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

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. 

1 comment:

roya arab said...

Gratitude to Dr Roel for his informative study, it contains important finds and thoughtful suggestions on composition as research. There seems to be a lot of issues churned up by this study that are relevant to the field of music studies as a whole, not least the lack of uniformity in research output, ineffective dissemination and in the case of composition for research, notably a paucity of references to earlier 'artistic research'.

On a tangent, for me coming from a non Western culture, it is worrying that analytical and theoretical approaches appear to be disassociated from 'ethnic' music, which comes in a category of its own. This 'west' versus 'world' music divide really needs addressing! Ethnicity, as a term, seems to be always used for the 'Other', surely music is music, and all music is world music...unless the west is situated on another planet?

In terms of addressing the question of what applicable knowledge, theories and techniques composition and/or performance research bring to the table, Dr Roel's study is a great example, whilst of course there are challenges as to sample size and selection process of data researched, these can be reviewed. The questions Dr Roel ask seem very pertinent, and these again could be expanded and/or edited. Using his idea of a 'research environment' would be highly beneficial, especially if utilised to create a basic format (sample size, sample selection process and questions being asked) for educational institutions across the world - offering composition/performance as research - to study existing MA and PhD studies. Such a study may help highlight advantages and shortcomings of composition and/or performance as research in an empirical manner...full on diagnosis before providing the prescription - should keep the science biased academia happy!