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.
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.
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
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.]