Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Florence Principles

At their latest conference, in a Northern Italian city not far from where the oldest university has seen the start of a process leading to the third third cycle degree in Europe, the European League of the Institutes of the Arts (ELIA) presented their position paper on the doctorate in the arts: The Florence Pinciples. It follows a string of reference documents issued in recent years, each marking an ever firmer grip on doctoral training and therefore AR in  the approximately 280 European institutions that offer research degrees in the arts. With the European University Association's 2005 Salzburg Recommendations on Doctoral Education (and their 2010 and 2016 follow-ups Salzburg II Recommendations and Taking Salzburg Forward), the 2011 European Commission’s Principles for Innovative Doctoral Training, the 2013 European Association for Architectural Education Charter for Architectural Research, and the AEC's 2015 White Paper on AR (see here), the institutional community have come full circle in bringing together both matters and formulating their views on them collectively after  years of tentatively coming to terms with the challenges from individual perspectives. 

Besides the typical points of interest, such as appropriate funding, embedding in institutional policy, critical mass, etc., especially noteworthy have been the Salzburg Recomendations' confirmation of advancement of knowledge through original research, the aim at diversity, and recognising pre-docs as early stage researchers; Salzburg II wanting to steer away from the traditional one-on-one supervision model; the European commission adding exposure to industry & other relevant employment sectors; the third Salzburg position's interest in engagement with non-academics; the EAAE expressing the need for specific and inclusive types of communicating knowledge within research and spanning artistic and scholarly projects. Worthwhile adding in this respect is SHARE's Handbook for Artistic Research Educationidentifying examples of best practice and offered a Toolkit for curriculum building.

ELIA, Florence Principles, artistic research

According to the Florence Principles, the strategic areas in the international debate include formats for presenting and disseminating output, best practices, supervisors, doctoral programmes, and career perspectives. Some of their "seven points of attention" are deserving of specific attention, indeed. Already in the preamble to the Seven Points, it is striking how artistic aspects seem dominant. To "make an original contribution in their discipline" [my emphasis], "develop artistic competence", "extend artistic competence", "create and share new insights by applying innovative artistic methods" during the doctoral studies leaves plenty of room for the candidates to allow for e.g. a new painting or composition to be the knowledge contribution. What "innovative artistic methods" might be is a mystery to me - they may not be intended to be musical. 

For Career Perspectives, it is envisaged that holders of doctoral degrees in the arts can "enter (or continue) an academic career at a higher education institution and/or enter/continue their careers as artists." In its simplest meaning, this may be taken as the wish for doctores in the arts to continue to do research rather than returning to the stage and the classroom. As valuable as an objective that is, it would be even more exciting if academic positions (i.e. university professorships) become available to artistic researchers so that they may join the pool of researchers that can apply for grants that are limited to university employees.

Under Doctoral Work, it is stated that the project "uses artistic methods and techniques" and that it "consists of original work(s) of art and contains a "discursive component" (note the hesitance to put "written component" in writing) that critically reflects upon the project and documents the research process". Again, this can easily be understood as performing a number of recitals or handing in a newly composed opera, accompanied by an ultimately negligeable written analysis or logbook. More cryptically, it is stated that internationalism, interdisciplinarity and interculturality "can benefit from doc programmes in the arts".

A Research Environment with a critical mass of faculty and doctoral researchers, all of them artistic researchers, is rightfully commended. 

As for Supervision, "at least two supervisors are recommended". It is not explained why and how that function is split, but my guess is that the shortage of artistic researchers with the ius promovendi causes the supervising teams to necessarily consist of a university professor and an artist in order to attain an equilibrium of academic and artistic expertise. 

Finally, the attention point of Dissemination mentions - of course - the need for appropriate channels and peer-review. More interesting, though also not further elaborated upon, is the effort that is stated to be needed in order to "create adequate archives for results of doc work". It is also good to see open access claimed as a guiding principle.

All in all, the historical weight of the visual arts in this discourse is again noticeable, as it has been in the SHARE handbook (see here) and elsewhere. Whether the developing committee of the Florence Principles, with one musician among four visual artists, effectively represents the current balance of involved institutional parties is a question that I look forward to seeing treated on its own. Also curious: the European University Association - representing the institutions with the actual degree-awarding power - is not among the interest groups listed as supporting and endorsing this document, even if it takes their own recommendations as a point of departure. Anyhow, it is stimulating to see how the grey literature evolves steadily towards ever more nuanced positions, with ever clearer vision and purpose.

Monday, March 13, 2017

When Brahms met Debussy

I once had a teacher, Claude Coppens, who had meticulously looked for statistical information among the dynamics in the complete known works of Johannes Brahms. His exercise revealed an extraordinarily high number of “mezzo”-dynamics (mp, mf), leading him to conclude that Brahms was to be seen as a representative of German Impressionism.

Other evidence of a deep-seated link between Brahms and Impressionism, this time with one of its more readily known proponents, Claude Debussy, is now available and provides me with an excellent and long awaited opportunity to introduce two of my favorite colleagues: pianist Anna Scott and tenor Valentin Gloor. They collaborated in a unprecedented investigation of two meetings that the older Brahms had with the much younger Debussy in Vienna in 1887. Apart from the regular type of decorative Auseinandersetzung, Anna and Valentin strikingly complete the picture with a stylistic exploration into an alternate version of one of Debussy’s songs and a posthumously reconstructed Brahms fragment, both dedicated to each other. See and listen for Anna’s and Valentin’s findings in this video recording of a remarkable presentation:  

Anna Scott, Brahms, Debussy, artistic research
Anna Scott rose to AR fame with her doctoral work on how to perform Brahms at the piano in a style that is now lost (see here for downloading her dissertation). I found epiphanic pleasure in experiencing the consequences of Anna's research during one of the workshops she has been conducting, when I physically felt the difficulties in learning to adapt my performance style to the discoveries that characterise her project.

Valentin Gloor, Debussy, artistic research
Valentin Gloor is among the Orpheus Institute's best kept secrets. Not only is he one of the very few artistic researchers active in matters of the voice, he also developed his own brand of taking a theatrical angle from which to present his work. It is a real shame that so few videos of his projects are to be found - see here for one more.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Dead or alive

Any performer active in new music has experienced it when working with living composers: they aren't necessarily the Holy Grail of answers to the questions we may have about their pieces. The previous sentence sounds perhaps odd, as if it is a choice not to work with a dead composer. But we all do want to communicate with the composers of the music we want to play, whether we interpret what they wrote in letters two centuries ago or what they are going to say to us during the dress rehearsal for tomorrow's world première. In other words: it can be as difficult to get the information you want from a living composer as from a dead composer.

This may be one of the reasons that musicology has been mostly interested in the deceased. Other reasons are of course the convenience of a closed oeuvre and of an extensive literature to build upon, but these should be outweighed easily by the advantages of investigating living beings and their actions, one would think. Besides the fundamental urge to assess the act of (co-)creation without the distorting prism of the score, there is the prospect of insights unique to dialogue and common context (e.g. contemporaneity of language, research focus and perspective, knowledge,...). Nevertheless, research into living composers is often not much more than a way to propagate those composers’ ideas. In this regard, Ian Pace’s thorough critique on such spokesman-musicology is certainly valid for quite a few more cases than the one involving Brian Ferneyhough. I remember vividly the awkwardness of seeing David Osmond-Smith read a paper on Berio with the composer sitting next to him, and how nobody knew who to address with a question during the Q&A session. Or how Kagel visibly – dare I say “theatrically” – nodded or shook his head (dis)approvingly during each consecutive presentation at a conference in his honor.

Henry Cowell, artistic research, writing about contemporary artists

It is none the less good to see that recent music is the object of study. It is not a very recent evolution, but there seems to always have been a kind of schism between those who scrutinize long bygone eras and those who look around themselves. The moving wall between them, gradually shifting with time at the speed of about a generation, represents defining lines between interests as well as methods. Already in 1933 Henry Cowell published a book “to present the composer’s own point of view”.* Some of the rationale behind the “experiment unprecedented in musical history” demonstrates a sense of critical perspective, such as the urge to display diversity (“Special consideration was given to composers who are developing indigenous types of music”), or the doing away with any "pretense of being complete”. (Cowell 1933, v) Other aspects betray a level of superficiality, however: while ostentatiously called “a symposium”, there was never a conference and it is reasonable to assume that Cowell oversaw and controlled the whole enterprise himself rather than organize a peer process to work out the content; contributions were sought, and when it was impossible to obtain original ones, articles were reprinted from “various periodicals”. From an academic point of view, there is a thin line between amateurism and journalism.

Interviews are similarly dubious. Since 1969, the Oral History of American Music has been collecting thousands of “voices of the major musical figures of our time” in audio and video interviews. As tempting as these look (and I have not been able to resist them, myself), there is only limited use for them, e.g. to corroborate, negate, or contextualize insights found elsewhere. Investigative journalism never depends on letting the investigated do most of the talking – the interviewer is just another prism. And then there are the multiple issues on the side of the interviewee, not least with regards to purposefully remembering one's own past. (When it comes to wilfully constructing false memories, Cowell has shown himself to be quite skillful.) 

As long as we revere the writings of artists as a product of an oracle, as we so often do their compositions, critical assessment stands little chance. Such issues of “the work” are accompanied by those of power. It is not a coincidence that I added the names of two dead composers to the second paragraph of this text. I could list others – and not just of composers – but I could also name projects of which I had to see the potential vanish into thin air because it became too dangerous to mine the field of knowledge embodied in the mind of the living being who was the object of the study. If I thought myself strong enough to put aside my own ego, that of the other was not so easy to take out of the equation.

Nevertheless, AR can mitigate some of the above concerns. From that perspective, Cowell’s book deserves to be quoted some more, even if his rationale did not include letting composers discuss their own works:

...critical estimates from composers who may not always have a polished literary style but who know their subject, instead of from reviewers who are clever with words but do not know the principles of composition. (Cowell 1933, iii)
...to obtain a synthetic and sympathetic understanding of the aims of any particular composer, why not ask him to relate them himself? He knows more about his aims than anyone else! (Cowell 1933, iii)
Composers who were included had to be persons who could write intelligibly. While literary style is not here the paramount consideration, it must be admitted that some very talented composers have absolutely no ability to set down their ideas in words. (Cowell 1933, iv)
 ...it was expected from the beginning to reveal as much about its authors as it did about their subjects…(Cowell 1933/62, ix)

To be fair, Cowells aims and ideas need to be seen in their historical context (i.e. reacting against a perceived bias in the reception of "modern" music), all the while taking into account his penchant for combining instruction with provocation. Yet, some of it anticipates ideals and conundrums of AR: today, we still recognize the added value in and the issues with an artist contemplating his/her own practice. But the problems of auto-ethnography overlap with those mentioned above, and the intentionality and poetic fallacies are treacherous at any distance between subject and object.

University of Surrey, Conference, Writing about contemporary artists, artistic research

Institute of Advanced Studies, Conference, Writing about contemporary artists, artistic research

These challenges are very typical of AR, as the researcher necessarily involves his/her artistic practice. Through regular such confrontations in my own research, I am thus simultaneously researching (in-and-through that practice, so to speak) possible ways around the pitfalls, whether investigating living composers or performers. And although I am convinced that enough safeguards can be put in place to make scrutiny of living beings’ actions worth its while, I don’t have all the answers to all of the issues. It is therefore very fortunate that an international, multi-disciplinary three-day conference (with Ian Pace on the board of conveners) is planned to discuss just these matters. Writing About Contemporary Artists: Challenges,Practices and Complexities will be held at Surrey University's Institute for Advanced Studies on October 20-22, 2017. The closing date for sending in abstracts is May 29th, 2017.

The proposals are expected to cover a range of different artistic fields, disciplines, musical genres, methodological perspectives, and types of discourse and artist; to focus upon all forms of writing as well as its conventions and boundaries; and – naturally – to focus on living (or recently deceased) artists. A roundtable proposal is encouraged, “exploring questions around the status of creative practice as a form of research in different arts disciplines.”

Many important reasons to be in Surrey in October!

* Cowell, Henry. American Composers on American Music. A Symposium. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc. 1962 edition. xiv + 226 p.