Performance-as-Research – A Reply to Luk Vaes

The Belgian pianist and scholar Luk Vaes has published a new blog post following two previous ones (here and here) responding both to the announcement of the debate on composition, performance and research on November 25th, and also to my article on the subject which is one of the texts for discussion there. I would like to publish here a response I have also added in the comments section of his post.

I do believe that Vaes, coming from a context of ‘artistic research’ rather than ‘practice-as-research’, is inclined towards too-fixed and narrow (and sometimes counterproductive) conceptions of research, at least implicitly. But I would also like to ask him whether he thinks practice-based outputs alone can suffice as research (ever?) or only with substantial written documentation? This debate has recurred often in wider literature on practice-as-research. And should these standards be applied differently to composition and performance?

The major objection given to documentation of practice is that research councils, academic promotion panels and others simply read that and do not bother to listen to/watch/etc the actual artistic work involved. This is a very real danger, especially when (outside of the REF) non-artists may be involved with the decisions. If documentation is required as well as artistic output, only a mode of judging which looks at both in detail could ever be satisfactory.



Luk Vaes writes:

I don’t agree with the jump from “opening up research questions” to actually being “research as a result”, nor do I think performance-based research should be considered on the same level (much legitimate systematic musicology – e.g. performance science – is performance-based or -led). I more than agree with that “additional demand”, as I find the explication of the research to be essential to its identity. As long as it is impossible for me to assess how (and how exactly) Ian has learned from Gieseking, Cziffra, et all., how exactly this has opened up new questions, how exactly this worked in a certain way (and not in perhaps certain other ways), what the conclusions are, etc., it is not worth it to use a new term to describe the age-old process he described. Research is a collective effort, with peer-interaction as a fundamental, i.e. peer-based and peer-oriented. Contrary to matters of composition, I can consider myself to be a peer of Ian’s, but, from his performances, I cannot tell any of the above to a level that informs me about his research.

As far as the first ‘leap’ is concerned, let me put the ‘research as a result’ comment in context:

But my approach is far from uncommon, and in this sense the articulation of practice in research terms is a positive and productive activity. It may be less spectacular than some of the wilder fringes of theatre and visual performance – such as Lee Miller and Joanne “Bob” Whalley’s joint PhD project, collecting of urine-filled bottles on the M6, replacing them with other detritus, renewing their wedding vows in a service station, then grounding this in the thought of Deleuze and Guattari, Bakhtin, dialogism, heteroglossia and semiotic multi-accentuality, deliberately framed in such a way as to frustrate Popper’s criteria of falsifiability – but is no less ‘research’ as a result.

The only point here is that whilst critical engagement with aesthetic, technical and interpretive questions doesn’t look as spectacular as the above, that doesn’t mean such work should not equally warrant being considered research.

As far as practice-based research is concerned, this is a bit of a nebulous term, for sure; I had in mind in this context written work produced by practitioners relating to their own work, rather than just any musicology dealing with performance. But we need a more specific term for this, for which the term practice-as-research is often used in my view erroneously.

As far as needing to understand how the engagement with Gieseking, Cziffra, or whoever impacts upon the final output (which might be in the form of a marked negation of aspects of this playing, or adoption and mediation of aspects which are far from obvious), well a piece of written work might be able to explain this, and such research is useful, but one might say exactly the same about being able to know how complex row transformations impact upon a composition when these are not perceptible without guidance. Note that earlier in my article I say:

At a REF panel discussion in February 2015, it was argued that the REF can entail a large amount of financial support for innovative practice-based work. There remain various obstacles towards achieving this (not least from individual institutions inclined to downgrade practice-based work in general), but it is not an unrealistic goal. If this requires practitioners to articulate ways in which their work has value and consequences not just in and of itself but also to others as a contribution to knowledge, this seems a fair price to pay.

but also:

Nor does musical practice become research simply by virtue of being accompanied by a programme note, which funding and other committees can look at and ignore the practical work.

and also:

I have some doubts as to whether some composition- and performance-based PhDs, especially those not even requiring a written component, are really equivalent in terms of effort, depth and rigour with the more conventional types.

Others will argue that simply the final output should suffice to demonstrate the quality of the research; I am not going that far, though do see the danger of the documentation of the process being judged practically independently of the result. To convince you that engagement with various other musicians’ work, in a myriad different ways, has significantly informed my practice, is something which I do not think would be difficult given sufficient space (certainly more than the 300 words required by the REF). This is not a reflection on the quality of the performance, but whether the process involved in its creation can fairly be judged as research.

I bring this up primarily, though, because composers are frequently able simply to submit their compositions with a 300 word statements, and that suffices to justify their work as research, in a way which is much rarer for performers. Numerous composers working in UK university departments produce only compositions, no written work, whilst there are significant differences in terms of expectations made by departments upon performers in this respect. I think this is a major inequity, and also that these debates in a musical context are too heavily dominated by composers.

What we are sometimes left with is that only the most obvious (and often extremely basic) aspects of performance are considered ‘research’ – employing a few extended techniques, using a slightly new type of instrument, playing some unusual rhythms, and so on. The dutiful performer-scholar will play this music and write up a short amount of pragmatic ‘how to do it’ information, and leave the much more complex issues of interpretation, style, genre, and aesthetics to a handful of over-general and meaningless platitudes (‘it is important to phrase this music well’, ‘it should still be beautiful’, ‘one should make it sound like a real piece of music’, and so on). What I am trying to argue is that the whole business of fashioning and crafting strategies for these latter aspects more deserves to be considered research than simply writing something like ‘I tried playing this sonority by using this object to stop the string. I played it to the composer like that, and then with another object, and they preferred the first, so we went with that.’ This latter is really just a type of skills training rather than critical research.

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Research Forum, ‘Can Composition and Performance be Research? Critical Perspectives’, City University, November 25th, 2015, 17:30

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.1@city.ac.uk . 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.

John Croft, ‘Composition is not Research’.
Ian Pace, ‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’.

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.


Panellists

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)


Further Weblinks

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]


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.