Friday, November 06, 2015

When composition is not research³



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. 


Ian Pace

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 didAnd 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.

4 comments:

Ian Pace said...

I'd like to respond to the following:

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.

As far as the first 'leap' is concerned, let me put the 'research as a result' comment in context:

But my approach is far from uncommon, and in this sense the articulation of practice in research terms is a positive and productive activity. It may be less spectacular than some of the wilder fringes of theatre and visual performance – such as Lee Miller and Joanne “Bob” Whalley’s joint PhD project, collecting of urine-filled bottles on the M6, replacing them with other detritus, renewing their wedding vows in a service station, then grounding this in the thought of Deleuze and Guattari, Bakhtin, dialogism, heteroglossia and semiotic multi-accentuality, deliberately framed in such a way as to frustrate Popper’s criteria of falsifiability - but is no less ‘research’ as a result.

[to be continued in another post]

Ian Pace said...

The only point here is that whilst critical engagement with aesthetic, technical and interpretive questions doesn't look as spectacular as the above, that doesn't mean such work should not equally warrant being considered research.

As far as practice-based research is concerned, this is a bit of a nebulous term, for sure; I had in mind in this context written work produced by practitioners relating to their own work, rather than just any musicology dealing with performance. But we need a more specific term for this, for which the term practice-as-research is often used in my view erroneously.

As far as needing to understand how the engagement with Gieseking, Cziffra, or whoever impacts upon the final output (which might be in the form of a marked negation of aspects of this playing, or adoption and mediation of aspects which are far from obvious), well a piece of written work might be able to explain this, and such research is useful, but one might say exactly the same about being able to know how complex row transformations impact upon a composition when these are not perceptible without guidance. You should note that earlier in my article I say:

At a REF panel discussion in February 2015, it was argued that the REF can entail a large amount of financial support for innovative practice-based work. There remain various obstacles towards achieving this (not least from individual institutions inclined to downgrade practice-based work in general), but it is not an unrealistic goal. If this requires practitioners to articulate ways in which their work has value and consequences not just in and of itself but also to others as a contribution to knowledge, this seems a fair price to pay.

Ian Pace said...

but also:

Nor does musical practice become research simply by virtue of being accompanied by a programme note, which funding and other committees can look at and ignore the practical work.

and also:

I have some doubts as to whether some composition- and performance-based PhDs, especially those not even requiring a written component, are really equivalent in terms of effort, depth and rigour with the more conventional types.

Others will argue that simply the final output should suffice to demonstrate the quality of the research; I am not going that far, though do see the danger of the documentation of the process being judged practically independently of the result. To convince you that engagement with various other musicians' work, in a myriad different ways, has significantly informed my practice, is something which I do not think would be difficult given sufficient space (certainly more than the 300 words required by the REF). This is not a reflection on the quality of the performance, but whether the process involved in its creation can fairly be judged as research.

I bring this up primarily, though, because composers are frequently able simply to submit their compositions with a 300 word statements, and that suffices to justify their work as research, in a way which is much rarer for performers. Numerous composers working in UK university departments produce only compositions, no written work, whilst there are significant differences in terms of expectations made by departments upon performers in this respect. I think this is a major inequity, and also that these debates in a musical context are too heavily dominated by composers.

What we are sometimes left with is that only the most obvious (and often extremely basic) aspects of performance are considered 'research' - employing a few extended techniques, using a slightly new type of instrument, playing some unusual rhythms, and so on. The dutiful performer-scholar will play this music and write up a short amount of pragmatic 'how to do it' information, and leave the much more complex issues of interpretation, style, genre, and aesthetics to a handful of over-general and meaningless platitudes ('it is important to phrase this music well', 'it should still be beautiful', 'one should make it sound like a real piece of music', and so on). What I am trying to argue is that the whole business of fashioning and crafting strategies for these latter aspects more deserves to be considered research than simply writing something like 'I tried playing this sonority by using this object to stop the string. I played it to the composer like that, and then with another object, and they preferred the first, so we went with that.' This latter is really just a type of skills training rather than critical research.

Ian Pace said...

The above, and some other comments, are collected together here - https://ianpace.wordpress.com/2015/11/06/performance-as-research-a-reply-to-luk-vaes/