Friday, June 05, 2015

When composition is not research

An article by UK composer and Brunel University lecturer John Croft, "composition is not research," was published in last April’s issue of TEMPO and has been doing the rounds on social networks and among artist-researchers in diverse institutions.

 John Croft

The title of the article leaves no doubt as to the position towards which Croft argues. Most of it lists reasons for not confounding artistic and scientific practice, e.g. the difference in how progress is made (Schoenberg does not correct and supersede Bach as Einstein does Newton), the mismatch between scientific and musical value criteria (applying quantity as proxy for quality), different types of creativity (a researcher cannot just ignore previous research), etc. Then there are the outright mistakes, such as the false hypotheses (of course the answer to "can a coherent musical structure be developed from sonification of the human genome?" is yes), the fake synonyms (e.g. composition as "investigation"), and the category error (composition can be an application of research, but not its report). Summing up the apparent futility of it all: if research is a metaphor, "why not 'gardening'?"

It may seem odd that this piece of writing – compelling as it is – has grabbed the attention that has propelled it so widely and quickly. In countless Anglo-Saxon universities, at least, the tendency to profile composition as an academic discipline has existed for many decades, and has long generated all of the main issues that the article brings to the fore. Yet, Croft is not the only one to raise his voice. Almost exactly a year ago, another UK composer-professor (at the School of Creative Arts in The Queen’s University of Belfast), Piers Hellawell, wrote a more extensive article on the topic: "Treating Composers as Researchers is Bonkers" deals with most of the same issues, if developed with more historical detail and concrete examples from his own longstanding experiences.

Piers Hellawell
The narrow focus and the timing of both articles can be understood by considering the current UK higher arts education climate. The pressure on the arts to conform ever more to scientific models, jargon, funding strategies, and quality measurement, was expressed poignantly by the 2014 nation-wide Research Excellence Framework effort. The REF replaced the Research Assessment Exercise, last conducted in 2008, and the significant change from the neutral "assessment" to the ominous "excellence" says much about why both the REF process and its results have been the subject of regular and often heated frustrations, expressed on at least the social networks where I witnessed them being perceived by many as symptomatic of how much the arts are threatened to the core. The impact of this obviously depressing state must be what led Croft to basically give up the fight, offering as the only ways out the return to the idea of considering composition as research-equivalent, even though he acknowledges this is not without problems itself, or to "retreat to our garrets."

This leads me to a more fundamental and more surprising issue underlying these two exclamations by university-affiliated composers. Neither really offers an alternative to the either-or view on research and composition. Hellawell defensively suggests that there is "a large, meaningful and potent research component among today’s composers," but shows us no concrete examples, nor any theoretical frame in which to understand these components and how they can be offset against all that was criticized. Croft mentions that composition can depend on research, or serve as a test or data for research in other or neighboring disciplines, but he does not identify a notion of composition-research that is independent from musicology and from "pure" artistic practice.

Others who wrote on this topic, e.g. UK composer-doctors Lauren Redhead (here) and Aaron Holloway Nahum (here), have offered additional arguments, such as the notion of writing also not being research, or of research being composition, but neither really escaped the conclusion that composition as such is not research. And, again, neither really explained how composition and research are then to be connected, and how the connection can be taken into any type of account. Even though both blog posts also relate to how the REF-type pressures are starting to hurt the sector, there are clear hints at a seemingly unresolved issue that persists despite many thousands of compositional PhD dissertations that have been produced in the Anglo-Saxon world. As much as we can sympathise with Lauren Redhead stating in her post: "It was a hard-won battle and an important recognition of work done that brought composition into the academy," Hellawell's most basic question remains unanswered: "If composition can flourish without research, what then is the latter’s relation to the artistic whole?" Especially from the strategists that are responsible for imposing academic ideologies on artistic practice, one should be able to expect that the critical attitude that they value in research is applied to that shift, and that the link between composition and research, which they seem to find necessary, if not evident, is identified and scrutinized.

Abstracting from the Anglo-Saxon situation, the issue seems to be somewhat of a taboo elsewhere as well. On the European continent, where the REF-type pressures are not yet as fully at play, and where, at least formally, the discipline of compositional research is a much more recent endeavor that has offered as yet only few examples, the Brussels conservatory has systematically and confidently been claiming the concept of equating artistic practice and research. As with their Flemish colleague entities, it is "associated" with a nearby university, a development that is part of a larger EU "academisation" process, slowly and gradually dissolving the dichotomy between academic and artistic training. In the somewhat turbulent times that saw the Flemish conservatories take sides in the debate on how academic artistic practice could and should become, and with universities fearing the leveling of their own standards, the "Brussels model" was defined in the way it saw itself be part of the Flemish government’s apparent three-fold vision of how artistic practice relates to research. That vision - only expressed in Flemish, here in my translation - consists of the following categorisation:

     a) research on the arts, not rooted in artistic practice;

     b) research in the arts with an artistic result and a written report that 
     demonstrates the explicit and relevant research question, method, process, and 
     results of the research, as well as reflection on the approach, the outcome and 
     the context;

     c) research in the arts, coinciding with the artistic praxis, in which the creative 
     process itself is the research, and the product of the research is the artistic 
     product, supplemented with some type of report ["rapportage"].

Apparently, at the Brussels conservatory, "mainly" the third option is practiced. According to the school's research committee, the research situates itself "before and during the realization of the art work," the art work is the result of research, "the artist carries out research," and the results are "imbedded [integrated] in the art work in a language proper to the discipline." It is not entirely clear whether the artist is considered a researcher by default, whether the proper language is meant to be the musical language, nor whether there is a difference between "report" and "rapportage," but as there must be a distinction between b) and c), the Brussels position implies that it considers artistic practice to be research in and by itself.

This model clearly distances itself from a) and b), but its foggy focus adds no clear insights. The first composer to obtain the artistic doctorate through the Brussels model was Peter Swinnen, in 2009. On his website, what must be the "rapportage" can be found to connect to the orchestral piece La Chute de la maison Usher that he defended his doctoral work with. None of it offers any clarity with which to appreciate the new knowledge that we are left to assume was established in and through the composition, though.

If we leave the notion of composition-as/is-research for what it has now, to my mind, amply been argued to not be, the question of what is or can be a fruitfully integrative relation between both practices seems to remain difficult to answer, despite the many countries that now have curricula set up to train composers towards a PhD, all requiring a verbal component, and all using terms such as practice-as- or practice-based/led-research, research in-and-through practice, etc. For performers, especially those of "early music," there is usually no debate about how appropriate any traditional notion of research is. For composition, I have long been having the impression that we are often conversing with the emperor while wondering about where he left his clothes. We are told that we have b), above, but I have seen precious little output that demonstrates how this b) can differ from a) and c) in composition-research, i.e. with research behaving "in" composition, with the artistic result in relation to the "written report that demonstrates the explicit and relevant research question, method, process, and results of the research", and with the research question being determined within the art rather than within the "reflection on the approach, the outcome and the context." On the other hand, I have seen many examples of music philosophy/history/theory packaged as artistic research, with the art work thrown in for some unspecified reason rather than contributing in any essential manner, and where I am not convinced that the artist-researcher was the one best placed to solely bring the project to its most informative and innovative end at the research level.

Yet, I believe that the composer himself can furnish his peers with unique insights, based on research that is particular to the perspective and focus of his position and function as the creator of an art work. From that angle, the value of explicating the research method cannot be underestimated. If no failure or success can be measured, if peers cannot judge the validity of how conclusions were arrived at, there is no use for the so-called research. Every year, I let doctoral students listen to music that is the result of artistic research. Straight listening, with or without score, offers them no potential for assessing the research or any of its aspects (other than a limited judgement of the artistic outcome itself). When I gradually open the windows to the landscape formed by those aspects, short of actually stating the research question, explaining the method, and articulating the research results, there is still no way for them to be successful in that exercise. And this is regardless of whether a composition or its performance is considered. Even to my most experienced fellow pianist-researchers, I can play a piece that exploits insights developed through research, which they are then unable to identify. They can try and copy the result, but that is all, and copying research results is as futile as teaching someone to play an instrument by having the student only listen to how the teacher does something. In both cases, the transfer of the embodied know-how to someone who then wants to be able to use it for further exploration, mostly risks miserable failure.

To me, identifying a problem, devising a method for dealing with it, and coming up with a result that has an impact on the artistic practice with which the research is carried out, seems perfectly possible in composition. In other words: b), with the nuance that the relevant research question comes from within the practice, the method is integrated in it, and these are explicated in a (multi-media) report that accompanies the composition. That it seems simple to me is perhaps because I find it so easy to apply to my own practice, or to distinguish it there from musicological or purely artistic working modes. At any rate, as someone who cannot compose, I shouldn’t care too much, one way or the other. If only it didn't sound so out of tune that composers still seem to find it difficult to settle some of the basics. It is absolutely fine with me if they spend their time composing, but I don’t see why they’d have to play the game of having their works serve as research, other than to fight for maintaining a status quo in job opportunities at academic institutions.* Based on the potential of artistic research that I see and enjoy so much in my own practice, and the responses of my peers, I cannot but feel very strongly about how such research in composition can contribute to compositional practice, above and beyond what composition itself can and already does contribute.

* [Update: a mere 7 hours after it was uploaded, this post entered the top ten of most accessed posts on this blog. First position is held by a post announcing new jobs in artistic research.]


luk said...

In a comment on FaceBook, Lauren Redhead reported from a Goldsmiths University of London study day, this very week, on 'the future of practice-research', where it was argued "that practice is not research is offering opportunities for austerity and funding cuts that will dispropotionately affect the arts. Whether we agree or not with the concept our contracts all mention research and everyone has to at least frame their work in this way."

To me, that doesn't necessarily sound negative - it could be an ideal opportunity to focus away from composition=research, and onto actual research-within-practice, allowing for much easier alignment with the university standards, and not requiring lopsided frameworks.

Lauren said...

Thanks Luk. I see your point here and think this is a purely institutional problem: the UK has one research framework and opting out means no money, no research leave, no funded PhDs, etc. This is why many people think it is important to positively influence that framework to better support and accommodate the work that we are doing.

I think there is a lot of work to be done in definitions, discussions, etc. I think that the research-within-practice idea is definitely one that many colleagues agree with. Not many people at the day actually agreed that the act of composition (or artistic practice) was research in and of itself, but that it could be or that it could be a part of the research. Because the processes and practices were very diverse I think that this is one barrier to a simple definition, but not an insurmountable one. The Goldsmiths day was the first time in my career that I've been able to be part of a cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional discussion about this, and it's also the first one that I've ever heard about too. All of the answers won't be reached in a single day, but I'm glad that the discussion is open and has been started. I think that is most important of all.

luk said...

I think the UK research framework is pretty universal - I have been confronted with it myself, over here, but only encountered problems when trying to fit a straight artistic practice into it.

What is very different in the UK, compared to the situation here, is the fact that such straight artistic practice hás to fit, because the university is very often the only option when looking for a position. Across the channel, we have conservatoires, where no teacher is (yet!) forced to do research.

Ian Pace said...

Having taught for a period at a leading institution for the integration of practice into academia (Dartington College of Arts), I have been struck for some time by just how much more advanced is the scholarly discourse around practice-as/based-research in theatre, dance, visual arts, even writing, than in music, in which critical engagement with the issues is still at an early stage. And I see no reason to isolate composition (perhaps because there are more composers than other practitioners in academia?) and neglect performance and other forms of practice including curating, written outputs from outside of the conventional academic frameworks, and so on.

Two things in particular concern me: (a) that this debate is coming about simply as a pesky by-product of the dissolving of barriers between academic and more vocationally-oriented forms of education, rushed and ill-thought-through, with many practitioners presumptuously expecting that the simple fact that they are practitioners already entitles them to receive research credentials, little respecting the situation of more conventional academics who often have to put in a good deal more work to achieve the same; (b) the debate is being carried out too much amongst those with obvious vested interests; that John Croft's article broke with unquestioned orthodoxies is a major reason why it has generated so much response. A proper debate needs also to involve those more sceptical about whether some of these practice-based activities do indeed warrant being considered research on a par with other academic outputs; otherwise one is simply preaching to the converted

luk said...

In principle, there is indeed no reason to isolate composition in this matter. That I did so, here, has to do with the fact that composition has for much longer enjoyed being equated with research. Specifically in the US, a composer can get a PhD, whereas a performer has to make do with a DMA (which even Americans consider second rate compared to a PhD: I get e-mails from them to make sure that they could now get a 'fully fledged PhD' in the EU). Still now, in those circles where composition and performance doctorates are assessed (at the application as well as the defense stage), I have noticed the difficulty jury members seem to have when they are asked to judge a doctoral research project in composition.

Ian Pace said...

'Even to my most experienced fellow pianist-researchers, I can play a piece that exploits insights developed through research, which they are then unable to identify. They can try and copy the result, but that is all, and copying research results is as futile as teaching someone to play an instrument by having the student only listen to how the teacher does something. In both cases, the transfer of the embodied know-how to someone who then wants to be able to use it for further exploration, mostly risks miserable failure.'

I don't accept this at all. I listen all the time to other pianists (and other musicians) for their insights, and learn a lot from them, possibly more than I do by reading what some have to write about what they think the most important factors are.

roya arab said...

I have been reading the debates surrounding this issue in readiness for a panel discussion on the matter of performance and composition as research (City University 25.11.2015). One major shortcoming that strikes me is the lack of quantitative research into the matter. Since this particular field of research only dates back to mid 1980 in the UK, would it not be pertinent to list the research projects that have garnered funding and study closely the outcomes in order to establish the 'stock of knowledge' (as outlined by REF) that these research projects have added to or enhanced. An interdisciplinary comparative study may well enlighten the debates with findings that help the discipline to go beyond seeming polemic and instead to analyse findings in some semblance of empirical studies so that applicable knowledge, theories, techniques and tools that have been gained from these research projects can be established (or not as the case may be).

luk said...

Good point. Although I have some reservations (as long as the fundamental terminology is disputed, how to precisely investigate the field?; is there a database from which to draw information?), I think it would be useful, indeed, if not revealing, to have an empirical look at the social relevance.

roya arab said...

In terms of database, (thinking as an archaeologist) maybe a call out to relevant educational institutions to send lists of PhDs awarded in the field of 'musical composition and/or performance as research 1980-2010'. Once a list is established and presuming they contain a hypothesis/question, then the abstract, musical text and/or performance (if accessible) should contain the findings and sufficient time has passed to detect applicable knowledge and impact on musical discourse and/or practice.

Grappling with terminology to situate the discipline more firmly in a hard-science biased academic/institutional framework, seems to blight most social sciences and arts, compounded by the phenomenological, dynamic and in part inexplicable reality of music. The fundamental terminology is something musicologists might sort out once they feel more confident in an ever evolving discipline with sub-disciplines likely to increase as music leads us a merry dance, whilst the paymasters' budgets decrease.

luk said...

@ Ian, about " I listen all the time to other pianists (and other musicians) for their insights, and learn a lot from them, possibly more than I do by reading what some have to write about what they think the most important factors are."

Sure, but all that you can 'learn' that way, i.e. by listening, is subject to intentional fallacies.

Ian Pace said...

No, I don't accept that at all - sometimes you can hear things which the musicians might think are very successful, and arrive at a diametrically opposed view oneself.

luk said...

But you cannot know what musicians think is successful just by listening to their performance. It may be that they don't think in terms of success or failure, it may be that they also think the diametrical opposite, etc.