For my 50th birthday this year, I was absolutely delighted to receive on the day a volume containing seventeen short piano pieces written for the occasion, and subsequently four other pieces for piano and one for electronics. I am performing all of these, together with a new piece of my own and three lesser-known early twentieth-century works, on Friday 20 April (tomorrow) at the Performance Space, College Building, City, University of London, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB. The concert will be live-streamed complete, and can be viewed from the FB page for City University Concerts from 18:30. The concert is free, but to reserve a place, please see this page.
I was incredibly touched by the collection, assembled by US composer Evan Johnson, who wrote that this collection was ‘in recognition of a career built around the persistent championing of young or unduly ignored composers, and of difficult or otherwise unreasonable music: the sort often thankless effort that can indelibly shape a nascent compositional career, build decades-long collaborations, and begin to change the face of a repertoire’.
The full programme is as follows, and below are a selection of excerpts from the scores (and in a few cases, complete piece). Earlier versions of the programme also included Roger Sessions First Piano Sonata, but for reasons of programme length I have decided to postpone this work to a later date. Further information about my own piece auseinandergerissene Hälften, from which I will post a snippet later, are given at the bottom of this page.
Arthur Lourié, Deux poèmes op. 8 (1912)
Stefan Wolpe, Sonata for piano. Op. 1 (1925)
Frederic Mompou, Charmes (1920-21)
Christopher Fox, Fifty Points of Light (2017) (WP)
James Dillon, amethyst (2018) (WP)
Roddy Hawkins, Down-Time for Ian (2007, rev. 2017) (WP)
Lauren Redhead, nothing really changes (2017) (WP)
Mic Spencer, A Maze I(a)n (S)pace (Space [G]race) (2017) (WP)
Michael Finnissy, Were we born yesterday? (2017) (WP)
Sadie Harrison, gentle (2017) (WP)
Ben Smith, burnt (2017-18) (WP)
Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, Desperatio (piano piece no. 5) (2017-18) (WP)
Alwynne Pritchard, 50 is a magic number (2018) (WP)
Paul Obermayer, Fra (electronic music) (2018) (WP)
William A.P.M., Fragment aus einem gebrochenen Geist „kaum intakt“ (2018) (WP)
Walter Zimmermann, Stars for Ian (2017) (WP)
Ian Pace, auseinandergerissene Hälften (2018) (WP)
Jesse Ronneau, AGHB (2017) (WP)
Eleri Angharad Pound, pbh (2017-18) (WP)
Morgan Hayes, Comparison (2018) (WP of revised version)
Marc Yeats, exordium (2017) (WP)
Alannah Marie Halay, Progress always comes late (2017) (WP)
Nigel McBride, wide stare stared itself (2017-18) (WP)
Alistair Zaldua, Sylph Figures for Ian Pace (2017) (WP)
Wieland Hoban, Whiptail (2017) (WP)
Evan Johnson (2017) qu’en joye on vous demaine (2017) (WP)
Christopher Fox, Fifty Points of Light (2017)
Roddy Hawkins, Down-Time for Ian (2007, rev. 2017)
Lauren Redhead, nothing really changes (2017)
Mic Spencer, A Maze I(a)n (S)pace (Space [G]race) (2017)
Michael Finnissy, Were we born yesterday? (2017)
Sadie Harrison, gentle (2017)
Ben Smith, burnt (2017-18)
Alwynne Pritchard, 50 is a magic number (2018)
Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, Desperatio (Piano Piece No. 5) (2017-18)
Alwynne Pritchard, 50 is a magic number (2018)
William A.P.M., Fragment aus einem gebrochenen Geist „kaum intakt“ (2018)
Walter Zimmermann, Stars for Ian (2017)
Ian Pace, from auseinandergerissene Hälften (2018)
Eleri Angharad Pound, pbh (2017-18)
Morgan Hayes, Comparison (2018)
Marc Yeats, exordium (2017)
Alannah Marie Halay, Progress always comes late (2017)
Nigel McBride, wide stare stared itself (2017-18)
Alistair Zaldua, Sylph-Figures for Ian Pace (2017)
Wieland Hoban, Whiptail (2017)
Evan Johnson, qu’en joye on vous demaine (2017)
My own auseinandergerissene Hälften is a short work which nonetheless could be considered ‘mixed media’, to use the fashionable term, as it will consist playing as well as spoken and written text, and a small amount of theatre. The title comes from the notorious letter written by Theodor Adorno to Walter Benjamin on 18 March 1936, in the context of discussion of the latter’s ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’, first written the previous year. Adorno wrote to Benjamin on the subject of the dialectics of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture:
‘Beide tragen die Wundmale des Kapitalismus, beide enthalten Elemente der Veränderung (freilich nie und nimmer das Mittlere zwischen Schönberg und dem amerikanischen Film); beide sind die auseinandergerissenen Hälften der ganzen Freiheit, die doch aus ihnen nicht sich zusammenaddieren läßt’ (‘Both bear the stigmata of capitalism, both contain elements of change (but never, of course, simply as a middle-term between Schönberg and the American film). Both are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up’).
My starting point for this piece is both this conception of the ‘torn halves’ of cultural freedom, but also my own ‘torn halves’, as both a pianist and a musicologist intensely engaged with the conflicting demands of both things – how one maintains scholarly distance and independence whilst still operating in an external musical world with its own pressures to conform, flatter, etc., how the criteria for deeming creative practice valuable ‘research’ might be quite different from other criteria of value, how my own interests as a performer are not synonymous with priorities as a historical musicologist – and indeed the music I choose to teach does not necessarily simply reflect my personal preferences. In the latter context, I return to the high/low culture question as it has informed my teaching of a former core module in music history, perhaps the most important teaching I have done. This attempted to navigate fairly between this ‘torn halves’ and their continuous co-presence, sometimes interacting, sometimes antagonistic, in Western musical history since 1848.
For this piece I have drawn upon the materials I used there to create a series of interconnected musical vignettes, each of which draw upon different species of music from a series of dates (including 1936, the date of Adorno’s letter to Benjamin). All of these are heavily modified, viewed from a contemporary perspective, but I attempt, inevitably unsuccessfully, to make them ‘add up’. The music is accompanied by slides with disembodied fragments of actual lecture slides, together with passages from radical modernist texts from the periods in question, material placed here on social media (a low culture of today in contrast to the supposedly elevated world of the lecture).
Bright Futures, Dark Pasts: Michael Finnissy at 70 – Jan 19/20, Conference/Concerts at City UniversityPosted: January 13, 2017
On Thursday January 19th and Friday January 20th, 2017, City, University of London is hosting a conference entitled Bright Futures, Dark Pasts: Michael Finnissy at 70. This will feature a range of scholarly papers on a variety of aspects of Finnissy’s work – including his use of musical objets trouvés, engagement with folk music, sexuality, the influence of cinema, relationship to other contemporary composers, issues of marginality, and his work in performance. There will be three concerts, featuring his complete works for two pianos and piano duet, played by the composer, Ian Pace, and Ben Smith; a range of solo, chamber and ensemble works; and a complete performance (from 14:00-21:00 on Friday 20th) of his epic piano cycle The History of Photography in Sound by Ian Pace. The concerts include the world premieres of Finnissy’s Zortziko (2009) for piano duet and Kleine Fjeldmelodie (2016-17) for solo piano, the UK premiere of Duet (1971-2013) and London premieres of Fem ukarakteristisek marsjer med tre tilføyde trioer (2008-9) for piano duet, Derde symfonische etude (2013) for two pianos, his voice/was then/here waiting (1996) for two pianos, and Eighteenth-Century Novels: Fanny Hill (2006) for two pianos. There will also be a rare chance to hear Finnissy’s Sardinian-inspired Anninnia (1981-2) for voice and piano, for the first time in several decades.
Keynote speakers will be Roddy Hawkins (University of Manchester), Gregory Woods (Nottingham Trent University, author of Homintern) and Ian Pace (City, University of London). The composer will be present for the whole event, and will perform and be interviewed by Christopher Fox (Brunel University) on his work and the History in particular.
The composer and photographer Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, who studied with Finnissy between 2000 and 2004, has created a photographic work, continuum simulacrum (2016-17) inspired by The History of Photography in Sound and particularly Chapter 6 (Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets). The series will be shown on screens in the department and samples of a book version will be available.
Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, from continuum simulacrum (2016-17).
The full programme can be viewed below. This conference also brings to a close Ian Pace’s eleven-concert series of the complete piano works of Finnissy.
A separate blog post will follow on The History of Photography in Sound.
All events take place at the Department of Music, College Building, City, University of London, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB.
Thursday January 19th, 2017
09:00-09:30 Room AG09.
Registration and TEA/COFFEE.
09:30-10:00 Performance Space.
Introduction and tribute to Michael Finnissy by Ian Pace and Miguel Mera (Head of Department of Music, City, University of London).
10:00-12:00 Room AG09. Chair: Aaron Einbond.
Larry Goves (Royal Northern College of Music), ‘Michael Finnissy & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: the composer as anthropologist’.
Maarten Beirens (Amsterdam University), ‘Questioning the foreign and the familiar: Interpreting Michael Finnissy’s use of traditional and non-Western sources’
Lauren Redhead (Canterbury Christ Church University), ‘The Medium is Now the Material: The “Folklore” of Chris Newman and Michael Finnissy’.
Followed by a roundtable discussion between the three speakers and composer and Finnissy student Claudia Molitor (City, University of London), chaired by Aaron Einbond.
12:00-13:00 Foyer, Performance Space.
13:10–14:15 Performance Space.
Concert 1: Michael Finnissy: The Piano Music (10). Michael Finnissy, Ian Pace and Ben Smith play Finnissy’s works for two pianos or four hands.
Michael Finnissy, Wild Flowers (1974) (IP/MF)
Michael Finnissy, Fem ukarakteristisek marsjer med tre tilføyde trioer (2008-9) (BS/IP) (London premiere)
Michael Finnissy, Derde symfonische etude (2013) (BS/IP) (London premiere)
Michael Finnissy, Deux jeunes se promènent à travers le ciel 1920 (2008) (IP/BS)
Michael Finnissy, his voice/was then/here waiting (1996) (IP/MF) (UK premiere)
Michael Finnissy, Eighteenth-Century Novels: Fanny Hill (2006) (IP/MF) (London premiere)
Max Ernst, Deux jeunes se promènent à travers le ciel (1920)
14:30-15:30 Room AG09. Chair: Lauren Redhead (Canterbury Christ Church University).Keynote: Roddy Hawkins (University of Manchester): ‘Articulating, Dwelling, Travelling: Michael Finnissy and Marginality’.
15:30-16:00 Foyer, Performance Space.
16:00-17:00 Room AG09. Chair: Roddy Hawkins (University of Manchester).
Keynote: Ian Pace (City, University of London): ‘Michael Finnissy between Jean-Luc Godard and Dennis Potter: appropriation of techniques from cinema and TV’
17:00-18:00 Room AG09. Chair: Christopher Fox (Brunel University).
Roundtable on performing the music of Michael Finnissy. Participants: Neil Heyde (cellist), Ian Pace (pianist), Jonathan Powell (pianist), Christopher Redgate (oboist), Roger Redgate (conductor, violinist), Nancy Ruffer (flautist).
19:00 Performance Space.
Concert 2: City University Experimental Ensemble (CUEE), directed Tullis Rennie. Christopher Redgate, oboe/oboe d’amore; Nancy Ruffer, flutes; Bernice Chitiul, voice; Alexander Benham, piano; Michael Finnissy, piano; Ian Pace, piano; Ben Smith; piano.
Michael Finnissy, Yso (2007) (CUEE)
Michael Finnissy, Stille Thränen (2009) (Ian Pace, Ben Smith)
Michael Finnissy, Runnin’ Wild (1978) (Christopher Redgate)
Michael Finnissy, Anninnia (1981-82) (Bernice Chitiul, Ian Pace)
Michael Finnissy, Ulpirra (1982-83) (Nancy Ruffer)
Michael Finnissy, Pavasiya (1979) (Christopher Redgate)
‘Mini-Cabaret’: Michael Finnissy, piano
Chris Newman, AS YOU LIKE IT (1981)
Michael Finnissy, Kleine Fjeldmelodie (2016-17) (World première)
Andrew Toovey, Where are we in the world? (2014)
Laurence Crane, 20th CENTURY MUSIC (1999)
Matthew Lee Knowles, 6th Piece for Laurence Crane (2006)
Morgan Hayes, Flaking Yellow Stucco (1995-6)
Tom Wilson, UNTIL YOU KNOW (2017) (World première)
Howard Skempton, after-image 3 (1990)
Michael Finnissy, Zortziko (2009) (Ian Pace, Ben Smith) (World première)
Michael Finnissy, Duet (1971-2013) (Ben Smith, Ian Pace) (UK première)
Michael Finnissy, ‘They’re writing songs of love, but not for me’, from Gershwin Arrangements (1975-88) (Alexander Benham)
Michael Finnissy, APRÈS-MIDI DADA (2006) (CUEE)
Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912).
21:30 Location to be confirmed
Friday January 20th, 2017
10:00-11:00 Room AG21.
Christopher Fox in conversation with Michael Finnissy on The History of Photography in Sound.
11:00-11:30 Room AG21.
11:30-12:30 Room AG21. Chair: Alexander Lingas (City, University of London).
Keynote: Gregory Woods (Nottingham Trent University): ‘My “personal themes”?!’: Finnissy’s Seventeen Homosexual Poets and the Material World’.
14:00-21:00 Performance Space.
Concert 3: Michael Finnissy: The Piano Music (11): The History of Photography in Sound (1995-2002). Ian Pace, piano
14:00 Chapters 1, 2: Le démon de l’analogie; Le réveil de l’intraitable realité.
15:15 Chapters 3, 4: North American Spirituals; My parents’ generation thought War meant something
16:35 Chapters 5, 6, 7: Alkan-Paganini; Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets; Eadweard Muybridge-Edvard Munch
17:50 INTERVAL (wine served)
18:10 Chapter 8: Kapitalistische Realisme (mit Sizilianische Männerakte und Bachsche Nachdichtungen)
19:20 INTERVAL (wine served)
19:35 Chapters 9, 10, 11: Wachtend op de volgende uitbarsting van repressie en censuur; Unsere Afrikareise; Etched Bright with Sunlight.
What characterizes the so-called advanced societies is that they today consume images and no longer, like those of the past, beliefs; they are therefore more liberal, less fanatical, but also more ‘false’ (less ‘authentic’) – something we translate, in ordinary consciousness, by the avowal of an impression of nauseated boredom, as if the universalized image were producing a world that is without difference (indifferent), from which can rise, here and there, only the cry of anarchisms, marginalisms, and individualisms: let us abolish the images, let us save immediate Desire (desire without mediation).
Mad or tame? Photography can be one or the other: tame if its realism remains relative, tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits (to leaf through a magazine at the hairdresser’s, the dentist’s); mad if this realism is absolute and, so to speak, original, obliging the loving and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of Time: a strictly revulsive movement which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call, in conclusion, the photographic ecstasy.
Such are the two ways of the Photography. The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality.
Ce qui caractérise les sociétés dites avancées, c’est que ces sociétés consomment aujourd’hui des images, et non plus, comme celles d’autrefois, des croyances; elles sont donc plus libérales, moins fanataiques, mais aussi plus «fausses» (moins «authentiques») – chose que nous traduisons, dans la conscience courante, par l’aveu d’une impression d’ennui nauséeux, comme si l’image, s’universalisant, produisait un monde sans differences (indifferent), d’où ne peut alors surgir ici et là que le cri des anarchismes, marginalismes et individualismes : abolissons les images, sauvons le Désir immédiat (sans mediation).
Folle ou sage? La Photographie peut être l’un ou l’autre : sage si son réalisme reste relative, tempére par des habitudes esthétiques ou empiriques (feuilleter une revue chez le coiffeur, le dentist); folle, si ce réalisme est absolu, et, si l’on peut dire, original, faisant revenir à la conscience amoureuse et effrayée la letter même du Temps : movement proprement révulsif, qui retourne le cours de la chose, et que l’appellerai pour finir l’extase photographique.
Telles sont les deux voies de la Photographie. A moi de choisir, de soumettre son spectacle au code civilise des illusions parfaits, ou d’affronter en elle le réveil de l’intraitable réalité.
Roland Barthes, Le chambre claire/Camera Lucida.
Eadweard Muybridge – A. Throwing a Disk, B: Ascending a Step, C: Walking from Animal Locomotion (1885-1887).
Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, from continuum simulacrum (2016-17).
Research Forum, ‘Can Composition and Performance be Research? Critical Perspectives’, City University, November 25th, 2015, 17:30Posted: November 4, 2015
On November 25th, 2015, at 17:30, a special Research Forum will take place at City University’s Department of Music, Performance Space, College Building. For further details and booking enquiries, please contact: Sam.MacKay.email@example.com . The City University event page for this is here.
In this special form a group of panellists will lead a discussion on current debates about the relationship between practice and research. The discussion will centre on two articles in particular: John Croft’s recent and significant article ‘Composition is not Research’ (Tempo, 69/272 (April 2015), pp. 6-11) and Ian Pace’s reply ‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’ (forthcoming in Tempo, 70/275 (January 2016)). Both of these can be downloaded here.
Composers and performers in UK university music departments are often employed in full academic positions and are expected to produce research, participate in the Research Excellence Framework, apply for research funding, and demonstrate all these things in order to qualify for career advancement. This situation creates imperatives often distinct from, and sometimes conflicting with, those informing their practical work outside of an academic context. Different institutions can have hugely differing perspectives on the research credentials of practice-based work, and the experiences and fortunes of such practitioners working in academia have varied correspondingly.
John Croft’s article ‘Composition is not Research’ threw down a gauntlet in its rejection of the possibility that compositional outputs can be measured as research in the same manner as more conventional outputs. Croft called for an end to the integration of composers into existing research structures of universities, and a return to the idea of ‘research equivalence’ instead.
This article has generated a good deal of discussion on blogs and social media since its appearance, some of which has been markedly hostile. The January 2016 issue of Tempo will feature two articles in response, one by composer Camden Reeves, the other by City Head of Performance Ian Pace, entitled ‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’.
In this article, Pace provides an extended critique of Croft’s arguments, drawing upon wider debates on practice-as-research from beyond the musical field, arguing that Croft’s definitions of research are too narrow, that composition and performance frequently constitute research as much as any other types of outputs, and that the real issue is deriving equitable criteria for judging very different types of research outputs, though this is equally a problem between divergent types of written work.
Christopher Fox (Professor of Composition at Brunel University and editor of Tempo)
Ian Pace (pianist and Head of Performance at City University)
Miguel Mera (composer and Head of the Department of Music at City University)
Annie Yim (pianist and DMA student at City University)
Christine Dysers (PhD student in Music at City University)
Camden Reeves (composer and Head of Music, University of Manchester)
Chair: Alexander Lingas (Reader in Music, City University)
Piers Hellawell, ‘Treating Composers as Researchers is Bonkers.’
Luk Vaes, ‘When Composition is not Research.’
Lawrence Dunn, ‘Squaring the damn composition-research circle.’
Martin Parker Dixon, ‘Composition can be research (some comments on John Croft’s recent article).’
David Pocknee, ‘Composition Is Not A Jaffa Cake, Research Is Not A Biscuit: A Riposte to John Croft.’
Lauren Redhead, ‘Is Composition Research?’
Nicholas Till, ‘Opus versus Output’
Huib Schippers, ‘The Marriage of Art and Academia: Challenges and Opportunities for Music Research in Practice-based Environments.’
Christopher Fox, ‘Music for a Dis-Uniting Kingdom?’ (Including some reflections on composition as research).
Ian Pace, ‘Musicological Observations 4: Can Commercial Music be Research?’ (distinct from the forthcoming Tempo article mentioned above)
And some earlier relevant articles more widely on practice and research:
Christopher Frayling, ‘Research in Art and Design.’
Linda Candy, ‘Practice Based Research: A Guide.’
Joanne ‘Bob’ Whalley and Lee Miller, ‘Partly Cloudy, Chance of Rain: A Case Study’, in John Freeman (ed) Blood, Sweat and Theory: Research through Practice in Performance. (Middlesex University Press, London, 2010), pp. 218-232.
[ADDENDUM: A link to a response to this by Luk Vaes, and then my own response, can be found here]
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.
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. 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.
 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.
 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.
Last night I went to a concert at Clothworkers’ Centenary Concert Hall, at the School of Music for the University of Leeds. The programme included postgraduate student Allanah Halay‘s Energy Cannot Be Created II, as well as world premieres of Scott McLaughlin’s an infinity of traces, without an inventory and Wieland Hoban’s Wyrdlines, Michael Finnissy’s 1984 Câtana, inspired by Romanian folk music. It was a fantastic opportunity to hear four very fine pieces in strong performances given by student musicians; the concert can be viewed complete online here. for now I want however to write about the conductor and director of the ensemble – and also extremely fine composer – Michael (known to all as Mic) Spencer, whose work at that university, making the department into the finest of its type for new music, has been to my mind insufficiently recognised. On another occasion I would like to write about Mic’s compositions, but here I want to describe the seminal work he has done at Leeds.
I first met Mic in 2005 (at the premiere of Richard Barrett’s orchestral work NO) and soon afterwards became keenly aware of his activities at Leeds, after going to give a talk there the following year, performing on three occasions at the university, playing his piano piece The Eemis Stone and more widely getting to know the important community of people intensely dedicated to new music which would never have come about without Mic and his efforts.
Whilst many in academia spend as little time as possible on students, concentrating instead primarily on whatever will gain maximum prestige and the quickest advancement to the top jobs, Mic is the very opposite, and one of the most selfless figures I know. I know of few others so utterly devoted to helping to make available and accessible to his students, in full knowledge that the most complex or challenging new music is absolutely graspable by all who are open-minded and receive the type of guidance and encouragement that Mic can uniquely give. And I have seen for myself just how much time he devotes to students, how he wouldn’t hesitate to help them have access to any number of recordings, scores, or texts by many in the French and German intellectual and philosophical traditions to which he is so strongly attached.
The music of Helmut Lachenmann, Brian Ferneyhough, Hans-Joachim Hespos, Gérard Grisey, Emmanuel Nunes, Mathias Spahlinger, James Dillon, Beat Furrer, Richard Barrett, Chaya Czernowin and many others have become like Mozart and Beethoven to composers, performers and scholars at Leeds all because of Mic. In other contexts, academics dismiss all work in this type of European modernist tradition out of hand (sometimes in an underhand manner, using language of identity politics which makes others reluctant to challenge such a view), or simply preach it in a didactic way. Everything I have heard suggests a quite different approach from Mic: teaching as an enthusiast, with a passion for this music, but in such a way as allows students to find their own way in.
But equally important is what Mic has achieved with the ensemble LSTwo, which he ran and conducted over an extended period, for a period jointly with composer and conductor Adam Fergler. They have been able to perform well works almost unimaginable for a student new music ensemble in a UK university department, including Lachenmann’s “…zwei Gefühle…”, Musik mit Leonardo, Harrison Birtwistle’s Trageodia, Grisey’s Vortex Temporum, Nunes’s Improvisation I, Furrer’s Gaspra, Dillon’s Zone (…de azul), James Clarke’s Delmenhorst, and much else. In November there will be a major feature, the most significant of its type to date in the UK, of the music in Hespos, which I for one would not want to miss.
Amongst those who have passed through Leeds and either already gone onto great things or in the process of so doing are Lauren Redhead (who I remember Mic describing to me, when she was an undergraduate, as someone with an unnatural obsession with Spahlinger), Roddy Hawkins, Eleri Angharad Pound, Adam Fergler, Vicky Burrett, Caroline Lucas, Marcello Messina and many others. Not that these are simple acolytes or devotees; many have strong differences and have taken quite different paths in terms of their own music or ideas. I certainly wouldn’t agree with Mic on lots of things musical, aesthetic or otherwise – I cannot remotely share his taste for the likes of Kaikhosru Shapurij Sorabji or writer Aleister Crowley, for example – but there is no such topic about which I would not be intensely interested in his thoughts. But I do not believe it would be too exaggerated to talk about a Leeds School of New Music, for which Mic is undoubtedly the central figure.
But when reading this I’m sure Mic will end up acting self-effacing and maybe a bit embarrassed, so I’m going to end up in his own language and tell the fucker to get a move on with writing his piano piece for me!
But do all raise your glasses (an activity with which he is intimately familiar) to Mic.
Musicological Observations 1: Björn Heile, Lauren Redhead and myself on the relationship between scholarship and new musicPosted: September 18, 2014
I am continually fascinated by the possibilities available to musical scholarship and by interactions between plural musicological methods, but equally disappointed by how few such possibilities are regularly taken up. I hope to blog at more length in the future on some of the dangers inherent within various musicological sub-disciplines – the so-called ‘new musicology’, ‘soft’ ethnomusicology, and some aspects of popular and film music studies in which the music becomes the least important area of study – but on this occasion I just want to offer a few quotations relating to the relationship of scholarship on new music to the practical operation of that field, hopefully as a starting point for discussion here and elsewhere.
The first is by Björn Heile, Reader in Music at the University of Glasgow and best-known for his work on the music of Mauricio Kagel. This is the opening of a key-note lecture (reproduced with permission) entitled ‘‘Un pezzo … di una grandissima serietà e con una grandissima emozione … e con elementi totalmente bruti’: aesthetic and socio-political considerations and the failure of their integration in Mauricio Kagel’s work post-1968’, given at the conference ‘Faire “de la musique absolue avec la scène”: Mauricio Kagel’, University of Nice, 24-25 April 2014 (held on 25 April).
Scholarship on new music typically suffers from its lack of critical perspective. PhD theses are written, articles and books published and whole careers made on the basis of work that does little more than trace the stated intentions of the composer in question in their work. The process could be described as bargain basement hermeneutics: study the composer’s so-called influences, his or her own pronouncements and look at the work with these things in mind – something will no doubt be found. As a result, the scholar becomes the composer’s spokesperson, dutifully explaining how the master would want their work to be understood – which, evidently, is the only way of correctly interpreting it. There are many reasons for the predominance of this approach. New music scholars are often dependent on the goodwill of their subjects: one critical remark and you may find yourself frozen out from access to the person, their work and other materials, and from speaking and writing engagements – there are a number of (in)famous examples. Furthermore, the new music business is a tight network in which composers, musicians, institutions, broadcasters, publishers, record companies, journalists and scholars cooperate in often murky ways. There is a fine line between scholarship and PR, and some so-called journals are more akin to trade magazines. Finally, the tried-and-tested method delivers results with ease: it’s relatively simple to fill any space needed with material that will appear informative and well-founded; no-one is likely to complain. It would be unfair to pick out individual examples for what is a widespread problem. That said, Charles Wilson has analysed the literature on Ligeti with respect to what he calls Ligeti’s ‘rhetoric of autonomy’, by means of which the composer sought to overstate his artistic independence, as a way of positioning himself in the compositional marketplace. As Wilson (2004, 6) argues, ‘composers’ self-representations often serve a function that is as much performative as constative. They are “position takings”, to use Bourdieu’s expression, and their assimilation by scholars as straightforward claims to truth often bespeaks a fundamental category mistake.’ He quotes numerous cases in which Ligeti’s exegetes dutifully adopted the composer’s own terms, criteria and outlook, so that their commentaries are little more than summaries of the composer’s own pronouncements. Ligeti’s is hardly a special case: Messiaen’s Catholicism, Nono’s Marxism, Cage’s Zen-Buddhism, Cardew’s Maoism, Lachenmann’s ‘refusal of habit’ – time and again one finds scholars piously repeating or paraphrasing lofty assertions, instead of subjecting them to rigorous critical scrutiny. And – you probably saw this coming – I am not at all sure whether the literature on Kagel represents an exception to the rule. Nor is it my intention to accuse you while exonerating myself. Although I have long been aware of the problem and have sought to avoid it, I am not sure that I have always succeeded. I have to confess that while I was writing The Music of Mauricio Kagel the thought that Kagel would read the book crossed my mind more than once, and I had already found out how touchy he could be. I’d like to say that I remained steadfast, but I could be deluding myself.
Back in 2011, composer and musicologist Lauren Redhead, Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, published an article on her blog following a symposium at the Institute of Musical Research on the music of Brian Ferneyhough, at which the composer was present. This presents a situation self-evidently not an issue for historical musicologists dealing with dead musicians. Whilst unable to hear the academic papers, Redhead made the following important observation (which, having seen some of the papers and other work by the participants, I believe is backed up by the results):
The Ferneyhough day was the latest in a line of academic events which I notice are celebrating authors who are still alive. My initial problem with these events is that it seems healthy debate, critique, and innovative perspectives are hardly likely to be encouraged when the composer or thinker is involved, acting as an authority and essentially vetting the speakers before they are let loose on the audience.
As one who wears two hats, both as performer and musicologist, it is rare for these issues to be far from my own mind. My own earlier writing on the music of Michael Finnissy, as collected in the volume Uncommon Ground, I now consider hagiographic and of little other than documentary value; hopefully in my more recent monograph on Finnissy’s The History of Photography in Sound a greater degree of critical distance has been established, but (as Heile found with Kagel) it is hard to escape the inevitable thoughts of what the subject themselves will make of it, especially in the context of a starkly hierarchical new music world in which composers’ decrees and intentions are frequently assigned an ontological priority. Recently, I have been undertaking my own comparative examination of scholarly and other writing on the music of Ferneyhough (to be published on the Search online music magazine; also a review-article on a new Ferneyhough monograph will appear in Music and Letters), and have found hagiography, unreflected employment of both intentional and poietic fallacies, and simple hero worship to be rife, in the manner diagnosed by Redhead above. I blogged about this subject a little over a year ago, arriving at what I believe were similar conclusions to Heile, and wanted to offer a few quotes from this here alongside the others:
When considering historical composers, there are many obvious ways in which listeners may also approach the music in question in ways very different from those of the composers (or others from the time). One does not have to be a strict Lutheran to appreciate Bach, nor necessarily accept some of the theological motivations proffered for some of the musical decisions. An atheist would believe these were a delusion or at least a fiction, and might consider them as the expression of some wider human issues. A similar situation can apply to the tropes of heroism which inform some of Beethoven’s mid-period work (and a good deal of subsequent reception), or more ominously the anti-semitic views expressed by Wagner in his 1850 article ‘Das Judenthum in der Musik’; much work has been done considering the question of the extent to which these views, and other common anti-semitic views of the time, might have informed some of the characterisations in his music-dramas, and been understood as such by audiences of the time. If one concludes that this might indeed have been the case, this does not require automatic rejection of the work, but can facilitate an engagement with the music-dramas not simply as art works existing outside of time and place, but ones which reflect a particular set of ideologies of the time, held by the composer, which a reasonable person would today reject without necessarily rejecting all cultural work which sprang up in a context where they were indeed acceptable. Similar positions are possible with respect to representations of women, of characters from outside of the Western world, in musical works involving theatre or text; on a deeper level it is also possible to consider the ways in which abstract instrumental music might itself have grown out of texted/stage work and inherited some of the oppositions between musical materials (especially as had become codified to represent masculine and feminine characters) which were intrinsic to the latter. In all of these cases, the approach of the writer or listener amounts to something different from simply reiterating the composer’s intentions and wishes, or at least applying a different set of valorising standards to them. When applied with sufficient care for proper and balanced investigation of factual evidence (with proper referencing), rigour and transparency of argument, and elegance of presentation, not to mention some commitment to producing an argument which does more than simply reiterate that of numerous previous writers, this constitutes one variety of critical musicology. Not all or even most such work need arrive at negative conclusions, and some might affirm existing perceptions, but it does so as a result of serious consideration of alternative possibilities, rather than simply declaring them off-limits from the outset. [….] But the situation is more contested in the field of contemporary classical music. This is itself a field in which many practitioners feel themselves to be marginalised, with very little music of an atonal nature having won any degree of widespread public acceptance (even to the extent of that of composers such as Stravinsky, Britten or Shostakovich). Yet there are musicological critiques of some of this body of work emerging from people other than conservative classical music listeners. A body of work by various scholars associated with the ‘new musicology’ has contested the claims for primacy of various avant-garde music, drawing attention to what is argued to be its elitism, individualism (maintaining a nineteenth-century focus upon the ‘great composer’), abstraction and consequent social disengagement, white male middle-class bias, and artificial institutionalisation (including institutionalisation in higher education) despite its being a small minority interest. This latter point is extremely charged considering that some such musicologists inhabit university departments which they will share with some of the practitioners said to benefit from such institutional privilege.
I would welcome any comments and reflections on the thoughts by the three authors here. Is this situation inevitable? Are there any things which can be done to combat it (for example, lesser tolerance within scholarly communities towards hagiographic or deferential so-called scholarship)? Is this situation likely to be exacerbated by a scholarly environment, like that in the UK, which lends primacy to that work which has an ‘impact’ outside of an academic environment, and does achieving such impact require playing along with the politics of (and fragile egos within) a professional new music world in which critical scholarly perspective is far from being a top priority? Is the only route to one’s work gaining a wider audience and impact by serving a system of institutionalised prestige, or might impact be achievable in other environments as well? How can those involved in both scholarship and practitioners reconcile their two worlds, if indeed they can?