Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Expertise-specific conferences

Time flies when you are having fun. I generally don't find plane rides much fun, but during my flight from Portugal last week, it struck me how much I had enjoyed the Research 'Hands on' PIANO conference in Aveiro, and how it had only been a few years since I started thinking how we need this type of event.

Back then, I had voiced some frustration to the founders of the Journal for Artistic Research, which aims to publish expositions of research "from all artistic disciplines". To be exposed only to a variety of types of creativity and its fundus, including architecture, film, drawing, dance, theatre, etc., doesn't really cut it for me when considering the relatively meagre benefits of this diversity for my particular piano practice. Yes, AR is a common interest, but my expertise is that of piano playing, not of pan-disciplinary methodology. As wonderful as JAR is, I would prefer there to be artistic research journals per instrument as well - even per aspect of its performance practice. Similar to academia, to have output disseminated in specialized channels allows for professionals to be updated on what goes on in their field more efficiently than having to browse through many more publications to find relevant output. This fits the wider debate about AR types of output that need to include formats which extend to different multi-medium levels (hybrids like a monograph-with-DVD, full-online publication, research-CDs and -DVDS, annotated scores,...) and even to the outside of the traditional dissemination framework, like workshops.

So that was just a few years ago. Now, in a way, we're already there. Not that we have many specialized online journals for artistic research, but we now have such conferences. That's a big step. Since 2017, the University of Aveiro, through its communication platform IMPAR - Initiatives, Meetings and Publications on Artistic Research - has been announcing its Research hands on events. The first one was for flute in April of last year. There was one for guitar later in 2017 (no call for proposals, though) and, just now, one for piano. During 2018 there will be new ones for flute and guitar again. The aim of these events is to "bring artistic production and academic research closer together, creating opportunities to combine the artists' and the researchers' knowledge". To be fair, this is what the Orpheus Institute had in mind for its "Research Festivals", presented from 2009 to 2015: to merge the academic conference with the artistic festival in order to avoid the typical conference-with-some-music-as-well while making the point that a concentrated presentation of AR projects should be more than a display of artistic output. The research festival concept has been welcomed by other institutions, notably the conservatoires of Rotterdam and Tilburg. (Apparently, other disciplines have them too - e.g. here - and already from before 2009, but these "festivals" are thought of more generically as a celebration.) Typically, the research festivals' content is organized to include compositional and pan-instrumental expertise. Many of these events use a topic to apply cohesion, but that is not the same as having instrumental (or compositional) expertise be the common denominator.

Aveiro conference on artistic research

The four-day conference in Aveiro that I witnessed (Jan. 24-27, 2018) catered exclusively to pianists. The colleagues hailed from Spain, Croatia, Greece, the UK, Belgium, China, Canada, and Mexico, as well as from the more predictable linguistic background (Portugal and Brazil). The students at the masters and doctoral levels, and the concert pianists and teachers who were newer to the research scene, compensated amply for the presence of the more established scholarly types. The merchandise table in the hallway offered not just scholarly books, but new editions of scores as well, signalling how the target audience was not the academic per se. This became immediately palpable in the parallel sessions. Noticeable categories in the presentation contents included geographic overviews of repertoire from three different continents, gender-related topics (women composers; more than half of the presenters were women), the entire range of 18th to 21st century music, from solo to concerto, from Ligeti to graphic scores, etc., i.e. categories that could have been taken to satisfy the desktop scholar for all that the titles in the program indicated. Although perspectives often did include the historical and analytical, by far most of the presentations were purely practitioner-oriented however: from the technical (virtuosity, memorizing, pedagogy, practicing, bodily relaxing) to the fringe of the professional activities (medicine, marketing & management). Even the seemingly archaeological or the instrumental innovation catered insights that are useful in developing interpretation.

Mozart Fantasie k397, artistic research, reconstruction Luis PippaI particularly found Luís Pipa's personal experimentation and reconstruction of the final bars of Mozart's Fantasie in d minor K.397(385g) to my liking, in which he made insightful and distinctive use of the Neapolitan sixth to musically argue a connection to Mozart's own preceding materials.

Kate Ryder, artistic research, expanded pianosKate Ryder's session on expanded pianos, including the Magnetic Resonator Piano, offered interesting information on what seems to be a trend in the UK, what with the country's self-perceived history of experimental music and the work of a handful of Ryder's UK colleagues in this regard (e.g. Sarah Nicolls and Geoff Smith's "fluid piano").

Julius Block, artistic research, Inja Stanovic

Inja Stanovic's investigations of Julius Block's cylinder recording technology offered views on how to distinguish the performer's interpretation style from the influence on the sound from the mechanical recording equipment. (Reminding me of Jaso Sasaki.)

And then there was Dr. Hara Trouli, performing arts medicine specialist, whose cause is worthy of a separate post on this blog.

Not all was to be taken as research output. One odd presentation listed the presenter's past projects, which could be seen to lean towards AR because of the personal perspective but lacked an argumentation to consider it as really providing new knowledge in any way. Some of the concerts merely demonstrated little known repertoire. There was also nothing dealing with the pianoforte (though this may have to do with the lack of appropriate instruments on the premises). But what I take away most of this event is precisely the benefit of the balance of those diverse takes and foci, from the musicological to the performance, with everything in between, showcased in research presentations, concerts, workshops, masterclasses, panel discussions, poster presentations, film, etc. It gave the pianist-audience the impression that they could spend less than a week's time and be submersed in just about any type of development that they could wish to be updated on. The richess made me think back of what I once heard a competitor in a Liszt competition state: "Playing and listening to all that Liszt makes you remember why you like the piano so much". If it wasn't exactly interdisciplinary, the conference was nevertheless multi-subdisciplinary, covering a wide range of very different methodologies and perspectives from within the field of piano playing. I 

I look forward to other institutions experimenting with this concept, whilst noting that the next 'Research Hands' on PIANO gathering is scheduled in Aveiro in 2019.

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