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 Observations 12: Articles and links relating to Practice-Research

In advance of writing a new blog post on academic engagement with practice, I thought it might be useful to give links to my various writings on practice-research and other important links in one place here, much from the period following the publication of John Croft’s article ‘Composition is not Research’, Tempo, Vol. 69, Issue 272 (April 2015), pp. 6-11.

Here is Croft’s article and my response:

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

The following articles appeared in the same issue of Tempo as my response to Croft. Unfortunately there do not appear to be open access versions of them available.

Camden Reeves, ‘Composition, Research and Pseudo-Science: A Response to John Croft’.
John Croft, ‘Composing, Research and Ways of Talking’ (a response to both Reeves and myself)

Blog posts

Musicology is not Musical PR. A post from 2013, from when I started to think hard about the different value-systems and expectations of scholarship from practitioners and musicologists.

Research Forum, ‘Can Composition and Practice be Research? Critical Perspectives’, City University, November 25th, 2015. This was a post in advance of the debate.

‘Musicological Observations 4: Can Commercial Music be Research?’ This was an earlier article asking about the relationship between commerce and research in a musical context.

Performance-as-Research – A Reply to Luk Vaes. This was a response to an article by artistic researcher Luk Vaes (linked to in the post) in advance of the debate.

Video of Research Seminar on Composition and Performance as Research, and some wider responses to John Croft and others. This contains the full video of the debate, some of my text presented there (the information on university music departments is rather dated, and will be supplanted by new information posted on this blog soon), and wider responses to Croft’s response.

Some final thoughts on composition, performance, the REF, and teaching. Subsequent reflections following the debate.

Those 300-word statements on Practice-as-Research for the RAE/REF – origins and stipulations – ‘academic butt-covering’ or more problematic? Specifically on the role of 300-word statements accompanying practice-based outputs.

The RAE and REF: Resources and Critiques. An article written during the period of the 2018 industrial action in academia, collating a wide range of views on these institutions mostly expressed on social media, with wider links to literature on the subject. This contains a small amount relating to practice-research and the REF.

Musicological Thoughts 9: Practitioners and Scholars – Advocacy vs Criticism? A much more recent post, entailing some revision of earlier positions and somewhat more sceptical about the extent to which practitioners and scholars are able to find genuine common ground.

Musicological Thoughts 10: The Value of Empirical Musicology for the Performer? A piece written during the 2022 Performance Studies Network conference, after a mixture of listening to papers and practising, considering the relationship between practice and a particular musicological sub-discipline.

Two other articles, not blog posts, which I wrote earlier this year for the Times Higher Education Supplement, are also relevant in this context:

‘We need a Research and Practice Excellence Framework’ (10 May 2022)
‘University departments need a broad range of performing artists’ (22 May 2022) (written in response to Victoria Kelley, ‘The REF does not disadvantage practice-based subjects’ (13 May 2022)).

The blog post on ‘Practitioners and Scholars’ above is in part an attempt to offer a further side to this debate, not possible within the word-count of the THES articles.

Wider links

The following are a range of further weblinks available at the time of the debate.

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).

The following book chapter continues some of the important themes. Unfortunately it is not available open access, but can be requested from the authors at the link below.

Martin Scheuregger and Christopher Leedham, ‘The Purpose of the Written Element in Composition PhDs’, in Researching and Writing on Contemporary Art and Artists, edited Christopher Wiley and Ian Pace (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), pp. 65-90.

The website for PRAGUK (Practice Research Group UK) includes a good list of major texts on the subject. Especially important, coming out of this group, is the following:

James Bulley and Özden Şahin, ‘Practice Research’ (2021).

And the following are 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.


Musicological Observations 10: Practitioners and Scholars – Advocacy vs Criticism?

There was an interesting recent social media thread from Cambridge Professor of Music Marina Frolova-Walker, following reading of some unhappy Twitter exchanges between musicians and musicologists. I am not exactly sure which these were, but there had recently been a particularly angry set of responses to conductor Kenneth Woods after his suggestion that some young musicians were not getting the type of training and experience they need when the National Youth Orchestra spent half a programme on some contemporary works – which I have not personally heard – which he described as ‘tenth rate’ and not featuring much of consequence for the players to do. Some may not realise that any type of value judgement is rejected and even despised in some musicological quarters, and so many responses were to pile on Woods for daring to indulge in such a thing, which is after all ‘subjective’ (as if a lot of what musicologists say and write does not also fall into this category).

Anyhow, Frolova-Walker (who I am citing with permission) suggested wryly (and perhaps only half-seriously) that musical practitioners and music academics might to best to keep apart from each other, since they inhabit such different worlds, value systems, use different vocabularies, etc. This provoked considerable debate, some including myself reluctant to throw in the towel when it comes to fruitful interactions between practitioners and scholars. One of Frolova-Walker’s conclusions was ‘performing is about advocacy, musicology is about criticism’. From a position of high respect, I want to consider this dichotomy further. For the purposes of this post, I define ‘scholars’ as those who produce generally written outputs in the standard forms (article, book chapter, monograph) for academic publishers; ‘practitioners’ as those whose work is primarily in the form of practice – performance, composition, artistic installation, recording, video, etc.

This issue, which I have touched upon in earlier blog posts (see here, here, here and here) is naturally very close to my own heart, as I straddle the worlds of performance and scholarship. Sometimes I like to think this makes me able to bridge the two worlds, but equally often I can feel estranged from and sceptical about both. Frolova-Walker’s point about different vocabularies employed by practitioners and scholars is highly familiar; even such basic terms as ‘the canon’ or ‘Western art music’ are found much more frequently amongst scholars than practitioners, in my experience, whilst few scholars are happy with ideas of ‘musicality’ and the like.

I have recently published two articles in the Times Higher Education Supplement arguing for the need for universities to facilitate higher academic status and progression for a range of practitioners in the performing arts (see here and here), questioning in particular the use (in the UK) of the Research Excellence Framework as the primary measure of the value of their work. This short article is in a sense a rejoinder to those from a different perspective which realises the limits of the field of practitioners, after advocating for their academic integration.

The concepts of ‘advocacy’ and ‘criticism’ can of course have a variety of meanings or emphases. ‘Advocacy’ can mean a basically supportive though not uncritical view of some phenomenon (such as some artistic work), but can also mean either a rigid or even a defensive attitude towards such a thing, which brooks for no dissenting views, and thus can be dismissive of such views, or even try to pathologise those who hold them. ‘Criticism’ can imply something a primarily pejorative view of a phenomenon (in that sense, the direct opposite of advocacy), but here I believe it was intended more in the manner of ‘critique’, relating to a more dispassionate evaluation of a phenomenon (in the case of musicology, this could be an aesthetic critique, an ideology critique, or other type of commentary or analysis of musical phenomena undertaken with that degree of critical distance that is generally believed to be the best approach for a scholar).

Can or should musicologists be advocates? The former Regius Professor of Music at Cambridge, Nicholas Cook, thinks they should not. In a 2003 article (‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), pp. 249-261), examines a range of types of advocacy found in musical writing – for individual composers and performers (especially in biographical writing), for rock musicians by demonstrating various qualities within their work, advocacy for new music, arguing for its merits in the face of marginalisation, for early music, and political advocacy for the writers’ informants in ethnomusicology. Cook is especially scathing on forms of advocacy for new music which positively valorise its alleged resistance to consumer culture (breaching Godwin’s Law in a hyperbolic passage in which he compares the view of one protagonist expressing such a position, Anne Boissière to a tradition of thought which ‘fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of “blood and soil”‘ (p. 257)). But in terms of advocacy based on value judgement, after surveying in particular the relationship between this and analysis at the hands of the likes of Heinrich Schenker, Carl Dahlhaus and Rudolph Réti, Cook delivers the following pronouncement, ending in a formulation reminiscent of Leopold Ranke’s view of the job of history:

It seems to me that the idea of the musical academy acting as some kind of quality control, with musicologists or theorists issuing admission tickets to a canonic hall of fame, is way past its sell-by date, and that the prerequisite for a more open-minded approach to musical culture than musicology has traditionally had is a more modest intellectual ambition: to register, to describe, to establish the facts as they are. (p. 259)

While taking Cook’s views seriously (though not his outrageous slur on Boissière), I disagree with this rejection of value judgement and advocacy in general, reject his caricature of ‘musicologists and theorists’, and find it hard to imagine such a view coming from a practising musician, who would have a different personal relationship with the music in question. (I also do not believe there is such a thing as ‘establishing the facts as they are’, somehow free from the interpretive lens of the academic who is doing that (though this is no sense to take a post-modern ‘anything goes’ attitude with respect to relatively objective factual data), but that is a different matter.)

It is hard to see why one would wish to spend a very considerable amount of time or energy on studying music if one did not care about it, or at least find it fascinating. The exceptions might be if one has a passion for history, sociology or another discipline distinct from music, so one studies the music to learn more about the wider history, the society from which it comes, and so on. I have spent some fair amount of time considering what I consider minor and now-forgotten works in various traditions, not in order to uncover ‘lost masterpieces’ (though it is of course a bonus if one finds something really striking in such research), but rather to gain a wider understanding of the context in which other music which I do value was developed, or to comprehend better developments in style, genre, and so on.

Nonetheless, there are basic principles developed in the humanities which I believe continue to be as essential as ever in musical scholarship: maintaining a key awareness of the range of data available and its limitations, not ignoring inconvenient findings if they might interfere with a priori theories or conclusions, familiarising oneself and engaging critically with existing secondary literature and recognising the relationship of one’s own work to what has already been achieved, understanding that the assumptions, tastes, priorities and values of other times and places may be quite different from one’s own, and most importantly here, maintaining a degree of healthy critical distance from one’s subject, so as to be able to assess and interpret it in a more balanced manner, while avoiding the types of highly subjective judgements which rely essentially on whim rather than more substantive and detailed appraisal. For music, I would add the avoidance of pronouncing on music without having heard it (or, where music has been published but either never-yet performed, or no recording exists, studying the score as the next-best thing). Furthermore, in general I believe it is better if scholars are at least guarded before making blatant political pronouncements which assume the reader share their own particular ideological convictions. If the arguments and interpretations are made in a rigorous and well-substantiated fashion, the reader is perfectly capable of drawing their own political conclusions.

I do enjoy immensely reading scholarly work on music (of all types and traditions) by those who clearly have a passion for it, including on occasions when I might not share the same aesthetic view as the writer, at least initially. I may hear some music which makes an impression, but not always be clear to myself why this is the case, and am always interested to know more of its workings in order to understand more about my own reaction. Amongst large bodies of work, such as Marenzio’s Madrigals, Haydn’s Symphonies, Schubert’s songs or Miles Davis’s albums, I am interested in reading those intimately familiar with such bodies of work and their arguments for why some parts of these oeuvres might be especially distinctive. I (and I am sure a great many others) am perfectly capable of still having my own view after such reading, and of course there has always been lively debate amongst different people about aesthetic matters; Cook’s view of such advocacy as a type of hegemony appears to assume that readers will inevitably have an opinion imposed on them, and presents them as essentially passive. By contrast, as I have argued in a review-article on his book Beyond the Score: Music as Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), I can find Cook’s stand-offish approach clinical and alienating, objectifying and removing the life from music by treating it like a laboratory specimen. It is more ‘open-minded’ to allow for advocacy, at least of certain types, than to attempt to have it banished from scholarly writing, as Cook seems to wish.

However, to give the range of Cook’s arguments the proper consideration they deserve, some of the more questionable types of advocacy within musicology he identifies do certainly exist. The line dividing some supposedly scholarly writing on popular music from that which might appear in a ‘fanzine’ is not always carefully drawn (not least because popular music scholars are not so often well-versed in the types of more detailed perspectives on aesthetics which can be found elsewhere, including in some popular music journalism or other non-academic writing). In and outside of ethnomusicology, ‘activist’ writing can be an unedifying spectacle, eschewing attempts at scholarly balance and critical distance in favour of bald assertion of political points, to an extent that I would question whether some such work really qualifies as scholarship. And, as I said earlier, there are forms of advocacy that rest either on the simple fact that such a view is commonplace, and has been over an extended period, or the assumption that there must be something wrong with anyone who disagrees (an approach which unfortunately permeates such composer monographs as that of Lois Fitch on Brian Ferneyhough, of Pirkko Moisala on Kaija Saariaho).

The works of Fitch and Moisala may be amongst the most egregious examples, but they epitomise a wider phenomenon within writing on new music, one of the areas mentioned by Cook (about which I have been writing much for publications recently, and on which I am preparing a longer blog post). A very large number of practitioners working in research positions in UK academic departments are involved with new music, including myself. In this context I have found the dichotomy between advocacy and criticism to be most acute.

While a few practitioners also produce written and other outputs (as I do, some of which have no direct or obvious link to my own practice), others are focused primarily or exclusively on their practice. More to the point, they frequently also operate in external non-academic arenas, sites dominated by different values, attitudes and behaviours than one might find in academia. Practitioners need to network with those with the power to grant them commissions, performances, exhibits, etc., have to advocate strongly for their own work and sometimes that of others, and often cannot risk expressing views or perspectives which might give grounds for any scepticism about their work, or which those with whom they network might not favour. I have certainly found this when attempting to engage some in the new music world with issues of the development of that world in the aftermath of fascism, or the more specific example of the patronage of new music by the Ernst von Siemens Stiftung, bearing in mind that the Siemens family fortune rests at least in part on their having run slave labour camps at Auschwitz, then spent 30 years trying to fight against compensation claims from survivors – not what those who have received or wish to receive a major grant from this organisation, or their acolytes, wish to hear. Often they are part of wider networks of practitioners whose collective reputation impacts upon their own individual one, and so need to be staunch advocates for these networks.

Amongst practitioners operating in more highly commercialised environments (compared to that of new music, which can at least occasionally entertain some more critical discourse within its ranks), in which total loyalty to an employer, an outfit, a brand, etc., can be utterly essential, and anything else might have one ostracised, these issues may be even more acute. Some of those working in academic departments who are also pursuing commercial work can be mystified when they encounter the type of critical discourse pursued by musicologists, uncomprehending of why one would engage in the type of thinking which may be at cross-purposes with what might help one gain work. Similarly, study of the music industries/business can take radically different forms depending upon whether one is seeking to understand their workings, operations, priorities in the manner of a scholar, or trying to look at (or teach others) how best to succeed in them. Nonetheless, there are important figures with commercial connections who can move between such discourses.

In many institutions and conferences, I have sat through a range of events billed as research presentations by composers, improvisers, sound artists, other performers, and so on, which amount essentially to a form of self-advocacy or even self-promotion, somewhat akin to ‘artists’ statements’. The practitioner will describe what they do, why they chose to embark on a particular project, how they set about this, often with some liberal number of references both to other admired artists to whose work this practitioner links their own, and to certain intellectual figures (Gilles Deleuze or Bruno Latour are often a safe bet, and increasingly a few writings by anthropologist Tim Ingold, though rarely his highly critical articles on ethnography or soundscape), as well as to key concepts from philosophy and other fields (not always presented in a manner which accords with their recognised and established meanings) as part of the process of situating one’s work within a research culture. This is distinct from autoethnography (which, for reasons too intricate to go into here, but which I have argued elsewhere, I do think is often quite deeply linked to the framing of practice-as-research), which is not simply autobiography, but at best entails a critical perspective on the self and the practice in which they are engaged. Occasionally one will encounter a bit of critical self-reflection in such research presentations, entertaining the possibility that it entailed failures as well as successes, but I have found this increasingly rare, as if the practitioners are loath to engage in something which might make themselves seem vulnerable.

Of course there is an important place for this type of self-advocacy, but the values and attitudes it embodies appear at cross-purposes with those of more disinterested humanities scholarship. For this reason, situating practice-research (for this type of presentation invariably relates to such a thing) within the humanities may be a category error.

It would also be unfair to associate this type of advocacy and lack of critique exclusively with practitioners. I have certainly encountered it frequently in some presentations on popular music (in the manner mentioned above), certain types of ethnography dominated by simple representation of the views of the informants, with little critical interpretation (to such an extent that some such work can appear hagiographic, as I have argued in a variety of cases – see my two essays on ethnography in this volume), or those soundscape studies which consist primarily of listing a range of sounds to be found in a particular location, whereby the simple fact of the sounds being variegated appears to suffice for interpretation.

Some of those can rub off on those working in academia who are not themselves practitioners, but write about contemporary work (this was a recurrent subject in the 2017 conference at the University of Surrey on ‘Writing on Contemporary Artists’, where it was fascinating to find how many scholars working on different artistic disciplines had experienced the same issues, conflicts of interests, and so on). Many will share faculties with practitioners, sometimes working in fields related to those about which they write. In my experience, such practitioners, especially those who believe their fields to be beleaguered or little recognised in a wider social context (as with many in new music, not least electroacoustic music), can respond very negatively and even in a hostile fashion that the sort of critical writing which might do something other than simply flatter the type of work they do. While this can only be conjecture/speculation, I do believe that this type of ‘peer pressure’ often has an impact on scholars, leading them to avoid more difficult critical questions, aesthetic or otherwise. But this compromises the depth and integrity of their research, and in my view has led to scholarly writing on new music remaining a very uneven field compared to those dealing with other areas, where will not interact almost on a daily basis with individuals deeply invested in such fields.

This is the type of major conflict which can result from the integration of practitioners in academia without some grounding in wider critical scholarly discourse and the values of the humanities. It can also be damaging for teaching, if one might otherwise not necessarily deem the work of a practitioner colleague itself sufficiently significant to be included in a survey of a field of work, or might wish to unpack some of the aesthetic and ideological assumptions behind their work or those of the circles with which they are involved. Here we do see advocacy and critique drastically at cross-purposes.

But I do not believe this has to be the case, so long as there is recognition the distinct qualities and types of expertise of scholars and practitioners, neither conflates these nor tries to establish a rigid hierarchy, and respects the independent perspectives and academic freedom of each. With teaching, this can be more complicated; here I would aver that on balance scholars might hold back from engaging in practical teaching, and practitioners from scholarly teaching, if they do not have considerable experience of their own in such fields. Teleological views of music history which just happen to feature the work of the composer teaching them as the telos, academic study of performance trends and cultures which are centered around the work of the performer teaching them, or abstract and dry directives on how music should be played on the basis of academic knowledge, by those who have little experience themselves of the process of performing music, are not often good practice in these respective areas.

Music-making can exist without musicology (indeed has done or continues to do so in various times and places), but musicology not engaged with music or music-making which still remains a living concern at least to some (which in no sense means any prioritisation of contemporary work), or has the potential to be so, will invite, not unreasonably, charges of ‘ivory-towerism’. Academics talking solely to each other is not always encouraging, nor an insistence that their own work is only valorised by those other academics (usually within the same sub-discipline, and often sharing a range of ideological assumptions) who by virtue of their very position can never really be more disinterested judges of the wider societal or other value of such work.

It is in my view essential that academic musicians are engaged with music and music-making existing outside of academia, without in the process sacrificing their scholarly independence. This is not about adopting advocacy wholesale, but recognising a world in which this does play a very major role, developing perspectives on this which are not blindly dismissive, but also demanding that practitioners equally recognise that academics may not share the assumptions appertaining to the particular (and sometimes small) cultural or social milieu inhabited by some practitioners.


Those 300-word statements on Practice-as-Research for the RAE/REF – origins and stipulations – ‘academic butt-covering’ or more problematic?

I wrote that my last blog post on the issue of composition and performance as research constituted final thoughts on the subject, at least for now, but one issue has been on my mind which I wanted to clarify for myself and others. This was to do with the ubiquitous 300-word statements included with many submissions to the RAE or REF. In the public debate on the subject, Camden Reeves (1h 38’14”) spoke of an ‘artificial privileging of certain types of composition over others’ and described (1h 40’55”) the 300-word statements as ‘ridiculous’, going on to say that ‘at a lot of universities, the 300 [word] statement was seen as the kind of research report’. Alexander Lingas (1h 43’12”) asked the panel whether ‘by having the 300-word statement, that it privileges certain type of things, so that by doing that, you end up encouraging particular types of things which actually, I have to say, are very congenial to the type of musicologically-informed performance, because that’s precisely the type of thing that 300-word statements is good for to say – why do you make those wacky decisions when you perform this music? – well, it’s because, in 300 words, and so it’s a type of academic butt-covering’.

Miguel Mera (1h 45’35”) claimed that ‘there was no requirement to complete 300 words with any submission . . . you didn’t have to’. But this was far from clear from the REF 2014 report, which contained the following comments:

In brief, the additional 300 words to make further evident the research imperatives and/or research process of an output (paragraph 71(b) of the ‘Panel criteria’) were used inconsistently and the question of the research imperative was not always well-articulated. (p. 16)

As in 2008 the best outputs in PaR were distinguished by clearly articulated research objectives. In a number of instances, the presentation of practice needed no more than a well-turned 300 word statement to point up the research inquiry and its findings, since the concerns outlined were then amply apparent within the practice itself (which was made available for assessment by a variety of means including DVD or CD recordings, photographic materials, scripts and scores, databases, etc.). (p. 99)

More generally, the 300 word statements too often displayed a misunderstanding of what was being asked for and provided evidence of impact from the research, or a descriptive account akin to a programme note, rather than making the case for practice as research. (p. 100)

Scott McLaughlin, in his report on the debate, noted Mera’s comments but added that ‘I get the sense that many Universities insisted on them’. In Paul Allain and Jen Harvie, The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), we find the claim that

all submitted PaR has to be accompanied by a 300-word statement outlining the research imperatives and context, further supported by other forms of evidence. (p.234)

Similarly, in Michael Biggs and Henrik Karlsson, ‘Evaluating Quality in Artistic Research’, in Biggs and Karlsson (eds), The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), in the context of submissions in art and design for RAE 2008, the authors write of ‘the additional requirement of a 300-word statement arguing for the significance and impact of each submission’ (p. 414). Robin Nelson, in his Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), refers to ‘a simple verbal articulation of the research inquiry – such as might be achieved in as few as 300 words’, which ‘proves useful in almost all cases’ (p. 11), not specifically mentioning the RAE/REF or a requirement, but likely written with this in mind.

So where did the idea come from that 300 words was a requirement? It was first presented in Section 3 of the RAE 2001 report on Publications, entitled ‘Panels’ Criteria and Working Methods’, and said specifically that:

3.58.8 Those submitting practice as research may include (in the ‘other relevant details’ field of form RA2) a succinct statement of not more than 300 words for each item in this category listed under RA2; for this purpose practice is defined as all outputs listed in paragraph 3.58.12 b) to e) below. These statements should make clear how the practice embodies research as defined in the RAE. They may, where appropriate, include an indication of the aims, methods, procedures, innovation, significance, and context of the practice. It should be noted that the submission of such statements is not a requirement; the Panel will not expect them when the status of the practice as research is self-evident.

The RAE 2008 guidelines on submissions contained the following text:

94. Brief, additional information may also be given in RA2 ‘other relevant details’ to identify relevant, factual circumstances concerning any output. It need not be supplied in every case. It may be, for example:

• to identify a keynote address to a conference
• to identify an invited conference paper especially where the perceived status of the conference is high
• to indicate the significance or impact of an applied research outcome
• to identify the research content or author’s contribution in edited works, translations, or co-authored works.

In the case of a non-text output, it may be used to give further information on the whereabouts of a work or to note that a photographic, electronic or other record exists. It may not be used to volunteer opinions about the relative quality of an output. See panel criteria statements for further guidance, including the word limit for this text, which, unless otherwise stated, will be 300 words.

The panel criteria for music within Panel O for RAE 2008 included the following:

Researchers should accordingly submit such evidence as they deem necessary to enable subpanel members to assess it within the following guidelines:
a. Research output: this may be submitted alone where it is deemed to constitute
sufficient evidence of the research in itself.
b. Statement: it is recommended that a statement of up to 300 words is submitted in the ‘Other relevant details’ field of RA2, in cases where the research imperatives and the research significance of an output (such as: an artefact, curation, digital format, installation, performance or event, screening, tape, textbook, translation or video) might further be made evident by a descriptive complement. The statement might include: a brief description of the project and its stage of development; a rationale outlining questions addressed; a summary of approaches/strategies undertaken in the work; a digest of further evidence (if any) to be found in sub-paragraph 13c below. As previously indicated, the 300-word statement should also be used to clarify the relative contributions of researchers working on a collaborative research project. The sub-panel will ignore any evaluative commentary on the perceived quality of the research.

Then for REF 2014, the statement of panel criteria and working methods included the following statement:

49. For non-text or practice-based outputs (including patents, software and standards documents), all subpanels welcome the submission of a description in
REF2 of the research process and research content, where this is not evident within the output (maximum 300 words), as described in ‘guidance on submissions’ (paragraph 127a).
(p. 25)

Then for Panel D, with included music submissions, the following:

b. Information about the research process and/or content: Submitting units may include a statement of up to 300 words in cases where the research imperatives and research process of an output (such as an artefact, curation, database, digital format, installation, composition, performance or event, screening, tape, creative writing, database, textbook, translation or video) might further be made evident by descriptive and contextualising information. Where the location or medium of the output is essential to a proper understanding of the research being presented this should be explained in the 300 words. The sub-panels will ignore any additional material that includes evaluative commentary on the perceived quality of a research output (p. 87)

The 300-word limit was further reinforced on p. 99.

It is clear then that whilst the 300 words was not strictly a requirement, there was a very strong incentive to include them with most submissions. How many, reading the words from 2001, are going to view their submissions, or those of their department’s faculty members as having a ‘self-evident’ status as practice-as-research? How many reading the 2008 guidelines are going to go against what is ‘recommended’?

Nicholas Cook, who was on the Music Panel which worked towards producing the 2001 definitions, wrote about the process in his article ‘Performing Research: Some Institutional Perspectives’, in Mine Doğantan-Dack (ed), Artistic Practice as Research in Music: Theory, Criticism, Practice (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015) pp. 11-32. In the RAE 1996, the first such accepting performance submission, according to Cook:

Detailed criteria for the assessment of performance as research were not in place, and when the outcomes were announced there was a widespread perception that the assessment of performance submissions had been surprisingly generous. Given some unease on the part of 1996 panel members, and the expectation that this outcome would prompt a significant increase in performance submissions for the following exercise, a major priority for the 2001 Music Panel (which was convened well in advance of the submission date) was to set the assessment of performance as research on a more principled basis: this was necessary to provide the panel with clear and transparent procedures for its evaluation, to guide institutions’ decisions about what work to submit to the RAE, and to inform their future planning. This panel, which I chaired, for the first time included professional performers, though they were based in the academic sector. (p. 22)

The panel realised that simply mapping criteria from composition-as-research over to performance would be insufficient, not least because the former rested on nebulously defined notions of quality and there were new difficulties entailed in the acceptance of submissions of film and commercial music (the research qualities of the latter of which, I have argued elsewhere, appear to me more tenuous). Whether market success, recognition by peers, or ideals of originality were to be primary criteria all proved difficult in discussion, as Cook points out (pp. 22-3). This now quite notorious definition of research was adopted:

2.12. ‘Research’ for the purpose of the RAE is to be understood as original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce, industry, and to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances, artefacts including design, where these lead to new or substantially improved insights; and the use of existing knowledge in experimental development to produce new or substantially improved materials, devices, products and processes, including design and construction. It excludes routine testing and routine analysis of materials, components and processes such as for the maintenance of national standards, as distinct from the development of new analytical techniques. It also excludes the development of teaching materials that do not embody original research.

As for performance, the following definition was adopted:

3.58.12 d. Performances: in accordance with the RAE definition of research, performance will be accepted as research where it applies or embodies new or substantially improved knowledge or insights, for instance in terms of interpretation, historical performance practice, or technical innovation. Performance is understood to include conducting and direction as well as instrumental or vocal execution; all forms of public output are eligible for submission, including publicly disseminated live or studio recordings, broadcasts, and public performances. In the case of broadcasts and public performances, institutions must be able to supply a recording (which need not be in the public domain). Reference may be made to such factors as the venue of the performance, the standing of broadcasting organizations or record companies involved in its dissemination, and prizes or other marks of recognition); relevant information should be provided in the ‘Other relevant details’ field of form RA2.

This is, I believe, a basically good definition, though it is difficult to define when interpretation does or does not embody ‘new or substantially improved knowledge or insights’ (I would say most good performances do), and I worry about ‘the standing of broadcasting organizations or record companies’ acting as a proxy for judging work in terms of its standing in economies of prestige or market utility. But this is not strictly relevant to the 2001 stipulation about 300-word statements given above, about which Cook says:

That last remark was aimed at composers working in established styles: we did not wish to inflict a burden of pointless documentation on institutions – or on ourselves, for that matter. (The perhaps intellectually shabby idea of ‘self evidence’ reflects the pragmatic approach to composition I described.) Nevertheless the invitation to submit succinct statements excited considerable opposition from the subject community, not all of it reasonable in our view. In the formal processes of consultation that preceded the finalisation of the criteria, certain respondents rejected our assumption that the content of performances or other forms of practice as research could be reduced to words, and accused us of intending to assess the succinct statements rather than the performances. Of course we never made any such assumptions or held any such intentions. The point is very simple, and I have already referred to it. Academic writings are self-documenting. That is the source of the conventions of good academic writing to which Candlin referred. But this is obviously not the case of performances: as Susan Hellauer (1997) says, ‘You can’t sing a footnote’. It follows that you can’t expect an assessor to be able to reconstruct from a performance the research process that has given rise to it. (Think of David Milson submitting a performance arising out of his AHRC Creative and Performing Arts Fellowship.) Once more, this is the point on which the other members of the UKCGE [UK Council for Graduate Education] study group were insisting, except that they were talking about a 40,000 word dissertation whereas we on the panel were talking about a 300 word statement. By inviting those submitting practice as research to provide such a statement, then, we were giving them the opportunity to ensure the assessor understood the research component. We were empowering them to set the terms on which they were to be assessed, and to present their work in the best possible light. (p. 25)

I disagree with Cook; a sensitive listener with some familiarity with the work in question and performance practice might very well be able at least to assess, if not necessarily reconstruct in every detail, the research process which has given rise to one of David Milsom’s performances. A 40 000 word dissertation would certainly elaborate the process to a high degree, if done well, but I am not really sure that a 300 word statement could – or rather, if some point can be elucidated in 300 words but not clearly heard from the performance without such guidance, I would question the extent to which it is embodied in that performance.

An article from 2003 by Peter Thompson (‘Practice as Research’, Studies in Theatre and Performance 22/3, pp. 159-180) gave further details on how this debate was conducted amongst those involved in drama and related disciplines, reproducing correspondence. Drama Professor Franc Chamberlain made the following observation:

To argue that the work itself is best disseminated by performing it seems reasonable to me (although I can imagine a number of counter-arguments), but I’m not convinced that this necessarily follows for research outcomes. Yet I’m not sure that anyone is really suggesting that we shouldn’t document the research outcomes in order to disseminate them – we’re only discussing which mode is most effective for evaluation. Perhaps the A4 (300 words) sheet, though no one would argue that it, in itself, is the dissemination of the research: that can happen in any way which the researchers consider appropriate for the community they wish to reach – if that’s a DVD or a book or a painting or a website, I have no problem.
[….] I don’t have to have been in Nigel Slater’s kitchen in order to follow a recipe – something which may well be an outcome of his PaR – I just use the recipe to make the food: and then I eat it!
(p. 166)

I would be very concerned at the implications for musical or other performance if scores, or scripts were seen simply as ‘recipes’ which are to be followed, thus removing most creative input from the performer (or chef).

Performance Arts Professor Susan Melrose wrote the following:

On the broader question, there is significant history, elements of which can be chased up on the website of the UK Council for Graduate Education. The Performing Arts sector’s advice to the Quality Assurance Agency was quite specific, and ran along the lines of the appropriateness of a mixed-mode higher-degree submission, which might include the submission of an ‘artefact or performance’, together with an appropriately-weighted written component (the weighting to be determined by individual universities). The QAA itself concluded that mixed-mode submissions (in, for example, creative and performing arts) were appropriate, and published that view in the documents (available for inspection) which emerged after the consultation process.

From this perspective, then, ‘just the “doing” itself ’ has not been entertained in the sector with regard to higher-degree submissions, any more than it was entertained by the 2001 RAE Panel. That Panel brought judgement to bear upon practice (and its ‘succinct statement’ of 300 words) as research. (pp. 177-8)

It is clear from this that – at least to some involved in the process in 2001 – the written component was certainly seen as something necessary.

So the debate on the 300 words, which to all intents and purposes I think should be seen as a requirement, even if the letter of the guidelines does not strictly say this, continues. Whilst in agreement with McLaughlin’s response to Reeves’ point about how the requirement put at a disadvantage those musicians less verbally articulate amounts to ‘a particularly hollow form of special-pleading’ – as I myself have said, 300 words is not in itself that much of an imposition – otherwise I have a lot of sympathy with the positions outlined by Reeves and Lingas, and worry about two points in particular. One is whether reading 300-word statements becomes a substitute for listening carefully to work; I have been in a situation where I have been forced to ask which if any of those passing judgement on my 5-CD recording of Michael Finnissy’s five-and-a-half-hour The History of Photography in Sound – for which I also produced a near-300 page accompanying monograph – had actually spent the five-and-a-half hours listening to it just once. But also, as Reeves says, whether this essential stipulation ends up disproportionately favouring work which can be summed up in a snappy 300 words, perhaps peppered with plenty of vogueish buzzwords, and detailing aspects of obvious novelty, whereas work irreducible to such things (I would struggle to do such a thing with Arnold Schoenberg’s Fünf Orchesterstücke, op. 16, Pascal Dusapin’s Third String Quartet, or Reinhard Goebel’s recording of Ignaz Biber’s Rosenkranz-Sonaten, to give just a few examples) will end up being marginalised as a result. This outcome is worse than simply a few musicians having to do some ‘academic butt-covering’.


Musicological Observations 6: Various earlier blog pieces on composition and performance as research

I have published several earlier blogs on the issues of composition and performance as research, only one of which was however included within this ‘Musicological Observations’ series. Here are links to all of them for convenience’s sake.

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

Musicological Observations 4: Can Commercial Music be Research?

Performance-as-Research: A Reply to Luk Vaes

Video of Research Seminar on Composition and Performance as Research, and some wider responses to John Croft and others

Some final thoughts on composition, performance, the REF, and teaching

Those 300-word statements on Practice-as-Research for the RAE/REF – origins and stipulations – ‘academic butt-covering’ or more problematic?

 

And here is the article I wrote in response to John Croft’s original piece:

‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’, Tempo, 70/275 (January 2016), pp. 60-70.

 


Some final thoughts on composition, performance, the REF, and teaching

 

Following the various discussions which have proceeded from the debate at City University on ‘Can Composition and Performance be Research?’ on November 25th, 2015 – see responses here and here; and for various associated links, here), I have had a further few thoughts which I wanted to share here.

    • The burden of ‘proving’ one’s work is research falls regularly upon practitioners, but not often upon musicologists, whose work frequently gains research credentials simply by resulting in a written output, especially if given an imprimatur of validity by being signed off by one or two people – often colleagues and friends for those working in narrow fields – as part of the process of peer review. I can think of many examples of written articles (not least in the field of new music) which I am told are ‘research’, which amount to rushed-out opinion pieces, for which I am unable to discern any sustained work done in preparation, i.e. any significant research at all. It is time for practitioners to turn the tables and ask those who produce such things why their work is research, just as those who produce written work do with practitioners.


    • Composers and performers are not (necessarily) scholars, any more than scholars are composers or performers.


    • This debate has been far too dominated by composers, but the reticence (or inability?) of many performers to contribute to it is a relevant factor. Performers do not have, and should not have, any more reason for complacency than any other practitioners, and should not expect that they can simply continue to do their own thing and never be expected to engage with wider academic discourses.


    • Something almost entirely absent from this round of the debate has been teaching, and specifically undergraduate teaching. If one believes, as I do, that a university functions best when staff are engaged with both research and teaching, and the two feed off one another, then we need to ask about how certain research inclinations feed into teaching. Undergraduate degrees generally need to be quite broadly-based and provide a relatively wide range of offerings in the form of modules. Whilst some practitioners may certainly be engaged in research at a high level through their practice, this does not mean they are necessarily able to teach anything else which students may require, nor act as personal tutors towards students having to produce work in various domains.This is part of a wider argument against too-narrow specialisation, which is a significant issue with respect to practitioner-scholars who have never produced any written outputs. As those who have watched the filmed debate will know, I contest strongly that view which accords supremacy to written outputs over and above over media. In university departments where written outputs are only a small part of requirements for students, it makes sense to employ those who do not produce written work. But at present, this is rarely the case, and as such there is every reason to wish for practitioners to have to demonstrate some prowess in this field as well. Otherwise, would it not make most sense for them to be employed as composition or instrumental/vocal teachers rather than academics?

      Demands for diversification on the part of academics tend to constitute a type of one-way traffic, and usually in favour of certain types of subjects. For example, many of those with a background in Western art music can and do teach popular music, sometimes very well, but the reverse is rare. It is time for practice-centered researchers and others whose research lies exclusively in less traditional domains themselves to have to learn the values of diversity, just as those with a background in Western art music have had to do. Otherwise (as I will argue in a forthcoming article for the Society of Music Analysis newsletter), we are simply undermining the highly skilled nature of the musicological profession, which has traditionally drawn fruitfully upon highly refined and sophisticated skills gained over an extended period before entering university, by asking the one group of scholars who (on the whole) need to demonstrate these to shift in favour of other sub-disciplines, with no parallel shift from others. It should be noted in this context that some of these shifts in musicological emphasis, prominent in the English-speaking world but less so elsewhere (to my knowledge). British musicology, like so many other outpourings of post-imperial British society, frequently exhibits a haughty attitude of superiority combined with relative ignorance with respect to many developments within its continental disciplinary counterparts (whilst bowing down deferentially in the face of its American cousin). For this and other reasons, these types of shifts should not go unchallenged.

      In conclusion to this, it is all right for practitioners to have full academic positions, and not have to develop any wider skills, where there are sufficient staff that they do not need to do anything beyond teaching something relating to their own practice. However, this type of 100% research-based teaching is rarely available to scholars producing written work, so why should it be the case for practitioners?


    • As discussed in my previous post, in the debate it was argued by Mera that in other artistic disciplines there is a clear divide between creative and professional practice. I have problems understanding on what basis this claim is made, or what the distinction is supposed to mean. Should we hive off any practice for which the practitioners are paid, as that makes it ‘professional’, and discount it from qualifying as creative practice as a result? This is not a facetious question; I could see an argument for extracting practitioners in academia from commercialised arenas, as this could be seen to compromise the scholarly and creative independence of their work (see also my earlier blog on whether commercial music can be research). I suspect this is not what was meant, however, by the comment from the REF 2014 report that ‘the sector still has difficulty distinguishing excellent professional practice from practice with a clear research dimension’. Considering how much debate there has been on the issue of how and when composition and performance might be research, are we to believe that all of those involved on REF panels have a clear set of definitions of these terms which would answer all these questions? If so, it would be good to hear these; if not, this raises serious questions about the basis upon which some individuals were empowered to pass judgement on the work of others.


    • 300-word statements might seem innocuous, a simple aid for those judging large amounts of work, but I remain unconvinced that they do not become a substitute for grappling with that work. Having seen multiple external examiners at different institutions who hardly even bothered to look at the work provided to them, I by no means have faith in many academics to do their jobs scrupulously if they are not forced to. Much easier to make a judgement on the basis of a 300-word piece of spin than to discern specifics about an extended score, recording, or whatever. If people are not prepared or competent to judge the latter as research, they should not be on panels doing so.

[Addendum: I have written another piece giving the history of the 300-word statement 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.