Friday, November 20, 2015


Most artistic researchers that I meet are working on solo projects. On stage, most of those also profile themselves as soloists. This has an easy to identify logic behind it: investigating a topic from within one’s own practice involves the subject and its single instrument. And as there is so much ground to cover in order to develop the discipline, this is an understandable primary focus.

But while academic disciplines already have a history of looking at collaborative processes, I still wonder about what an instrumentalist’s research project would be like if it were about playing in an orchestra, where the creativity and its room for exploration and innovation is shared with the conductor. I imagine that relationship to be complex (as a pianist I have only limited experience playing in an orchestra), with the players enjoying a more or less high degree of independence in matters of technique (shared with performers of the same orchestral group, and depending on the formal hierarchies in that group), but the conductor having more of a final word on sound and interpretation. In what way, for instance, would such boundaries permit (or stimulate), say, a clarinettist to develop something that goes against the traditions of his orchestral practice?

Besides the instrumentalist’s perspective, there is that of the conductor as a musician. Naturally, her mandate would allow her to implement a novel interpretation (given enough rehearsals), experiment with the stage set-up, programming, etc. But I am curious about the potential for archeology in that field. Which interpretive aspects of Stravinsky's own conducting of his work were indebted to his (lack of) experience as a conductor and which were a matter of actual musical choice? It would take a conductor to make an informed assessment of how to distinguish between both, beyond the superficial characteristics of coordinated ensemble playing.

artistic research, conductor

Perhaps a first step (that I know of) in exploring this area will be taken by the conference that the Oxford ConductingInstitute, in partnership with St. Anne’s College and the University of OxfordFaculty of Music, is organizing for June 24-26, 2016.

Deadline for applications is quite soon: Tuesday, December 1, 2015. All information can be found here

In the call, the range of topics is framed as follows:

The practice of conducting has significant impact on music-making across a wide variety of ensembles and musical contexts around the globe. Whilst professional organizations and educational institutions have worked to develop the field through conducting masterclasses and conferences focused on professional development, and academic researchers have sought to explicate various aspects of conducting through focused studies, researchers and practitioners are rarely in dialogue about these findings and experiences.

This conference will explore issues pertaining to the study of conducting from a range of perspectives by bringing together research across a variety of disciplines including musicology, ethnomusicology, music education, philosophy, psychology, anthropology and sociology as well as from practitioners. The tripartite aims of the conference will be to engage researchers and practitioners in productive dialogue, promote practice as research, and raise awareness of the state of research in the field of conducting.

Researchers and practitioners are invited to submit proposals for individual papers (20 minutes + 10 minutes for questions) on the following and other topics related to conducting.

- Critical approaches to pedagogy and mentorship
- Leadership, power and authority
- Verbal and non-verbal communication
- Critical views on repertoire and programming
- Enterprise, responsibility and accountability
- The rehearsal and performance process
- Students, amateurs and professionals    
- Historical views
- Gender
- Race
- Aesthetics of conducting
- Health and wellbeing
- Views from the podium
- Movement and gesture

The announcement makes it clear that participation is invited from academic and practitioners’ sides of the sector, but it can be hoped that artistic researchers will come to the fore as well. In any case, conductor Cayenna Ponchione is involved, and if her high-end input during the March 2015 conference on authorship in music was anything to go by, this one is not to be missed.

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, artistic research, when composition is not research
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.

when composition is not 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.