Friday, January 22, 2016

The UK debate / the AEC White Paper

2015 is in the past. As far as this blog goes, that year has certainly been marked by the composition-is-(not-)research debate. My response to John Croft’s article, the follow-up posts, and Scott McLaughlin’s report on the London discussion, have by far garnered most of the readers of all the texts on this site.

There has been a distinct feeling of closure: for composer Christopher Fox, editor of TEMPO (where John’s initial article was published), the journal’s freshly published 275th issue, with articles by Camden Reeves and Ian Pace, and with John Croft’s rebuttal to them, marked "the final innings […] of the great practice-as-research test match"; Ian published "final thoughts" on his blog, followed by what he called a "last post" on "300-word statements" (here for that post). On the other hand, an announcement came in through the mail, this week, of a combined live/online conference at the University of West London (see here) - dealing with such fundamental aspects of the matter as, for instance, "what is good output", echoing Scott's request for deciding on "what we think good research is" (here). Clearly, the last word has not been said, just yet.

Some such aspects have already been touched upon in this blog, e.g. why I thought composition should be debated especially (feeling uncomfortable with the fact that, as phrased elsewhere, "it is tacitly accepted that a musical composition is likely to qualify as some type of research much more than is the case for musical performances and recordings"), and, years ago, definitions, dissemination platforms, peer review systems, etc., all particular to AR.

The debate at City University "Can composition and
performance be research? Critical perspectives."

There are certainly aspects still worthwhile going into, such as the need to distinguish between a composition/performance and the act of composing/performing (including preparations) when talking about composition/performance-as-research. Or that stretch in the City University panel video (1h 06’25” – 1h 11’10”) where Ian Pace plays an excerpt from the Paul Dukas piano sonata “in light of some research”, which he briefly indicated to consist of his analysis of the work, his study of the relevant 17 recordings, and especially his consideration of late 19th-Century French pianism and distinct compositional aesthetics and approaches from that time. An applause followed his performance, and reports on the debate were written, but I find it strange that such an important statement - and I mean the performance - was not picked up on anywhere. I don’t want to doubt that Ian did analyze the work and the recordings, and that he dug deeply into the historical contexts, although that is only because I know him well enough to trust what is otherwise a mere assumption of mine. But am I to take the insights that his research established to be situated in his seemingly odd approach to the tempo change (perhaps relating to the "amorphous musical composition" that he mentioned in his introduction), or in his ignoring a two-bar long diminuendo (in order, maybe, to stress a more "strongly hierarchical approach to musical composition")? What options did he decide not to integrate into his interpretation, and why? Why play the trio section? How did the difference between looking at 19th century French pianism (and how did he do that?) and compositional aesthetics play out? Or were certain parameters such as timbre involved? (I can’t tell, as the microphone set-up doesn’t allow any serious assessment.) And so on. I am sure the above will sound like I am trying to be facetious, but I am genuinly at a loss. I cannot but think of Ian's statement (from here) that 

a sensitive listener with some familiarity with the work in question and performance practice might very well be able at least to assess, if not necessarily reconstruct in every detail, the research process which has given rise to one of David Milsom’s performances. A 40 000 word dissertation would certainly elaborate the process to a high degree, if done well, but I am not really sure that a 300 word statement could – or rather, if some point can be elucidated in 300 words but not clearly heard from the performance without such guidance, I would question the extent to which it is embodied in that performance

Ian's verbal introduction was a bit less than half of 300 words, but the excerpt he played was very limited in scope as well, and I do think I can consider myself familiar with the work in question (I have listened with the score, have compared other recordings, etc.). I cannot say that I have analysed 17 recordings, or that I have studied the particular context as vigourously as I suspect Ian did, but that would be against the point of listening to someone communicate the results of his research, anyway. So, I end up desperately trying to give his performance research credit while being aware that I achieve no more than committing intentional fallacies.

As I indicated above, I trust Ian enough to be sure that, if/when he publishes about his research, all will become clear. What I am interested in, at this point, is the hesitance with which positions seem to be taken. I do not think that "I am not really sure that a 300 word statement could [...]" and "a sensitive listener might" are a matter of understatement so often found in British English. As I don't think the silence of so many professionals involved in the debate is a coincidence. Or the fact that nobody from the UK has come forward (to my knowledge) with an answer to Piers Hellawell's question of the relation between composition and research when both are not equated (here), which was at the core of my response to John's article, and which led to the titles of four of my blog entries. 

Liduino Pitombeira

I did receive one reaction, however, from composer Liduino José Pitombeira de Oliveira, who sent me a +/-1400 word article Composition of Two Works for Woodwind Quintet based on the Systemic Modelling of Guarnieri’s Ponteio No. 25, which he wrote with Marcel Macedo de Castro Lima (downloadable here). The article proposes a compositional-analytical method

in order to identify a hypothetical compositional system that would have given rise to Camargo Guarnieri’s Ponteio No.25 [for piano], which was analyzed from the perspective of its harmonic and melodic structure. The resulting model allowed us to create two applications in MATLAB, which helped us during the compositional planning of two new works that are distinct from the original but still similar from the point of view of the selected parameters.

The article contains a referenced theoretical context, a report on the analysis, and details on the related planning for the new compositions. That the latter is still descriptive ("we started by", "next we have", "…was added", etc. ), and that the conclusions as well as other parts leave important questions wide open, certainly provides room for criticism. But, at least, with this verbal explication, critical assessment of the research is possible. With only the pieces (in their scores and/or performances), it would not be.

But I have made this argument before. More important for this post is the fact that Liduino Pitombeira is from Brazil, where a similar debate seems to be going on, and which was the reason for him to contact me. In hindsight, much of how the 2015 debate on the matter evolved – the expectance (or hope?) that all is said and done, probing fundamentals, the polarization, the latent thin ice, the tacit acceptances, etc. – is odd because this has all been taking place in a country where the composition-research degree is said to have been invented already in the 1960s (as Christopher Fox explains after 8’30” in the video of the November 2015 debate), and where there are now so many composers in academic positions (see Ian Pace’s numbers here). Even if the continuous references to past and future UK Research Excellence Framework exercises keep explaining most of the 2015 peak of interest in these matters, the historical background and critical mass of professional artist-researchers make it difficult not to wonder why this debate has not taken place long ago. And if it has, why was it unsuccesful enough to have to have it again? Despite all the legitimate criticism on the recent REF assessment, it seems that it can at least be credited with having reinvigorated the discourse.

Across the channel from the UK, I have witnessed the same debates in countless instances already within less than the first decade after AR was institutionally introduced at the beginning of this century. Some of it is ongoing, certainly in countries that hopped onto the bandwagon at a later stage than others. Nevertheless, last November, at the time of the City University debate, and even on the same island, the Association of European Conservatoires and Hochschules (AEC) held their Annual Congress and General Assembly, during which they presented their "White Paper on Artistic Research". (Downloadable in EnglishGerman, French, Italian, and even Polish.)

The organization, comprising over 300 member institutions for professional music training in 57 countries, has planned to set out "key concepts that are relevant in the sphere of higher music education, especially those where there may be some confusion or controversy as to their meaning or how they should be interpreted." (See here.) The first action concerns AR.

The AEC defines AR as solidly based in artistic practice, and as creating new knowledge within the arts. Features include critical dialogue (within the artistic field, with other relevant fields of knowledge, and between the scholarly and professional domains), critical reflection (on content and/or context, and on methods and processes), and the sharing of professional knowledge with the wider artistic community.

This endeavor equally shows signs of wanting to be politically correct: it recognizes that, while AR is seen to grow in importance, not every conservatoire will necessarily wish to participate in explicit research activities, nor use the term 'artistic research', and that precise definitions should not limit valid research ambitions. Also, that AR should be multi-facetted, and inclusive rather than tied to a particular orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, while the diversity is made explicit as including "a wide range of component activities, some of which may count as pure research, others as applied, and still others as developmental or translational research", and while, as stated, research should not to be understood as incompatible with more traditional forms of research, nor be without its distinctive emphasis upon the integral role of the artist in its research processes, it should "aspire to the same procedural standards that apply across the whole research spectrum – replicability (especially of procedures), verifiability, justification of claims by reference to evidence, etc."

The AEC furthermore considers the need for explaining both the process and the outcome of research "in ways that conform to the normal standards of comprehensibility among peers that are found in more traditional research". It allows for the exploration of new ways that are more closely embedded in the artistic component, but sees "the obligation of clear communication and dissemination" to be overriding. In other words, "It is not enough to perform a work and call this a 'communication of research results'".

There is much more in the White Paper, including views on pedagogical benefits in different educational cycles, the intention to help AR become a fully established discipline, to see it as complementary to the conservatoires’ main artistic focus, how the AEC envisions itself supporting its member institutions towards these causes, etc.

Several UK institutions are active members of the AEC: Birmingham Conservatoire, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Leeds College of Music, Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and the Royal Northern College of Music. Some of these are represented at the conference that opens tomorrow; in Leeds, the university has established a center in practice-as-research. I shall be interested to hear of how such parties position themselves and interact with their colleagues in the present UK landscape and ongoing discourse.


Ian Pace said...

I mean to post a detailed response to this when time permits, but just want to respond to the following:

'The AEC furthermore considers the need for explaining both the process and the outcome of research "in ways that conform to the normal standards of comprehensibility among peers that are found in more traditional research".'

But who are the peers in question? If other composers or performers, there is every reason to think that compositions or performances conform to 'normal standards of comprehensibility' as much if not more than writing about them.

The model presented in the above does in my view tend towards rendering creative practice as an illustration of research, rather than the research itself. I have huge problems with this definition, and find it antithetical to the creative process.

More to follow another time...

luk said...

As to peers: in my experience, that is still problematic due to a lack of enough specialised people. Academics tend to not see the sense of connecting the research to the artistic output, and artists seem to prefer to not give feedback on the research aspects. I have to add that I have been very surprised by the many instances where I witnessed the inabilities of both to address the totality of an AR project. Ideally, they'd have to be artist-researchers.

If by 'model' you mean the model in the specific example of the Pitombeira/Maceda article, I admit that it can give that impression. But on closer look, there is plenty evidence that it is not just a question of prescription alone. There are clear indications of decisions made on the basis of taste, with room for creativity. If you mean the definition of AR, then I'd say that the binary opposition of positivist research as being only about measuring and dogmatic prescription, vs. the sacred creative process as something that is at the other end of a spectrum and which cannot be measured, is unrealistic. In HIP as well, I believe we have moved beyond the idea that the "I" stands for anything but 'inspired', always and inevitably leading to artistry.