message. His work as a clinical psychologist (having been, amongst other, a member of the faculty of law at Leiden University and a renown juror-expert in legal trials) has given him ample opportunity to test this thesis, both as the one who talks and the one who studies those who talk. But it is not just a question of the voice. Wagenaar intended his talk to be of help to people who need to present their doctoral research to a live audience, and filled it with techniques that are necessary to make the difference between an aural and a written presentation. 

The entire talk was structured along a list of such techniques, which each one being demonstrated while being explaining. Form and content matched perfectly. Some of the techniques are very basic, e.g. being on time (excepting force majeure) shows you care as much as those in the audience that are on time. Talking directly to your audience allows them to engage with what you say. Other techniques are less self-evident, e.g. "Do not read from paper": it gives the impression you are not fully prepared and every time you need to look at the paper to know where you are, you lose contact with your audience. Do not hand out bunches of photocopies on which only small items are relevant: these will give the audience the chance to loose concentration and shift their focus. If you need PowerPoint, be aware of how much the frames distract audiences, who are looking at them instead of listening to you. Apart from the risk of technical problems, overhead projections of text (especially listings to follow the structure of the talk) are counterproductive. Some techniques are self-evident but not necessarily easy. If you really command your subject, you must be able to say what you have to say in 10 seconds. The rest is illustration to make that point or to keep the attention of the audience. (Wagenaar is a professional expert on the workings of the human memory.) Unlike reading a brief or a novel, an audience of a talk cannot go back to read something again in case it feels it missed or misunderstood something. The attention span does not last for a half hour, and an audience’s attention will most definitely wander and miss bits. Some of those bits can be crucial to the argument and for someone who misses such a point the whole talk may be wasted. It is therefore important to repeat the message and the crucial points. That’s why the message should be announced at the beginning of the talk rather then spending the first minutes (which are at the most profitable point of the attention span) on how you are happy to be here, and how you suppose the audience might appreciate what happened to you yesterday and how that connects to the subject at hand. Repeating the message and closing of with it can be literally impressive, as Wagenaar demonstrated in both of his talks that I witnessed. Wagenaar compared an aural presentation to an onion, with the core being the message, and the layers the illustrations and attention grabbers. A written account can be structured like the unwinding of a cotton-ball, spinning a long thread of logically connected but sequentially arranged arguments. In an aural presentation such a thread will easily and quickly brake apart. At such points, the structure must then be left for another one to repair the damage: going back to previous stages of the argument and explaining the matter again. This may in turn enlarge the disruption of the thread, and only the most experienced ‘talkers’ may pick up where they had been forced to stop. 

A few of the layers that he used to make these very points are worthwhile relaying here. Simulating a search for the right word can put the audience’s attention back on track: the listeners that feel the urge to complete the sentence will provide some relief in the monotonousness of the talk. If one of the members that you know (organiser, colleague, etc.) is drifting away, you may mention his name in some made-up reference. At least that person will be with it again immediately, and the rest will have occasion to turn their heads and see whom it is that the speaker is referring to. Small tricks like this, expertly timed by Wagenaar, revealed to be more effective than one might expect. 

After Wagenaar’s talk, the students were scheduled to give presentations themselves. Of course, not having prepared with any of his advice in mind, their presentations suffered heavily from the comparison. But a comparison between an experienced presenter like Wagenaar and fresh students (who are already accomplished performers but with sounds instead of words) is unfair. It was much more of a surprise to witness a seminar later that day by someone who was a professional researcher, without a doubt used to lecturing, teaching and presenting. It had certainly not been the intention of the organisers to follow up on Wagenaar’s talk with a demonstration of how it should not be done, but to witness a lecture that did not benefit from his experiences was the best way to learn the lesson that he had come to teach.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

"Mr. Candidate!"

Luk Vaes, artistic research, Leiden University, PhD, extended piano techniques
On December 22, 2009, I received my doctoral degree from Leiden University (LU). It was their last promotion of that year, and I became the first doctor in the arts to graduate at this old institution.

LU was founded in 1575 as a gift to the city of Leiden by Willem I, Prince of Orange, the main leader of the Dutch uprise against the ruling Spanish. According to legend, the citizens could choose between 10 years of tax free life or a university as the reward for their brave resistance against the Spanish. The university’s motto is Praesidium Libertatis, “a firm fundament of freedom” in the words of Willem of Orange. The university was financed with the selling of confiscated properties of the catholic church. Philip II, then still King of the Netherlands, declared in 1582 that anyone who studied at the university would be suspected of herecy and not authorised to perform in a function of any dignity.

I like the idea of having graduated at this university. For one thing, the spirit of secular freedom suits me, being from the Flemish city of Ghent, which prides itself of a similar history. Ghent citizens had also stubornly resisted the Spanish in those days, refusing to pay taxes to Charles V. To punish Ghent, the emperor humiliated its nobility in 1539 by ordering them to wear nooses around their necks. Since then, the noose has become the Ghent symbol for proud resistance to tiranny and freedom of opinion. Secondly, I like the Dutch. For the past 16 years, I have organised new music concerts in Flanders and the Netherlands in order to exchange Dutch and Flemish musicians and composers. It feels like a curious coincidence that I, with my Flemish background, graduated at a Dutch university through a colaborative effort of Dutch and Flemish institutions. (The trajectory towards the degree was set up by the Academy for Performing Arts of LU (part of the Humanities Faculty), the Orpheus Institute (Ghent), the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, the conservatory of Amsterdam and the Lemmens Institute in Leuven.)

The network of institutions that joined forces for this curriculum is as dinstinguished as the lineage of graduates at LU, among which are listed four Nobel Prize winners. I don’t consider myself a high-end part of that lineage, but the history of LU, and the level at which it is used to operate, is reflected in all aspects of their doctoral promotion ritual. My opposition committee consisted of both the present and former Rector Magnificus of LU, the dean of its Humanities faculty and their professors of Literary Studies and Art History; icons from the musical performance scene like Ton Koopman, Reinbert de Leeuw, Ellen Corver and Bart van Oort; representatives of Amsterdam College for the Arts, the Orpheus Institute, Lemmens Institute and the rector of the Catholic University Leuven; David Rowland (Dean and Director of Studies for the Faculty of Arts, OU Cambridge) and Herman Sabbe (University of Ghent). And, of course, my promotor Frans De Ruiter, founder of the festival for ancient music (Utrecht), director of the Holland Festival, director of the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and co-conceiver of the Academy for Performing Arts at LU, where I was enrolled as a doctoral student.

Luk Vaes, extended piano techniques, artistic research PhD
Contrary to the regular academic doctoral promotion, artistic promovendi have to defend their findings through an artistic presentation as well as a dissertation. For my subject - Extended Piano Techniques in Theory, History and Performance Practice - I set up three concerts, all presented in the days before the promotion, with solo and chamber music (including some of the original dances to the prepared piano pieces by John Cage) from the early 1700’s to the present day, for the pianoforte, harpsichord, clavichord, organ and contemporary piano.

Leiden University, artistic research PhD, Academy for Creative and Performing Arts

The formal nature of the defense almost ensures that the candidate can have a good time. Once the date for the promotion is set, there is no real fear of failing. Nevertheless, to test the candidate’s ability to hold ground and stand by the conclusions that are formulated in the dissertation, the questions from the opposition committee may be sharp and charging. Historically, at least, the presence of paranymfs seems clearly not to have always been comforting enough, for the ‘waiting’ room, where the academic promovendi are left to calm their nerves before entering the arena, became known as the ‘sweat chamber’. I didn't get to add my signature to the walls of that room, as had the Dutch Queen and other famous Leiden graduates, but I did get some nasty questions from members of the opposition committee who did not aggree with all aspects of my research. I don't know if my confidence came from a musician's stage experience or if it had anything to do with my decendance from proud Ghent noose-wearers, but the attacks couldn't throw me off. The whole promotion was just too much fun.

Luk Vaes, artistic research, Leiden University, PhD, extended piano techniques
After exactly 45 minutes (exceptionally it can be 60’) before the chief of protocol enters the auditorium and cries out “Hora Est!” Even if the candidate is in the middle of his explanation, or one of the opposition committee in the middle of a question, the defense comes to a stop and the committee retires for deliberation. During that time, the candidate can be at ease with his two paranymfs. Those are a peculiarity of LU’s promotion procedure. Legend has it that they were originally intended to protect the candidate in case of all too severe arguments from the opposition committee. Later, their function shifted from bodyguard to elegant (female) assistants. I liked the older concept and assigned my two oldest (and bearded) friends Geert and Alfonso to the task.

Luk Vaes, artistic research, Leiden University, PhD, extended piano techniques
The Academy building houses the auditorium where doctoral promotions are held almost daily. The whole ritual is highly formalized. Right before the defense, the candidate – in concert dress – is led into a little office where the nomenclature is explained to him by the chief of protocol. When answering questions, the promovendus is to address the members of his opposition committee as “highly learned opponent” (when it is a professor), as “very learned opponent” (when it is not a professor), as “highly esteemed promotor” or as “Mister Rector Magnificus”. The promovendus himself is addressed as “Mister Candidate”. The opposition committee are dressed in traditional gowns with an accompanying hat that needs to be put on when speaking.

The promotion itself took place in the old Academy building, the main university edifice since 1581. It used to house the oldest university observatory, and right next to the building booksellers and printers were housed, among them Isaac Elzevier, whose name was later used for the well-known publishing company.

Monday, February 01, 2010

A new millenium, a new discipline

In 2000, the EU issued what is known as the Bologna Declaration, a pledge by 29 countries to reform the structures of their higher education system. One of the consequences is that performing artists and composers can now obtain a doctoral degree in the EU. Until then, doctorates where the prerogative of universities and limited to academic programs (e.g. musicology or art history). Higher education outside of universities was limited to first and second degrees (equivalents to bachelor and master degrees) - a D.M.A. or a PhD. in composition, as commonly offered at many US universities, had been non-existent in those EU countries.

Since 2000, the reform has been carried out and musicians and composers can now enroll in more and more art schools (in association with universities) to obtain a doctoral degree. This is all very new to the old continent. Artists had not been considered (or trained) to spend their time writing dissertations and publish articles. The new degrees would require a fundamental rethinking of some educational and professional habits. The question of how scientific an artist’s research should be to be worthy of a doctoral level, and to what point a doctoral dissertation might be artistic, has been the subject of innumerable debates across Europe. Often very heated, these discussions have led institutions to take a stand, shape their curriculum, and start enrolling students in programs that can be very considerably different from school to school.

At the time of starting this blog, only a few doctoral students have finished their ‘artistic research’ in music and have become doctors in the arts – I just promoted a few months ago as the first one at Leiden University, the fourth one in the Low Countries.