Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Particularities of expertise


During the Bergen Meeting, following up on the famous Bologna Declarationand crucially important to the emergence of the artistic research doctorate, EU policymakers linked their proposed synergy between research and higher education to "lifelong learning" and the "knowledge society". (See here for the report of the working group in Bergen, May 2005, proclaiming higher education and research as core elements of the Knowledge Society, and here for bringing Lifelong Learning into the Bologna Process.) These aspirational concepts imply a wide range of factors such as social learning, innovation, service economies, globalisation, information society, etc. (see here). One of the goals has been, for instance, to stop spending less than half as much per student in tertiary education as the United States. (Cf. here.) 

Meanwhile, in those very US, tensions between access to and excellende in education have been considered  as the cause of what, already in the early 1960s, Richard Hofstadter identified as anti-intellectualism. This has led to deploring 'the death of expertise'.

A while ago, I posted about the desire to see journals cater to specific expertise (see here), as opposed to the very wide aim of e.g. JAR to publish research expositions "from all artistic disciplines". As much as the fundus of architecture, film, drawing, dance, theatre, etc. can be of interest to musical AR projects in a general as well as specific sense, I have found the diversity's benefits relatively meagre for my particular pianistic research practice. Instead, I argued to concurrently establish artistic research journals per instrument, perhaps even per aspect of its performance practice. (See here for that post.)

But the influence on research of expertise in playing a musical instrument has consequences far beyond the need for specialty journals to publish in. The previous post (here), a review of a collaborative project by a musicologist and a violinist, exposed some weaknesses due to the incomplete overlap of their individual expertise in that effort. I also showed how, even as an artistic researcher myself, I was hampered in my review because of my own limited experiences with playing the violin. 

I can really only adequately research matters that relate to piano playing. In that respect, my musicological colleagues at the nearby university are very different: one professor (Francis Maes) plays the violin, but his academic career focusses to a significant extent on Russian opera; another one, Marc Leman, is a trumpet player by training but made his career through matters of systematic musicology that don’t have anything to do with his instrument in particular. It is true that I can feel comfortable engaging in some areas of performance studies that have less to do with piano playing, as knowing the relevant methodology is part of my artistic research skill portfolio. Not much needs to happen before this comfort zone starts feeling claustrophobic, though. I can also investigate Kagel’s experimental sound producers, but that is precisely because the definition of these instruments expressly excludes any prior training. A general critical attitude is of course not an issue, as witnessed (I hope) by this blog, but the general always allows for quick and easy ways out of the confrontation with a lack of specific expertise. My real artistic research potential is inextricably linked to piano playing: it reveals research questions that non-pianists do not see, and it allows for perfoming at the level necessary to implement the research findings.

This distinction goes far. When I listen to pianist Nelson Freire’s recording of Strauss/Godowski’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes from Die Fledermaus (cf. here), I automatically hear aspects of his playing – e.g. in this case: the remarkable flexibility of Freire’s rubato – rather than, as one musicologist-friend of mine remarked, the points at which the composition demonstrates structural weaknesses. When I see the above picture of Sviatoslav Richter, with his right hand seemingly ready to play a fist cluster in the bass register, I easily notice that something is wrong. When posting this picture on facebook, quite a few friends were satisfied to identify the piece as being from Hindemith, Boulez, Cowell, Ives, etc., although none of these composers wrote a cluster for the right hand combined with a left hand on the specific keys shown in the picture. Given the set-up of Richter’s limbs, with his left hand visibly depressing an F, the piece in question can only be Prokofief’s 6th sonata, and more specifically a single passage in its re-exposition. But to really play that passage, the left hand needs to have left the treble keys in time to play its own bass keys at the latest when the right hand fist is ready to strike. (To boot: Richter’s left hand seems placed on too low an octave.) The only way the picture could have been taken was if Richter was posing for it. My non-pianist friends do not have that focus, nor do my piano-playing musicologist friends. I wouldn't notice anything of this kind when it was not about piano playing.

Prokofiev, excerpt from the 6th piano sonata

When working with musicologists and philosophers, I have noticed how I can see a performance-related research question in a score, while they sometimes see different questions that stem from years of being conditioned to apply a different focus or perspective. From the other side, I can only really research what my own pianistic technique allows for. With my hand and fingers (and despite training), Brahms 2nd concerto is easier than Chopin's. That impacts the repertoire choices in my research, but it is still different from the traditional demarcations on the basis of career-developed interests, which we also have, e.g. my colleague Tom Beghin’s extensive experiences in exploring the Viennese classical repertoire vs. my decades-long interest in new music.

The consequences are manifold. I have already written (here) about how conducting and orchestral instruments are expertises that I rarely see passing by in doctoral applications and finished dissertations. When I wanted to investigate meta questions for my research group HIPEX, which regards historical(ly informed) performances of experimental music, I had to seek funding to employ a guitarist to look into Lachenmann’s Salut für Caudwell. Able to deal with the larger questions only to an extent, myself, I needed Seth Josel to investigate the basis formed by the particulars stemming from the instrumental setting. When investigating a chamber music piece, a researcher may need to collaborate with musicians who have no research background. But the difference between a rehearsal/performance/recording as an artistic project and as a research-based endeavour can be significant: the latter doesn’t necessarily allow for gig musicians who are used to playing their way, and may require experimentation with aspects of the playing that regular musicianship doesn’t consider. Collaborating with a non-researcher composer can be equally tricky: the protocol that connects a research question with an outcome may offer many interesting leaways, and can be exciting to the reseacher, but it offers no guarantee of feeding into the inspiration that the composer may be used to rely on. 

In artistic research, expertise is in no danger of dying, but taking it into account is vital.