Thursday, December 10, 2015

Scott Mc Laughlin reporting on a PaR discussion

Interested in following the debate on "composition-as-research", I regretted that I could not be in London for a panel talk on this topic, now a few weeks ago. Luckily, composer Scott Mc Laughlin did go, and he kindly agreed to report on it. Here are his thoughts.

Scott Mc Laughlin, composition, artistic research
Scott Mc Laughlin

Report on Practice-as-Research discussion at City University London

I’m a composer and academic at the University of Leeds (UK). I went down to London for the research forum on Nov. 25th organised by Ian Pace at City University called 'Can Composition and Performance be Research? Critical Perspectives'. A video of the event is here

The forum discussion was planned as a response to John Croft’s article 'Composition is Not Research' (Tempo, 69/272, April 2015, pp.6–11), and also as a prelude to the forthcoming edition of Tempo which will include response articles by Ian Pace and Camden Reeves, as well as a right-of-reply article by Croft himself. In this research forum, each of the six panelists gave a short response to Croft’s article, followed by panelists responding to each other, then opening-up to audience questions. The panel is listed below, and was moderated by Alexander Lingus:

  • Christopher Fox (Professor of Composition at Brunel University and editor of Tempo)
  • Miguel Mera (composer and Head of the Department of Music at City University)
  • Annie Yim (pianist and DMA student at City University)
  •  Christine Dysers (PhD student in Music at City University)
  • Camden Reeves (composer and Head of Music, University of Manchester)
  • Ian Pace (pianist and Lecturer in Music at City University)

Panel Contributions:

Panelist 1: Christopher Fox’s short talk emphasised the impact of Croft’s article as re-igniting this long-standing debate across the summer of 2015. Fox’s main point was to raise two important questions that he felt are central to this debate: (A) what do we mean as academics (in practice areas) when we say 'I am doing research’? and (B) what are the practical consequences of research, and what is the impact of losing this status? Research generates money and is an indicator of esteem, it attracts students. If we stop calling composition (and performance) research then there will be consequences for composers who wish to study for PhDs. Fox’s parting point was that if music is a discourse then why should composers write words about it, they should just compose. Unfortunately there was no time for him to nuance or discuss this further, but I would argue in response that music can be a discourse but that this discourse (at least, that which is received by the listener) is not necessarily connected (or connectable) to any research that went into its composition.

I agree with Fox that these two questions are central. For this debate to move forward, I think a single session of discussion devoted to just the first —what do we mean as academics (in practice areas) when we say 'I am doing research’? — would be time very well spent.

Panelist 2: Miguel Mera framed the discussion in terms of a disciplinary anxiety about legitimacy. He reframed Fox’s question as ‘why do we find it so difficult to judge the contributions to knowledge made by composition and performance on their own terms?’. He noted the definition of research given by the REF as being very open, 'a process of investigation effectively shared’, and that the REF does not inscribe any scientistic ideas of research (such as the OED’s requirement that research ‘establishes facts’) in its requirements. Mera, queried what the phrase ‘effective shared’ might mean, but suggested that as a discipline it is our responsibility to define what we consider to be valuable in our practice, and in what ways this may or may not be research. Mera began with Croft’s idea that composition is often not about pre-formed ideas but rather as creating striking responses to musical problems. Mera agreed that composition research shouldn’t simply report the findings of research questions, and called for playfulness in research; a possible ideal of compositional research being exploratory and facilitating serendipitous discoveries. He tentatively agreed with composers who think music should not need words to explain itself, but felt that in academia we had a duty to explain or work, though not necessarily in words (see ‘Exegesis’ below): I agree on this point in particular. Summarising his thoughts, Mera emphasised practitioners making a case for when we ARE doing research, and highlighting our contribution to knowledge.

Panelist 3: Annie Yim is a recently-completed DMA performance student, providing the discussion with a useful shift in perspective, both in terms of discipline and researcher-context. Yim’s presentation focused on her experience as a student and the frustrating lack of boundaries and definition between joint roles as practitioner and researcher. She echoed Mera’s point about overly rigid approaches to practice-research by noting that PaR requires a curiosity that the existing framework (postgraduate study I presume) is not equipped to handle. Yim also made several points about ‘training’ that I regret I was not able to follow up with questions: I’m interested to know if she considers the DMA as professional training for practice, which she may consider as antithetical to the researcher role. 

Panelist 4: Christine Dysers was not able to make the event in person, but she had a prepared a statement that was read out by Sam MacKay. As with Yim, Dysers, a musicologist, also provided a welcome new context. She found Croft’s definition of research to be too narrow and ‘bureaucratic’, and she echoed Mera’s call for an open approach to practice research wherein she described composition as reflexive and non-linear process where the composer is keen to reflect findings and communicate them. Dysers’ statement also made some references to practice research in terms of ‘scientific discovery’, which I think is a problematic approach to thinking about most research in composition/performance (see 'Science' below), but I was not able to question her about this.

Panelist 5: Camden Reeves talked of a sinister attack on composition where some forms of composing are segregated as not being research-worthy: an acute example of Mera’s ‘anxiety of legitimacy’ mentioned above. Reeves compared composition-as-research to the Athenian democracy, which, despite good intentions, ended up marginalising its people by successively changing the criteria for being a citizen. Reeves dismissed Croft’s entire question as ‘goofy’ and only mattering to those in a University — I’m not sure where Reeves is coming from on this point, since the University is the only context in which discussion of ‘research' is relevant — and echoes others in considering Croft’s definition of research as too narrow. Reeves also takes issue with the attempt by the humanities to mirror STEM research in its definitions and models, arguing that the scientific method is not applicable in the humanities — a point I agree with. Reeves’ closing point was that we, as a discipline, need to decide how to measure composition, but not by calling it research.

Panelist 6: Ian Pace called for more careful distinctions to be made between the possible relationships of practice and research (practice-as, practice-led etc.), and also to open the debate to more perspectives; both from other disciplines (theatres, dance, etc., through their extensive engagement with PaR), and other non-practice perspectives within music. Pace presented some analysis of how much practice-as-research is happening within UK Music Depts: unfortunately the numbers passed by too quickly for me to take appropriate notes, but he promises to make a blog post of this analysis soon. [Update: the link to Ian's blog with the numbers.] Echoing Reeves, Pace identifies some worrying trends in PaR where certain types of practice are considered more research-worthy, noting that it appears 'composition mostly IS research if it involves electronics or [compositional?] systems, and performance mostly IS research if it involves extended techniques.’ Pace described how in his own specialism (notated music) there are choices, therefore interpretation, and therefore research is possible. He asks for a critical approach to research and investment in long-form critical research, being open to choices, critically interrogating these choices, and communicating them as research; though he also accepts that communication need not necessarily be through text. Pace warned of the inherent danger of textual exegesis as allowing (or even encouraging) assessors to avoid engaging with the work itself, but he takes the pragmatic view that textual documentation of practice-research as standard is ‘probably inevitable’.


In the subsequent panel responses (to each other) and audience questions, there was some useful clarification of points and positions, but often it was difficult to maintain a thread or argument, with many points going by unexamined and unconnected. This forum was very useful in demonstrating some consensus on points in response to Croft (mostly), the format was problematic as there were simply too many people on the panel for the time allowed. I assume it was constructed this way to ensure a wide breadth of perspectives was included, and in that it was successful, but 2 hours wasn’t enough to even begin to unravel all the points or to provide critical perspective. If we are to continue having these discussions then I firmly believe we need to break down the problem into topics and tackle them one at a time; as far as that is possible. Of course all of these topics interrelate and will influence each other so separating them will always be artificial, but it seems to me the only way through a discourse dominated by uncertainty over definitions and anxiety about change is to try and create SOME anchors of consensus along the way. As you can see from above, there were certain topics that came up again and again in this discussion, I address a couple of these below.


The conflation of musical quality and research quality; the idea that good music is the same as good research. This seems to be at the root of many issues composers have with considering their work as ‘research’. The conflation is revealed in comments that I’ve heard at this event and others like it. As an example, at the 'RMA Practice as Research Symposium' in Manchester in June I heard some colleagues express disbelief along the lines that composer X, 'who is an excellent composer', did not get a research grant to write a certain piece. The disbelief appeared to rest on the assumption that a good composer must automatically be a good researcher, which to me is very problematic. This issue did not escape the Main Panel D report, which noted that 'the sector still has difficulty distinguishing excellent professional practice from practice with a clear research dimension’ (REF2014, p.100 [update: see here for the REF report]). In the same vein, towards the end of this research forum at City I asked Camden Reeves to expand upon something he’d said about music being judged on its own merits (presumably, as opposed to being judged on what’s written about it). Unfortunately, I didn’t frame the question with much care, and Reeves' somewhat indignant response shot the point down. In hindsight, what I wanted him to unpack was to what extent is it possible to judge music on its own merits in the context of research. Reeves claimed ‘on its own merit’ was self-explanatory and didn’t need expansion, I didn’t think this was such a ‘given’ because any piece of music is too open to different readings to be judged so simply and holistically. A piece can be simultaneously innovative on one level and derivative on another, it can be highly original in its development of one technique while using another without any critical reflection or apparent knowledge of others’ advances. And in artistic terms this is all fine, that’s just how composition works, but as research we need to be able to point to where and how the originality and rigour are happening. This point did come back around in another guise 10 minutes later when Reeves was arguing that we should change the conversation away from 'what is research' to assessing 'who is producing quality', by which he meant quality ‘work’, to which myself and another audience member queried how this would be assessed, but the conversation had moved on and the point withered. To me, this is another example of the conflation of artistic and research worthiness via the universal descriptor of ‘quality’, if we’re simply judging what music is ‘best’ then the question of research is meaningless (as I think Reeves believes it is), but I don't think research is commensurate with artistic quality, there is a definite difference in what the two measures are trying to gauge. The REF2014 Panel Criteria and Working Methods points to ‘originality’, ’significance’ and ‘rigour’ as its criteria for assessing research. While these can be applied to artistic quality, I struggle to imagine artistic quality being measured solely on this: that said, I struggle to imagine any sort of even partially-objective measures of artistic quality (answers on a postcard please…). Ian Pace subsequently pointed out that funding based on artistic merit is what we have the Arts Council for, and I worry that defining composition and performance as ‘research equivalent’ will put us on the short path to being ’not research’: this is especially pertinent in a context where every other performance discipline appears has to have vigorously embraced the idea of Practice as Research, where does this leave a musical practice without research?

This issue brings us right back to Christopher Fox’s first question, what do we as practitioners mean by 'research’. I sincerely believe that every composer and performer is automatically doing research in what they do, but that within the academic sphere we have (as Mera says above) a duty to explain and communicate. This is also strongly tied to the difference between professional and academic contexts. I don’t expect a composer who writes a piece for a concert to explain what they’re doing unless they want to, but in an academic context I think it’s the only way to separate the research from the piece. Because I don’t think the research is the piece. My answer to Fox’s question is that the research takes place in the process of writing the piece. It cannot happen apart from the piece and is wrapped up completely in the act of composing, but the piece is not the research. Research is (as Croft would agree I think) the thinking and doing of creating the piece. It is the response of praxis to issues raised by the unfolding of that praxis. Subsequently, for this process to be meaningful to others outside the artist’s head it also needs to be 'effectively shared’, see Exegesis below.

To echo a point of Pace’s above, when I compose I make choices, and those choices embody the research. Sometimes those choices require investigation before they can be made, and this can take a dizzying array of forms all equally valid (this might be ‘book’ research, but more likely it will be material and performative research that may be mediated through other persons — e.g. consulting with musicians — and may be difficult to document and/or unpack). Part of our problem in this debate is the legitimisation-angst this creates by calling for these forms of research to be considered valid in the face of poorly-considered comparisons with research models such as STEM and musicology, which are not appropriate in most cases. 

So what is good research in composing and performing? this is something that we as a discipline need to work out.


A general sticking-point in this debate is whether, or to what degree, practitioners should use text in support of their practice submissions. Generally, the panel seemed to agree that 300 word statements are the worst of all possibilities as they (a) don’t allow enough depth of engagement with the research, and (b) they possibly increased the attractiveness of ‘gimmicky’ projects (an anxiety clearly present in Croft’s article). Mera also noted that these 300 word statements were not a REF requirement; though I get the sense that many Universities insisted on them. The Main Panel D report from REF2104 noted positives and negatives in this respect:

‘[often] presentation of practice needed no more than a well-turned 300 word statement to point up the research inquiry and its findings, since the concerns outlined were then amply apparent within the practice itself’ (REF2014, p.99)

'300 word statements too often displayed a misunderstanding of what was being asked for and provided evidence of impact from the research, or a descriptive account akin to a programme note, rather than making the case for practice as research’ (REF2014, p.100)

Some panelists were explicitly against text support, preferring the work be judged on its own terms, while some panelists explicitly called for some level of exegesis. Reeves argued against exegesis because he felt it would unfairly advantage composers who were good at writing: I’ve heard others put this argument more cynically that it would advantage those more able to write in whatever academic speak is fashionable, but this rapidly becomes more conspiracy theory than argument. I don’t find Reeves' point to be persuasive, it seems a particularly hollow form of special-pleading to argue that academics (of all people) don’t need to explain and contextualize their thoughts on a topic. Surely objective distance and the ability to analyse and explain complex ideas is exactly what academics are for.

It is clear that the REF2014 guidelines already assume that artefacts alone cannot always speak to their research concerns. Personally, I have problems with the idea that the research value of the work is accessible in the artefact itself without at least ’some’ level of help. I think words are the most effective tool to point to the research, but equally I accept that there may be useful non-textual approaches also: I would dearly love to see good examples of this, I’m sure they’re out there, please send them my way if you’re aware of any.


From the discussions that I’ve observed in this debate, we appear to be reaching a consensus in this overall debate that composition neither is nor isn’t research, as both of these positions involve throwing a lot of babies out with the bathwater. The fruitful ground appears to be in the middle of the spectrum where we should identify how composition can be good research, and when it is not. I think the next question to discuss is really what we think good research is. Only then can we answer the question of how and if this is evidenced.

1 comment:

Martin Parker Dixon, University of Glasgow said...

I would like to thank Scott for writing such a helpful report. I could not attend the event myself so I am indebted to him for communicating the main lines of discussion.
I would like to supply an answer to Scott's closing question: What is good research? This is my logic:

(1) If artists conceive of what they do and make as being motivated by a significant problem,
(2) if artists find interesting solutions to such problems
(3) if artists share these solutions with others who are also interested in these problems
(4) if there these solutions have practical implications that others can work with

….then we have an artistic research culture.

This model provides for certain corollaries:

(a) There is no “private language” of research, it is a communal enterprise. So if stages (1) and (2) are realised but no others, we might have some art (it might be great art), but we don't have any research.

(b) Practice-based artistic research presupposes researchers who organise their work in such a way that they are responsive to the problems and solutions germane to a given paradigm. i.e., they are not working in isolation and neither are they jealous and proprietorial over their own materials and results.

(c) Because practice is organised around problems it is always-already discursive. Writing about ones art, exegesis, and discussion, are not alien to action, event, performance and so forth. (Cf Lacan, “discourse” is not just talk, everything we do is potentially discursive.)

(d) If an artist attempts to answer the question: “what is the problem you are working on here?” then there is, potentially, the beginnings of a research process.

(e) Good artistic research generates rich and powerful resources for other researchers. It will generate discussion of ideas, findings, claims, methods and so forth, all of which feeds and directs further artistic research activity. The solution to a given problem can generate a breakthrough that leads to more questions, more problems, more theorisation and more experimentation.

(f) Research is a collective and intensive creative process and ought to sit comfortably with other creative practices.