Friday, November 04, 2011

The thoughts and experiences of Lauren Redhead

Lauren Redhead - the name is Viking and matches the mahogany shine in her hair - is a British composer and organist who, at this moment, is in the process of completing a PhD in musicology at Leeds University. She has developed quite a presence on the international conference scene and expresses her well-considered thoughts on her blog-type website.

Perhaps more than her compositions, of which I don't know enough at the moment to go into, really, it is her blog that I am fascinated by and which I want to share here. In her
post of 3.6.2011, Lauren deals with questions regarding compositional practice and research. The train of thought is eminently worth reading, especially as it is the only development of any thinking about compositional research that I have come across from the most relevant of practitioners: a composer. Lauren untangles often confused notions of relations between practice and research, offers links to interesting topics, as for instance an AHRC report on the status of writing in Practice-Led Research as well as on practice as a methodological part of research, or an article from the Guardian on why researchers might not want to become involved with people outside of institutions, and why this prerogative would turn their research into a hobby.

Other posts throw light on Lauren's compositional attitude and methods, a focus that can be read and enjoyed as explication of her (re)search. There is quite a bit on collaborative research, e.g.
her involvement in the adopt a composer program, or Green Angel, the “contemporary work of operatic Noh theatre” that she wrote with librettist Adam Strickson in 2009-2011. (See some vimeo bits here and here - there is a DVD of the full performance.)

Lauren Redhead, Green Angel, artistic research

Among the multitude of issues that Green Angel opened up to Lauren, and which she raises and tackles in her presentations and seminars (of which one is coming up on November 7 in Leeds), are:
  • dissemination of research to other researchers and the general public in conventional and unconventional ways (including practice-led means that may be currently more favored in the arts);  
  • how interdisciplinary dialogue generates new methods of communicating research with a focus on impact and on what researchers can offer each other from their own disciplines; 
  • expressing the research interests of both collaborative partners through practice, whilst also creating an artwork with an autonomous function outside of the research context of its creators; 
  • the possibility of integrating research interests of more than one party; 
  • how practice-led research allows for addressing types of knowledge that are different from traditionally written research; 
  • the effectiveness of practice-led research, and of collaboration as a way of facilitating this; 
  • considering practice not as an outcome of research but as the medium through which research is conducted, allowing for the consideration that practice itself (without a communicable research element) can be a separate outcome of practice-led research; 
  • the outcomes of the performance which are not related to the research.

Lots of food for thought, I'd say, especially for those who are struggling with compositional research. I see proposals from composers that wish to investigate the integration of technology into their work (to name just one typical example) meet with little questioning, perhaps because the research goals or the methods to measure the success with which they are to be met are easy to identify (with). On the other hand, I have witnessed members of assessment panels being puzzled over how to judge the research quality in terms of new knowledge, research method (vs. compositional method), etc. when it comes to someone who writes purely instrumental music in a traditional vein. As a composer and researcher who stands firmly with both feet in the field, Lauren Redhead can be inspiring to those who feel that they are swimming aimlessly in this area of concern.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Towards the unheard: a new path for the organ?

More from the 2011 ORCiM festival: Lena Weman Ericcson introduced an almost terrifyingly ambitious project in Sweden: the Studio Acusticum Organ. Studio Acusticum is an award winning concert hall with, amongst others, a ceiling that can be moved up or down to about 8 meters (over 25 feet), resulting in a maximum reverberation of nearly 3 seconds. The organ, being built by Gerhard Woehl, boasts a disposition of more than 215 stops, including 89 sounding registers and the innovative 'floating' Harmonics Division, has programmable 'Sperventille' to manipulate the airflow to the bass and treble of each division, can be played and listened to from anywhere in the world through the internet, etc. More information on the instrument can be found here. (For more aspects, click on 'more' under 'news'.)

Lena Weman Ericcson, Gerhard Woehl, Pitea, organ, artistic research

In itself an instrument builder's project, the artistic research appears on the horizon when contemplating the compositional potential of the innovations. Ligeti's Volumina is world-renown for its inappropriate use of the on/off button at the beginning of the piece - what can be done with the Sperventile is clear from the sounds on this video. The Harmonics Division can be used to produce entirely new sounds by emphasizing any part of any given pitch. In all, the Harmonics Division has over 100 pitches per octave, enabling the organ "to bridge the gap between acoustical music and electronic sounds purely by acoustic means". Real-time control of each individual pipe is possible, thus it can be used for anything from adding a single mutation stop to extreme purposes such as speech synthesis (using the real-time computer-controlled facilities offered by the organ).

Composers all over the globe, go to Pitea (live or virtually) and start creating new music!

Monday, October 10, 2011

The art of Jaso Sasaki’s method

At the 3rd ORCiM festival, I watched Finnish violinist Jaso Sasaki present a research project that looked at first sight as if in danger of being somewhat pointless but ended up fascinating me. For much of the presentation, “Historical recording projects” seemed to be merely about making recordings of early-20th century repertoire with the recording techniques and standards from that era. Jaso let the audience listen and look at the sounds and photographs of himself recording his playing on a stroh-violin into a funnel, using reconstructed fabrication processes and materials to effectively make 78rpm discs and Edison cylinders. But this was not the point. His real aim was to try and reconstruct the performance style of violinists from that period, an interest that is based in general on a wish to find out about the acclaimed ‘golden tone’ of masters like Heifetz and Kreisler (in contrast with the often-stated lack of personal color in present-day violin playing), and in particular on the frustrating lack of recordings of Ysaÿe’s solo violin sonatas, contemporary to the composing of these works. To truly understand what lies behind the old recordings’ typical  sound of frying fish, Jaso believes he must enter the original recording process to experience how its limitations may have been as much part of how we perceive the sweetly nostalgic sound than the actual performance techniques.

Jaso Sasaki, artistic research, violin, early recording

So far, so good, I’d say, even if understand how this is enough to make some (if not many) feel uncomfortable. As far as I am concerned, I do think it worthwhile to investigate this matter thoroughly, rather than getting stuck in the dismissal of any attempt at recreating bygone aesthetics and in the refusal to rethink the value of progress in the development of recording techniques. I’m anticipating how much more we will be able to deepen our understanding of playing post-early music repertoire by way of Jaso’s approach than e.g. the way Krystian Zimmerman had a go at the Chopin piano concertos in 1999. Those discs were revelatory to me when they came out, and I still revel in them, but they were essentially limited to more intuitive and superficial modes of reconstruction than what artistic research à la Jaso's can actually offer. And I am prone to believe that, at some time in the future, we will want to rediscover and reconstruct the clinical 1980’s playing and recording styles. So why not start filling the gaps?

But I felt the urge to post about Jaso for another reason than what’s above. To me, he is a researcher taking contextualization to a new level, one that perhaps only an artist would think of and estimate as being appropriate. Jaso’s publicity picture is styled in a period manner, the cars he likes to restore are classic, he enjoys archery and records in full concert dress. These aspects, put together with the interest in experiencing the old recording sessions, point to the idea that he in fact likes to live the context of his topic. This is the last straw to the academic, of course, and I would agree to a very large extent that living like Heifetz will not make one play like him. To be correct, I don’t even think Jaso likes Aston Martins, smokes cigars and shoots arrows to accomplish the best results in his research. Nevertheless, the general attitude of enjoying ‘live’ immersion in the past may just be what lead him to the best method for this project. Recording the old fashioned way, in all its aspects, is indeed an excellent method to learn about pre-war performance techniques.

More information on Jaso Sasaki and his project will be up soon at his website, including audio clips. At the festival, I found his Interbellum-type rendering of Gounod-Bach’s Ave Maria, normally considered excessive in every artistic aesthetic aspect, thoroughly enjoyable.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Staying abreast of the (right) context

A cardinal rule in the research community: know what others have done with regards to your interests in the field of your expertise.

I don't have to explain here how it is crucial to the quality of the research; how the building of knowledge is founded on the teamwork of individuals, each responsible for making a few building blocks or cementing some of them together; why the game of citation is more than a matter of respect and how it creates visibility and therefore helps the dissemination on which everybody relies to know who is constructing with which materials and tools; in which ways it doesn't matter however recent, in which language and where in the world the blocks of knowledge are produced.

Academic scholars can profit from conferences and professional journals that cater categorically to expertise-bound interests. The internet can compensate for any lack of immediacy in bringing the latest developments to the doorstep of the researcher's den. Artistic researchers are relying on the hope to use the same sort of system, really, except that we don't have all the tools to ourselves, yet. We have to make do: by lack of sufficient(ly) discipline-specific journals and conferences, we mingle with our academic colleagues, wander around in their environment and partake in their perspectives. But this cannot be an excuse for replacing AR context with that of the academic world: it is like mixing the wrong cement for the type of bricks that go into someone else's building project. And yet, it happens. I have seen the disillusion in the eyes of audience members at artistic research gatherings when they were confronted with presentations that showed ignorance of their personal relevant contributions. In one case, academic quotes were aplenty while any AR context was not even touched upon (let alone equally developed and nuanced with references). In another case, familiarity with what has happened on the concert scene in the last 15 years could have compensated for the ignorance of existing AR output. In such instances, the presented research misses depth, focus and validity because of the lack of proper contextualisation. The academic world would not tolerate such inadequacies and would expose and correct them on the spot and publicly. That such didn't happen in these AR conference cases is symptomatic of a self-consciousness that still pervades this new discipline.

Beyond the personal frustration of a researcher being confronted with the invisibility of his work and professional profile lies a problem of choice. Even with all the right dissemination channels in place and in working order (whenever in the future that will be), artistic researchers may have to set priorities and favour artistic over academic context, especially if it is really impossible to keep updated on all the scholarly literature - academic and artistic - ánd on the artistic developments on stage. But at this moment, it is not really impossible yet. There is still so little real AR output that it is quite feasible to take careful notice of it all. The lack of multitude and diversity in AR output - many reseachers' interests have not been met with e.g. a doctoral AR dissertation in that field - provides a unique opportunity to look at the whole picture. If AR is a researcher's specialisation, it can only be beneficial to behold and savour that whole picture for as long as it small enough to fit the horizon. It is at least my experience that as much inspiration, if not more, can be drawn from AR output outside one's own field than from another discipline.

Monday, October 03, 2011

"Who's gonna read this ?"

A friend of mine, in the midst of the final rush towards finishing his dissertation, vented his contradictory feelings of dutifulness and despair: "for whom am I doing all this??" I always considered myself lucky to not have suffered from this state of mind, as the answer had been obvious to me. I was also extremely confident that 'they' would want to read it, and my experiences ended up proving me right. For a presentation on post-doc artistic research life, I took the trouble of investigating the matter into some detail. I think it is uplifting and promising.

I started my doctoral research long before an artistic doctorate was an option. In the early 1990's, coming back from the US with lots of inside information from my working with composers that I knew my fellow new music pianists in the EU were lacking in their performance practice, I had decided to write a book. Compelled to reach as many musicians as possible, merely teaching didn't look as if it was going to be satisfying. Even if I got a position at a conservatoire, I'd still be looking at reaching some 200 to 300 students at best during the rest of my teaching career. There were going to be concerts, of course, but passing on the kind of professional performance practice information that I had to spare did not suite the stage: the questions on 'how did you do that?' would still be left unanswered. A book it was going to be. In English, of course: the few dozen Dutch speaking new music pianists would hardly make the effort worthwhile.

In 1996 I heard of a new institute that would support and frame projects that were too big to fit conservatory degrees. It looked perfect for my idea, so I hooked up to the Orpheus Institute. After a few years, Bologna became the name for a process that lead directly to the artistic doctorate and my book became a dissertation without much ado. A burn-out and many pages later, in 2009 the dissertation-book was finished and in March 2010 it was put on the repository of Leiden University, where it can be viewed and downloaded for free.

A nice feature of the repository enables the visitor to see the statistics on how many people view and/or download dissertations, revealing the worldwide interest by country, referrer and month.
Here is the ratio views/downloads for the first year per month:

                            2010/03       13  /    11
                            2010/04       96  /    77
                            2010/05       73  /    67
                            2010/06       28  /    40
                            2010/07       13  /    08
                            2010/08       11  /    10
                            2010/09       23  /    18
                            2010/10       19  /    14
                            2010/11       21  /    14
                            2010/12       54  /    44
                            2011/01       36  /    22
                            2011/02       23  /    34
                                TOTAL     410  /   359

[ updates: 2011/03-'12/02 :     379  /   258
                2012/03-'13/02 :     498  /   289
                2013/03-'14/02 :     631  /   381
                2014/03-'15/02 :     625  /   281
                2015/03-'16/02 :     654  /   289
                2016/03-'17/02 :     866  /   375
                2017/03-'18/02 :   2302  /   400
                2018/03-'19/02 :   2564  /   491
                2019/03-'20/02 :   1481  /   535

                            TOTAL   : 10410  / 3658 

UPDATE Oct. 2022: the Leiden University repository has stopped giving the detail of the statistics as listed above. I can now only see the numbers for the calendar year and for the last three months. So I have decided to stop updating this list.]

The surge in April is probably due to the fact that I announced the repository on Facebook. I have not made any targeted publicity campaign since then, not even by way of a link on my homepage or in my e-mail signature. There is an increase in September 2010 and March 2011, two months in which prospective doctoral students are in touch with me about their entrance exam and application for our doctoral program. One would expect them to look for examples of artistic research dissertations, but the few such students don't completely explain the differences. I have no idea why there's a peak in December 2010. (The total views/downloads for March 2010-October 2011 are 585/481.)

The happiest remark to be made concerns the realization that one year has been enough to reach more individuals than I would have hoped for in several decades of teaching. Not all of these views and downloads (the numbers don't overlap, by the way) can be assumed to lead to actual knowledge transfer and application, but that isn't guaranteed with teaching either.

It can also not be taken for granted that all the viewers and downloaders are pianists, but search keyword information suggests that most of them are. Through my profile on, where a link to the repository can be found, I can see the keywords that were entered into search engines and that lead the surfer to my profile page. Apparently, views and downloads are not so much generated by any particular interest in me as a person, or in a more general interest in artistic research. Hardly ever do I see my name pop up - mostly, it is 'extended techniques for piano' or some other combination of such words that the search engine then links to the title of my dissertation. I cannot imagine many non-pianists wanted to download a large file with information on piano performance techniques. Together, the search information and the repository statistics show that people find the dissertation because they look for the content: they are in need of the knowledge. The answer to my friends exasperation with the effort to write his dissertation and the fear of it being in vain - "Why would anyone want to read what I have to say?" - is very clear, and very exciting, I think.

Here is the list of 25 dissertations from other departments of Leiden University that were put in the repository at the same time as mine, again with the ration view/download for the 12-month period March 2010-April 2011:

                          48/292    Medicine
                          50/220    Medicine
                          26/94      Law
                          60/139    Biosciences
                          93/261    Social and Behavioral Sciences
                          36/237    Physics
                          60/465    Medicine
                        134/199    Observatory
                        133/125    Humanities
                          89/312    Art History
                          35/205    Medicine
                          51/309    Medicine
                          48/139    Medicine
                          85/416    Biology
                          31/209    Medicine
                        148/217    Environmental sciences
                          55/704    Medicine
                          45/243    Medicine
                          56/141    Medicine
                          33/236    Medicine
                          50/158    Psychology
                        139/465    Institute for Area Studies
                          74/207    Medicine
                          18/110    Psychology
                          66/465    Medicine

I can only wonder at why certain dissertations seem so much more or less sought after than others. Of immediate interest here is the fact that the views are mostly much less than the downloads. Compared to the other disciplines, my dissertation has more views (449) than any of the others (max. 148). In my case, the proximity of view- and download-numbers can be explained by the supposition that a new discipline leads people to have a look at output out of interest more than to have and use the content. I surmise that established disciplines have developed a tradition of interested parties systematically downloading new knowledge to have and read it.

If any of my numbers are a success, it has - again - nothing to do with me or any notion of quality: the numbers for my colleague doctors in the arts with a dissertation at the Leiden University repository are equally impressive. If mine is the 6th in a ranking of most downloads, compare to the other 25 (better are medicine, biology, and 'area studies'), Paul Craenen's 216 downloads in six months and Jed Wentz' 450 in nine months will be as much up there, if not more, when their first post-doc year is over. Paul and Jed's viewing numbers (185, resp. 334) are and will likely remain lower, which may be explained by the novelty wearing off. (My dissertation was the first artistic research output on music in The Netherlands, the country which many of my viewing numbers came from; it was also the only one at the repository for nine months.)

In terms of geographical interest, Paul generated views and downloads from a total of 18 countries, jed 22 and I 59. It is true that automated search engines will get to the repository without a genuine interest in the matter, but these will not result in actual downloads. In all three cases, only two to three countries had had someone viewing while nobody downloaded.

I didn't study the differences in download/viewing behavior according to country: Paul's dissertation is written in Dutch and Jed's and mine in English, the subjects are wildly divergent, etc. Of further interest, however, is the fact that only Jed's dissertation was (twice out of 334 views and 450 downloads) referred to by Google Scholar. This can show how most of the interest is from musicians rather than musicologists: few of the former typically use Google Scholar.

All this is very exhilarating for the artistic research discipline and its researchers: it proves that musicians all over the world are hungry for this type of knowledge to enrich their expertise. And they are willing to go to great lengths for it: I made a limited number of hardcover bound copies of my dissertation to give to family, promotor etc. Some pianists pleaded with me to sell them one (as they didn't like reading from a monitor or printing out a thousand pages), and when they heard from me that the cost to make some more would run up to 80€ per copy, they argued that they would pay much more than that to have it. I can only imagine one bigger incentive for publishers to take artistic research very seriously: there are many more musicians than academics. And they need catering to.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Artistically researching non-Western music

Some months ago, I organized a half study day on the issue of artistic research into non-Western music and improvisation. An increase in the number of students wanting to enter a doctoral trajectory with topics relating to these interests had been noticeable throughout the field, so questions of the potential and the problems that such topics bring with them were reason enough for wanting to discuss the matter with policy makers and a few invited specialists. Except for a lecture by Godfried-Willem Raes, arguing that there is no such thing as solo improvisation because players need the unpredictability of interacting with another player, the whole was more than somewhat disappointing for me, however. Especially when it came to the issues regarding AR and non-Western cultures, one specialist’s statement, putting forward that the potential is great and the obstacles non-existent, was intellectually lethal to the get-together. Actually, the prospects had already been condemned from the moment ideas like “Asian pianists coming to Europe to study Chopin can do no more than copy us” clashed with the suggestions that we, ourselves, could just go anywhere and research another culture even if we don't even speak their language. As hard as I tried to steer the debate into the direction of any type of worthwhile insight, both notions remained unconsumed food for thought.

If the soup had been too hot and spicy, here’s a more palatable opportunity to ponder some of the issues. One of the members of the audience, that day, was Liselotte Sels, who is working on a doctoral project involving Turkish folk music. You can read more about her and her project here – basically she is a Western pianist from Ghent (a city with a sizable history and population of Turkish immigrants enjoying an ever more visible cultural life), looking at Turkish folk music from theoretical, aesthetic and sociological perspectives to create “new music based on characteristics emerging from the ‘deconstruction’ of the Turkish folk music repertoire,” including collaborative “explorations of different musical idioms and procedures (composed contemporary classical, free improvisation, jazz, pop,…)” and finding “a meaningful role and appropriate use of the piano in relation to Turkish folk music.”

Liselotte Sels, artistic research, non-Western music
Liselotte Sels

Naturally, Liselotte’s research takes her to Turkey. She is there at this moment and has agreed to include her research progress in the travel-log that she set up to share the experiences of her trip. Here’s the link to the blog – the posts in English are the ones concerning the research. (Click “volgende” to go to the next post, “vorige” to go back.”)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Reporting on the Oslo symposium

The world of artistic research revolves quickly and there is much to see. As I can't be everywhere at all times, I have been lucky: my colleague researcher Darla Crispin gave a keynote lecture at the Oslo conference, earlier this month, and she graciously agreed to act as my guest blogger. Here's her thorough account of what she witnessed, 'up there in the cool North'. (Links inserted by me.)

Symposium: ‘The Art of Artistic Research’ 6-8 May 2011

The Norwegian Academy of Music hosted its first International Symposium on ‘The Art of Artistic Research’ from 6 to 8 May 2011. The Symposium had been developed to allow a deep interrogation of presented work at different stages of evolution in this new field. Appropriately, the presentations were searching, almost always strongly based in practice, and demonstrated a keen awareness of the key issues that artistic researchers grapple with – though not always able to supply ‘easy’ answers to the proposed research questions. The Symposium encouraged instead an open approach to working with ideas, and this was of particular benefit to the doctoral students in attendance. Expert Panels were conducted periodically, and included the pianist, Leif Ove Andsnes, who is proud to call himself an artist-researcher!

The ‘Symposium’ model was developed for this event in order to provide an opportunity to discuss various approaches to artistic research. In default of any generally approved definition (of artistic research), there is a continuing need for establishing good examples, relevant research models and a common understanding. The aim of the Symposium was to enhance a collective discussion and reflection on various questions related to artistic research.

The event was organized around four themes:

1) Craftsmanship and Artistic Research
2) The Concert
3) Interdisciplinarity in Arts
4) Defining Artistic Research

Ian Pace (City University, London) gave the opening keynote relating to craftsmanship, relating his analysis of the postwar evolution of piano performances – including the politicization of performance styles – to some of the current themes of artistic research, such as how small-scale aspects of craft might be read in the current turbulent political landscape for Western classical music. As a context to this, he also presented a short recital, including Johannes Brahms’ Klavierstücke Op. 118, Claude Debussy’s Images Book II, and a rare performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X, which he performed clad in protective gloves.

Pace’s keynote and the short papers within the thematic group all pointed up the challenges of generating artistic research questions from personal observations from within practice. Some, like Pace, relate their practice very rapidly to existing knowledge – but we witnessed others less certain in their thought-trajectories, and focused more intently of the personal insights of their own practice, prior to the process of contextualization.

This lack of certainty, its potential to leave space for new understanding, also means that musical performance itself has the potential to be transformed by the findings of artist researchers. This potential was discussed by MartinTröndle (Zeppelin University Friedrichshafen) in a trenchant keynote: ‘Transforming performing: new concepts for new audiences’. Tröndle presented a series of sobering statistics for performers attached to traditional concert-giving paradigms, but then challenged his listeners to use artistic research itself as a means of rethinking the manner of musical presentation. There was some resistance to his message in the form of concern that the musical content was being challenged by media packaging and virtuosic light shows, but the current turbulence in the funding for the arts is undeniable, and is an important component for consideration in the world of artistic research, where the scholarly and professional spheres often clash. Examples of contrasting consequences to this were heard in the accompanying papers, from the negative reception of Rudolf Kolisch’s Beethoven cadenzas in America, to the positive revivification of the carillon through innovative approaches to improvisation and performance practice: Carl van Einhoven’s video of his jazz performance on the carillon will stay long in the memory.

This pointed up another challenge for artist-researchers: the necessity to go beyond research in musical practice to learn from other disciplines. ‘Interdisciplinarity was thus an important theme of the Symposium, and was vividly discussed by Sally Jane Norman (University of Sussex) in her keynote: ‘Interdisciplinarity through and beyond the Arts’. She presented numerous examples of projects in which the work engaged with collaborative interdisciplinary practice, relations between art and technology, and disruptive innovation processes. She was also able to offer some insights on research and cultural policy frameworks, which form another site of interface with which artistic research must engage.

As the Symposium, questions arose about how artistic research was going to generate it own critical theories. In her keynote, Darla Crispin (Orpheus Research Centre in Music) drew together all the themes of the Symposium and proposed one model of how the very specific experimentation and observation processes of the artist-researcher might generate broad interpretative frameworks; in her case, this involved relating aspects of Anton Webern’s Piano Variations Op. 27 with the development of a theory for understanding ethics in relation to music performance. This led into a dedicated session for 3rd cycle students, who are developing their own projects in light of their findings during the Symposium.

Erlend Hovland and Otto Christian Pay are to be congratulated for setting up a very good event. The time keeping was precise, especially on the first day, and the programme had been developed with many long, open slots for group discussion. Many of these talks were very productive, sometimes through strong words and unresolved philosophical disagreements, but also with respectful, open research attitudes. Hopefully, this will be the first of a series of such events within the Norwegian Academy of Music.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Remembering W.A.Wagenaar and his legacy


During the previous doctoral training session of the Orpheus Institute, Willem Albert Wagenaar passed away. I have written about him earlier, but it is fitting to do so again at this sad occasion as his role in the making of the - apparantly - most sought after doctoral trajectory for musicians in the Low Countries has been more decisive than is generally known.

Willem Albert Wagenaar, artistic research

Dutch psychologist Willem Albert Wagenaar (Utrecht, June 30, 1941 – April 27 2011) studied in Utrecht, Leiden and Pennsylvania State University. He has been professor at both Utrecht and Leiden Universities and is seen as a specialist in matters of human memory. As an expert witness he gained international recognition in court cases such as the one against John “Ivan the terrible” Demjanjuk. Wagenaar avidly collected Magic Lanterns – generally accepted to be invented in the 17th century by Christiaan Huygens, another one of Leiden University’s brilliant students – for which passion he had a home theater built, aptly called the “Christiaan Huygens Theater”. (You can see video’s of Wagenaar’s Magic Lantern presentations here and here.)

Willem Albert Wagenaar, artistic research, Christiaan Huygens Theater
Wagenaar's Christiaan Huygens Theater

At the turn of the last century, it was Wagenaar who decided to make a phone call that would eventually lead to the bestowing of the PhD title on creative and performance artists at Leiden University. At that time, Wagenaar was Rector Magnificus of Leiden University, which housed no department handling any focus on music. He fostered the grand thought of the creative arts themselves (not just their study from outside of the practice) constituting an integral part of the university’s responsibility towards society and its knowledge. It was Wagenaar who initiated contact with the Royal Conservatory at The Hague and its then director Frans de Ruiter to set the ball rolling and to see how collaboration could be worked out on the practical level, i.e. how students from both types of institutions could benefit from such an integrated approach towards science and artistic practice. During the discussions that ensued, the academic notions of research and doctoral promotion were put on the table, pragmatically followed up in turn by pioneering efforts to envision what a PhD trajectory in artistic research could or should be like. It was eventually decided that this project deserved a faculty of its own, and in 2001 the Faculty for Creative and Performing Arts (for which de Ruiter acted as its dean) officially combined the Royal Conservatoire and Royal Academy of Art (both at The Hague) with Leiden University in an extraordinary education and research program. (It was later renamed as the Academy for Creative and Performing Arts.) 

Academy for Creative and Performing Arts, artistic research, Leiden

Wagenaar’s vision departed from the idea that the historical separation between the arts and sciences had been unjust:

It has long been thought that it was possible to make a good, profitable distinction between arts and sciences because it allows to simultaneously draw a line between ability and knowledge. Science concentrates on knowledge; the ability that follows, doesn’t really belong to it and should be taught outside of the university. […] In the arts, then, it would be mostly about ability without knowledge; that’s why we have separate institutions. As such, we take care that knowledge, as produced by the history of music, of art, of literature, is strictly separated from the world of skills, such as needed to sing and paint. But this distinction is not profitable and not real. The boundary between art and science is based on completely absurd notions about delineations between knowledge and ability, and should therefore be abolished.

[From Wagenaar’s inaugural speech at the launch of the Faculty of Creative and
Performing Arts.]

It is interesting that Wagenaar’s demarche was somewhat independent of the EU’s Bologna declaration, in which a bachelor-master-doctorate structure was decided upon for restructuring higher education in the arts. Wagenaar’s ideal superseded this mere three-fold differentiation, wanting to offer different types of merging scientific with artistic education. At the newly established Academy for Creative and Performing Arts, students can combine optional courses from both scientific and artistic institutions, as well as enrolling in new types of masters (e.g. media technology, in collaboration with the faculty of mathematics and physics), in a simultaneous combination of fully-fledged scientific and artistic trajectories, and in an artistic doctoral trajectory, all jointly operated.

The integration of arts and sciences is not unique in the world: especially in the Anglo-Saxon higher education tradition, it is common practice. But on the old continent, Wagenaar’s vision was revolutionary. Since the renaissance, the unity of arts and sciences had eroded, resulting in conservatoires, art academies and universities as separate entities with their own mission concepts and funding. Even in the Low Countries, where artistic research is supported with a surprising sense of unanimity, Wagenaar’s project predates the more loosely-knit Flemish model of university-conservatoire associations, and the real integration of the arts into universities is still less than a worked-out plan.

Willem Albert Wagenaar, artistic research

After his position as rector, and for the rest of his life, Wagenaar closely followed the developments of what he had set in motion. He was a member of the promotion committee of the first promovendus of the Academy for Creative and Performing Arts (yours truly) and continued to be involved in all the artistic research promotions up to and including the last weeks of his life, reading the dissertations and posing his questions during the promotional rituals.

At least in the Low Countries, and potentially elsewhere, Artistic Research owes considerably to this soft-spoken and sweetly kind man with an advanced vision on artistic practice and education.


On a Dutch blog remembering Wagenaar, I read more on this fascinating man. Aparently, he received his double first name (Willem Albert) from his two grandfathers. As a kid, he saw the advantage in the two chocolate letters he got from Santa Claus; later on, the double intellectual inheritance - the one grandfather's scientific interests and the other's artistic appreciation - clearly helped shape his vision of an artist's place in the university.

A final anecdote demonstrates how Wagenaar was a creative scientist until the end of his life: getting lost in the woods around his home town, the pressure under his skull made him hear magpie chatter as a trumpet passage in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, develop a panic fear of flowers, of the sent of lilies and jasmine. "My condition leads to completely new experiences that only patients can have! What luck that the cancer is my head. It is much more interesting than in any other body part." In the mean time, a booklet has been made to offer doctors insights and fellow patients support. Wagenaar had become the object of his own study as much as the artistic researcher that he had envisioned would investigate his own experiences for the benefit of scientists and colleague artists.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Britain’s Kingston University, with philosopher and professor of Film and Television Studies John Mullarkey as the main motor behind it, has announced their “practice.research.unit initiative. The broad aim is

to look at all contemporary aspects of PAR (practice led, practice based, etc) within drama and performance, film, music, fine art, dance, and creative writing, with a view to sharing the latest best ideas both in terms of stand-alone research and research-led pedagogy. Its intent is, firstly, to assay where practice-research is across the disciplines right now, and then to take the agenda forward through a number of major events each year (two to three initially) as well as in smaller local workshops occurring more frequently. A pluralism of approach will be a defining trait.

This introduction, communicated to me by John, will be followed by a more explicit and official 'manifesto' once the full website is launched.

The first event of this unit is a one day symposium on 'Capturing Process?', “pitched at both faculty and graduate students working in PAR, be they Kingston based, UK based, or international” and aiming “to establish the problems of disseminating process and establishing a practice research process for our work as practitioners, academics and examiners”:

[…]the challenging terminology for the symposium is deliberate: if an examiner is to read or to see this process it must be retained, disseminated and delivered in a form which the examiner (or peer reviewer, or viewer) can grasp, understand and interpret. By laying an emphasis on process there is an honesty regarding the development and changes of this process. For example, one may compose a piece for a film, or make a film; then one may make a documentary which reflects on this process, as well as writing a thesis about the process, reflecting on the work and on the reflection (this is but one of many possibilities).

The keynote address for the symposium will be delivered by Professor Robin Nelson (Central School of Speech and Drama), other speakers include forte-piano player John Irving (IMR), composer Oded Ben-Tal (Kingston University) and pianist Keith Ford (Kingston University), with more speakers representing drama, dance and film. Two sessions will handle ‘Capturing Process’ and ‘Defining Practice: Rehearsing Applied Strategies’, with a Round Table reflecting on “'Capturing' a Dynamic Process” and a PhD Show to include students from dance, drama, film, music and performance.

Welcome to the practice.research.unit as a new partner in crime. Related news and reports will follow.

Friday, May 06, 2011

ORCiM seminar on Artistic Experimentation

Last week, the Orpheus Research Center in Music organized one of its yearly seminars, this time to find out more about Artistic Experimentation in the Context of Performance Practice. The topic covers part of the group’s research agenda for 2010-2013, which handles Artistic Experimentation in general. (More on this here.) 

The two-day seminar gave the floor to 13 speakers, mainly from  the UK and Scandinavia (one from Belgium and one from Chili), among which improvising and reproductive performers as well as composers handling their own works. The organizers evidently took care to treat the widest possible range of historical and aesthetic vantage points: contemporary and historical jazz and an extremely extended range of classical composed music (from Léonin and Pérotin through Palestrina, Monteverdi, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Ravel to Lachenmann, Kurtág and present-day compositions) were set off against more esoteric concepts as ‘ecosonics’ or silence in computer music performance. (The complete program can be downloaded from the bottom of this page.)

The audience of more than 40 researchers – again demonstrating varied backgrounds and expertise – filled the conference hall to the point where the gathering alone promised satisfaction: crowded but cozily collective, with diverse interests merging into focus and opportunities for debate and networking ready to happen.

Orpheus Instituut, Orpheus Research Center in Music, ORCiM, artistic experimentation, artistic research

It is never difficult to detect the naturally gifted conferenciers: regardless of how their story relates to the listener’s reason for being there – if it even does – they succeed in taking you with them through their efficiently set-up argumentation and compelling rhetorical command. In that respect, the balance between the excellent and the less inspirational presentation was not out of the ordinary in this conference. As the order felt almost ‘cadential’ in the way that it seemed to efficiently time the necessary contrast between the dry and the entertaining, it was never really frustrating to see a less experienced speaker miss the opportunity to fulfill the potential of his topic, or to watch the most talented keep the audience on the edge of the seat beyond what the content of his contribution merits.

Regardless of the solidity of the attention span that speakers were able to win from the audience, plenty of the contributed content was worth having been presented for its own sake. I doubt that anyone will forget the impact that the Swiss tenor Valentin Gloor made with the way he managed to establish a perfectly convincing  symbiosis of a lecture about an artistic research project with the performance of that actual project (in which he worked out concepts of association in a theatrically enhanced performance of Schumann songs). Personally, I was happy to get to be introduced by British composer Nicholas Brown to his compositions, enthusiastically welcomed the myth-busting research of Daniel Leech-Wilkinson into Cortot’s performance practice, and hope to learn more about where Christina Kobb’s as yet tentative hypotheses regarding early 19th century notation of micro-dynamics will take her (and current pianistic performance practical knowledge).

Due to illness and the reluctance to infect others, I stayed at home for the second day. This turned out to be an excellent circumstance, as I found myself reminded of the fact that ORCiM offers live streaming of its events. I did miss two presentations because the speakers wrongly assumed they didn’t need the collar microphone that would have enabled me to hear what they said, but it was a joy to benefit from this technology. Aside from the inability to pose any questions, the streaming offers an absolutely wonderful way to attend a conference without physically being there. Bravo to whomever thought of that!

Orpheus Instituut, Orpheus Research Center in Music, ORCiM, artistic experimentation, artistic research, conference

As much as the production and the content of the seminar left eminently memorable traces, it nevertheless was a disappointing surprise to realize just how few presentations really matched the promise that their title and/or abstract had held. In contrast to the ability of engaging an audience to the full, which is may be more a question of talent than skill, the way a presentation is made to be about what the description says it will be, is but a matter of intention. To an extent, it is understandable that researchers try and present their projects and findings at different conferences to test them for feedback, and invariably this means that the content must sometimes be bent a little to fit the theme of the conference. Certainly, some flexibility should be offered to facilitate this, and it generally is, but in this instance, such flexibility seemed to have been assumed by some presenters to stretch across an all too wide gap between the theme and the presented content. Many titles incorporated the term ‘experiment’ but very few went on to say anything about experimentation. One presenter dug into the etymology by way of introduction, continuing only to leave it undeveloped. For most, it seemed just a word that needed no elaboration, and if the projects that they presented were to be taken as cases of experimentation, then I have witnessed mostly just that: cases of research that relates (more or less) to performance practice – not case studies on artistic experimentation. I have heard no one posing a research question on artistic experimentation and following it up by arguing his or her way towards any type of answer to that question. In fact, hardly any of the presenters took the opportunity to explore the perspectives and the 8 research questions that were offered in the call for proposals as possible points of departure, as intriguing and as begging for treatment as they are. Some presentations could be defended as being about experimental practice in the performance of early music, but not as “revealing experimental performance practices from the past” (all italics are mine); I did not see a presentation handling “a practical approach that takes the 'skilled body' as its point of departure“. Only the broadest “open-ended approach that challenges state-of-the-art practices in the field of music performance“ was recognizably present in some of the presented material. One presenter did clearly start with one of the proposed questions in mind How does experimentation 'between' performances (from performance to performance) work?” –  but this was not worked out to move towards any defined insight. There was certainly chamber music in the mix, but we did not learn “How experimentation [works] through collaboration (e.g. chamber music)”, whether “the use and influence of non-musical elements [is] an important factor in experimental performance practices”, of “the relationships between experimentation and improvisation”, on “How experimentation occur[s] in the daily practicing process”, or “What the tensions [are] between 'fidelity to the score' and individuation of performance”.

No conference convener can foresee how presenters will work out their abstracts into presentations, and there was certainly enough that made it worthwhile for anyone with any interest from any angle to have been present. On balance, the seminar invoked the urge to taste more given ORCiM's long-range interest in artistic experimentation, we can be sure to be offered more.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Towards a European Platform

For two and a half days, the European Association of Conservatoires, Music Academies and Musikhochschulen (AEC) set up shop in Belgrade to discuss AR. Sounds, Searchings, Sharings: towards a common platform for the development and dissemination of artistic research in music was the inaugural conference of EPARM, a project of the AEC to 
serve the community of European conservatoires as they come to terms, each in ways most appropriate to their unique context, with the phenomenon of artistic research in music 
(joining other AEC platforms, e.g. for Jazz and Popular music or for Early Music). EPARM was formerly known as European Network for Artistic Research, initiated in  2009 by the Orpheus Institute.

AEC, artistic research

Over 100 people were registered to represent 54 institutions from 24 countries interested in AR. That is about 1/5 of the member institutions of the AEC, from about half of the countries that the AEC covers. The top three of heavily represented countries included Belgium (7 institutions), The Netherlands (6) and Sweden (4). It was odd to notice how the UK only revealed one interested party (Royal Northern College of Music) and that the Sibelius Academy did not send anyone - both are as well-known for their tradition and/or efforts in the realm of AR as any in the top three. The Balkan region, on the other hand, showed great interest, but it is unclear how much of that had to do with the geographical location of the conference compared to their actual or projected involvement in AR.

The hallways and rooms of the hosting Faculty of Music at the University of the Arts in Belgrade were buzzing with the energy of intent: policy makers and researchers from diverging individual and national backgrounds made their focus and involvement clear during all of the many presentations. Keynotes included the perspectives of a “successfully graduated doctoral student” (yours truly – still wondering if there is an unsuccessful way to graduate), of the rector of an institution (Georg Schulz, of the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz), and of those pondering the framing conditions and curriculum building for AR in conservatoires (Massimo Zicari of the Scuola Universitaria di Musica in Lugano and Jeremy Cox, ceo of the AEC).

In between the thematic sessions, 10 composing, interpreting and improvising doctorandi from AR programs in Malmö, Paris, Ghent, Stuttgart, Belgrade and Trieste presented their ongoing ‘solo’ or collaborative research. Once more (cf. my previous post on AR at the Masters level), the diversity of personal artistic curiosity and the resulting research angles was exciting and inspiring, with projects ranging from the Arpeggione to the electric viola and from improvisation in opera to processes in the relationships between performer and composers. The conference reader and some of the presentation Powerpoints can be downloaded here.
The organisers and sponsors (see the reader for details) have gone out of their way to provide maximum conferential comfort. From the technical assistance to the framing entertainment program (including a concert by the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra and an evening-long dinner on a boat cruising the Danube), the entire production was imacculate.

The quality and identity of the research was not always discussed as collectively as some later indicated that they would have liked. Despite the humidly warm conference hall, or because of it, debates never heated up to the point that new ideas were forged. Unnecessary fears about having AR distract musicians from their art (or conservatories from their core business), unjustly perceived antagonisms between AR and musicology, hesitance in aiming exclusively at a full-blown AR PhD (thinking of allowing for a DMA-type performance degree as an option or even a substitute), confusion about methodology and identity, worries about the difficulties of standardizing institutional relations between arts and sciences across the EU,… The many challenges ahead (and we can identify a few more than those that were mentioned) may have pulled the symbolism of the confidently sunny early spring climate into the shadows a bit, but the general feeling remained very much that of blossoming determination, as demonstrated by the suggested constructive reasons for initiating further assemblies to look at financial issues, to include trans-ethnic potential, to continue to explore methodologies, etc. It came as no surprise, then, that the closing plenary discussion resulted in a unanimously supported proposal for continuing and broadening the efforts towards “a future for a European platform for AR in music”.

Frans de Ruiter, artistic research, AEC
Closing plenary discussion with Frans de Ruiter 
sharing aspects of more than a decade in AR experience