Friday, December 11, 2015

"From Output to Impact" - the proceedings

‘Impact’ is a big thing in research. From elaborating in grant applications on how academic, economic, or societal relevance will be aimed at (if not achieved) to intricate author-, article- and journal-level citation analyses, research products and producers are ever more considered successful or worthwhile to invest in on the basis of the impact they are perceived and hoped to make on their discipline and its knowledge status.

If quantitative assessment of this impact is seen as deeply problematic in many disciplines, it is really a non-topic for AR yet. I remember talks about bibliometrics, years ago, but I know of nobody among my peers who feels he has reasons to worry about his h-index. At any rate, the number of AR journals is still so small that none of them ‘count’ for those companies that make a living out of propagating such systems.

artistic research, from output to impact

This does not mean that AR should not take into account whether or not anybody out there needs it, aside from the researchers themselves and their bosses. After all, AR is still almost exclusively subsidized by the government. (I know of only one company that invests in AR – the exception that proves the rule, surely.)

For me, the most directly interested party is the musician at large: I consider pianists (professionals on stage, teachers, and students) to be my primary targeted research audience; secondary are colleague-researchers. It is not problematic to get a feeling of whether and how the latter are reached: the academic dissemination channels work reasonably well to that effect (peer researchers attend conferences on AR, read journals, etc.).

It is very different to wonder about reaching non-researcher musicians. My dissertation has been downloaded by thousands, but I can only assume that nobody would do that (it’s a big file) without a practical motive, as it can be viewed online just as well. In any case, I regularly meet musicians who are clearly far from up to date on the AR in their own professional field. We can give master-classes in conservatoires, play on concert stages (instead of only at conferences), hope that students and teachers read the publications that the libraries of their conservatoires buy or subscribe to, etc., but that feels decidedly limited.

artistic research, from output to impact

About a year ago, I convened a seminar "From Output to Impact", on the topic of how to integrate artistic research fingings in the instrumental training at the conservatoire level. It was organised as a joint effort by the Orpheus Institute (Gent) and the Norwegian Academy of Music (Oslo). The proceedings of that gathering, which took place in Gent, are now available online. They comprise 16 presentations as well as the documents pertaining to the event, and are published in the Research Catalogue to take advantage of the possibilities of including multimedia materials.

Next to a pamphlet piece by yours truly and a keynote by OECD Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division Dirk Van Damme, there are contributions by Elisabeth Belgrano, Jeroen Billiet, Amy Bliers-Caruthers, Johannes Boer, Magdalena Bork & Maria Gstaettner, Paul Craenen, Tom De Cock & Vincent Caers, Anthony Gritten, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Murphy McCaleb, Anna Scott & Alessandro Cervino, Aslaug Louise Slette & Ingunn Fanavoll Øye, Joost Vanmaele, and Susan Williams.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Scott Mc Laughlin reporting on a PaR discussion

Interested in following the debate on "composition-as-research", I regretted that I could not be in London for a panel talk on this topic, now a few weeks ago. Luckily, composer Scott Mc Laughlin did go, and he kindly agreed to report on it. Here are his thoughts.

Scott Mc Laughlin, composition, artistic research
Scott Mc Laughlin

Report on Practice-as-Research discussion at City University London

I’m a composer and academic at the University of Leeds (UK). I went down to London for the research forum on Nov. 25th organised by Ian Pace at City University called 'Can Composition and Performance be Research? Critical Perspectives'. A video of the event is here

The forum discussion was planned as a response to John Croft’s article 'Composition is Not Research' (Tempo, 69/272, April 2015, pp.6–11), and also as a prelude to the forthcoming edition of Tempo which will include response articles by Ian Pace and Camden Reeves, as well as a right-of-reply article by Croft himself. In this research forum, each of the six panelists gave a short response to Croft’s article, followed by panelists responding to each other, then opening-up to audience questions. The panel is listed below, and was moderated by Alexander Lingus:

  • Christopher Fox (Professor of Composition at Brunel University and editor of Tempo)
  • Miguel Mera (composer and Head of the Department of Music at City University)
  • Annie Yim (pianist and DMA student at City University)
  •  Christine Dysers (PhD student in Music at City University)
  • Camden Reeves (composer and Head of Music, University of Manchester)
  • Ian Pace (pianist and Lecturer in Music at City University)

Panel Contributions:

Panelist 1: Christopher Fox’s short talk emphasised the impact of Croft’s article as re-igniting this long-standing debate across the summer of 2015. Fox’s main point was to raise two important questions that he felt are central to this debate: (A) what do we mean as academics (in practice areas) when we say 'I am doing research’? and (B) what are the practical consequences of research, and what is the impact of losing this status? Research generates money and is an indicator of esteem, it attracts students. If we stop calling composition (and performance) research then there will be consequences for composers who wish to study for PhDs. Fox’s parting point was that if music is a discourse then why should composers write words about it, they should just compose. Unfortunately there was no time for him to nuance or discuss this further, but I would argue in response that music can be a discourse but that this discourse (at least, that which is received by the listener) is not necessarily connected (or connectable) to any research that went into its composition.

I agree with Fox that these two questions are central. For this debate to move forward, I think a single session of discussion devoted to just the first —what do we mean as academics (in practice areas) when we say 'I am doing research’? — would be time very well spent.

Panelist 2: Miguel Mera framed the discussion in terms of a disciplinary anxiety about legitimacy. He reframed Fox’s question as ‘why do we find it so difficult to judge the contributions to knowledge made by composition and performance on their own terms?’. He noted the definition of research given by the REF as being very open, 'a process of investigation effectively shared’, and that the REF does not inscribe any scientistic ideas of research (such as the OED’s requirement that research ‘establishes facts’) in its requirements. Mera, queried what the phrase ‘effective shared’ might mean, but suggested that as a discipline it is our responsibility to define what we consider to be valuable in our practice, and in what ways this may or may not be research. Mera began with Croft’s idea that composition is often not about pre-formed ideas but rather as creating striking responses to musical problems. Mera agreed that composition research shouldn’t simply report the findings of research questions, and called for playfulness in research; a possible ideal of compositional research being exploratory and facilitating serendipitous discoveries. He tentatively agreed with composers who think music should not need words to explain itself, but felt that in academia we had a duty to explain or work, though not necessarily in words (see ‘Exegesis’ below): I agree on this point in particular. Summarising his thoughts, Mera emphasised practitioners making a case for when we ARE doing research, and highlighting our contribution to knowledge.

Panelist 3: Annie Yim is a recently-completed DMA performance student, providing the discussion with a useful shift in perspective, both in terms of discipline and researcher-context. Yim’s presentation focused on her experience as a student and the frustrating lack of boundaries and definition between joint roles as practitioner and researcher. She echoed Mera’s point about overly rigid approaches to practice-research by noting that PaR requires a curiosity that the existing framework (postgraduate study I presume) is not equipped to handle. Yim also made several points about ‘training’ that I regret I was not able to follow up with questions: I’m interested to know if she considers the DMA as professional training for practice, which she may consider as antithetical to the researcher role. 

Panelist 4: Christine Dysers was not able to make the event in person, but she had a prepared a statement that was read out by Sam MacKay. As with Yim, Dysers, a musicologist, also provided a welcome new context. She found Croft’s definition of research to be too narrow and ‘bureaucratic’, and she echoed Mera’s call for an open approach to practice research wherein she described composition as reflexive and non-linear process where the composer is keen to reflect findings and communicate them. Dysers’ statement also made some references to practice research in terms of ‘scientific discovery’, which I think is a problematic approach to thinking about most research in composition/performance (see 'Science' below), but I was not able to question her about this.

Panelist 5: Camden Reeves talked of a sinister attack on composition where some forms of composing are segregated as not being research-worthy: an acute example of Mera’s ‘anxiety of legitimacy’ mentioned above. Reeves compared composition-as-research to the Athenian democracy, which, despite good intentions, ended up marginalising its people by successively changing the criteria for being a citizen. Reeves dismissed Croft’s entire question as ‘goofy’ and only mattering to those in a University — I’m not sure where Reeves is coming from on this point, since the University is the only context in which discussion of ‘research' is relevant — and echoes others in considering Croft’s definition of research as too narrow. Reeves also takes issue with the attempt by the humanities to mirror STEM research in its definitions and models, arguing that the scientific method is not applicable in the humanities — a point I agree with. Reeves’ closing point was that we, as a discipline, need to decide how to measure composition, but not by calling it research.

Panelist 6: Ian Pace called for more careful distinctions to be made between the possible relationships of practice and research (practice-as, practice-led etc.), and also to open the debate to more perspectives; both from other disciplines (theatres, dance, etc., through their extensive engagement with PaR), and other non-practice perspectives within music. Pace presented some analysis of how much practice-as-research is happening within UK Music Depts: unfortunately the numbers passed by too quickly for me to take appropriate notes, but he promises to make a blog post of this analysis soon. [Update: the link to Ian's blog with the numbers.] Echoing Reeves, Pace identifies some worrying trends in PaR where certain types of practice are considered more research-worthy, noting that it appears 'composition mostly IS research if it involves electronics or [compositional?] systems, and performance mostly IS research if it involves extended techniques.’ Pace described how in his own specialism (notated music) there are choices, therefore interpretation, and therefore research is possible. He asks for a critical approach to research and investment in long-form critical research, being open to choices, critically interrogating these choices, and communicating them as research; though he also accepts that communication need not necessarily be through text. Pace warned of the inherent danger of textual exegesis as allowing (or even encouraging) assessors to avoid engaging with the work itself, but he takes the pragmatic view that textual documentation of practice-research as standard is ‘probably inevitable’.


In the subsequent panel responses (to each other) and audience questions, there was some useful clarification of points and positions, but often it was difficult to maintain a thread or argument, with many points going by unexamined and unconnected. This forum was very useful in demonstrating some consensus on points in response to Croft (mostly), the format was problematic as there were simply too many people on the panel for the time allowed. I assume it was constructed this way to ensure a wide breadth of perspectives was included, and in that it was successful, but 2 hours wasn’t enough to even begin to unravel all the points or to provide critical perspective. If we are to continue having these discussions then I firmly believe we need to break down the problem into topics and tackle them one at a time; as far as that is possible. Of course all of these topics interrelate and will influence each other so separating them will always be artificial, but it seems to me the only way through a discourse dominated by uncertainty over definitions and anxiety about change is to try and create SOME anchors of consensus along the way. As you can see from above, there were certain topics that came up again and again in this discussion, I address a couple of these below.


The conflation of musical quality and research quality; the idea that good music is the same as good research. This seems to be at the root of many issues composers have with considering their work as ‘research’. The conflation is revealed in comments that I’ve heard at this event and others like it. As an example, at the 'RMA Practice as Research Symposium' in Manchester in June I heard some colleagues express disbelief along the lines that composer X, 'who is an excellent composer', did not get a research grant to write a certain piece. The disbelief appeared to rest on the assumption that a good composer must automatically be a good researcher, which to me is very problematic. This issue did not escape the Main Panel D report, which noted that 'the sector still has difficulty distinguishing excellent professional practice from practice with a clear research dimension’ (REF2014, p.100 [update: see here for the REF report]). In the same vein, towards the end of this research forum at City I asked Camden Reeves to expand upon something he’d said about music being judged on its own merits (presumably, as opposed to being judged on what’s written about it). Unfortunately, I didn’t frame the question with much care, and Reeves' somewhat indignant response shot the point down. In hindsight, what I wanted him to unpack was to what extent is it possible to judge music on its own merits in the context of research. Reeves claimed ‘on its own merit’ was self-explanatory and didn’t need expansion, I didn’t think this was such a ‘given’ because any piece of music is too open to different readings to be judged so simply and holistically. A piece can be simultaneously innovative on one level and derivative on another, it can be highly original in its development of one technique while using another without any critical reflection or apparent knowledge of others’ advances. And in artistic terms this is all fine, that’s just how composition works, but as research we need to be able to point to where and how the originality and rigour are happening. This point did come back around in another guise 10 minutes later when Reeves was arguing that we should change the conversation away from 'what is research' to assessing 'who is producing quality', by which he meant quality ‘work’, to which myself and another audience member queried how this would be assessed, but the conversation had moved on and the point withered. To me, this is another example of the conflation of artistic and research worthiness via the universal descriptor of ‘quality’, if we’re simply judging what music is ‘best’ then the question of research is meaningless (as I think Reeves believes it is), but I don't think research is commensurate with artistic quality, there is a definite difference in what the two measures are trying to gauge. The REF2014 Panel Criteria and Working Methods points to ‘originality’, ’significance’ and ‘rigour’ as its criteria for assessing research. While these can be applied to artistic quality, I struggle to imagine artistic quality being measured solely on this: that said, I struggle to imagine any sort of even partially-objective measures of artistic quality (answers on a postcard please…). Ian Pace subsequently pointed out that funding based on artistic merit is what we have the Arts Council for, and I worry that defining composition and performance as ‘research equivalent’ will put us on the short path to being ’not research’: this is especially pertinent in a context where every other performance discipline appears has to have vigorously embraced the idea of Practice as Research, where does this leave a musical practice without research?

This issue brings us right back to Christopher Fox’s first question, what do we as practitioners mean by 'research’. I sincerely believe that every composer and performer is automatically doing research in what they do, but that within the academic sphere we have (as Mera says above) a duty to explain and communicate. This is also strongly tied to the difference between professional and academic contexts. I don’t expect a composer who writes a piece for a concert to explain what they’re doing unless they want to, but in an academic context I think it’s the only way to separate the research from the piece. Because I don’t think the research is the piece. My answer to Fox’s question is that the research takes place in the process of writing the piece. It cannot happen apart from the piece and is wrapped up completely in the act of composing, but the piece is not the research. Research is (as Croft would agree I think) the thinking and doing of creating the piece. It is the response of praxis to issues raised by the unfolding of that praxis. Subsequently, for this process to be meaningful to others outside the artist’s head it also needs to be 'effectively shared’, see Exegesis below.

To echo a point of Pace’s above, when I compose I make choices, and those choices embody the research. Sometimes those choices require investigation before they can be made, and this can take a dizzying array of forms all equally valid (this might be ‘book’ research, but more likely it will be material and performative research that may be mediated through other persons — e.g. consulting with musicians — and may be difficult to document and/or unpack). Part of our problem in this debate is the legitimisation-angst this creates by calling for these forms of research to be considered valid in the face of poorly-considered comparisons with research models such as STEM and musicology, which are not appropriate in most cases. 

So what is good research in composing and performing? this is something that we as a discipline need to work out.


A general sticking-point in this debate is whether, or to what degree, practitioners should use text in support of their practice submissions. Generally, the panel seemed to agree that 300 word statements are the worst of all possibilities as they (a) don’t allow enough depth of engagement with the research, and (b) they possibly increased the attractiveness of ‘gimmicky’ projects (an anxiety clearly present in Croft’s article). Mera also noted that these 300 word statements were not a REF requirement; though I get the sense that many Universities insisted on them. The Main Panel D report from REF2104 noted positives and negatives in this respect:

‘[often] presentation of practice needed no more than a well-turned 300 word statement to point up the research inquiry and its findings, since the concerns outlined were then amply apparent within the practice itself’ (REF2014, p.99)

'300 word statements too often displayed a misunderstanding of what was being asked for and provided evidence of impact from the research, or a descriptive account akin to a programme note, rather than making the case for practice as research’ (REF2014, p.100)

Some panelists were explicitly against text support, preferring the work be judged on its own terms, while some panelists explicitly called for some level of exegesis. Reeves argued against exegesis because he felt it would unfairly advantage composers who were good at writing: I’ve heard others put this argument more cynically that it would advantage those more able to write in whatever academic speak is fashionable, but this rapidly becomes more conspiracy theory than argument. I don’t find Reeves' point to be persuasive, it seems a particularly hollow form of special-pleading to argue that academics (of all people) don’t need to explain and contextualize their thoughts on a topic. Surely objective distance and the ability to analyse and explain complex ideas is exactly what academics are for.

It is clear that the REF2014 guidelines already assume that artefacts alone cannot always speak to their research concerns. Personally, I have problems with the idea that the research value of the work is accessible in the artefact itself without at least ’some’ level of help. I think words are the most effective tool to point to the research, but equally I accept that there may be useful non-textual approaches also: I would dearly love to see good examples of this, I’m sure they’re out there, please send them my way if you’re aware of any.


From the discussions that I’ve observed in this debate, we appear to be reaching a consensus in this overall debate that composition neither is nor isn’t research, as both of these positions involve throwing a lot of babies out with the bathwater. The fruitful ground appears to be in the middle of the spectrum where we should identify how composition can be good research, and when it is not. I think the next question to discuss is really what we think good research is. Only then can we answer the question of how and if this is evidenced.

Friday, November 20, 2015


Most artistic researchers that I meet are working on solo projects. On stage, most of those also profile themselves as soloists. This has an easy to identify logic behind it: investigating a topic from within one’s own practice involves the subject and its single instrument. And as there is so much ground to cover in order to develop the discipline, this is an understandable primary focus.

But while academic disciplines already have a history of looking at collaborative processes, I still wonder about what an instrumentalist’s research project would be like if it were about playing in an orchestra, where the creativity and its room for exploration and innovation is shared with the conductor. I imagine that relationship to be complex (as a pianist I have only limited experience playing in an orchestra), with the players enjoying a more or less high degree of independence in matters of technique (shared with performers of the same orchestral group, and depending on the formal hierarchies in that group), but the conductor having more of a final word on sound and interpretation. In what way, for instance, would such boundaries permit (or stimulate), say, a clarinettist to develop something that goes against the traditions of his orchestral practice?

Besides the instrumentalist’s perspective, there is that of the conductor as a musician. Naturally, her mandate would allow her to implement a novel interpretation (given enough rehearsals), experiment with the stage set-up, programming, etc. But I am curious about the potential for archeology in that field. Which interpretive aspects of Stravinsky's own conducting of his work were indebted to his (lack of) experience as a conductor and which were a matter of actual musical choice? It would take a conductor to make an informed assessment of how to distinguish between both, beyond the superficial characteristics of coordinated ensemble playing.

artistic research, conductor

Perhaps a first step (that I know of) in exploring this area will be taken by the conference that the Oxford ConductingInstitute, in partnership with St. Anne’s College and the University of OxfordFaculty of Music, is organizing for June 24-26, 2016.

Deadline for applications is quite soon: Tuesday, December 1, 2015. All information can be found here

In the call, the range of topics is framed as follows:

The practice of conducting has significant impact on music-making across a wide variety of ensembles and musical contexts around the globe. Whilst professional organizations and educational institutions have worked to develop the field through conducting masterclasses and conferences focused on professional development, and academic researchers have sought to explicate various aspects of conducting through focused studies, researchers and practitioners are rarely in dialogue about these findings and experiences.

This conference will explore issues pertaining to the study of conducting from a range of perspectives by bringing together research across a variety of disciplines including musicology, ethnomusicology, music education, philosophy, psychology, anthropology and sociology as well as from practitioners. The tripartite aims of the conference will be to engage researchers and practitioners in productive dialogue, promote practice as research, and raise awareness of the state of research in the field of conducting.

Researchers and practitioners are invited to submit proposals for individual papers (20 minutes + 10 minutes for questions) on the following and other topics related to conducting.

- Critical approaches to pedagogy and mentorship
- Leadership, power and authority
- Verbal and non-verbal communication
- Critical views on repertoire and programming
- Enterprise, responsibility and accountability
- The rehearsal and performance process
- Students, amateurs and professionals    
- Historical views
- Gender
- Race
- Aesthetics of conducting
- Health and wellbeing
- Views from the podium
- Movement and gesture

The announcement makes it clear that participation is invited from academic and practitioners’ sides of the sector, but it can be hoped that artistic researchers will come to the fore as well. In any case, conductor Cayenna Ponchione is involved, and if her high-end input during the March 2015 conference on authorship in music was anything to go by, this one is not to be missed.

Friday, November 06, 2015

When composition is not research³

On November 25, 2015, at 17.30, a group of panellists will address critical perspectives on the question "Can Composition and Performance be Research?" in London. The panellists will be Ian Pace (pianist), Miguel Mera (composer), Annie Yim (pianist), Christine Dysers ("PhD student"), Camden Reeves (composer), and Christopher Fox (composer). The latter is also the editor of Tempo, the journal in which John Croft published the article that exposed the issue of composition-as-research to the widest and most intense public interest that I have witnessed so far.

As this debate initially dealt with composition, I have followed it, and engaged with it (here and here in writing, as well as in live fora) due to my general interest as expressed in this blog, but also more specifically because of my involvement with doctoral students in AR (often composers) and the fact that the AR discourse seemed to consistantly shy away from taking a clear stance in matters of composition, compared to performance. 

Ian Pace, artistic research, when composition is not research
Ian Pace

As the discussion has now been widening its focus to cover performance as well, my interest is sparked beyond what I thought before. Ian's announcement of this event (in this post on his blog) links to a good number of writings on the subject, including a forthcoming article of his own (to be published in Tempo, also). In it, he states that:

If I say that I have learned a good deal from listening to performances and recordings of Walter Gieseking, György Cziffra, Charles Rosen, or Frederic Rzewski, or Barbara Bonney, or Nikolaus Harnoncourt, or even Marcel Pérès, this is not simply in the sense of old-fashioned conceptions of ‘influence’ and osmosis (not that these do not also occur). But I listen to these performers to garner some idea of what is distinctive about their approach, and how they have set about achieving this. In a critical, non-slavish manner it is then possible to draw upon their achievements and also to discern what other possibilities might exist, opening up a new range of interpretive – and I would say research – questions.

He goes on to compare this artistic process of seeking direction in context (my interpretation) with an example from the "wilder fringes of theatre and visual performance", stating that his approach is "no less 'research' as result". This is followed by concluding that 

[...] composition-as-research, and performance-as-research (and performance-based research) are real activities; the terms themselves are just new ways to describe what has gone on earlier, with the addition of a demand for explicit articulation to facilitate integration into academic structures.

I don't agree with the jump from "opening up research questions" to actually being "research as a result", nor do I think performance-based research should be considered on the same level (much legitimate systematic musicology - e.g. performance science - is performance-based or -led). I more than agree with that "additional demand", as I find the explication of the research to be essential to its identity. As long as it is impossible for me to assess how (and how exactly) Ian has learned from Gieseking, Cziffra, et all., how exactly this has opened up new questions, how exactly this worked in a certain way (and not in perhaps certain other ways), what the conclusions are, etc., it is not worth it to use a new term to describe the age-old process he described. Research is a collective effort, with peer-interaction as a fundamental, i.e. peer-based and peer-oriented. Contrary to matters of composition, I can consider myself to be a peer of Ian's, but, from his performances, I cannot tell any of the above to a level that informs me about his research.

when composition is not research

A few years ago, I have had a discussion with composer Aaron Holloway-Nahum about that latter notion. I argued that I couldn't tell any compositional research aspect from looking at a score. Even on the level of composition, I cannot find myself be sure about how something is put together. His reply offered the example of a chord that consists of intervals that are stacked symmetrically around a center C, and argued that the idea and the knowledge necessary to come to that conclusion (i.e. the chord is symmetrical rather than a functional harmonic construction within a scale or key) are contained in the chord itself. Well, philosophically, that point can be pushed, yes, but when the real potential knowledge is tacit (the decisions that were involved, the choices that were made, and how the assessment of the outcome relates to the research question, etc. - not the apparent positioning of visual constituents), then by definition it resists explicit articulation and thereby merely leads to interpretation and  speculation, even for specialists. When browsing through the many folders of archival materials for Boulez's third piano sonata, it is only possible to reliably explain the knowledge or - if you will - the research processes that lie behind any given chord in such a piece when going through the work that Peter O'Hagan didAnd then we still only know something about the processes of construction, which, methodical as Boulez may have been, is still not necessarily saying anything about the research premisses, methodology, or conclusions. It does not even indicate that there was any research to begin with.

One of the articles Ian's post refers to is Nicholas Till's Opus versus output. Till gives examples of what he considers historical instances of creative practice, arguing them to be research by way of retro-actively devising research questions, e.g. in the case of Arnold Schoenberg (of whom Till states that he "developed serialism"): "how can we reconstitute musical form on a non-harmonic basis?" Both the statement and the research question are not only as "confused and lacking intellectual rigour" as Till accuses "the present model [of artistic practice as research] in UK universities" of, they also demonstrate how futile it is to try and rephrase an artistic process in terms of research methodology. 

It is quite possible that Schoenberg carried out actual research, but we won't know anything about it as long we only assess the artistic output. And that is what, by definition, happens with practice-as-research.

It is too bad that I cannot be in London on the 25th - would love to hear what is being brought to the fore. If I hear of anything new, I'll be posting about it, although I am running out of superscript numbers on my keyboard to write out more follow-up titles. On the other hand, the discussion still seems to show no promise of dealing with the question of what AR in composition can be if research and composition are not equated.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Mareli Stolp on "reflexivity"

South Africa is not a country you often read about in geographical overviews of AR practices, or, for that matter, in any publication on the status of our beloved new discipline. But they have AR, and Mareli Stolp is advocating it there, all the while building  a reputation for asking pertinent questions in the European conference circuit. Currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of South Africa, and the chair of the South African Society for Research in Music, she is now on this side of the equator as visiting researcher at the Orpheus Institute, and after a stimulating chat with her, Mareli accepted my request to write a guest post on a topic that she is busy developing: reflexivity.

Mareli Stolp, reflexivity, artistic research

Subjectivity and Reflexivity in Artistic Research
Mareli Stolp

Artistic research (AR) is concerned with questions of how knowledge can be generated about and through artistic experiences and artistic practices. A central premise is that an exploration of an artist’s own practice can lead to new insights and understandings. The idea of ‘own practice’ presupposes a level of subjectivity, which comes from an artist’s individual consciousness of that which occurs while engaged in practice. In order to distinguish AR from ‘pure practice’ it is necessary to discover ways to translate such subjective experience from tacit, embodied and intrinsic into some form of discursive medium that can be accessed and shared beyond the realm of the personal.

There are many possible ways to approach the subjective, tacit knowledge embedded in practice. Using the tenets of phenomenology and techniques of phenomenological reduction could be one such method; applying formats such as critical reflection during and upon conclusion of artistic research projects could be another. A third option, which connects to an extent to both phenomenological reduction and critical reflection, is the paradigm of self-reflexivity. This term is used in divergent ways in several disciplines, including psychology, sociology, economics and anthropology. My understanding of self-reflexivity is indebted to the work of the Reflexivity Forum and specifically the contributions of Margaret Archer (2010). I use the term self-reflexivity to denote a process whereby self-referential thinking is used to explicate artistic processes and products. Self-reflexivity is understood as innately different from ‘self-reflectivity’: Archer describes the latter as an action of a subject towards an object, a unidirectional engagement between an event or entity and the one who is engaged with that entity (Archer 2010, 2). Self-reflexivity, on the other hand, presupposes a continued, self-referential activity. Self-reflexive thinking does not have to assume introspection per se (in which case the subject/object dichotomy may complicate the possibilities for reaching viable insights), but rather retrospection: accepting that there may exist a time gap between subjective experience and objective engagement with the implications of that experience allows for subjective and objective understandings to function together in the articulation of new knowledge.

Michal Pagis (2009), writing from the perspective of psychology, raises the point that reflexivity can be discursive as well as embodied; these modes need not however be considered mutually exclusive or exhaustive. In terms of AR, I would argue that a self-reflexive process of inquiry ideally needs to move beyond the realm of the subjective and embodied in order to lead to a viable research result. Language may not be the only medium through which self-reflexivity takes place; however, I would posit that it is an ideal medium through which the outcomes of reflexive processes may be articulated, uttered and shared (although the format of such articulations need not be confined to traditional modes of exegesis, such as writing). Artistic practices result in embodied experiences; embodied experience, however, can perhaps best be viewed as distinct from self-reflexivity (Pagis 2009, 266), for sensual experience is generally considered to precede intellectual consideration: reflexive internal dialogue is required to translate embodied experience into a discursive and shareable medium (Pagis 2009). It is possible then to view self-reflexivity as the facilitator of a dialogue (Pagis 2009, 266); in artistic research, such ‘dialogue’ could be interpreted as interactions between embodied experience (generated through artistic practices), and processes of thinking through these experiences.

My approach to AR is focused on music performance, and I will therefore attempt to (briefly) explain my approach to self-reflexivity by means of an example from my own performance activities. In 2014, I presented a site-specific performance in the Central Business District of Cape Town, South Africa. For this performance, the piano was positioned outside, on a busy street; the ‘audience’ observed the performance from a rooftop seven storeys above my own position, with the music relayed to them by means of microphones and a speaker system; the performance was directly accessible to anyone walking past on the street. This project was primarily meant to engage with the social divisiveness characteristic of Western Art Music concert practice in contemporary South Africa. Access to concert halls remain the purview of the wealthy (and mostly white) population; in this performance, however, primary access was the purview of the ‘man on the street’, and the ‘audience’ was forced to experience the performance from a significant physical remove (see Stolp 2015). The project was part of a public art festival called Infecting the City.

Voyeur - a shortfilm by MJ Lourens
performed by Mareli Stolp, composed by Clare Loveday 
edited by Floyed de Vaal

The first phase of this project was mainly theoretical: the concept was developed under the influence of writings by Michel de Certeau on ‘spatial practices’ and experiential engagements with the City (writ large), as well as sociological critiques of contemporary concert practice of particularly Western Art Music. The thinking part of the project lead to the doing, the performance itself. However, by applying techniques of self-reflexivity, I am able to also allow theory to emerge from the practice itself, thus resisting a unidirectional configuration. Upon conclusion of this project, I was able to ‘think through’ the performance (or ‘bend back’ on the experience, as Archer describes it), and articulate insights on public art; artistic intervention; and site-specific performance generated from the performance itself. A further step is then enabled: these insights, once articulated, may have an impact on my own future site-specific projects, and ideally also on these discourses (site-specificity, interventionism, public art) in general.

AR projects are exemplified by an intertwinement of thinking and doing. This does not necessarily have to mean that these modes must function simultaneously; one or the other may dominate to a degree at any given moment. Theoretical perspectives need not fulfil primarily an external, analytical function; they may be seen as emergent from the practice itself. Applying strategies of self-reflexivity in artistic research allows for a negotiation of the ‘thinking and doing modes’, in that it allows for a continuing flow between them, a recurrent bending back that keeps the research process dynamic, and does not privilege one of the modes over the other.  

This way of understanding AR presupposes that a research process begins with subjective understandings, generated by a practitioner herself through her own practice; these are translated, developed, probed, perhaps made to resonate with other models of thinking (borrowed from philosophy or psychology, perhaps); ultimately these translations lead to articulations of these understandings generated from practice. Central in this understanding is that artistic practice is considered as potentially both the genesis of the research process, as well as the result.

Works cited:

Archer, Margaret S. 2003. Structure, Agency, and the Internal Conversation. New
         York: Cambridge University Press.

---------------------. 2010. Introduction: The reflexive re-turn. Conversations
         about Reflexivity. Edited by Margaret S. Archer. New York: Routledge.

Pagis, Michal. 2009. Embodied Self-reflexivity. Social Psychology Quarterly, 72 (3),
         pp. 265–283.

Stolp, Mareli. 2015. ‘Thinking Through’ Voyeur Piano: Strategies and Outcomes for 
         an Artistic Research Project. Forthcoming.

Monday, June 15, 2015

When composition is not research²

It has been surprising to see how much interest the previous post has generated. In less than four days, it attained a higher access rate than any other posts on this blog ever enjoyed, including the (until then) all-time favorite. The latter announced new research jobs; some of the reactions to the former were about how the Croft article was tantamount to a professional suicide note. Clearly, many are looking for a job, and some, if not many, are looking to keep their existing one. This will lead to more posts, but, for now, I want to follow up on the composition as/vs. research discussion.

Despite the attention, still very few arguments and cases are presented on how exactly composition can be equal to research (other than through notions of tacit knowledge, which seem to lead more to theories about it than to knowledge on how to work with it in practice). Equally lacking, but more poignantly so, is how exactly both can relate to each other if they are not synonymous, which is what I had intended to be the gist of my post. Meanwhile, on June 11-13, the Performa 2015 conference (not to be confused with the New York Performa 15 biennial) took place in Aveiro, Portugal, with relevant keynotes by Croft (elaborating on his article) and Marcel Cobussen ("Musical Performances are (not) Artistic Research"). Commenting on a FaceBook report by Cobussen, Croft has mentioned a forthcoming "positive corollary" to his arguments. I am curious and intend to keep you posted, here.

Aveiro, Performa Conference 2015, artistic research

Serendipitously, I just found two ads for future symposia that may help propell the discussion further. The first one – (PER)FORMING ART: PERFORMANCE AS RESEARCH IN CONTEMPORARY ARTWORKS – will be organized to take place at Leeds University on September 20, 2015, and will consider performance as a guiding force in the compositional process. Some of the proposed topics seem apt to inspire thinking about ways in which composition can be researched from within, e.g. performance as an actual technique for composing music, how performing other works can inform the compositional process of one’s own work, live coding and its influence on compositional practice, improvisation and its influence on compositional practice, etc.

Apparently, it will only be a small-scale affair (the program foresees 4 candidates and a keynote) , which is too bad, I think: it is certainly the first time I see any conference directly addressing the explication of compositional techniques from a practical perspective. Thinking back of the intensity with which the composition-is-(not)-research issue was engaged with on social networks, I would hope that more than four submit something and stand a chance at being heard. Watch out for the deadline, though: July 6, already!

Academy of Performing Arts, confernce artistic research, method, 2016

Just this morning, I saw a call for proposals to be submitted for a later and larger-scale conference on Artistic Research: Is there Some Method?, to be held at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague on April 7 – 9, 2016. Here, the questions are sought to deal with, amongst others, artistic research as an art of its kind, how to scrutinize the knowledge that art claims to produce, the extent to which methodological approaches in artistic research are hostile to the creative process, the added value of artistic research methods for art. Keynote speakers are already determined and make for an interdisciplinary setting: Bruce Brown (University of Brighton, UK), Bojana Kunst (Institute for Applied Theatre Studies, Giessen, Germany), Kent Sjöström (Malmö Theatre Academy, Sweden), Teemu Mäki ( Helsinki, Finland) and Julian Klein (Institute for Artistic Research, Berlin, Germany). Submissions are expected by October 15. 

Friday, June 05, 2015

When composition is not research

An article by UK composer and Brunel University lecturer John Croft, "composition is not research," was published in last April’s issue of TEMPO and has been doing the rounds on social networks and among artist-researchers in diverse institutions.

John Croft, Composition is not research
 John Croft

The title of the article leaves no doubt as to the position towards which Croft argues. Most of it lists reasons for not confounding artistic and scientific practice, e.g. the difference in how progress is made (Schoenberg does not correct and supersede Bach as Einstein does Newton), the mismatch between scientific and musical value criteria (applying quantity as proxy for quality), different types of creativity (a researcher cannot just ignore previous research), etc. Then there are the outright mistakes, such as the false hypotheses (of course the answer to "can a coherent musical structure be developed from sonification of the human genome?" is yes), the fake synonyms (e.g. composition as "investigation"), and the category error (composition can be an application of research, but not its report). Summing up the apparent futility of it all: if research is a metaphor, "why not 'gardening'?"

It may seem odd that this piece of writing – compelling as it is – has grabbed the attention that has propelled it so widely and quickly. In countless Anglo-Saxon universities, at least, the tendency to profile composition as an academic discipline has existed for many decades, and has long generated all of the main issues that the article brings to the fore. Yet, Croft is not the only one to raise his voice. Almost exactly a year ago, another UK composer-professor (at the School of Creative Arts in The Queen’s University of Belfast), Piers Hellawell, wrote a more extensive article on the topic: "Treating Composers as Researchers is Bonkers" deals with most of the same issues, if developed with more historical detail and concrete examples from his own longstanding experiences.

Piers Hellawell, composition is not research
Piers Hellawell
The narrow focus and the timing of both articles can be understood by considering the current UK higher arts education climate. The pressure on the arts to conform ever more to scientific models, jargon, funding strategies, and quality measurement, was expressed poignantly by the 2014 nation-wide Research Excellence Framework effort. The REF replaced the Research Assessment Exercise, last conducted in 2008, and the significant change from the neutral "assessment" to the ominous "excellence" says much about why both the REF process and its results have been the subject of regular and often heated frustrations, expressed on at least the social networks where I witnessed them being perceived by many as symptomatic of how much the arts are threatened to the core. The impact of this obviously depressing state must be what led Croft to basically give up the fight, offering as the only ways out the return to the idea of considering composition as research-equivalent, even though he acknowledges this is not without problems itself, or to "retreat to our garrets."

This leads me to a more fundamental and more surprising issue underlying these two exclamations by university-affiliated composers. Neither really offers an alternative to the either-or view on research and composition. Hellawell defensively suggests that there is "a large, meaningful and potent research component among today’s composers," but shows us no concrete examples, nor any theoretical frame in which to understand these components and how they can be offset against all that was criticized. Croft mentions that composition can depend on research, or serve as a test or data for research in other or neighboring disciplines, but he does not identify a notion of composition-research that is independent from musicology and from "pure" artistic practice.

Others who wrote on this topic, e.g. UK composer-doctors Lauren Redhead (here) and Aaron Holloway Nahum (here), have offered additional arguments, such as the notion of writing also not being research, or of research being composition, but neither really escaped the conclusion that composition as such is not research. And, again, neither really explained how composition and research are then to be connected, and how the connection can be taken into any type of account. Even though both blog posts also relate to how the REF-type pressures are starting to hurt the sector, there are clear hints at a seemingly unresolved issue that persists despite many thousands of compositional PhD dissertations that have been produced in the Anglo-Saxon world. As much as we can sympathise with Lauren Redhead stating in her post: "It was a hard-won battle and an important recognition of work done that brought composition into the academy," Hellawell's most basic question remains unanswered: "If composition can flourish without research, what then is the latter’s relation to the artistic whole?" Especially from the strategists that are responsible for imposing academic ideologies on artistic practice, one should be able to expect that the critical attitude that they value in research is applied to that shift, and that the link between composition and research, which they seem to find necessary, if not evident, is identified and scrutinized.

Abstracting from the Anglo-Saxon situation, the issue seems to be somewhat of a taboo elsewhere as well. On the European continent, where the REF-type pressures are not yet as fully at play, and where, at least formally, the discipline of compositional research is a much more recent endeavor that has offered as yet only few examples, the Brussels conservatory has systematically and confidently been claiming the concept of equating artistic practice and research. As with their Flemish colleague entities, it is "associated" with a nearby university, a development that is part of a larger EU "academisation" process, slowly and gradually dissolving the dichotomy between academic and artistic training. In the somewhat turbulent times that saw the Flemish conservatories take sides in the debate on how academic artistic practice could and should become, and with universities fearing the leveling of their own standards, the "Brussels model" was defined in the way it saw itself be part of the Flemish government’s apparent three-fold vision of how artistic practice relates to research. That vision - only expressed in Flemish, here in my translation - consists of the following categorisation:

     a) research on the arts, not rooted in artistic practice;

     b) research in the arts with an artistic result and a written report that 
     demonstrates the explicit and relevant research question, method, process, and 
     results of the research, as well as reflection on the approach, the outcome and 
     the context;

     c) research in the arts, coinciding with the artistic praxis, in which the creative 
     process itself is the research, and the product of the research is the artistic 
     product, supplemented with some type of report ["rapportage"].

Apparently, at the Brussels conservatory, "mainly" the third option is practiced. According to the school's research committee, the research situates itself "before and during the realization of the art work," the art work is the result of research, "the artist carries out research," and the results are "imbedded [integrated] in the art work in a language proper to the discipline." It is not entirely clear whether the artist is considered a researcher by default, whether the proper language is meant to be the musical language, nor whether there is a difference between "report" and "rapportage," but as there must be a distinction between b) and c), the Brussels position implies that it considers artistic practice to be research in and by itself.

This model clearly distances itself from a) and b), but its foggy focus adds no clear insights. The first composer to obtain the artistic doctorate through the Brussels model was Peter Swinnen, in 2009. On his website, what must be the "rapportage" can be found to connect to the orchestral piece La Chute de la maison Usher that he defended his doctoral work with. None of it offers any clarity with which to appreciate the new knowledge that we are left to assume was established in and through the composition, though.

If we leave the notion of composition-as/is-research for what it has now, to my mind, amply been argued to not be, the question of what is or can be a fruitfully integrative relation between both practices seems to remain difficult to answer, despite the many countries that now have curricula set up to train composers towards a PhD, all requiring a verbal component, and all using terms such as practice-as- or practice-based/led-research, research in-and-through practice, etc. For performers, especially those of "early music," there is usually no debate about how appropriate any traditional notion of research is. For composition, I have long been having the impression that we are often conversing with the emperor while wondering about where he left his clothes. We are told that we have b), above, but I have seen precious little output that demonstrates how this b) can differ from a) and c) in composition-research, i.e. with research behaving "in" composition, with the artistic result in relation to the "written report that demonstrates the explicit and relevant research question, method, process, and results of the research", and with the research question being determined within the art rather than within the "reflection on the approach, the outcome and the context." On the other hand, I have seen many examples of music philosophy/history/theory packaged as artistic research, with the art work thrown in for some unspecified reason rather than contributing in any essential manner, and where I am not convinced that the artist-researcher was the one best placed to solely bring the project to its most informative and innovative end at the research level.

Yet, I believe that the composer himself can furnish his peers with unique insights, based on research that is particular to the perspective and focus of his position and function as the creator of an art work. From that angle, the value of explicating the research method cannot be underestimated. If no failure or success can be measured, if peers cannot judge the validity of how conclusions were arrived at, there is no use for the so-called research. Every year, I let doctoral students listen to music that is the result of artistic research. Straight listening, with or without score, offers them no potential for assessing the research or any of its aspects (other than a limited judgement of the artistic outcome itself). When I gradually open the windows to the landscape formed by those aspects, short of actually stating the research question, explaining the method, and articulating the research results, there is still no way for them to be successful in that exercise. And this is regardless of whether a composition or its performance is considered. Even to my most experienced fellow pianist-researchers, I can play a piece that exploits insights developed through research, which they are then unable to identify. They can try and copy the result, but that is all, and copying research results is as futile as teaching someone to play an instrument by having the student only listen to how the teacher does something. In both cases, the transfer of the embodied know-how to someone who then wants to be able to use it for further exploration, mostly risks miserable failure.

To me, identifying a problem, devising a method for dealing with it, and coming up with a result that has an impact on the artistic practice with which the research is carried out, seems perfectly possible in composition. In other words: b), with the nuance that the relevant research question comes from within the practice, the method is integrated in it, and these are explicated in a (multi-media) report that accompanies the composition. That it seems simple to me is perhaps because I find it so easy to apply to my own practice, or to distinguish it there from musicological or purely artistic working modes. At any rate, as someone who cannot compose, I shouldn’t care too much, one way or the other. If only it didn't sound so out of tune that composers still seem to find it difficult to settle some of the basics. It is absolutely fine with me if they spend their time composing, but I don’t see why they’d have to play the game of having their works serve as research, other than to fight for maintaining a status quo in job opportunities at academic institutions.* Based on the potential of artistic research that I see and enjoy so much in my own practice, and the responses of my peers, I cannot but feel very strongly about how such research in composition can contribute to compositional practice, above and beyond what composition itself can and already does contribute.

* [Update: a mere 7 hours after it was uploaded, this post entered the top ten of most accessed posts on this blog. First position is held by a post announcing new jobs in artistic research.]