Critical Engagement with Practice is not the same as subservience, or being a practitioner

Over a long period, I have repeatedly considered the question of ‘practice’ in an academic context, its meanings and implications, following on from earlier writings on the relationship between practice and research (see an index to earlier blog posts on this subject here), then most recently two articles in the Times Higher Education Supplement arguing for the need of different means to integrate practitioners into academia (see here and here) and then a blog article intended as a dialectical response to those articles, drawing upon a wider debate of the relationship between ‘advocacy’ and ‘criticism’, mapped by some onto ‘practitioners’ and ‘scholars’ respectively.

These subjects remain not only complex, both in theory and literally in ‘practice’, but also touch upon raw nerves amongst various scholars and practitioners. I have encountered significant rage from some composers at the suggestion that perhaps, just as few would suggest that musicological scholars are experts in the practice of composition, maybe they might show some humility towards musicologists as well, rather than assuming they know just as much about their discipline and are equally adept at teaching it. Much of this anger likely relates to competition for positions in an ever-more competitive and narrowing academic job market, especially at the current time, when at least in some other arts/humanities subjects (not music as of recently, though over the last two decades a significant number of music departments and programmes have closed), departments have been making sweeping cuts (for example Roehampton University).

There are those who choose to view the humanities on one hand, and practical work and the sciences on the other, as fundamentally opposing groups of disciplines, not only in their subject matter, but also in approach, method, ethos, and so on, so that any teaching which relates to the former is antithetical to the latter. I fundamentally disagree, and believe this view is at odds with the defining aspect of a university (as also argued back in 2010 in an article by Terry Eagleton, claiming that a university without humanities would be like ‘a pub without alcohol’). But that issue, which leads back to C.P. Snow’s 1959 essay on The Two Cultures, is extensive and for another article.

What I want to consider here is the role of universities in terms of engagement with practice, both practice undertaken by academics themselves, and that conducted in external institutions. In many ways I believe this is not just important but quite vital in a range of disciplines. Those working in medicine or other health sciences need to draw upon knowledge garnered through practical medical work, and conversely develop research with practical application. The same is true in study of business and the law. A literary scholar is engaging at a deep level with literary practice, just as is a music analyst with the musical equivalent. The extent to which academic research into the arts does or should feed into practice is more open to question, however. Certainly in the case of music there is a body of musicological opinion which is markedly sceptical about the value of performers using the findings of analytical and other research to inform their own performances, noting the extent to which a great many important performers have not done so over history, and how often their performances are quite distinct from what might be implied by such research. The same is true of composition – someone once wrote sardonically about composers who think that if one can analyse music, one can compose it, it is just a matter of doing the process in reverse! Nonetheless, in other ways performers do frequently draw upon knowledge in the business of crafting a performance (sometimes simply that garnered from listening to other performances), as do composers, and so such criticisms may in reality relate more to specific strategies than the use of external knowledge per se in the process of artistic creation.

Some areas such as pure maths (at the heart of my own first degree) may be different with respect to practical engagement; certainly from what I recall 35 years on a good deal of pure mathematical research was undertaken without primary consideration for its potential application, which was something to be discovered later on. I believe (but am no expert) that a similar approach underlies some work in other ‘pure’ sciences, and this is certainly true of those non-empirical branches of philosophy which believe in the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge.

But in fields for which large areas of practical activity exist, it would be foolish to deny the value of engaging with knowledge drawn from this realm. I will from this point limit my discussion to artistic areas, as they are those which I know best. The key issue, in my view, is not whether but how one should do so. And this is where I would emphasise the vital aspect of a critical engagement with practice, and also of academic independence. When dealing with external practitioners or institutions dedicated to practice, one is confronted with those who have their own distinct desires, needs, economic imperatives, possible rivalries with others, and so on. Not all of these things would make for good scholarship if taken at face value. An artist may prefer a scholar to focus exclusively on their most successful work, not that whose merits might be more questionable, but a scholar who did so and claimed to be examining the work in its entirety would be disingenuous. The same is true of one examining a theatre and the responses of its audiences, who chose to bracket out from their study those audience responses which were less positive, in order to avoid upsetting the theatre owners. To use a dichotomy underlying a blog post from almost a decade ago, this is the difference between scholarship and PR. The scholar’s task is to follow where the results of their research lead them; to bury some of these in order to keep an external partner happy, or for that matter to undertake the research in such a way as to make such an outcome inevitable (as I have criticised sharply in some varieties of ethnographic work which eschew a critical view of the views and perceptions of their subjects, and as such can amount to hagiography), is to foresake one of the most fundamental aspects of being a scholar.

What I am arguing here is that critical scholarly engagement with practice (which can certainly involve partnerships and the like) should not be confused with a subservient relationship to this. This may not be the preference of some external practitioners, but if they wish for academic input, they need to respect the integrity of the academics involved.

But what about if the scholar is also the practitioner, as is the case in various forms of practice-as-research, artistic research, and so on? I have argued repeatedly that the question of whether certain practice is research is rather banal. In some ways most practice can be construed as such (as most practice requires answering certain types of questions to which there are multiple possible answers, and a range of methods for doing so), but what really matters is the quality of the research. This is not necessarily synonymous with what satisfies other aesthetic criteria (in an artistic context), but has to do with the generation of new knowledge expressed in the form of practice, which can have at least potential application for others. So an artist who develops new approaches which are found to bear aesthetic fruit, and upon which others can draw, would in an academic context generally be thought of as having done valuable research of a type.

Not all do accept this view of research (certainly artistic researchers have on the whole rejected the idea that research can simply be located in practice itself). I do accept it, but I am less sure of the extent to which it maps onto other forms of research, or qualifies the practitioner to undertake the latter, other than in some exceptional circumstances. Furthermore, while the quality of such research can, I believe, be gauged simply by close inspection of the practical work engendered, I wonder of the extent to which those engaged in assessment really do those to an intense degree (hardly possible if one has a wide range of things to assess), or whether the research quality is based upon finding the work more-or-less seems to resemble some of the qualities presented in associated verbal material (see my post on the 300-word statements that are essentially mandatory for submission of practice-based outputs to the REF).

Once again, I return to the question of critical engagement, or self-critical engagement. A practitioner can describe their work, even give a significant amount of detail about how it was put together, upon which ideas, philosophies or other determinants they have drawn (as one will find in many an ‘artist’s statement’), but that does not amount to this form of engagement. What can be difficult for practitioners is an attempt to ‘stand outside’ of their own work (and the immediate concerns of their own self), especially when in other contexts they are required to ‘sell themselves’ and in the process hide any acknowledgement of weaknesses, doubts or other more ambivalent self-reflection. Of course academics are far from immune to the latter tendency, which can sometimes dampen the possibilities of their own self-criticism, but they do function in scholarly arenas where if they do not do so, others can and often will follow up on vulnerabilities in their work, which is not always the case in more precious artistic circles.

The much-debated and contested field of autoethnography appears to me to hinge on the critical element; critical self-reflection upon personal experience, for the purposes of generating new knowledge which wider potential application is not the same thing as simply writing about oneself (which would be closer to autobiography), though a fair amount of writing and lectures I have encountered which is billed as autoethnography comes closer to the second category.

One anecdote may explain how these different attitudes and approaches can also inform teaching and its relationship to external practice. At a former institution, I was once tasked with developing a module on ‘Music and the Marketplace’, which I conceived as a broad consideration of the ways in which market forces inform music and music-making over a period of history, how other forms of music-making less subject to market forces might be different in nature, and so on. I had to be away for a period for some external performing work, so someone else took over the module design in my absence. When I returned, it had been changed to something like ‘How to get ahead in the musical marketplace’, which was a long way from my original design. What is the difference exactly? The module as originally conceived was about a critical engagement with the practice of music-making and its economic context. This by no means need imply a primarily negative view of market forces or their effect upon music, but should have been able to entertain a plurality of possible perspectives based upon careful and critical study of the phenomenon. The latter would have been entirely an ’employability’ module. Now I am certainly not going to deny the importance of such things. Some aspects of such teaching, such as how to write a CV or design a business plan, I would categorise as ancillary rather than academic skills – certainly they are things which do not necessarily require a university in order to be learned. But if employability skills become the only or primary things taught in a university context, or the attitude associated with them underlies the majority of teaching, I wonder then if a university degree has become more of a training course, lacking true intellectual inquiry and critical thinking that is more than purely functional. This touches on the question of a humanities approach – critical thinking in that context I would associate with a relatively dispassionate search for ‘pure’ knowledge, rather than subsuming that knowledge to narrow external criteria such as ‘how do I get ahead?’ or ‘how do I keep certain people happy?’

Any academic department without critical scholars will be impoverished in terms of the wider mission of a university. Practitioners can be critical scholars/thinkers as well, as can external partners, but one should not assume this is necessarily the case and certainly not ignore the possibility that other agendas may condition their thinking, either as expressed explicitly or implicitly assumed. In order that universities fulfil their central mission, it is vital to engage with practice, but in a critical and independent manner, whilst recognising that simply undertaking practice and promoting it in a certain way is not at all the same thing. And institutions must take care to guard and protect scholars’ independence from external pressures, simply to ensure that what they do remains scholarship. Then there is no reason to worry that engagement with practice entails any necessary conflict with the imperatives of research.


Musicological Thoughts 11: The Value of Empirical Musicology for the Performer?

One of the biggest challenges for any performer of jazz, at least as the majority of jazz players I know would say, has to do with rhythm, and specifically the performance of uneven rhythms so as to ‘swing’. Some have tried to notate these, sometimes very approximately, sometimes in much more detail. But the consensus appears to be that codifying such a rhythm then simply executing according to the ‘rules’ thus generated will sound artificial and contrived. Furthermore, it is difficult via such an approach to be flexible in one’s ‘swinging’, as the nature of this can be subject to small variations depending upon the musical moment, or to respond to the particular variants heard from other players in a group setting. So in general, there is thought to be no real substitute for simply playing with others on a regular basis, and absorbing the rhythm through listening, imitation, osmosis.

A parallel situation applies to language learning. While it may be possible to learn a good deal of vocabulary and grammar, even some idiomatic usage, through independent study, from textbooks, etc., many believe there is no real substitute from being immersed amongst native speakers, having to communicate on a regular basis without necessarily having recourse to ‘guides’ when immediate responses are needed. This is not least to do with the process of learning a decent accent (something generally thought rarely to be possible to such an extent as one could pass as a native speaker to other native speakers, unless one learns from a young age), but also absorbing a wide range of idiomatic employment in the form of speech (writing is a different matter).

It would be rash to rule out the possibility that there could ever be found means of learning jazz performance, or languages, in such a way that obviates the necessity for such regular interaction amongst those who have absorbed the idioms. But I am not aware of such means having yet been discovered and comprehensively tested.

This brings me to the question of empirical musicology (by which I mean specifically that using empirical means of measurement of aural data, by software such as Sonic Visualiser or other alternatives) for the analysis of musical performance, something which has been on my mind during a (generally excellent and very stimulating) conference on Performance Studies which I am currently attending (today is the last day). Empirical Musicology is a relatively recent development, about which an important edited volume was published in 2004, edited by Nicholas Cook and Eric Clarke, and for which there is a dedicated academic journal. With roots in the use of quantitative approaches employed in music psychology, and some others relating to such things as bodily motion during performance, a range of musicologists have increasingly used this to analyse various parameters of musical performance, especially tempo and its modification, rhythm, also pitch, timbre (notoriously difficult to analyse using more qualitative means), dynamics and so on.

The value of musical analysis (in the broadest sense) is not uncontested; it is an activity developed within the realms of academia which has not necessarily played a significant role (or a role at all) in the actual work of a great many practising musicians past and present. Cook himself, in his book Beyond the Score: Music as Performance (about which I published an extended review-article which also considers more widely the field of performance studies) was sharply critical of what he described as ‘Analytically-Informed Performance’ (AIP) whereby performers shape their interpretations according to priorities determined by analysts. Focusing on some key writings by music analysts Wallace Berry and Eugene Narmour, Cook suggests this implies a hegemonic imposition of academic ideologies on the world of music-making, not least because the dialogue appears one-way; he believes analysts have as much to learn from listening to performers as vice versa. So far, I can agree that a more two-way approach would be fruitful, but here and elsewhere Cook expresses major scepticism about the possibility that performers could learn anything of value from analysis and analysts, questioning the value at all of a musicological discipline which he has also linked to creating artificial hierarchies of value.

Here I disagree. I have my own scepticism about the value of certain highly systematised modes of analysis, such as grew up especially in the early post-1945 era in the United States, which has been plausibly argued to have been driven both by a positivistic, scientistic academic climate in which research in the arts and humanities was valued largely to the extent it could on the surface mimic the trappings of a ‘science’, but also by the growth of mass education and the concomitant need to find approaches to analysis which could be taught on an industrial scale and learned almost by rote. Much of the analytical work I have read from continental European musicologists has been no less rigorous or thorough, but more ad hoc in nature, freely adapting a variety of tools (or creating new ones) according to needs of the music at hand, and as such avoiding the unhappy situation by which the key criterion appears to be whether the music serves to bolster the theory, rather than vice versa.

But if one embraces a broader conception of analysis, to encompass most approaches to understanding the inner workings of a musical composition (or a performance or other sonic phenomenon), then I think not only can this be invaluable for performers (and listeners) possessing any basic curiosity, but also actually something that many performers do as a matter of course to some extent, as I argued in a keynote lecture entitled ‘In Defence of Analytically-Informed Performance’, delivered in a conference in São Paulo in 2019, which I intend to revise for publication at some point soon.

It is very far from unusual, for example, for a performer to gauge a series of mounting dynamic curves in a series of phrases leading to a mini-climax according to the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic properties of the information contained in the score. This may be done in a relatively intuitive and non-systematic manner, but nonetheless does constitute a form of analysis, a discernment of aspects of the score which reveal something about the musical processes, which then inform aspects of the realisation of the score in performance. Whether this perspective is generated simply by playing the music to oneself and listening, or some more studied process of identifying chord progressions, melodic properties, etc., does not make it any more or less ‘analysis’, in my view.

I was doing this myself (essentially intuitively) when practising the opening passage of the last movement of Schumann’s Fantasy in C, op. 17, yesterday, trying out different ways of shaping the two-bar phrases in bars 5-14, in terms of relative dynamic peaks, my choices informed by such factors as the extent to which the music modulates away from the home key before returning to a dominant harmony on the relative minor in bar 10, or the transformation of the bass line from a descending progression starting in whole tones towards a chromatic one in bars 11-14. Much is at stake in these bars in terms of the expressive and emotional trajectory prior to a return to a dominant pedal point in the home key in bar 15. Similarly, the shift to the major submediant in bar 2 is striking in the context of the wider style. Even after having played this work for over 30 years and having heard many others perform it, it still makes an impact, and so I wonder about such questions as whether to register this sentiment by a small holding back of the pulse and tenuto at the beginning of bar 2.

Even if I am describing aspects of the score above using very basic technical terms, I do not believe that I am in any sense unusual in grappling with such interpretive questions; the use of that language is simply a way to articulate some information discerned essentially intuitively so as to be comprehensible to one reading this piece of writing.

Empirical musicology is on another level in terms of the technical language and illustrations employed. Over the course of the conference, I have been looking at highly detailed charts, multi-coloured shapes (containing many hues) to illustrate timbral properties, animated graphics to trace the variation in basic pulse during a performance. Much of this yields interesting insights and conclusions, some of which appear to be established on a more secure basis than might have been possible otherwise.

But then I do ask the basic question: what purpose does this research serve? In one case, the researcher suggested that they were attempting to codify the rhythmic practices found to be common in a particular regionality when performing some music identified with that regionality, so that those performing such works in more remote locations could do a type of ’empirical musicology in reverse’ (my term, not theirs) and translate these back into performance.

But this is where I become more sceptical, and wonder if the results of such a process would ever really convince, for the same reasons as those outlined above with respect to jazz or language learning. How much music-making can really be reduced to a finite set of stylistic principles which can be codified and reproduced so as to create plausible imitation of the ‘real thing’? I would need to hear a range of realisations of this model to judge that, but do not have a huge amount of faith. Musical style is not, I believe, something so easily reified, but a flexible and continuously developing thing, driven as much (in repertoire involving more than one musician) by regular interactions between players as by collective adherence to a set of rules.

The context of this had to do with global music-making, in particular performance of a certain repertoire at localities a long distance from the music’s point of origin, also the place where the most regular and distinctive performance tradition has occurred over an extended period. But one possible conclusion from the above – that it is no more possible to perform in a relatively ‘unaccented’ style without regular interactions with the music’s ‘native speakers’ than is the case for speaking a language – may be unacceptable in terms of global aspirations. I should emphasise here that the analogy of a ‘native speaker’ does not really have anything to do with particular upbringing, nationality and certainly not ethnicity; it is about whether one has had the opportunities over an extended period for acculturation through musical interaction with others well-versed in the style. This ought in theory to be perfectly possible amongst diaspora communities; a group of Georgian folk singers who relocate in Brazil could in some sense continue a tradition of such singing in the new location, and incorporate into it others not originally from Georgia (whether other social and political factors might influence the extent to which this actually happens is of course a whole other set of questions).

Empirical musicology applied to performance attempts to provide an alternative to this, a means of learning a style through applying a set of principles obtained through systematic empirical analysis of performance. Those employing those are of course also free to listen to the original performances too, but what they may not be able to do is play together with other musicians versed in it.

Is this a viable alternative? I am not sure, and would need much more evidence to be convinced. But there is another possibility to consider, related to the considerations of the post-1945 United States academic environment I described above. Whether or not this research has a wider ‘impact’ (to use a buzzword familiar to all those in UK academia), could such empirical musicology be notable primarily as a means of trying to turn a lot of what musicians do anyhow, without necessarily having any input from academics, so as to appear like a type of quasi-scientific ‘research’ which is thought to be the best way to secure the status and funding of a particular academic sub-disciplines?