Wednesday, December 21, 2022


In James Parrott's Oscar-winning 1932 Laurel & Hardy movie The Music Box, the two protagonists are trying to deliver a heavy crated player piano up a long stretch of steep, narrow public stairs. At one point (see here, at 10'05") they are confronted by a gentleman coming down those stairs. The actor Billy Gilbert expertly builds up the socially awkard way in which his character tries to cope with the road block. While at first he doesn't seem to know how to communicate efficiently with the two workmen, his temper gets the better of him when they propose he walk around the obstacle. In order to impress upon them the preposterous nature of that suggestion, he employs a full verbalization of his status: "Me, Professor Theodore Von Schwarzenhoffen, M.D., A.D., D.D.S., F.L.D., F.F.F. ánd F should walk around?" 

The professorial confrontation in The Music Box (1932)

The intonation of the last three words may have the same root as the famous though more recent "handbag" exclamation by British actress Edith Evans. Gilbert has reported that he "decided to do a German accent" to distinguish himself from other actors playing comedy villains with Laurel & Hardy. Even if his memory of that intention was correct, he sounds decidedly more British than German in my ears. Either way, the British upper class is as much a trope in films as is the character of the German professor. Famously, the 1920 Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari and the 1930 Der Blaue Engel had depicted authoritarian but socially inept and alienated figures that are given academic nomers. Some have taken this as far as argueing that this would be symptomatic of a subconscious need in German society for a tyrant to lead them, but the mad certified expert had taken hold in other corners of the cinematic world as well, and even earlier, cf. the 1902 French Le Voyage dans la lune, with the character of Professor Barbenfouillis "satirizing the pretensions of professors and scientific societies." 

Asserting one's social position by way of titles also resonates with the British class and honours systems, of course. It ought not to be surprising, therefore, that it has been singled out for comedic effect on the Anglo-Saxon island just as much, if not more. Professor Von Schwarzenhoffen may have accumulated some six titles (of which only Doctor of Medicine and Doctor of Dental Surgery make obvious academic sense), Monty Python went all the way in the 19th sketch of their 1970 "How to recognize different parts of the body" (see here), where an omnidisciplinary surgeon has so many titles to display on his office desk that a special construction was needed to mount them all. As in The Music Box, only some of the degrees listed are potentially real. And as much as Von Schwarzenhoffen's F.F.F still possibly refers to something medical (e.g. the otolaryngological abbreviation for Fibula Free Flap), the Python sketch also pokes fun at the denominational traditions themselves: if you were FRSFRCSFRCP, as well as FRCOG, and trained at Oxford, it would have been perceived as less than imposing to add that you had an M.S. from Guadalajara; "B.Litt (Phil)" points not only to the confusing historical relation between the British Bachelor of Letters and Doctor of Philosophy, but goes on to joke on "Phil"; etc. (And yes, Medicine Hat is a place in Canada.)

Monty Python's The Nose sketch, with Professor Sir Adrian Furrows F.R.S. F.R.C.S. 
F.R.C.P. M.D.M.S. (Oxon), M.A. Ph.D. M.Sc. (Cantab), Ph.D. (Syd), F.R.G.S., 
F.R.C.O.G., F.F.A.R.C.S., M.S. (Birm), M.S. (Liv), M.S. (Guardalajara [sic]),
M.S . (Karach), M.S. (Edin), B.A. (Chic), B. Litt. (Phil), D. Litt (Phil),
D. Litt (Arthur and Lucy), D. Litt (Ottawa), D. Litt (All other places in Canada
t Medicine Hat), B. Sc. (Brussels, Liege, Antwerp, Asse, (and Grower))

TV and film tropes are only that because of a basis in real life. And that real life concerns not only historical figures, as for instance Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, KG, KP, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCMG, GCIE, PC (1850-1916). Still today, post-nominals seem important to some. I have received emails signed "Dr. [X], BMus, MMus, PhD, Hon RCM, FRSA". And when I witnessed the setting up of a research group, with the members to be called "fellows", there was first a debate about how to distinguish post- from pre-docs (solved easily enough by adding "doctoral"), then about allowing for seniority on the post-doc level itself. For years, it wasn't clear whether a fellow was just that, or whether s/he was in fact a senior fellow who didn't play along.

In wider social circumstances, abbreviated titles can lead to "knight fever" for those who are not to the manor bornhow to address someone with pre- and post-nominals, what is the right order of the titles on the seating distribution cards,...? In a professional context, it can of course be important to know who has which type of expertise, exactly. Collaborating with a PhD can be different from working with a D.M.A. (But, yes, Dr. Phil had a proper DPhil degree.) 

Naturally, homo ludens sometimes nuances things into the unworkable, making for some counterefficient situations. For some, the real doctorate is only the DPhil. This is generally considered the same as PhD (philosophiae doctor = doctor philosophiae), "the most common degree at the highest academic level awarded following a course of study", but which is nevertheless only one of e.g. the 51 doctoral titles in the U.S. alone. Next to it, a number of "equivalent" doctoral degrees are recognized, for instance the D.A. (occasionally D.Arts or Art.D.), and neither the US Department of Education nor their National Science Foundation discriminate between them. Already in 1967, this Doctor of Arts degree was offered in Fine Arts as well as History, English, and ... Mathematics. It is even reported that a National Doctor of Arts Association (NDAA) was founded at the State University of Idaho. If only the current address were disclosed, so that one could properly apply to become a fellow.

Not all countries are that open. In 2011, the German Prof. Dr. iur. Dr. h.c. Peter M. Lynen defensively argued for a doctorate in the arts to be a dr. Art and dr. Mus rather than a PhD (see my post on The case of Germany). And despite being alleged as having "defined the differences between a Doctorate in the Arts compared to a scientific doctorate or Ph.D. degree", the 2016 Florence Principles on the Doctorate in the Arts (see here) acknowledge the different names that institutes give (p. 4: "DCA, DPhil, PhD, DFA") but nevertheless proceed to talk about PhDs.

If Peter Lynen lists two doctorates among his prenominals, one earned (in law) and one honorary, it goes to show that the distinction is deemed necessary. To boot: not every doctor becomes professor, and not every professor is a professor. In my home town (Ghent, Belgium), a conservatoire teacher is a "docent" (member of the faculty), but for international communications, some will translate this as "professor". Of course, that annoys the "ordinary professor" ("gewoon hoogleraar") at the university, who already has to contend with the fact that s/he is - counterintuitively - ranked higher than the "extraordinary professor" ("buitengewoon hoogleraar").

Outside of the DCA, DFA and PhDs, artistic research also has e.g. Dr. Artium and Creator Doctus. This creativity in avoiding the name PhD is rooted in the protection that universities seek against the possible erosion of their quality standards at the level of the PhD. Hence the issue of having 'degree-awarding power' or not. Not every country allows its universities to just start a doctoral program, so not every university will like to see Fine Arts institutes or conservatoires granting a PhD without having the necessary certifications themselves. That is why most non-university art institutions collaborate with a (nearby) university, accepting the latter to rule on the use of titles. In The Netherlands, a new artistic research doctoral trajectory will be tested from January 2023 onwards, catering to musicians who don't want to do a PhD, and it is already clear that a new name will have to be chosen (possibly 'PD', as in 'professional doctorate' - see my next post). 

Even those who are still working towards getting a PhD (or an equivalent) can be confronted with issues of titles. Again in The Netherlands, the law allows those with a masters to automatically consider themselves as "doctoranda/doctorandus" (dra./drs.), i.e. on the way to getting a doctorate - whether actually enrolled or even planning for it or not. Because of the obvious confusion, a student in a doctoral trajectory is now called "promovenda/us".

There are reasons for keeping certain distinctions, even beyond knowing what expertise you are seeking to engage with. When I coordinated a doctoral program in artistic research, I got emails from a US student who wanted to know if ours was leading towards "a fully-fledged" PhD. If it weren't, she thought she might as well stay in the US to obtain a DMA, which she said was a "second rate degree", meaning that too many already had one, so that a PhD was more efficient in securing a job. Hence the professional doctorate having tried to NOT have to look for a name that isn't PhD. This is close to what is known - in The Netherlands, once more - the "civil effect". That term is used for specifically graded legal degrees in order for them to be valid for certain professional activities. If you did the mandatory years of law school but you did not take some particular courses, the civil effect is not indicated on the degree and you can therefore not become e.g. a notary. Such particular practices do not as a rule apply to artistic research, but it is not difficult to imagine a director of a conservatoire, in some not-too-distant future, having to fill a vacancy and choosing from a large number of applicants of which most have a masters and only some have a doctorate. That director may be hard pressed not to use degree ranking as a short cut. (This speculation is supported by OECD numbers from 2019 on labour market outcomes - see pp.252-253 here.) At any rate, when I was offered my coordinator job, it was made explicitly clear that this was mainly because of my degree - "we can no longer have someone with a masters running a doctoral curriculum". And the times are long gone when it looked cool to say, like one of my conservatoire friends in another century: "I think I should like to go to Paris and get a baccalauréat in something".

Thursday, December 15, 2022

New doctoral positions


The Academy of Music and Drama, a department of the Univerity of Gothenborg’s Faculty of Fine, Applied and Performing Arts, offers two salaried positions for doctoral students. The subject is musical performance and interpretation.

Interestingly, there is a choice of type of doctoral degree: either a PhD or an artistic doctorate. (More on that distinction on this blog, next month.)

Applications must be in before February 1, 2023 – the positions start on September 1 of that year.

These employment positions are the only way to apply for PhD studies at this Academy.

All information here.

Friday, December 09, 2022

Sound Arguments


The Orpheus Instituut (Gent) and ACPA (Leiden) are teaming up to introduce Sound Arguments, “an innovative laboratory-atelier for creative artists dealing with sound.”

Topics include hardware hacking & DIY electronics, live & creative coding, digital fabrication & 3D printing, field recording, and much more.

Guests include Arditto, Cárdenas, Collins, Eckhardt, Krogh Groth, Lane, Lucatelli, Marangoni, Caeso, and van Belle.


Bob George: Duet (1977)

Sound Arguments will meet monthly from February to June, on Mondays 2-6pm and Tuesdays 9am-3pm. The 2023 dates are:

  • February 27-28 (The Hague)
  • March 27-28 (The Hague)
  • April 17-18 (Gent)
  • May 15-16 (Gent)
  • June 5-6 (Gent)

Application is open until January 16, but BE AWARE that the number of applicants will be limited!

More details and registration here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022


The 32nd ANPPOM congress in Brazil, last month, was informative, to say the least. Held in the north-eastern coastal city of Natal, with the southern hemisphere's spring well underway, the biotope was more conducive to exploration than the European Autumn I came from. Airconditioning was necessary, of course, even in concert halls during performances, but this proved to be much like listening to a clavichord recital: like the ears easily adjust to the lower dynamic levels of the old keyboard instrument, they quickly learn to filter out the noise of the air conditioners when listening to a colourfully soft piece played on a Steinway. More surprising were the efforts of the organizers towards inclusivity: not only was there space for children from 4 to 6 years old, the presenters were asked to introduce themselves to the visually impaired by describing some characteristics of their countenance, and the whole conference was simultaneously translated in English (for the foreign guests), Portuguese (when the foreign guests presented), and sign language. Curious to know how large the hearing-impaired conference participation had been expected to be, I was told there probably weren't any, but that putting in this type of effort results in the crucially important perception of an inclusive environment. (I later saw that the video recordings of the presentations were being posted on YouTube, where the sign language will no doubt have a more direct effect.)

National Association for Research and Graduate Studies in Music

Impressive as they were, these peripheric practicalities didn't deter from discovering some eye-opening facts about artistic research in Brazil. The conference topic's title - Multiple dimensions of musical praxis in the production of knowledge - was certainly broad enough to allow for the announced intention "to foster a broad debate", but of notable interest, at least to me, was how this production of knowledge was detailed as "scientific-musical knowledge in Brazil". Even if the conference's promotional texts didn't include the words 'artistic research', they were clearly intended to be part of whatever can be understood by the relations between scientific and musical practices. As broad as the conference's content had been intended, as diverse it turned out to be. Large ethno- and historiographic perspectives were deployed to discuss knowledge production as well as interculturality, social impact, and training, but there was quite a bit of live performance as well, with even sizable groups of musicians spontaneously participating in enthusiastically welcomed sessions of choro and samba in the university's hallway.

The congress was held at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, one of the ten largest universities in Brazil. It's Arts Department (including performance, dance, design, and theatre) spreads over 4,000m², which it considers as potential "to bring the community closer to the academic environment". Indeed, musicologists and musicians work under the same roof, even when there is no conference to unite them. This is quite distinct from the situation on the European continent, where academics and musicians are seen and treated as separate, not only in their identity, but in their work locations as well as through the legal and financial structures. (See here for some insights into how far this can be taken.) In their self-presentation, the UFRN arts department further singles out knowledge production and the link between art and research. However, in the curriculum there is nothing on artistic research, specifically. But there are courses on research in the visual arts and in art teaching, as well as modules in academic and creative writing. Also noteworthy is the absence of musical composition. 

Last August, Bibiana Bragagnolo and Leonardo Pellegrim Sanchez mapped artistic research in Brazil (see here) based on keyword searches in 45 journal articles in four journals. Though the sample size is small, some interesting insights can be gleaned from it. It is argued that the beginnings of artistic research in Brazil are situated around 2012, in the Southern region, with expansion into the South- and North-east in 2017/18. Since then, the increase in production seems to follow that which is perceived abroad. The foreign influence is especially visible in the cited literature, with the Mexican Ruben López-Cano (18 references), the Flemish Kathleen Coessens (16), the Dutch Henk Borgdorff (10), and Catarina Domenici (10) as the only Brazilian author frequently cited. Borgdorff's 2012 book The Conflict of the Faculties was cited the most because of (and since) a part of it was translated into Portuguese in 2017. The popularity of Ruben López-Cano's output is analysed as due to its Spanish language (with one article in Portuguese), as well as thanks to the more didactic nature, illustrating AR and its methodology rather than emphasizing a theoretical focus as in Coessens and Borgdorff. 

It is further shown that artistic research is still inscribed more in the context of graduate rather than undergraduate studies, and located within the academic production of interpretive performance practices. 

Bragagnolo and Sanchez conclude with the remark on the coexistence of different conceptions and perspectives on AR, with two main methodological categories: the theoretical and the autoethnographic. The latter encompasses "quite different texts", and it has been stated that, in many cases, autoethnography has become a "mere transcription of work diaries that do not construct questions or defined artistic research problems".

In 2020, López-Cano considered Latin-American artistic research in music to be in the early stages of construction, lamenting the lack of associations dedicated exclusively to artistic research, specialized journals, etc. Nevertheless, some movement towards consolidation is to be highlighted, with, already a year later, the creation of the Brazilian Observatory and Artistic Research Laboratory (at the Federal University of Mato Grosso) with an e-book on artistic research in the works, and the first Autoethnografia Brasil conference. In 2022, the Claves journal plans a thematic issue.

It is interesting to learn how artistic research started in Brazil. In 1987, concern about music education and research led to a national symposium (SINAPEM - see here), which in turn led to the creation of ANPPOM and of the first music journal in Brazil. In the first years of ANPPOM, most of the research at their conferences was from the part of music education and musicology. Both of these fields are still the most prominent of music research in the country - performance is the smallest. But in 2011 the latter expanded, and a year later, as a consequence, the Brazilian Association of Music Performance was created. It's first conference, in 2013, had Artistic Research as the main theme.

Considering this link between research and education, there's the question of artistic research training. As the arts curricula are part of the university biotope, verbalized reflection is naturally embedded: there is no masters degree to be gotten without writing. And PhDs are possible, e.g. "in music/performance". Composition's place in all of this remains remarkable, though. For composers of a previous generation, this has sometimes been a matter of mixing fields, for instance as part of a PhD in communications (semiotics). This is not the case anymore, but traces can be seen, e.g. at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, with the research strands "Language and Musical Structuring" and "Creative Processes in Music", both which programs cater to composers envisaging a PhD. The last paragraph of the latter indicates how the meaning of 'composition' has developed away from the old 'writing music onto paper' type that has been distinguished for so long from the practice of the performers. At the same time, the former strand still demonstrates remnants of the older approach. Here is an example of how post-graduate research projects are distinguished along the lines of education, musicology, composition, and performance, at the Music School of another university in Rio de Janeiro.

Map of Brazil superimposed over Europe

All in all, the most striking to me remains the fact that artistic researchers in Brazil can work under the umbrella of music research as much as musicologists. In Europa, perhaps literally due to its high population density, researchers in music tend to see each other as competitors for space, arguing divisively over money as well as identity. Obviously, a very large country has issues of its own, if also to unite and find financial support. But, at least in some of the aspects touched upon above - and I would add: in more matters of umbrella functionality than merely in artistic research - it would be nice if Europe could be a bit more Brazilian.


I am grateful to Bibiana Bragagnolo, Magno Caliman, Joana Cunha de Holanda, Paulo Dantas and Luis Silva Queiroz for their help in finding sources and pointing out nuances.

Friday, October 28, 2022

The novelty test and the reproducibility criterion

In response to SAR's 2013 letter to the OECD, calling for a revision of the Frascati Manual in order to add artistic research as a new and separate scientific category (see here), the new 2015 Frascati manual made a negative but clear stance. I have reported on that briefly (see here), and want to elaborate a little.

Translating the position delineated in the manual (2.65-67) to the discourse in artistic research, we have: 

  • research on the arts, includes musicology, art-history, etc. 
  • research for the arts, relates to AR 
  • artistic expression, art itself 

(The manual limits the examples of research for the arts to the traditional sectors catering to artists, such as instrument builders, but it should be clear that artistic research targets artists as the beneficiaries of their research just as well.)

Of further interest are the novelty test and reproducibility criterion that are cited as fundamental to research. For art, these are simply considered not relevant: in a paragraph about artistic expression vs. research, it is stated that

2.67. [...] Artistic performances fail the novelty test of R&D as they are looking for a new expression, rather than for new knowledge. Also, the reproducibility criterion (how to transfer the additional knowledge potentially produced) is not met. [...]

The novelty test, although no written rule, is largely considered to be a priority in universities, at least in Europe. During the Bergen Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education, in May 2005, the qualifications signifying the completion of a third cycle (see here) are awarded to students who (my highlighting):

  • have demonstrated a systematic understanding of a field of study and mastery of the skills and methods of research associated with that field; 
  • have demonstrated the ability to conceive, design, implement and adapt a substantial process of research with scholarly integrity; 
  • have made a contribution through original research that extends the frontier of knowledge by developing a substantial body of work, some of which merits national or international refereed publication
  • are capable of critical analysis, evaluation and synthesis of new and complex ideas; 
  • can communicate with their peers, the larger scholarly community and with society in general about their areas of expertise; 
  • can be expected to be able to promote, within academic and professional contexts, technological, social or cultural advancement in a knowledge based society. 

Artistic knowledge is often difficult to determine. Certainly the "embodied" type of knowledge is problematic because of its tacit nature. Unless it is explicated in an efficiently communicable language, there is no use of it outside of theoretical perspectives. But even in the latter case, as in Knowing in Performing, the knowledge is pointed to, considered, and transferred... in writing, not even with an added CD or DVD. In practice, embodied knowledge cannot be considered as such by itself, either. When a dance teacher shows a student how to perform a certain movement, there will always be verbal explication accompanying the demonstration, if only to make sure that there is no inadvertant misinterpretation of some detail. It may be difficult to write efficiently about such knowledge (although a picture painting a thousand words suggests a promising start), but the entirely non-verbal manner is least (re)productive. No surprise the reaction in the Frascati manual, then, about the reproducibility criterion not being met. 

Despite the powerful method of one-to-one teaching so typical of performance pedagogy, reproducibility is considered to be against the point of being an artist. Indeed, what is heard/seen on stages and recordings is considered valuable, or at least valid, only in relation to the  individuality of the artist. Generally, a new recording is either produced with new repertoire, or with the same repertoire as before but in different interpretations. But this is no more than an assumption, and with globalisation, the idea that countless thousands of pianists would each be able to play the same repertoire in noticeably different ways has no right to keep evading scrutiny. Of course, reproducibility in research is really meant to be that of the applied method. From that perspective, AR is aimed at the peer-researcher or the peer-artist, who need to be able to trust the accuracy of the resulting insights. AR is not aimed at the audience, at least not directly. Hence the misconception that AR should always be audibly distinguishable from art, or that it would destroy the "magic" of making the art (as I was once accused of by a professional performer).

The problem of art vs. art-as-research vs. artistic research relates to the demarcation problem in science, including immunizing strategies and defense mechanisms. In art, and about art, one can express and claim anything. In this New York Times review of a concert by Yuja Wang, little makes sense, except that it can be appreciated as a verbal performance by the reviewer. Perhaps he wanted to transmit knowledge that he felt he acquired; it may even be exactly what Ms. Wang had intended to convey. But it is immune to being refuted, so it might as well be a review of another concert altogether. It is art, about art. No new knowledge or reproducibility needed to be expressed or checked. 

In artistic research, what constitutes 'new knowledge' can be seen to underly a division in the genres. Some visual artists have expressed less than emphatic feelings towards musicians who play music of long-dead composers, as if present-days painters would be considered proper artists if they painted à la Rubens. Similarly, the question can be asked whether artistic researchers who investigate, say, performance practices from the 18th century, can be considered to develop new knowledge if, in fact, demonstrably old knowledge is unearthed and reapplied to their practice. Practices in other disciplines, e.g. archeology, can provide answers to this concern. Neverthess, 'novelty' alone is often not enough: there has to be 'impact' as well. From the perspective of the Frascati manual, it goes tangentially deeper. A musician like Ton Koopman could be acknowledged as engaging in scholarship, which in turn may partly qualify as research. But the resulting 'new' expression in his performances would not qualify for research or development. Since the performance can be considered as a product, the discussion would not be whether it is research, but whether it is experimental development. And this development would principly not qualify because of the tests that should then apply. 

The Frascati manual is intended as guidance for measuring and reporting policies. Naturally, such guidance can become a proxy debating space, given the sensitivities and sustainability of some institutions and university departments. As such, the manual is meant to avoid that, for instance, artistic performance is taken into account as R&D expenditure, the latter of which can be witnessed here (scroll down to the before-last line of table 3). But, as much as the stance against acknowledging a new knowledge-type for AR is clear, a door is left open for accepting institutional AR: "Higher education institutions have, nevertheless, to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis if they grant a doctoral degree to an artist as a result of artistic performances. The recommendation is to adopt an “institutional” approach and only to take account of artistic practice recognised as R&D by higher education institutions as potential R&D". (2.67)

The first Frascati Manual ever was issued in the early 1960s, and six new versions have appeared in the half-century since, at a rate of about nine years per new issue. (See here for some history.) It may take a while for the OECD to reconsider the matter. It may take that same while before it makes the distinction between artistic performance and composition... 

Monday, June 20, 2022

The first honorary doctorate in AR


The Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg enjoys university status, including degree awarding power at the PhD level. Next to their collaboration with the University of Strasbourg and the Haute école des arts du Rhin, offering a Ph.D in artistic research, the Hochschule has its own “artistic-scientific” Dr. phil. (See here.)

This university status also means that the Hochschule can appoint a doctor honoris causa. On June 15, they have awarded their first to Peter Dejans, director of the Belgian Orpheus Instituut.

Dr.h.c. Peter Dejans

Peter Dejans became director of the Orpheus Instituut in 1996. "With his exceptional artistic and scientific skills, his entrepreneurial spirit, his high standards of quality and his perseverance, he has turned the institute into a world-renowned centre of higher education. For his brilliant and visionary work, the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg is now awarding him the title of doctor honoris causa."

The official ceremony took place in the Wolfgang Hoffmann Saal at the Hochschule, and included a concert (performed by doctoral students of the above mentioned joint program), the laudatio (by the rector of the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg, Prof. Dr. Ludwig Holtmeier) and a round table discussion on the topic "Perspectives of artistic research”.

More information can be found here and here.

There seems to be no report on the round table, but I can think of a few perspectives on this very event that are noteworthy. Beyond the qualities of dr.h.c. Dejans, it is the Orpheus Instituut that is implicitly being given credit as well. Even if Dejans - a conductor - never considered himself an artistic researcher, it is nevertheless thanks to his efforts that the institute has spearheaded the artistic research movement and its history. The institute was the first to start a postdoc artistic research group (ORCiM), to initiate the concept of an Artistic Research Festival (since then followed by many), and has seen some 50 musicians obtain a PhD in artistic research through its docARTES program.

From the widest perspective, the symbolic value of this event can hardly be overestimated: it is the first AR honorary doctorate in the world, and it emphasizes Freiburg's choice of the PhD path. While some other institutes in Germany are still undecided about whether to offer a research or a performance degree, Freiburg has made a very clear statement. 

Friday, May 20, 2022

Composition as Critical Technical Practice

In the UK, the Research Excellence Framework results have been released.  

A simple internet search shows only those institutions eager to display pride in their ranking (e.g. University of BristolRoyal HollowayGuildhall School and Cambridge). Via (social) media, a more troubling picture can be found, with arts departments under some type of threat despite seemingly encouraging results. Wolverhampton University seems to have done well, but intends to slash a significant number of jobs, reminding us (cynically?) of the many it had added before submitting its REF report. Similarly, De Montfort University boasts positive ranking yet its employees cry for help. 

With the financial implications of the results as yet unknown, it is difficult to assess to what extent this negativity is related to the REF. Anyway, some have stated that practice-based subjects are not negatively impacted. Indeed, whereas for the previous REF in 2014, university-employed composers lamented having to seek approval for their creative work by adding academic output, sparking a debate about composition-"as"-reserarch (cf. herehere, and here), this time around, such composers’ sighs seem largely to have dissipated. This may mean that composition itself is (more) acknowledged as research output than before, at least in the UK.

Surely less coincidental is the 2021 Leuven University Press publication of the 373-page multi-authored volume, Sound Work: Composition as Critical Technical Practice, edited by Jonathan Impett, whose roles as composer, director of research at the Orpheus Instituut, and associate professor at Middlesex University, makes his voice(s) especially noteworthy. The book can be acquired for 62,5€ here, where the table of contents can be viewed. Since the publication represents a constructive addition to the debate about composition and research, Jonathan’s introduction, including summaries of the chapters, is reproduced underneath.



Music-Making and Storytelling

Jonathan Impett


This volume is concerned with storytelling: the stories composers tell about composition, to themselves and to others. In the past, the self-reporting of composition has tended to consider the areas in which it aspires to be innovative, or the theories—musical, aesthetic, social, scientific, technological—that have informed the work, rather than the activity of composition itself. The knowledge presented in such cases often lies outside composition. There is no lack of accounts by composers demonstrating how their work embodies this theory or that principle, or introduces a new technical concept. There is no shortage of investigation of the ontology and epistemology of the “work” as a persisting historical cultural phenomenon, but the technologies and context of composition have undergone a paradigm shift. The present, to repurpose a phrase, is another country.

In contemporary science, the role of storytelling is increasingly recognised not only in science communication but also in its self-image and hence in scientific practice (Davies et al. 2019). In the discussion of music creation, several factors contribute to the urgent need for new discourse, new voices, and new kinds of story. The cultural landscape is transformed, and with it the perceived role of “art” music and the nature of public critical discourse. In a prevailing atmosphere of individualism, the commonality of creative experience is all the more important—both among artists themselves and with their audience. And composition is largely supported as an activity of knowledge-production, as research, rather than as creative development per se. We need, therefore, to tell more material, honest, and useful stories—to seed discourse, to find resonances, to encourage critical engagement.

To paraphrase Brian Ferneyhough ([1982] 1995), composition walks a tightrope between formalism and the arbitrary, a process informed by theory and intuition, constraint and contingency, expectation and experience. It is a continuous, situated, iterative process of inscription and reflection in which its models, metaphors, aspirations, obligations, tools, and technologies all play a part; it has a narrative, or rather multiple narratives (Impett 2016). This process and its products embody assumptions, choices, and intentions that have significant implications for the position, role, and impact of artist and artwork alike—critical implications, whether the artist chooses to regard them as such or not. The artefacts of composition—however notated, improvised, virtual, embodied, or technologically implemented—are hybrid technical objects and require a technicity of engagement on the part of artist and listener.

The hypothesis of this volume is that we might rather consider composition as a design process, and that we might usefully study its dynamics and decisions in the spirit of what Philip Agre described as critical technical practice. Agre developed his ideas in the context of his work in artificial intelligence (AI), at a moment of deep transformation in that field, of moving from “mentalist” to “interactionist” models. His fundamental insight is that individual practice— what he described as “the practical logic of computer work” (Agre 2002)—is indivisible from the social context and implications of its products; they constitute a single critical activity:


The word “critical” here does not call for pessimism and destruction but rather for an expanded understanding of the conditions and goals of technical work.... Instead of seeking foundations it would embrace the impossibility of foundations, guiding itself by a continually unfolding awareness of its own workings as a historically specific practice.... It would accept that this reflexive inquiry places all of its concepts and methods at risk. And it would regard this risk positively, not as a threat to rationality but as the promise of a better way of doing things. (Agre 1997a, 22–23)


Agre criticises conventional accounts that present work and theory as a mutually justifying pair—one as the natural embodiment of the other—as insufficient. Such accounts hide narrative, decisions, and parameters, avoid critical context. Instead, he outlines a practice that is reflective in two directions: in terms of what it actually involves—intentions, conditions, means, theory, actions, constraints, events—and in terms of its context—cultural, social, technological, and, in our case, artistic and even personal. He describes a single disciplinary field: “one foot planted in the craft work of design and the other foot planted in the reflexive work of critique” (Agre 1997b, 155). This is not the place to hazard a reductive summary of Agre’s concept, but we must point to a recent resurgence of interest in areas such as software studies (Kitchin and Dodge 2014), intelligent design (Somerson and Hermano 2013), architecture (Parisi 2013), and artificial intelligence itself, which has been massively re-energised with recent advances in machine learning. Like the artefacts of these fields, music inhabits a liminal material state, is heavily dependent on the means of its realisation, retains its identity across manifold instantiations, is adaptive to the context of its embodiment, and is the product of deep concept, abstract imagination, and painstaking technique and experiment.

In critical technical practice, reflection and its articulation are integral and essential to the process; there is no single model any more than there is a single model of composition. This volume explores the potential of critical technical practice (CTP) as an ethos and discourse for the articulation and sharing of knowledge production through composition across styles, practices, and contexts. The technological context, materials, and practices of composition have always been closely coupled. The wider cultural role and understanding of composition as an activity has been transformed with each technological paradigm shift. This volume considers the new cultural, professional, epistemic, and institutional situation of composition in the particular contexts of the wide range of current technologically enabled practices: music information retrieval, live coding, live notation, intelligent instrument-building and hacking, interactive, autonomous, and algorithmic approaches, distributed creativity, sound art, and computer-assisted composition. As an inherently reflexive approach, CTP brings implications for the development of these same contemporary practices.

The opening chapters consider the relevance and potential of critical technical practice in music from wide perspectives. Alan Blackwell’s “Too Cool to Boogie” sets the scene by locating Agre’s thought in the field of artificial intelligence, its issues and subsequent developments. Critical technical practice presents a critical response to the impasse of AI in the 1980s; technical and philosophical views are inseparable if the field is to realise its potential for good, and this relationship is reflected in the stories practitioners tell about their own work. The author explores Agre’s thought by situating it in a specific instance of his own practice: studying funk bass. The interaction of technical methods with the embodied, situated, complexly motivated narrative of human practice emerges as the object of critical reflection.

David Rosenboom’s magisterial “Illusions of Form” presents a body of creative thought that has evolved in parallel and kept pace with the developments that have produced the concept of CTP, the current 4E view of cognition (embodied, embedded, enacted, extended), and recent advances in biotechnology. Rosenboom invokes Agre’s ideas to construct a critical reflection on the development and implications of his own radical concept of propositional music. Received boundaries of genre or discipline are abandoned, not to indifference but to a new mode of artistic-technical-scientific endeavour—an artscience, its methodology informed by the current concept of emergent engineering. Composition becomes an activity of world-model building, an imaginative process that engages with the cognitive processes of performers and listeners alike, using means and models derived from and developed with advances in science and technology. Through examples of neuromusical propositions, musical configuration spaces and emergent collaborative projects, Rosenboom lays the ground for a new artscience discourse. In his vision, critical technicity is in operation throughout the acts of composition, performance, and listening.

The software-hardware binary central to current technology-based practice is examined in Nicolas Collins’s “What to Ware?” He suggests a taxonomy, a series of axes along which their different affordances and constraints might be understood. This illuminates the artist’s selection of tools as a series of conscious choices, all informed by a fundamental critical question in art, that of truth to materials—in this case, whether music made with electronics should sound like electronic music.

Collins’s fine-grained analysis of craft is complemented by Ann Warde’s broad recontextualising of the very activity of composition. She pursues a process of substitution to explore the prospect of a “critical musical practice,” such that composition becomes a way of imagining and modelling “a world we’d like to perceive and experience—an environment: a social, physical, tactile environment.” Warde performs a further inversion: by seeing music as a technology, she presents it as having a wider function in its own present. These substitutions shed new light both on the wide relevance of Agre’s ideas beyond their apparent subject area, and on the potential role of music as a critical instrument.

The intimate dance of the technical and the critical is explored in Nicholas Brown’s “The Composer’s Domain.” The essentially transdisciplinary nature of the work of composing with computers emerges from two case studies. Such work becomes a way of interrogating both assumptions about music-making and the world-views embodied in technology; it proposes alternative ontologies for music and poses new questions concerning our relationship with the natural, cultural, and engineered world we inhabit. At the heart of this music is the fulcrum between the digital and the mechanical, developing the thesis of the chapter by Nicolas Collins. The abstraction, conditionality, and absolute nature of the digital are balanced by the situated and responsive materiality of the ways in which the work is shared.

The editor’s “Dissociation and Interference” considers the relevance, implications, and enactment of critical technical practice in the current environment of art as knowledge production. Crucial differences emerge between CTP and actor–network theory: a CTP approach addresses the significant gap in current music discourse between material and social perspectives. Agre insists on the identification of moments of dissociation and interference as a key component, and this is discussed in the context of the practical business of composition.

McLaughlin, Di Scipio, and Romero examine particular aspects of contemporary composition, as they emerge from the writers’ own practices—aspects with broad common resonance. Scott McLaughlin pursues the question of material indeterminacy in “The Impossibility of Material Foundations.” The composer sets the conditions for the development of a relationship between performer and an unpredictable and unstable performance environment—a combination of technique and instrument. This essentialises and micro-examines the situation that effectively obtains in any “conventional” performance. A touchstone comes from Agre, in his description of such a process as “embrac[ing] the impossibility of foundations, guiding itself by a continually unfolding awareness of its own workings as a historically specific practice” (1997a, 23). Composition is thus acknowledged as a situated experimental process, the recursive exploration of the infinite possible networks conceived as a “phase space.”

Agostino Di Scipio puts forward a view of live electronic music as an inherently critical practice in “Thinking Liveness in Performance with Live Electronics.” His chapter begins with a comprehensive historical survey of practice and concepts. Di Scipio’s concept of liveness involves not simply human presence or “real-time” operation—itself a very plastic idea—but the real lived time and space of performance. He proposes the performance ecosystem as an operative unit, such that system and site are coupled in performance. Critical technicity runs through practice and performance into their social context: “By way of turning the hybrid constitution of techno-ecosystems into phenomenologically shared auditory events, these mediators audibly expose the human, all-too-human reality of our pervasive technological condition.”

In “Experiment and Experience,” Lula Romero resists the notion of mastery—of craft or materials. In the pursuit of openness of relationship between composer and work, she finds Cage’s apparent rejection of the subject insufficient as a response. Instead she sees a continuous intra-action between composer and materials; the resulting music is a product of their interference. Such openness becomes a process of continuous critique, evading commodification and offering alternative world models. This critique is confronted with each technical decision: the spatial distribution of multiple possible outcomes, the design of and negotiation with systems. Romero proposes a reformulation of the composer as a feminist subject.

The accounts of Magnusson, Fantechi, Haddad, and Zattra set out from very practical aspects of contemporary composition practice. Metacompositional thought in the design of a performance system is a theme developed in Thor Magnusson’s account of his development of the Threnoscope, a live coding environment. As a mode of compositional inscription, code has its own dynamics in terms of imagining and structuring work—or rather potential work—and in its dissemination and reuse. Here it becomes a context for experimentation as well as a creative tool; conventional categories of modes of practice and expertise dissolve as questions of music theory, cognition, technology, interface, and instrument design provoke and inform one another. Projects such as the Threnoscope invite us to dynamically re-evaluate notions of design, composition, performance, improvisation, and collaboration.

The activity of com-posing—the putting together of music—is predicated at some level on a conceptual model of the resources and materials to be used. The management of resources—their representation, their perceived or ascribed relationships, their disposition—is so fundamental an activity, so practical, that it may seem pre-technical and is certainly lost in most accounts of practice. Instead, the decisions it embodies reflect a critical stance that informs all its artefacts. Daniela Fantechi explores this topic in “A Few Reflections about Compositional Practice,” a refreshingly candid account of personal practice as revealed in a series of case studies. Awareness of choice—of taste, of the changing objects of attention and of provisional, variable parameters of categorisation— evolves from an autoethnographic discipline to a guiding critical stance. This generates a narrative of form emerging from levels of compositional memory and the inherent temporality of the material.

Karim Haddad’s “Temporal Poetics” presents a way of conceiving musical time and of manipulating the temporality of musical entities mentioned by Fantechi. This is contiguous with the roots of Western mensural notation in the ars nova, but also with Hölderlin’s assertion of rhythm as the essential property of art, of nature, and of knowledge. Computer-assisted composition restores the flow of time to the working environment; the temporalities of imagination, experimentation, composition, and performance modulate each other. Haddad’s approach recognises the particular temporality of materials while being situated in both the historical flow of musical culture and a critical exchange with contemporary technology.

Music research has recently focussed on collaborative work in contemporary music creation; we might more accurately observe that music research has recently come to take note of the extent to which collaborative or distributed processes are vital to music creation in general. As the technological possibilities available to musicians have proliferated, distributed technical expertise has become crucial at the stage of composition. A very particular mode of collaboration obtains in institutional studios where composers are invited to work with the assistance of technical experts. Laura Zattra examines the dynamics of such situations in “Collaborative Creation in Electroacoustic Music,” by exploring three cases in detail. Useful terms derive from design practices; workflow, communication, and the co-evolution of musical imagination with technical experimentation emerge as significant factors. The complicity, empathy, creativity, and openness of the assistant are crucial, and yet their professional status is not always resolved.

Finally, Alessandrini and Zhu, Field, and Ciciliani present visions for new ontologies of music, each taking a unique critical stance and exploring its ramifications for their technical practice. Patricia Alessandrini’s feminist multimedia monodrama Parlour Sounds is the case study at the heart of her chapter with Julie Zhu. In the spirit of Haraway-inspired cyberfeminism, the project challenges predominant practices of technology, confronting those of music with those of the domestic environment. Such displacement brings the work into new critical relationships with many aspects of its production and context: the collaborative processes of composition, of interface design and construction, the physical location of work with music technology, the relationship of art with daily life, and the power structures at play in the soliciting and production of music. Cyberfeminist principles inform the proposal of an alternative to dominant paradigms of electronic music, and a theoretical framework in which roles and distinctions between composition, design, improvisation, and performance are blurred.

Ambrose Field seeks to change the vocabulary of creative practice from another perspective. Much compositional activity now happens in an academic context, where it is supported and expected to explain itself as research. This transition has been extensively discussed: from the epistemological implications to the ways in which it reflects a new mode of supporting cultural and creative development. From the composer’s perspective, however, such discussion has largely been concerned with defending creative freedom or claiming epistemological relevance. Instead, Field addresses the question of the practice itself directly. When creative practice also becomes experimental practice, what are the ramifications for both the self-image and the practical behaviour of the practitioner? Field considers the formulation of questions and especially the development of new approaches to workflow, which he describes as “the creative envelope.”

If the practices of music creation are to enter a more dynamic phase of critical awareness, the relationship with the listener, audience, or co-participant becomes crucial. For whom is this work intended? How is it to be received, in what circumstances and with what expectations of attention or investment? Marko Ciciliani’s “Designing Audience–Work Relationships” explores this in detail through three of his audiovisual projects—performance/installation hybrids. They work with time, space, and multiplicity of phenomenon to experiment with modes of social and individual interaction. Hall’s “proxemics” provide a metric of intimacy. Patterns of temporality and attention emerge from the engagement of performers and listeners, not as an epiphenomenon but within the scope of compositional imagination, design, and critical reflection.

Through such processes of critical technical reflection, of detailed discussion of the practical narrative of composition, common themes emerge from this multiplicity of creative practices. Technology is present not for technology’s sake, but because our evolving relationship with technology is one of the defining paths of our current state. A systems view of practice and its artefacts appears often, just as the mid-century visions of cybernetics are informing recent work in the new AI—currently searching for ways to confront its own hidden assumptions, tastes, and prejudices. Above all we see references to building models of possible worlds; David Rosenboom’s propositional music stands as paradigm in this regard.

Composition is not the sudden, unitary embodiment of an idea but a situated, distributed, time-extensive activity. And the products of this activity, of these decisions, reflect world views and values; they propose new models. If we are to talk about music in material ways and music is to do its important work in the world, then composers must begin to have new kinds of conversation with each other and with the wider community. It is hoped that this volume will contribute to such a development.



 Agre, Philip E. 1997a. Computation and Human Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1997b. “Toward a Critical Technical Practice: Lessons Learned in Trying to Reform AI.” In Social Science, Technical Systems, and Cooperative Work: Beyond the Great Divide, edited by Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star, William Turner, and Les Gasser, 131–57. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

———. 2002. “The Practical Logic of Computer Work.” In Computationalism: New Directions, edited by Matthias Scheutz, 129–42. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Davies, Sarah Rachel, Megan Halpern, Maja Horst, David Kirby, and Bruce Lewenstein. 2019. “Science Stories as Culture: Experience, Identity, Narrative and Emotion in Public Communication of Science.” JCOM: Journal of Science Communication. 18 (5): A01.

Ferneyhough, Brian. (1982) 1995. “Form—Figure—Style: An Intermediate Assessment.” In Brian Ferneyhough: Collected Writings, edited by James Boros and Richard Toop, 21–28. London: Routledge. Essay written 1982; first published 1984 in French translation (Labrys 10).

Impett, Jonathan. 2016. “Making a Mark: The Psychology of Composition.” In The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology, edited by Susan Hallam, Ian Cross, and Michael Thaut, 2nd ed., 651–66. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kitchin, Rob, and Martin Dodge. 2014. Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Parisi, Luciana. 2013. Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Somerson, Rosanne, and Mara L. Hermano, eds. 2013. The Art of Critical Making: Rhode Island School of Design on Creative  Practice. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.