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.