Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Towards the unheard: a new path for the organ?

More from the 2011 ORCiM festival: Lena Weman Ericcson introduced an almost terrifyingly ambitious project in Sweden: the Studio Acusticum Organ. Studio Acusticum is an award winning concert hall with, amongst others, a ceiling that can be moved up or down to about 8 meters (over 25 feet), resulting in a maximum reverberation of nearly 3 seconds. The organ, being built by Gerhard Woehl, boasts a disposition of more than 215 stops, including 89 sounding registers and the innovative 'floating' Harmonics Division, has programmable 'Sperventille' to manipulate the airflow to the bass and treble of each division, can be played and listened to from anywhere in the world through the internet, etc. More information on the instrument can be found here. (For more aspects, click on 'more' under 'news'.)

Lena Weman Ericcson, Gerhard Woehl, Pitea, organ, artistic research

In itself an instrument builder's project, the artistic research appears on the horizon when contemplating the compositional potential of the innovations. Ligeti's Volumina is world-renown for its inappropriate use of the on/off button at the beginning of the piece - what can be done with the Sperventile is clear from the sounds on this video. The Harmonics Division can be used to produce entirely new sounds by emphasizing any part of any given pitch. In all, the Harmonics Division has over 100 pitches per octave, enabling the organ "to bridge the gap between acoustical music and electronic sounds purely by acoustic means". Real-time control of each individual pipe is possible, thus it can be used for anything from adding a single mutation stop to extreme purposes such as speech synthesis (using the real-time computer-controlled facilities offered by the organ).

Composers all over the globe, go to Pitea (live or virtually) and start creating new music!

Monday, October 10, 2011

The art of Jaso Sasaki’s method

At the 3rd ORCiM festival, I watched Finnish violinist Jaso Sasaki present a research project that looked at first sight as if in danger of being somewhat pointless but ended up fascinating me. For much of the presentation, “Historical recording projects” seemed to be merely about making recordings of early-20th century repertoire with the recording techniques and standards from that era. Jaso let the audience listen and look at the sounds and photographs of himself recording his playing on a stroh-violin into a funnel, using reconstructed fabrication processes and materials to effectively make 78rpm discs and Edison cylinders. But this was not the point. His real aim was to try and reconstruct the performance style of violinists from that period, an interest that is based in general on a wish to find out about the acclaimed ‘golden tone’ of masters like Heifetz and Kreisler (in contrast with the often-stated lack of personal color in present-day violin playing), and in particular on the frustrating lack of recordings of Ysaÿe’s solo violin sonatas, contemporary to the composing of these works. To truly understand what lies behind the old recordings’ typical  sound of frying fish, Jaso believes he must enter the original recording process to experience how its limitations may have been as much part of how we perceive the sweetly nostalgic sound than the actual performance techniques.

Jaso Sasaki, artistic research, violin, early recording

So far, so good, I’d say, even if understand how this is enough to make some (if not many) feel uncomfortable. As far as I am concerned, I do think it worthwhile to investigate this matter thoroughly, rather than getting stuck in the dismissal of any attempt at recreating bygone aesthetics and in the refusal to rethink the value of progress in the development of recording techniques. I’m anticipating how much more we will be able to deepen our understanding of playing post-early music repertoire by way of Jaso’s approach than e.g. the way Krystian Zimmerman had a go at the Chopin piano concertos in 1999. Those discs were revelatory to me when they came out, and I still revel in them, but they were essentially limited to more intuitive and superficial modes of reconstruction than what artistic research à la Jaso's can actually offer. And I am prone to believe that, at some time in the future, we will want to rediscover and reconstruct the clinical 1980’s playing and recording styles. So why not start filling the gaps?

But I felt the urge to post about Jaso for another reason than what’s above. To me, he is a researcher taking contextualization to a new level, one that perhaps only an artist would think of and estimate as being appropriate. Jaso’s publicity picture is styled in a period manner, the cars he likes to restore are classic, he enjoys archery and records in full concert dress. These aspects, put together with the interest in experiencing the old recording sessions, point to the idea that he in fact likes to live the context of his topic. This is the last straw to the academic, of course, and I would agree to a very large extent that living like Heifetz will not make one play like him. To be correct, I don’t even think Jaso likes Aston Martins, smokes cigars and shoots arrows to accomplish the best results in his research. Nevertheless, the general attitude of enjoying ‘live’ immersion in the past may just be what lead him to the best method for this project. Recording the old fashioned way, in all its aspects, is indeed an excellent method to learn about pre-war performance techniques.

More information on Jaso Sasaki and his project will be up soon at his website, including audio clips. At the festival, I found his Interbellum-type rendering of Gounod-Bach’s Ave Maria, normally considered excessive in every artistic aesthetic aspect, thoroughly enjoyable.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Staying abreast of the (right) context

A cardinal rule in the research community: know what others have done with regards to your interests in the field of your expertise.

I don't have to explain here how it is crucial to the quality of the research; how the building of knowledge is founded on the teamwork of individuals, each responsible for making a few building blocks or cementing some of them together; why the game of citation is more than a matter of respect and how it creates visibility and therefore helps the dissemination on which everybody relies to know who is constructing with which materials and tools; in which ways it doesn't matter however recent, in which language and where in the world the blocks of knowledge are produced.

Academic scholars can profit from conferences and professional journals that cater categorically to expertise-bound interests. The internet can compensate for any lack of immediacy in bringing the latest developments to the doorstep of the researcher's den. Artistic researchers are relying on the hope to use the same sort of system, really, except that we don't have all the tools to ourselves, yet. We have to make do: by lack of sufficient(ly) discipline-specific journals and conferences, we mingle with our academic colleagues, wander around in their environment and partake in their perspectives. But this cannot be an excuse for replacing AR context with that of the academic world: it is like mixing the wrong cement for the type of bricks that go into someone else's building project. And yet, it happens. I have seen the disillusion in the eyes of audience members at artistic research gatherings when they were confronted with presentations that showed ignorance of their personal relevant contributions. In one case, academic quotes were aplenty while any AR context was not even touched upon (let alone equally developed and nuanced with references). In another case, familiarity with what has happened on the concert scene in the last 15 years could have compensated for the ignorance of existing AR output. In such instances, the presented research misses depth, focus and validity because of the lack of proper contextualisation. The academic world would not tolerate such inadequacies and would expose and correct them on the spot and publicly. That such didn't happen in these AR conference cases is symptomatic of a self-consciousness that still pervades this new discipline.

Beyond the personal frustration of a researcher being confronted with the invisibility of his work and professional profile lies a problem of choice. Even with all the right dissemination channels in place and in working order (whenever in the future that will be), artistic researchers may have to set priorities and favour artistic over academic context, especially if it is really impossible to keep updated on all the scholarly literature - academic and artistic - ánd on the artistic developments on stage. But at this moment, it is not really impossible yet. There is still so little real AR output that it is quite feasible to take careful notice of it all. The lack of multitude and diversity in AR output - many reseachers' interests have not been met with e.g. a doctoral AR dissertation in that field - provides a unique opportunity to look at the whole picture. If AR is a researcher's specialisation, it can only be beneficial to behold and savour that whole picture for as long as it small enough to fit the horizon. It is at least my experience that as much inspiration, if not more, can be drawn from AR output outside one's own field than from another discipline.

Monday, October 03, 2011

"Who's gonna read this ?"

A friend of mine, in the midst of the final rush towards finishing his dissertation, vented his contradictory feelings of dutifulness and despair: "for whom am I doing all this??" I always considered myself lucky to not have suffered from this state of mind, as the answer had been obvious to me. I was also extremely confident that 'they' would want to read it, and my experiences ended up proving me right. For a presentation on post-doc artistic research life, I took the trouble of investigating the matter into some detail. I think it is uplifting and promising.

I started my doctoral research long before an artistic doctorate was an option. In the early 1990's, coming back from the US with lots of inside information from my working with composers that I knew my fellow new music pianists in the EU were lacking in their performance practice, I had decided to write a book. Compelled to reach as many musicians as possible, merely teaching didn't look as if it was going to be satisfying. Even if I got a position at a conservatoire, I'd still be looking at reaching some 200 to 300 students at best during the rest of my teaching career. There were going to be concerts, of course, but passing on the kind of professional performance practice information that I had to spare did not suite the stage: the questions on 'how did you do that?' would still be left unanswered. A book it was going to be. In English, of course: the few dozen Dutch speaking new music pianists would hardly make the effort worthwhile.

In 1996 I heard of a new institute that would support and frame projects that were too big to fit conservatory degrees. It looked perfect for my idea, so I hooked up to the Orpheus Institute. After a few years, Bologna became the name for a process that lead directly to the artistic doctorate and my book became a dissertation without much ado. A burn-out and many pages later, in 2009 the dissertation-book was finished and in March 2010 it was put on the repository of Leiden University, where it can be viewed and downloaded for free.

A nice feature of the repository enables the visitor to see the statistics on how many people view and/or download dissertations, revealing the worldwide interest by country, referrer and month.
Here is the ratio views/downloads for the first year per month:

                         2010/03       13  /    11
                         2010/04       96  /    77
                         2010/05       73  /    67
                         2010/06       28  /    40
                         2010/07       13  /    08
                         2010/08       11  /    10
                         2010/09       23  /    18
                         2010/10       19  /    14
                         2010/11       21  /    14
                         2010/12       54  /    44
                         2011/01       36  /    22
                         2011/02       23  /    34
                           TOTAL     410  /   359

[ updates: 2011/03-'12/02 :   379  /   258
                2012/03-'13/02 :   498  /   289
                2013/03-'14/02 :   631  /   381
                2014/03-'15/02 :   625  /   281
                2015/03-'16/02 :   654  /   289
                2016/03-'17/02 :   866  /   375
                2017/03-'18/02 : 2302  /   400
                            TOTAL   : 6365  / 2632 ]

The surge in April is probably due to the fact that I announced the repository on Facebook. I have not made any targeted publicity campaign since then, not even by way of a link on my homepage or in my e-mail signature. There is an increase in September 2010 and March 2011, two months in which prospective doctoral students are in touch with me about their entrance exam and application for our doctoral program. One would expect them to look for examples of artistic research dissertations, but the few such students don't completely explain the differences. I have no idea why there's a peak in December 2010. (The total views/downloads for March 2010-October 2011 are 585/481.)

The happiest remark to be made concerns the realization that one year has been enough to reach more individuals than I would have hoped for in several decades of teaching. Not all of these views and downloads (the numbers don't overlap, by the way) can be assumed to lead to actual knowledge transfer and application, but that isn't guaranteed with teaching either.

It can also not be taken for granted that all the viewers and downloaders are pianists, but search keyword information suggests that most of them are. Through my profile on, where a link to the repository can be found, I can see the keywords that were entered into search engines and that lead the surfer to my profile page. Apparently, views and downloads are not so much generated by any particular interest in me as a person, or in a more general interest in artistic research. Hardly ever do I see my name pop up - mostly, it is 'extended techniques for piano' or some other combination of such words that the search engine then links to the title of my dissertation. I cannot imagine many non-pianists wanted to download a large file with information on piano performance techniques. Together, the search information and the repository statistics show that people find the dissertation because they look for the content: they are in need of the knowledge. The answer to my friends exasperation with the effort to write his dissertation and the fear of it being in vain - "Why would anyone want to read what I have to say?" - is very clear, and very exciting, I think.

Here is the list of 25 dissertations from other departments of Leiden University that were put in the repository at the same time as mine, again with the ration view/download for the 12-month period March 2010-April 2011:

                          48/292    Medicine
                          50/220    Medicine
                          26/94      Law
                          60/139    Biosciences
                          93/261    Social and Behavioral Sciences
                          36/237    Physics
                          60/465    Medicine
                        134/199    Observatory
                        133/125    Humanities
                          89/312    Art History
                          35/205    Medicine
                          51/309    Medicine
                          48/139    Medicine
                          85/416    Biology
                          31/209    Medicine
                        148/217    Environmental sciences
                          55/704    Medicine
                          45/243    Medicine
                          56/141    Medicine
                          33/236    Medicine
                          50/158    Psychology
                        139/465    Institute for Area Studies
                          74/207    Medicine
                          18/110    Psychology
                          66/465    Medicine

I can only wonder at why certain dissertations seem so much more or less sought after than others. Of immediate interest here is the fact that the views are mostly much less than the downloads. Compared to the other disciplines, my dissertation has more views (449) than any of the others (max. 148). In my case, the proximity of view- and download-numbers can be explained by the supposition that a new discipline leads people to have a look at output out of interest more than to have and use the content. I surmise that established disciplines have developed a tradition of interested parties systematically downloading new knowledge to have and read it.

If any of my numbers are a success, it has - again - nothing to do with me or any notion of quality: the numbers for my colleague doctors in the arts with a dissertation at the Leiden University repository are equally impressive. If mine is the 6th in a ranking of most downloads, compare to the other 25 (better are medicine, biology, and 'area studies'), Paul Craenen's 216 downloads in six months and Jed Wentz' 450 in nine months will be as much up there, if not more, when their first post-doc year is over. Paul and Jed's viewing numbers (185, resp. 334) are and will likely remain lower, which may be explained by the novelty wearing off. (My dissertation was the first artistic research output on music in The Netherlands, the country which many of my viewing numbers came from; it was also the only one at the repository for nine months.)

In terms of geographical interest, Paul generated views and downloads from a total of 18 countries, jed 22 and I 59. It is true that automated search engines will get to the repository without a genuine interest in the matter, but these will not result in actual downloads. In all three cases, only two to three countries had had someone viewing while nobody downloaded.

I didn't study the differences in download/viewing behavior according to country: Paul's dissertation is written in Dutch and Jed's and mine in English, the subjects are wildly divergent, etc. Of further interest, however, is the fact that only Jed's dissertation was (twice out of 334 views and 450 downloads) referred to by Google Scholar. This can show how most of the interest is from musicians rather than musicologists: few of the former typically use Google Scholar.

All this is very exhilarating for the artistic research discipline and its researchers: it proves that musicians all over the world are hungry for this type of knowledge to enrich their expertise. And they are willing to go to great lengths for it: I made a limited number of hardcover bound copies of my dissertation to give to family, promotor etc. Some pianists pleaded with me to sell them one (as they didn't like reading from a monitor or printing out a thousand pages), and when they heard from me that the cost to make some more would run up to 80€ per copy, they argued that they would pay much more than that to have it. I can only imagine one bigger incentive for publishers to take artistic research very seriously: there are many more musicians than academics. And they need catering to.