Musicological Observations 4: Can Commercial Music be Research?

Across social media and through blogs and elsewhere, there have been numerous responses to the article ‘Composition is not Research’ by John Croft (Tempo, Vol. 69, Issue 272 (April 2015), pp. 6-11). Amongst the most notable of these are the excellent replies by Luk Vaes (‘When composition is not research’, 5/6/15) and Lawrence Dunn (‘Squaring the damn research-composition circle’, 8/6/15) and the detailed critiques by Martin Parker Dixon (‘Composition can be Research (some comments on John Croft’s recent article)) and David Pocknee (‘Composition Is Not A Jaffa Cake, Research Is Not A Biscuit: A Riposte to John Croft’). I have written an extended article in reply to Croft (entitled ‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’), which will appear in the December 2015 issue (Vol. 69, Issue 274) of Tempo, alongside another response from Camden Reeves, and replies from Croft to these. Croft’s article entails some arguments earlier presented in a more extended but also informal manner by Piers Hellawell (‘Treating Composers as Researchers is Bonkers’, Standpoint, May 2014). Back in 2012, Lauren Redhead wrote an interesting if problematic short piece on the subject (‘Is Composition Research’, 17/1/12). Most notable of Redhead’s arguments, and one which has had insufficient impact on subsequent debates on musical practice-as-research (though this argument regularly appears in wider debates relating to other art forms) is her response to claims that the act of composition is not in itself research, by pointing out that neither is the act of writing.[1]

I do not want to reiterate the arguments in my Tempo article here (suffice to say that I think it is important to make a clear distinction between the radical conception of practice-as-research, and the milder notions of practice-based research or research-based practice), but rather to move onto an area not covered there, on the relationship and compatibility of music (or any other artistic practice) subject to a commercial imperative with that music being a form of research. This is what Redhead has to say on this subject:

Is composition a commercial enterprise?

It does seem to be – which also undermines research contributions made by composers. The problem facing composers researching in universities is this: composition costs money. Performers, venues, people who record and document performances all have to be paid. And unlike in science disciplines where large budgets are available to provide necessary materials for research, music departments have no budget for this. However, all of these things and people are necessary since unless compositional research is performed, and preferably by internationally known performers who have little or no interest in research, in international venues in countries which don’t even recognise the contributions made by practice-led researchers, it is not valued highly. This research is valued on its commercial success.

It is interesting to note that while this seems not to be the case for traditional musicological written research, the recent debate around academic publishing has thrown this into question. All research is valued (publically) on its ability to make money for someone else. This commercial condition both devalues practice-led research and exemplifies how the process of valuing research devalues all kinds of research.

The above is a little loose in terms of definitions: performance and recording of compositions cost money, but that is not the same thing as the costs being directly related to the act of composition (just as production of hard-copy books and their dissemination cost money, but these actions are not synonymous with the research which informs the content of the books). And whilst there is almost no compositional or other artistic practice which is entirely autonomous of commercial demands (if it is required to generate and attract some external paying audience), there are clear differences in degree. Artistic work which will be considered to have failed if it has not achieved hundreds of thousands of sales (in whatever form) is obviously in a different league from that for which the primary objective is to find an audience of 50 or so people on a few occasions. To take an example from another discipline, the appointment of Martin Amis as Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Manchester in 2011, I suspect there are strong reasons to believe that reputation, as linked to sales of books, was a much greater priority than the extent to which those books themselves constitute research. Members of the Performance Writing faculty at Dartington College and later University College Falmouth may not be entirely independent of commercial concerns, but these are of a vastly smaller order of magnitude than for Amis – but I would say those Performance Writing scholars’ work has much greater claims on embodying research.

Music departments do sometimes have some budget for hosting concerts or producing recordings, and research funds can sometimes be used towards these ends. Such concerns are equally if not more important for performers, who do seem to be cast rather in the role of composers’ servants in the above rather than independent creative practitioners and sometimes researchers in their own right, and whose work genuinely does not exist with performance and recordings.

Academic institutions, especially those associated with the humanities, to my mind do provide arenas where it is possible to carry out intellectual and creative (and other) work, involving genuinely independent critical and self-critical thinking, in which few things are taken as read, everything is rigorously questioned on a regular basis, with a fair degree of autonomy from commercial or other external function. This type of research is valued for its integrity, rigour, pioneering nature, and so on, though short-term demands (in the UK) that the ‘impact’ of such research be demonstrated can complicate matters.[2] Even in more obviously vocational disciplines (such as medicine or law) the institutions of academia provide (at least in theory) security for independence of thought such as are by no means necessarily present in external environments where other pressures arise which might compromise integrity. Such vocationally-linked academic work has application, but it is possible to reflect critically on the nature and manifestations of that application; academics in these fields do not simply make up a service industry for an external employer.

But the idea of practice-as-research (not simply research-based practice, or practice-based research) becomes difficult where the practice is highly subservient to external imperatives, and this is especially true for highly commercial music. A fundamental measure of practice-as-research is the extent to which it embodies responses to key research questions (and by no means is all practice of this nature, as I argue in my article), but when that practice even more fundamentally has to demonstrate a high degree of market utility, what are the chances of that research being able to be undertaken independently? Only if the research questions are directly linked to market utility, or are unlikely to affect it; both situations difficult to imagine unless those questions are very banal.

Certainly there are manifold possibilities for commercially-oriented research – these could include research into production of the deadliest new weapons, or into new strategies for tax avoidance for large companies – but this is a long way from a spirit of independent and humanistic research, and the research questions are then not usually formulated by the researcher. A commercial composition supposed to embody the question of how to write a music which fulfills certain external criteria in terms of style, duration, mood, and so on, all in order to amplify or enhance something else, is not really engaged with any sort of imaginative or searching research questions. This does not mean that music linked to other media, such as theatre, film, dance or even video games, cannot be research or for that matter genuinely creative practice. The film scores of Ennio Morricone or Michael Nyman amply demonstrate the possibilities in this respect, but both composers were able to compose with a degree of autonomy of their own. It was as much a case of Leone or Greenaway (or numerous others) filming scores as Morricone or Nyman scoring films.

A broad conception of research which I believe underlies a lot of the best work in the humanities – critical (and self-critical), humanist, open-ended, and without overly pre-empting its conclusions – cannot in my opinion easily be reconciled with fulfilling a narrow brief such as is provided by commercial imperatives, except perhaps on rare occasions where commercial and other motivations are found to coincide. To believe the latter is the rule rather than the exception is to demonstrate unwavering faith in late capitalism.

The humanities, and specifically the possibilities inherent therein in a research environment not dictated by narrow external interests, appeal to me as a space allowing some autonomy from commercial and functional imperatives. But this is deeply under threat as alternatives to neo-liberal ideology become ever more marginalised within academia. And the term ‘research’ assumes a fraction of its best meanings when commercially appropriated. For this reason, I believe we should be wary of considering commercially-focused musical production as research other than in very exceptional circumstances.

[1] Writing is just one medium amongst many, but which happens to be dominant in other non-artistic fields, and as such occupies a privileged status. But research can equally be made manifest in experimental contemporary dance, sound art, curation, pedagogical projects, software, or many other possibilities. What is then required, though, is for those who judge this research and award funding and promotion accordingly to have the level of expertise, sensitivity, and discernment to be able to gauge the extent to which that work does indeed manifest the research, not just read an associated statement which may be little more than spin.

[2] I am not hostile to the concept of ‘impact’ per se, nor the principle by which it becomes a criterion for allocation of research funding. My problems are with the ways in which it has been implemented in the UK, its short-term nature in a time when academics move between institutions but their ‘impact’ is not allowed to, and the simplistic division between academic and non-academic work which it requires at present.

Remembering Bob Gilmore (1961-2015)

I received a phone call yesterday afternoon, from my former colleague at Dartington College of Arts David Prior, to tell me the terribly sad news that Bob Gilmore had died. I was completely shocked to hear this; I had known that Bob had been very ill with cancer for several years, and when I had last seen him in person (in Spring 2013, at a tribute concert in Cologne for Horațiu Rădulescu) he had looked much more frail and pale than the Bob I had known for a decade, bursting with life, wit and love for the music with which he was deeply engaged as both performer and writer. But I had thought that the treatment had gone well, and was unaware that his condition had looked terminal. Only two weeks ago, via private message on Facebook, I had been conversing with Bob about writing a piece on Morton Feldman for TEMPO magazine, of which he took up the editorship in mid-2013, succeeding Malcolm MacDonald, who himself died in May 2014 aged just 66.

I first got to know Bob personally in the early 2000s (having earlier known of him through his work on the composer Harry Partch), through our mutual interest in the music of Rădulescu, in particular at a pair of concerts I gave in King’s College featuring of all of the piano sonatas and some performances with cellist Cathy Tunnell, who was married to Rădulescu. Bob had such an innate sense of why this music was important and wrote eloquently on it; he also attended most performances in various countries with an almost religious devotion. But his musical interests were wide-ranging (though far from undiscriminating), involving a wide range of new music generally outside of what might loosely be conceived as an avant-garde mainstream, but with a special interest in microtonal composition, drawn to iconoclastic figures such as Partch, Rădulescu, James Tenney, Ben Johnston, Claude Vivier, Phil Niblock, Kevin Volans, Clarence Barlow, Christopher Fox, Frank Denyer, or Frederic Rzewski, all of whom he either wrote about or interviewed.

Bob taught for a long time at Dartington College, reaching the status of Professor there, until he decided he wished to spend more time performing with his group, Trio Scordatura (with mezzo-soprano Alfrun Schmid and viola player Elizabeth Smalt, Bob’s partner), so he moved to a part-time position at the music department at Brunel University. I took over his position at Dartington, which was my own first permanent academic position. Bob was extremely helpful from the outset, meeting on repeated occasions when I began (we overlapped for a couple of months and so shared an office briefly) to give me all of his wisdom on the department, the students, the wider college, and not least the town of Totnes (and all the various pubs there which we visited on various occasions, Bob’s own personal favourite being the Steam Packet) as well as helping with finding a place to live (in time I came to rent his flat in the town). He loved good food and good produce (which could be found plentifully in Totnes) as well as the many beers, wines and ciders to be found locally. It was clear after I joined just in what high affection Bob was held, both by students (undergraduate and postgraduate) and the rest of the music faculty there – Trevor Wiggins, Chris Best, Frank Denyer, Griselda Sanderson, David Prior, Catherine Laws. I recall clearly many of his witticisms remembered during staff meetings, often livening up proceedings there after he had left.

Bob was, in the best sense, a musicologist of the older school, who wished to focus upon composers and musical work, little enamoured of various new approaches and theories which were becoming fashionable in the discipline during his lifetime, and especially not of pointlessly jargon-filled prose of which there was far too much; his own writings and teaching were a model of lucidity. He wrote on music he cared about (though certainly not uncritically) and was engaged with a wider world of musical composition, performance and listening, in stark contrast to those musicologists who all too infrequently listen, and are more concerned to ingratiate themselves with other musicological factions for purposes of career advancement whilst attempting to write about music from a position of smug superiority. To spend pages and pages revealing all the reactionary aspects of a work or body of music would probably have appeared a pointless exercise to Bob, and I do believe, whilst not necessarily going the whole way methodologically with Bob, that much of his own writing, with its independence of perspective and acuity of aural perception, will stand the test of time much more than that of various others surfing the intellectual Zeitgeist.

Bob was also concerned about the fact that many music departments were being pressurised into turning into training colleges for rock guitarists and so on, a situation with which he was faced at Dartington. Nonetheless, like all of those who wished to hold onto the best of what Dartington had to offer in advance of the merger with University College Falmouth (before which merger Bob left), Bob was absolutely committed to the spirit of creativity, experimentation, and iconoclastic radicalism which characterised the college and informed the work of all who studied there.

He was immensely saddened by the premature death of Rădulescu in 2008; I sat with him at the funeral. Bob worked hard to make memorial concerts happen in Vevey, Amsterdam and later Cologne, all played and received with commitment and purpose. He was also very supportive towards Rădulescu’s widow Cathy, much younger than himself, during the difficult time she and her young daughter faced after the composer’s death.

Bob remained teaching at Brunel for about 5 years after leaving Dartington, then decided to bring this job to a conclusion so as to concentrate more on performing, editing TEMPO, and also taking up a new position as a Senior Research Fellow at the Orpheus Institute in Ghent. With hindsight, it is now clear that he knew his time was limited, and wanted to concentrate on finishing various projects while he could. His last publication was his long-awaited book on Claude Vivier, another musician who died much too young (at the age of 34) which has been much-admired since it appeared. Also, on his website, Bob made available a series of audio documentaries about various aspects of new music, entitled Tentative Affinities. He clearly was driven to get his various thoughts down in permanent form while he could. I strongly recommend all reading this do listen to these. His short tenure as TEMPO editor also won many admirers, preserving the best in terms of seriousness and accessibility pioneered by MacDonald whilst steering the journal in a direction involving more attention paid to younger composers and other musicians.

My greatest regret is not realising the seriousness of Bob’s condition in the last years, and thus not corresponding as often as I would have done so. I will miss terribly a friend I cared about and respected very deeply, and will miss joking, gossiping but also indulging in very serious intellectual debate whilst seeking out the best steak frites in Leuven, as I remember very fondly from 2007, when Bob was there for the premiere of Rădulescu’s last completed work, his Sixth Piano Sonata.

My thoughts go out to Elizabeth, and to Bob’s adult son Ben, himself a talented violinist.

A further tribute can be found on Kyle Gann’s blog, whilst a list of Bob’s writings can be found on his Wikipedia page (like all good scholars, Bob would raise his eyebrows at students relying upon Wikipedia, but he himself worked hard to keep various Wiki pages on the composers he cared about up to date).

Here is some of the music that Bob loved so much.

Horațiu Rădulescu, String Quartet No. 5 “before the universe was born” (1990, rev. 1995)

Claude Vivier, Lonely Child (1980)

And here is a documentary on Harry Partch in which Bob appears to speak about his life and work.

Below are a selection of pictures.

Bob Gilmore

Bob in Amsterdam

Bob Gilmore with Ben

Bob with Ben, here drinking just mint tea!

Bob and Elizabeth

Bob and Elizabeth.

Bob at Orpheus

In his last year, Bob’s joy and humour were still absolutely evident.

Bob with Ben

Bob and Ben again.