Sunday, July 17, 2016

CfP: composition as critical practice

For its 10th Research Seminar, "Sound Work", the Orpheus Institute is investigating "composition as critical technical practice". 

Jonathan Impett, artistic researcher
Jonathan Impett

The seminar is convened by composer-performer-researcher Jonathan Impett, and will take pace on 21-23 November 2016, in Ghent, Belgium. At about that time, the last installment of the hot 2015 UK debate on "composition as research" will have been a year old (see here and here for more on that debate). The Orpheus Seminar "will consider composition as a research activity - a process informed by theory and intuition, constraint and contingency, expectation and experience. It is a continuous iterative process of inscription and reflection in which its models, metaphors, aspirations, obligations, tools and technologies all play a part. This process is distributed temporally, socially and materially. The artefacts of composition – however notated, improvised, virtual, embodied or technologically implemented – are hybrid technical objects. Neither pure ‘inspiration’ not unmediated formalism account for what they contribute. We might rather consider composition as a design process, and study its dynamics and decisions in the spirit of critical technical practice – a term coined by Philip Agre in his work on the creation of the artefacts of artificial intelligence."

Keynote speakers are Nicolas Collins (Art Institute of Chicago) and Alan Blackwell (interdisciplinary design - University of Cambridge). The call aims at proposals by practitioners from all disciplines, particularly welcoming "presentations that explore the demonstration of composition as research in innovative ways." The deadline for proposals, to be sent to, is August 17, 2016.

More information can be read here.

Monday, February 29, 2016

A move to put our mark on the Frascati Manual²

A bit over two years ago, I reported (hereon a request by the Society for Artistic Research (SAR) to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), calling for a revision of the Frascati Manual in order to add AR as a new and separate scientific category.

The motion was amplified through the European League of Institutes of the Arts (ELIA) proposal, in collaboration with SHARE, two networks that represent some 339 (art) universities and academies, arguing for an “appropriate” status of the arts and arts research. It was put forth that this status should be supported by the recognition of the Arts (and AR with it) as a field of its own: not as part of the Humanities (next to History and Archaeology, Languages and Literature, Philosophy, Ethics and Religion, and “Other” humanities), but on par with Humanities, Natural sciences, Engineering and technology, Medical and Health sciences, Agricultural sciences, and Social sciences. (See here for a letter from ELIA in response to an OECD inquiry, highlighting some of the reasoning.)

Frascati Manual, artistic research, tacit knowledge, embedded knowledge

Last October, the updated manual was published (online readable and freely downloadable here; summary PPT presentation here). From p. 60 onwards, the Frascati Manual goes into the matter under “Examples of R&D, boundaries and exclusions in different areas”:

R&D and artistic creation

          2.64 Design sometimes tends to be characterised by the use of artistic 
          methods. This is another potential area of overlap. In order to address the 
          discussion of R&D and artistic creation, it can be useful to make a 
          distinction between research for the arts, research on the arts and artistic 

Research for the arts

2.65 Research for the arts consists in developing goods and services to meet the expressive needs of artists and performers. There are enterprises in this line of business that devote a significant part of their resources to R&D in this area. For instance, they engage in experimental development to produce new electronic musical instruments to suit the needs of a group of performers. Other types of R&D organisations (mainly universities and technical institutes) also play a role in exploring new technologies for performance art (to improve audio/ video quality, for instance). The activity aimed at supporting the introduction of new organisational or marketing methods by art institutions (advertising, financial management, etc.) may qualify as R&D, but caution should be exercised in making this decision. This area of R&D performance is already covered by existing data collection.

Research on the arts (studies about the artistic expression)

2.66 Basic or applied research contributes to most of the studies of the arts (musicology, art history, theatre studies, media studies, literature, etc.). Public research institutions could have a role in selected research domains (as some relevant research infrastructures – like libraries, archives, etc. – are often attached to arts institutions, such as museums, theatres, etc.). As far as preservation and restoration activities are concerned (if not to be included in the group above), it is recommended to identify the providers of such technical services as R&D performers (employing researchers, publishing scientific works, etc.). This area of R&D performance is largely covered by existing data collection.

Artistic expression versus research

2.67 Artistic performance is normally excluded from R&D. Artistic
performances fail the novelty test of R&D as they are looking for a new expression, rather than for new knowledge. Also, the reproducibility criterion (how to transfer the additional knowledge potentially produced) is not met. As a consequence, arts colleges and university arts departments cannot be assumed to perform R&D without additional supporting evidence. The existence of artists attending courses in such institutions is not relevant to the R&D measurement. Higher education institutions have, nevertheless, to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis if they grant a doctoral degree to an artist as a result of artistic performances. The recommendation is to adopt an “institutional” approach and only to take account of artistic practice recognised as R&D by higher education institutions as potential R&D (to be further used by data collectors).

It is clear that the OECD did not follow the reasoning of ELIA, SHARE, and SAR all the way up to the desired consequences: the arts did not get the requested separate status, nor did arts research. In a way, this is not a big deal, I think: the so-called FORD categorization (the Fields Of Research and Development list as reproduced in my previous entry on the matter) serves analysts to statistically understand the dynamics in those fields. One can wonder whether the 1-digit level is crucial. Would it be more advantageous to compare the arts to natural sciences or engineering rather than to history, language, or philosophy? There is also plenty of overlap in different categories, and, most generally, any attempt at structuring such givens may well be futile. The SAR/ELIA/SHARE-move can be understood strategically, though: by considering AR to be in a league of its own, it might support the proponents in visual arts, or in music composition, who argue that the artistic practice is the research, and that the artistic output is the research output. They would certainly benefit from an internationally formalized extra epistemological category, allowing for further alienation from the established academic or academia-oriented (sub-)disciplines and their paradigms.

For the moment, however, this is not happening.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Alain Franco's WTK project

On Sunday February 28 (3-7.30pm), pianist Alain Franco will perform his version of Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier at the Pact Zollverein in Essen. Instead of playing the preludes and fugues in the published (chromatic) order, he explores a rationale for experimenting with different sequences. The premise is related to Bradley Lehman's revealing demonstration, as well as - in a way - Bartók's pedagogy-oriented edition (see here), but Alain developed it on an entirely different conceptual basis. I find the idea to be inspiring, with much potential for extrapolation within and outside the art of programming, and thus for AR. Since he didn’t have immediate plans to publish about it, I asked Alain to write something for this blog.

Alain Franco, artistic research, Bach, Das Wohltemperirte Klavier
Alain Franco (© Thomas Plischke)

Extending History

Whenever we take some time to look at the cardinal principle of tonal music we end up with 3 paradigms : 

1. Modulation
2. Time-Space coordinates
3. Discursivity through Orientation.

The 2 books of the Well-Tempered Keyboard by J. S. Bach – published at somewhat 20 years distance (1721 and 1742) – constitute one of the rare examples of both an Encyclopedic and Pedagogic music composition.

One can easily project oneself back into the excitement that followed the speculation of Andreas Werckmeister (1640- 1706) as the one who had succeeded in generating a Unitarian principle of connectivity between all 12-semitones that would be thus called "tempered tuning". This was nothing less than a process of tonal globalization, and it would allow – in the course of the following 2 centuries – the up and coming of increased "lanes of diversification" that would in turn fire up the idea of "extension" from Baroque through Classical and up to late Romantic Esthetics. (The film industry is still intensely benefitting from it).

As the readers of this contribution most probably know, the 2 books of the WTK were published separately and in chromatic order. My idea to reshuffle not only the order of tonalities but also to mix the 2 books as well as the succession of forms (i.e. not keeping the initial binomial pair of a Prelude followed by a Fugue) arose out of a series of thoughts, all somehow bound to one conceptual evidence. Our performance practice has been and remains thoroughly affected by many crossings of influences that cannot be restricted to the sole principle of a "going-and-return" procedure. To me, that means, concretely, that the equation Reading+Playing=Performing is just – literally – "unheard" of.

So, breaking up the Encyclopedic order meant simultaneously to propel the issue of performing into a frame that would reset and reload the necessity of being on stage with it. (But you will notice, later on, that this is not only about a performer’s claim).

The work would thus consist of a dialectic process of the inheritance of substance on the one hand, and a substantial proposal of gift on the other. I could count on some remarkable basics in order to achieve that. First of all, a combinatorial helix of repetition, as all 12 tonalities appear in their major and minor mode, systematically granted a prelude and a fugue, and all this twice through the 2 volumes. I would even go as far as to say that the mobility of material – an idea that I kept as a mantra, all the way through this working process – popped up as a confirmation of what I had gone through in my attempt to forward something I consider, generally speaking, disappointing in performed music formats: the dramaturgy of presence.

Is it perhaps due to my constant and renewed connection to performance art, theater and dance, that I consider stepping on a stage to be stepping in the very center of the "becoming"? I remain convinced that there is no such thing as authenticity – unless it is to adopt an extreme stoic point of view by looking at a printed score for about 2 hours, in total silence, or spend your life in a Library looking for evidences: both conditions are a denial of what performance is about.

The first thing to do was to diffract the full available material. That meant:  considering the 96 works (i.e. 48 preludes and 48 fugues) as equally many short-novels, with the idea to turn these into a musical epos. (I even thought of an analogy to opera, since the full performance lasts for about 4 to 4 ½ hours). I knew, of course, that I would remain bound to the specific type of narrativity that all these compositions contain, but that, at the same time, I would be looking at expanding and extending a "theatrical/literary" process in order to create a matching point in regarding the history of stage and the history of music at a comparable level. I had thus no intention to disfigure the material (I am not so fond of the idea that one would step on stage to express "brute anger" on rather weak items such as the condition of the artist, the obsolescence of representation, etc. – specificity of work matters so much more), but rather to associate a "given state" with a "potential" one. I like to think about it as an "inclusive critique".

As we know that, in tonal music cadences, territoriality and "coming home" are key concepts, I decided to associate (although it was not only about deciding or wanting: I just felt, at some point, that there was something evidently valid in proceeding this way) these with their own projection in History, according to the adage that "every generation thinks the next one".

The cadence is a principle of built-up in order to complete a sequence, granting it something like constitutional characteristics. Territoriality on the other hand results from comparative locations with regards to the main tonality, and the concept of "coming home" – a.k.a. the last cadence – is granting the full journey its completeness and confirmative dimension. As such, we could even agree that these paradigms meet somewhat the Lutheran spirit of work and investment, and that, frankly, there is not much more to add.

That is correct, but not to its full extent.

Performing – whether music, a theater play, or even curating an art exhibition – is a displacement of materials, of forms and formats, and as such an interrogation addressed to the performer’s community – pretty much like paraphrasing one of Madonna’s titles: "justify your Love".

I thus associated ideas inherent to the published material with ideas that I considered relevant to its performative perspective. (Note that I make a distinction between the two – which I even believe could be extended to other musical formats, and opera in particular, with the following assumption: if you consider the score as an invariant, which is the "Sacred Rule" in the institution, the staging remains of course of a second order. But that’s another story.)

For obvious dramatic reasons, e.g. harmonic proximity, elasticity, resistance, the tonal discursivity established that, the further you modulate from a given tonality, the more parsimoniously one must use that ability in order to avoid "exhausting" territoriality.1

We know what this means: modulations to the 5th and the 4th degree (the circle of fifths turning left or right) keep the highest index of proximity with the principal tonality; the minor second and the tritone are at the other extreme of that topology as the most "alien" ones. As you will witness in the playing order, printed below, I indeed reproduced these characteristics on a meta-level to the full cycle. (By the way, this is one of the generic ideas I tend to pursue in my work as "music dramaturg": the continuity of History through the editing of material, and, as such, the continuity of Material by other means.)

For instance: the first part starts with a B flat minor prelude and finishes with an E major Fugue, which sets a tritone modulation, but one that is projected over a good 2 hours of music. At the end of the second part, the only "direct" modulation to the tritone is taking place (A major – E flat minor), which, at that moment, functions indeed as the "dramatic" cadence of the complete material, reproducing again on a larger level what we do notice as a classical standard. Basically, all possible modulations were used – similar to the famous series in Berg’s Lyric Suite of  "integral intervals": minor second, major second, minor third, major third, fourth, tritone, fifth, including the somewhat Schubertian "Moll-Dur" modulation. (See for instance the repeated spots on A flat major and minor in the first part).

But, with all this, the key question remains: how did this particular (new) order emerge? I must say that this has been a progressive process, with at the beginning "local" decisions on short edits, trying to match textures and surfaces – eventually rethinking speed and articulation in function of what these could produce in terms of congregations and proximities. For those of the readers who are acquainted with the scores, it will speak for itself that some of these do point at and contain Gothic harmonies (5-part fugue in C sharp minor), Classic Enlightenment style (prelude in D major), "speculative" counterpoint (fugue in B flat minor), etc. In the course of a long tradition of rhetoric and agogic, I remained attentive to, for instance, the "breathing in and out" of the longer sequences. At some point, I decided to transgress the symbolism of the double bar by starting to connect preludes and/or fugues without stops, remaining in one tonality for a while in order to induce yet another sensation of tonal duration, and by doing so suggesting another view on Classical frames, indeed producing another view on framing altogether. 

The performers among us will certainly recall "body-memories" of energy flow and long-term breathing when it comes to designing a big arch that will eventually feed the attempt of grasping a whole prelude or fugue in a few giant paces. Well, it occurred to me that, at certain conditions (but thinking about conditions that are required to achieve specific goals regarding performance seems to me essential), the final cadence, i.e. chord, would contain enough resilience that I would, for instance, use that remaining energy of a closing gesture as an upbeat for an opening one. I remember having thought of the recitativo-aria module, where there is no such thing as a clear, unambiguous end, but rather a "potlatch" of giving-receiving material  to carry on with. If you’re looking for a famous example of the matter – and not at all connected to Bach  just watch the opening scene (again) of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey. It ends with the beginning of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, one of the strongest cadential progression ever written, and yet, just to say: "you know, and this is just a beginning"…

It was by inquiring further into building this meta-level of harmony, tonality and form, that I had the feeling I was increasingly more busy with the idea of "staging" the material than thinking of "playing" it. If you take a close look at the current playing order (which I never regard as final), you will notice that there is an idea of tonal regions that might not be instantly noticed while listening, yet "doing something" on a level I’d like to consider Urban. For instance: the tonalities of F and A (major and minor) do not appear in the first part, whereas F sharp and C sharp are absent in the second (on the noticeable exception of the prelude in F sharp major). Now, as I am starting and finishing the cycle with the B flat minor prelude (which I chose for its association with a "walking pace" – and consequently played at approx. 60 for a crotchet), the tonality of E flat is following/preceding it in the conventional way, as if it were about "leaving the church in the middle of the village". But, if the beginning is clearly set on "reasonable" modulations (B flat – E flat – H major – E major – etc., i.e. fifths in sequential pairs), at the very end we are in a rather "blurred" situation, going from F sharp major to A, then via F back to A. At that point, the "break-up" A major – E flat minor is reinforced by the rather high speed of the fugue in A (which I play at about 110 for a dotted crotched), as well as emphasizing the binary/ternary beat. The last chord of that fugue is cut abruptly, followed by the E flat and B flat (i.e. D sharp and A sharp), which I leave to resonate as if these were the brass players in Siegfried’s death.    

This extended oscillation of time and duration – clearly exceeding the reasonable Time concepts of Bach – was, for me, somehow the conceptual key to the "interface" between score and performance, which I even decided to emphasize by having the audience seated around the instrument – the chairs being placed almost as if these would reproduce the shape of the grand piano. (The picture below shows the empty space during the tuning session).

Alain Franco, artistic research, Bach, Das Wohltemperirte Klavier

The idea is clear, I guess: this was not solely about listening but about sharing the full experience of "being there" as well – maybe even to point out the evidence that there is only this one World, whereas believers keep saying that… But this is another story, and yet not completely other.

It seems that we have come to understand the importance of staging (and going on stage) as the most appropriate way to "compose" the ongoing stories we do keep working with. This matches by the way Nietzsche’s concept of "Ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen" (the Eternal Return of the Same). However, I wouldn’t know why, on the one hand, we would consider the basic issue of performing being about staging material, and as such "displace and replace" it, while on the other hand we would consider that music – Time Art in its very essence – would be kept away from this key issue, wrapped up in its own printed appearance, precisely when it comes to recompose Time with already composed time.

This project is just one out of infinite attempts to do so.

Alain Franco, artistic research, Bach, Das Wohltemperirte Klavier

(1) This is precisely what Schoenberg pointed at when he assumed that the tonal system became indeed "exhausted". He meant, in the first place, a loss of specificity due to an esthetic of "constant torment", on the verge of merging Esthetic and Art. But it’s precisely in the course of this movement that performance became associated with creativity, that a keyboard player would consider himself an artist…

Thursday, January 28, 2016

IRCAM PhD positions in compositional research²

As almost two years ago, IRCAM announces a call for its "music doctorate".

Contrary to 2014, the call is now issued in English as well as in French. (In the French version it says "from September 2015 onwards", but that is most likely a mistake due to the almost word for word copying of the previous call.) New also: the preliminary selection, the fact that there is no mentioning of a maximum number of contracts to be awarded (nor whether there will be contracts, i.e. paid positions), and two additional categories of possible topics.

Unchanged is the vague position IRCAM takes in the ongoing debate on research and/through/as composition. It purports its program to be "distinct from a doctorate in musicology", but only the importance of the candidates being "high-level composers" (however that will be assessed) and of a technological dimension of the proposed research project is stressed.

We are curious to learn of the current IRCAM doctorandi.
IRCAM, Centre Pompidou, artistic research, PhD position

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Mind the gaps: Roels' study on AR in composition

In comments on a post about the relationship between composition and research (here), musician and archaeologist Roya Arab suggested it would be helpful to have some empirical studies investigating composition-research projects "so that applicable knowledge, theories, techniques and tools that have been gained from these research projects can be established (or not as the case may be)". As it happens, Flemish composer-researcher Hans Roels took a comparative look at research projects by composers in Flanders. I asked him to introduce his study for this blog.

Hans Roels, artistic research in composition
Hans Roels

Developing meaningful relations – a study of artistic research in music composition in Flanders

This text is a summary of a study that I have made on research in music composition in Flanders. It is the result of a collaboration between the Orpheus Institute and the Royal Conservatoire Antwerp (Artesis Plantijn University College) within the MAO meetings (Module Artistiek Onderzoek). The study is based on the concept that artistic research is characterized by a close interaction between research and artistic practice. Therefore, I examine how artistic practice and fields of knowledge, including artistic research, are integrated in the design and method of the research outputs. Although I focus on the results and proposals in this text, I'll start by giving a short overview of the design of my study.

My sources consist of five Ph.D. dissertations and eleven master theses in music composition from the five institutions for Higher Music education in Flanders. These outputs were all made between January 2011 and July 2014. I have also set up an online survey in which 23 composers participated. These composers were performing or supervising research. This survey provided me with additional background information for the analysis of the dissertations and theses.

My first finding in this study is that the disclosure and dissemination of research outputs is not yet optimal. It is not obvious to obtain a full paper or digital copy of all the dissertations or master theses. There may be several reasons:

  • different library systems and databases;
  • no uniform requirements for the artistic parts of the research outputs: some dissertations contain scores, others don't, and yet others only contain a selection of scores;
  • some editors object to disclose scores and recordings;
  • some composers-researchers object to disseminate their dissertation or score, e.g. because the composition wasn't performed yet.

The next insights relate to the integration of research and artistic practice. Although the composers/researchers underline the importance of a close interaction between practice and research in their discourse and the online survey, the dissertations and theses demonstrate a considerable influence from established disciplines such as musicology, music history, or music cognition. The research questions are mostly answered in the text part on these established disciplines. Only in one of the five dissertations is there a clear interaction between practice and research and to a lesser degree in two other ones. In general, the text about the personal practice is relatively short compared to the part based on music cognition or  history.

In the master theses the gap isn't that wide: generally, the items and problems are more closely related to artistic practice, and the text about the personal practice is as extensive as the other parts. Master research also shows more diversity in design and methods . Together with the Ph.D. dissertations, they could form a larger corpus (to develop artistic research in music composition) with a wider array of research approaches. But, in fact, master research is undervalued, and its results and insights are not used in post-master research.

Another gap reveals itself between the discourses on artistic research on the one hand and results of artistic researchers on the other. The number of references to artistic research literature in the dissertations is never more than five, although there are always at least 100 references in the bibliography. Moreover, the general argumentation and content of these dissertations and theses does not build upon other artistic research. There are of course a few exceptions, i.e. positive examples, and there are also original and fascinating designs and methods, but, generally, there are almost no references to artistic research, and the argumentation about the relation between research and artistic practice is short and simple.

The same remark applies to the reasoning about the role of the researcher. Although reflection is acknowledged to be important in the online survey, it is absent or idiosyncratic in the dissertations and master research, simple and without references to the extensive literature on reflective research, and to the literature on the position of the researcher in his/her research.

The results in this study can be summarized as three gaps that exist between:

1.   master and postmaster research;
2.   discourses on artistic and reflective research on the one hand and results of artistic researchers on the other;
3.   text/research part and the artistic practice.

What can we do to bridge these gaps in music composition research? How can we ensure that the work of a researcher has an impact on another researcher or composer? That they read and discuss each other's work? I have three proposals , partly based on practices, examples and suggestions, that I discovered during this study.

The first proposal is very basic and straightforward: the results of research in music composition need to become more accessible. This is a conditio sine qua non if we want to improve the impact of research and have composer-researchers listen to each other's production. Also, minimum requirements and control mechanisms need to be set up by institutions to assure that the research output contains all the artistic productions, and that it ends up in libraries. On an inter-institutional level, a dissemination procedure could be set up to select the most valuable outputs of the master research.  Together with the Ph.D. dissertations, the master theses create a larger corpus of research output, which helps future researchers to consciously choose their own approach and foresee problems. In the 'corpus' of my study, three research approaches can be distinguished: a theoretical approach, in which new compositional concepts are conceived of and elaborated upon; an analytical approach, in which personal compositions are based on insights from the analyses of historical compositions; and, finally, a 'non-western' one, in which ethnic music is studied.

This last approach faces serious challenges, as these projects did not manage to transcend the trivial, all the while describing the links between their research and artistic practice (e.g. non-western scales or rhythms that are described to be part of the compositions). The larger collection of master and postmaster outputs helps to spot challenges of specific research approaches. Finding artistically relevant research questions and situating them in the current music practice, seem to be urgent, especially in this 'non-western' approach.

My second proposal concerns the individual researchers’ responsibility to develop a more elaborate discourse in dialogue with other texts on the overall design of the research. The parts of the dissertations and theses that deal with a specialized topic could be shortened in favour of a well-argued positioning of the research project within a diverse and rich tradition of reflective and artistic research and practice. A way to realize this could consist of expressing the position as an artistic researcher towards existing, strong knowledge domains in music composition. In this study two such domains were identified: (score) analysis and the (research) history of composition. This 'research history', pre-dating the official launch of 'artistic research', consists of a large and diverse collection of texts, compositional practices and products, documented by various people and researchers. Examples are the 'recherche musicale' at the GRM institute in France in the second half of the 20th century, or a book such as Henry Cowell’s 'New Musical Resources'.

The other knowledge domain is analysis, and I use this term for the discipline that examines the result (or product) of the compositional practice. Especially the analysis of the score has a long and strong tradition in the music conservatories.
In the dissertations and theses of this study, both analysis and the history of composition pop up regularly, as could be expected from an influential knowledge domain. These domains appear both traditional and new forms. However, these new forms are often implicit, rather than articulated and elaborated in order to develop the discourses on artistic research in composition.

Let me illustrate this with score analysis. In the theses and dissertations of my study, a kind of 'reflective' analysis deals with the scores of the composer-researcher. These are analysed to obtain new insights on what s/he is doing while composing, on the inspirational sources or on the relation with other composers and compositions. Nevertheless, in most cases, the researcher/composer (safely) relies on a traditional score analysis (pitch scales, structure, etc.) without explicitly asking how the reflection and self-learning capacity through an analysis of the score can be enhanced. The goal is new, but the method is conventional. At this point, the lack of knowledge of the relevant literature hinders the researcher in elaborating this new form of analysis and asking challenging questions about the role of 'reflective' analysis.

My third proposition is a call to create a real research environment for music composition research, and to rely less on an individual approach. An environment that allows for experiences and practices that are shared and discussed between researchers and artists. On the one hand, such a network should support and stimulate a researcher in experimenting with unknown research designs and methods, to make room for diversity in research styles. This diversity would be welcome in Flanders, especially, where certain types of composition research are lacking. For instance, no reflective enquiry based on dialogue was found in any of the studied dissertations and theses, even though this is a widespread practice outside of composition. On the other hand, such an environment should also challenge a researcher to develop a thoroughly argued and an elaborate stance on the fundamental concepts and methods in his/her project.

Although the current study was constrained to the situation in Flanders and considered a limited number of dissertations and master theses, it served to create a global overview of composition research and to discuss the requirements for developing these individual research practices into a research community or discipline. I hope that these findings and ideas can inspire other people outside Flanders.

Finally, I’d like to make propose three -perhaps unrealistic- research plans for artistic research in music composition.

First, the “+1” plan, creating an extra research year for the most valuable master theses.

Second, the “-1” plan, to convince Ph.D. students to finish their dissertation one year before the end of their deadline. During the 'extra' year, the main part of the master thesis or the 'finished' dissertation remains the same, but time is spent on:

·       discussing and refining the concepts and design of the research project together with other researchers and composers;
·       expressing the relation with (score) analysis and the history of research in composition;
·       publishing and disseminating the research output.

Third, the “1+1=3” project, negotiating with several institutions to come to an overview and spot the gaps in current research. (For instance, there is no composition research using an 'emergent' method in Flanders.) Next, create an experimental research project which focuses on developing a research design, on performing the actual research during a short period, and on evaluating this design and its results.

I am convinced that these three plans -or mild provocations- could advance the current research in music composition, increase the impact of the individual research outputs and give artistic research in composition a more distinct shape.

This text is an adapted version of a presentation by the author on the EPARM 2015 conference (Graz, Austria). An extensive article on the study of music composition research in Flanders is currently (January 2015) under review. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

The UK debate / the AEC White Paper

2015 is in the past. As far as this blog goes, that year has certainly been marked by the composition-is-(not-)research debate. My response to John Croft’s article, the follow-up posts, and Scott McLaughlin’s report on the London discussion, have by far garnered most of the readers of all the texts on this site.

There has been a distinct feeling of closure: for composer Christopher Fox, editor of TEMPO (where John’s initial article was published), the journal’s freshly published 275th issue, with articles by Camden Reeves and Ian Pace, and with John Croft’s rebuttal to them, marked "the final innings […] of the great practice-as-research test match"; Ian published "final thoughts" on his blog, followed by what he called a "last post" on "300-word statements" (here for that post). On the other hand, an announcement came in through the mail, this week, of a combined live/online conference at the University of West London (see here) - dealing with such fundamental aspects of the matter as, for instance, "what is good output", echoing Scott's request for deciding on "what we think good research is" (here). Clearly, the last word has not been said, just yet.

Some such aspects have already been touched upon in this blog, e.g. why I thought composition should be debated especially (feeling uncomfortable with the fact that, as phrased elsewhere, "it is tacitly accepted that a musical composition is likely to qualify as some type of research much more than is the case for musical performances and recordings"), and, years ago, definitions, dissemination platforms, peer review systems, etc., all particular to AR.

City University, Ian Pace, Can composition and performance be research? artistic research
The debate at City University "Can composition and
performance be research? Critical perspectives."

There are certainly aspects still worthwhile going into, such as the need to distinguish between a composition/performance and the act of composing/performing (including preparations) when talking about composition/performance-as-research. Or that stretch in the City University panel video (1h 06’25” – 1h 11’10”) where Ian Pace plays an excerpt from the Paul Dukas piano sonata “in light of some research”, which he briefly indicated to consist of his analysis of the work, his study of the relevant 17 recordings, and especially his consideration of late 19th-Century French pianism and distinct compositional aesthetics and approaches from that time. An applause followed his performance, and reports on the debate were written, but I find it strange that such an important statement - and I mean the performance - was not picked up on anywhere. I don’t want to doubt that Ian did analyze the work and the recordings, and that he dug deeply into the historical contexts, although that is only because I know him well enough to trust what is otherwise a mere assumption of mine. But am I to take the insights that his research established to be situated in his seemingly odd approach to the tempo change (perhaps relating to the "amorphous musical composition" that he mentioned in his introduction), or in his ignoring a two-bar long diminuendo (in order, maybe, to stress a more "strongly hierarchical approach to musical composition")? What options did he decide not to integrate into his interpretation, and why? Why play the trio section? How did the difference between looking at 19th century French pianism (and how did he do that?) and compositional aesthetics play out? Or were certain parameters such as timbre involved? (I can’t tell, as the microphone set-up doesn’t allow any serious assessment.) And so on. I am sure the above will sound like I am trying to be facetious, but I am genuinly at a loss. I cannot but think of Ian's statement (from here) that 

a sensitive listener with some familiarity with the work in question and performance practice might very well be able at least to assess, if not necessarily reconstruct in every detail, the research process which has given rise to one of David Milsom’s performances. A 40 000 word dissertation would certainly elaborate the process to a high degree, if done well, but I am not really sure that a 300 word statement could – or rather, if some point can be elucidated in 300 words but not clearly heard from the performance without such guidance, I would question the extent to which it is embodied in that performance

Ian's verbal introduction was a bit less than half of 300 words, but the excerpt he played was very limited in scope as well, and I do think I can consider myself familiar with the work in question (I have listened with the score, have compared other recordings, etc.). I cannot say that I have analysed 17 recordings, or that I have studied the particular context as vigourously as I suspect Ian did, but that would be against the point of listening to someone communicate the results of his research, anyway. So, I end up desperately trying to give his performance research credit while being aware that I achieve no more than committing intentional fallacies.

As I indicated above, I trust Ian enough to be sure that, if/when he publishes about his research, all will become clear. What I am interested in, at this point, is the hesitance with which positions seem to be taken. I do not think that "I am not really sure that a 300 word statement could [...]" and "a sensitive listener might" are a matter of understatement so often found in British English. As I don't think the silence of so many professionals involved in the debate is a coincidence. Or the fact that nobody from the UK has come forward (to my knowledge) with an answer to Piers Hellawell's question of the relation between composition and research when both are not equated (here), which was at the core of my response to John's article, and which led to the titles of four of my blog entries. 

Liduino Pitombeira, artistic research, composition
Liduino Pitombeira

I did receive one reaction, however, from composer Liduino José Pitombeira de Oliveira, who sent me a +/-1400 word article Composition of Two Works for Woodwind Quintet based on the Systemic Modelling of Guarnieri’s Ponteio No. 25, which he wrote with Marcel Macedo de Castro Lima (downloadable here). The article proposes a compositional-analytical method

in order to identify a hypothetical compositional system that would have given rise to Camargo Guarnieri’s Ponteio No.25 [for piano], which was analyzed from the perspective of its harmonic and melodic structure. The resulting model allowed us to create two applications in MATLAB, which helped us during the compositional planning of two new works that are distinct from the original but still similar from the point of view of the selected parameters.

The article contains a referenced theoretical context, a report on the analysis, and details on the related planning for the new compositions. That the latter is still descriptive ("we started by", "next we have", "…was added", etc. ), and that the conclusions as well as other parts leave important questions wide open, certainly provides room for criticism. But, at least, with this verbal explication, critical assessment of the research is possible. With only the pieces (in their scores and/or performances), it would not be.

But I have made this argument before. More important for this post is the fact that Liduino Pitombeira is from Brazil, where a similar debate seems to be going on, and which was the reason for him to contact me. In hindsight, much of how the 2015 debate on the matter evolved – the expectance (or hope?) that all is said and done, probing fundamentals, the polarization, the latent thin ice, the tacit acceptances, etc. – is odd because this has all been taking place in a country where the composition-research degree is said to have been invented already in the 1960s (as Christopher Fox explains after 8’30” in the video of the November 2015 debate), and where there are now so many composers in academic positions (see Ian Pace’s numbers here). Even if the continuous references to past and future UK Research Excellence Framework exercises keep explaining most of the 2015 peak of interest in these matters, the historical background and critical mass of professional artist-researchers make it difficult not to wonder why this debate has not taken place long ago. And if it has, why was it unsuccesful enough to have to have it again? Despite all the legitimate criticism on the recent REF assessment, it seems that it can at least be credited with having reinvigorated the discourse.

Across the channel from the UK, I have witnessed the same debates in countless instances already within less than the first decade after AR was institutionally introduced at the beginning of this century. Some of it is ongoing, certainly in countries that hopped onto the bandwagon at a later stage than others. Nevertheless, last November, at the time of the City University debate, and even on the same island, the Association of European Conservatoires and Hochschules (AEC) held their Annual Congress and General Assembly, during which they presented their "White Paper on Artistic Research". (Downloadable in EnglishGerman, French, Italian, and even Polish.)

AEC, white paper, artistic research

The organization, comprising over 300 member institutions for professional music training in 57 countries, has planned to set out "key concepts that are relevant in the sphere of higher music education, especially those where there may be some confusion or controversy as to their meaning or how they should be interpreted." (See here.) The first action concerns AR.

The AEC defines AR as solidly based in artistic practice, and as creating new knowledge within the arts. Features include critical dialogue (within the artistic field, with other relevant fields of knowledge, and between the scholarly and professional domains), critical reflection (on content and/or context, and on methods and processes), and the sharing of professional knowledge with the wider artistic community.

This endeavor equally shows signs of wanting to be politically correct: it recognizes that, while AR is seen to grow in importance, not every conservatoire will necessarily wish to participate in explicit research activities, nor use the term 'artistic research', and that precise definitions should not limit valid research ambitions. Also, that AR should be multi-facetted, and inclusive rather than tied to a particular orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, while the diversity is made explicit as including "a wide range of component activities, some of which may count as pure research, others as applied, and still others as developmental or translational research", and while, as stated, research should not to be understood as incompatible with more traditional forms of research, nor be without its distinctive emphasis upon the integral role of the artist in its research processes, it should "aspire to the same procedural standards that apply across the whole research spectrum – replicability (especially of procedures), verifiability, justification of claims by reference to evidence, etc."

The AEC furthermore considers the need for explaining both the process and the outcome of research "in ways that conform to the normal standards of comprehensibility among peers that are found in more traditional research". It allows for the exploration of new ways that are more closely embedded in the artistic component, but sees "the obligation of clear communication and dissemination" to be overriding. In other words, "It is not enough to perform a work and call this a 'communication of research results'".

There is much more in the White Paper, including views on pedagogical benefits in different educational cycles, the intention to help AR become a fully established discipline, to see it as complementary to the conservatoires’ main artistic focus, how the AEC envisions itself supporting its member institutions towards these causes, etc.

Several UK institutions are active members of the AEC: Birmingham Conservatoire, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Leeds College of Music, Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and the Royal Northern College of Music. Some of these are represented at the conference that opens tomorrow; in Leeds, the university has established a center in practice-as-research. I shall be interested to hear of how such parties position themselves and interact with their colleagues in the present UK landscape and ongoing discourse.