On November 25, 2015, at 17.30, a group of panellists will address critical perspectives on the question "Can Composition and Performance be Research?" in London. The panellists will be Ian Pace (pianist), Miguel Mera (composer), Annie Yim (pianist), Christine Dysers ("PhD student"), Camden Reeves (composer), and Christopher Fox (composer). The latter is also the editor of Tempo, the journal in which John Croft published the article that exposed the issue of composition-as-research to the widest and most intense public interest that I have witnessed so far.
As this debate initially dealt with composition, I have followed it, and engaged with it (here and here in writing, as well as in live fora) due to my general interest as expressed in this blog, but also more specifically because of my involvement with doctoral students in AR (often composers) and the fact that the AR discourse seemed to consistantly shy away from taking a clear stance in matters of composition, compared to performance.
As the discussion has now been widening its focus to cover performance as well, my interest is sparked beyond what I thought before. Ian's announcement of this event (in this post on his blog) links to a good number of writings on the subject, including a forthcoming article of his own (to be published in Tempo, also). In it, he states that:
If I say that I have learned a good deal from listening to performances and recordings of Walter Gieseking, György Cziffra, Charles Rosen, or Frederic Rzewski, or Barbara Bonney, or Nikolaus Harnoncourt, or even Marcel Pérès, this is not simply in the sense of old-fashioned conceptions of ‘influence’ and osmosis (not that these do not also occur). But I listen to these performers to garner some idea of what is distinctive about their approach, and how they have set about achieving this. In a critical, non-slavish manner it is then possible to draw upon their achievements and also to discern what other possibilities might exist, opening up a new range of interpretive – and I would say research – questions.
He goes on to compare this artistic process of seeking direction in context (my interpretation) with an example from the "wilder fringes of theatre and visual performance", stating that his approach is "no less 'research' as result". This is followed by concluding that
[...] composition-as-research, and performance-as-research (and performance-based research) are real activities; the terms themselves are just new ways to describe what has gone on earlier, with the addition of a demand for explicit articulation to facilitate integration into academic structures.
I don't agree with the jump from "opening up research questions" to actually being "research as a result", nor do I think performance-based research should be considered on the same level (much legitimate systematic musicology - e.g. performance science - is performance-based or -led). I more than agree with that "additional demand", as I find the explication of the research to be essential to its identity. As long as it is impossible for me to assess how (and how exactly) Ian has learned from Gieseking, Cziffra, et all., how exactly this has opened up new questions, how exactly this worked in a certain way (and not in perhaps certain other ways), what the conclusions are, etc., it is not worth it to use a new term to describe the age-old process he described. Research is a collective effort, with peer-interaction as a fundamental, i.e. peer-based and peer-oriented. Contrary to matters of composition, I can consider myself to be a peer of Ian's, but, from his performances, I cannot tell any of the above to a level that informs me about his research.
A few years ago, I have had a discussion with composer Aaron Holloway-Nahum about that latter notion. I argued that I couldn't tell any compositional research aspect from looking at a score. Even on the level of composition, I cannot find myself be sure about how something is put together. His reply offered the example of a chord that consists of intervals that are stacked symmetrically around a center C, and argued that the idea and the knowledge necessary to come to that conclusion (i.e. the chord is symmetrical rather than a functional harmonic construction within a scale or key) are contained in the chord itself. Well, philosophically, that point can be pushed, yes, but when the real potential knowledge is tacit (the decisions that were involved, the choices that were made, and how the assessment of the outcome relates to the research question, etc. - not the apparent positioning of visual constituents), then by definition it resists explicit articulation and thereby merely leads to interpretation and speculation, even for specialists. When browsing through the many folders of archival materials for Boulez's third piano sonata, it is only possible to reliably explain the knowledge or - if you will - the research processes that lie behind any given chord in such a piece when going through the work that Peter O'Hagan did. And then we still only know something about the processes of construction, which, methodical as Boulez may have been, is still not necessarily saying anything about the research premisses, methodology, or conclusions. It does not even indicate that there was any research to begin with.
One of the articles Ian's post refers to is Nicholas Till's Opus versus output. Till gives examples of what he considers historical instances of creative practice, arguing them to be research by way of retro-actively devising research questions, e.g. in the case of Arnold Schoenberg (of whom Till states that he "developed serialism"): "how can we reconstitute musical form on a non-harmonic basis?" Both the statement and the research question are not only as "confused and lacking intellectual rigour" as Till accuses "the present model [of artistic practice as research] in UK universities" of, they also demonstrate how futile it is to try and rephrase an artistic process in terms of research methodology.
It is quite possible that Schoenberg carried out actual research, but we won't know anything about it as long we only assess the artistic output. And that is what, by definition, happens with practice-as-research.
It is too bad that I cannot be in London on the 25th - would love to hear what is being brought to the fore. If I hear of anything new, I'll be posting about it, although I am running out of superscript numbers on my keyboard to write out more follow-up titles. On the other hand, the discussion still seems to show no promise of dealing with the question of what AR in composition can be if research and composition are not equated.