Monday, 8 June 2015

Squaring the damn composition–research circle

John Croft
There has been some talk directed, of late, to the topic broached by John Croft’s article for the most recent issue of Tempo, Composition is not research.[1] It’s rare for academic essays to be so blunt, but Croft, as is plain from his title, is unequivocal in his view: that despite their presence in many departments of music, it’s largely confusing to think of composers as ‘researchers’, that compositions are not ‘research outputs’. That the presence of composition in the academy as ‘practice-based-research’, while observably real, is presaged on a fudgy, sometimes vague metaphorical linkage, which does a disservice by association to both composition, and research, considered on their own.

A taste—this comes from the opening of the article:
There are, by and large, two kinds of composers in academia today – those who labour under the delusion that they are doing a kind of ‘research’, and those who recognise the absurdity of this idea, but who continue to supervise PhD students, make funding applications, and document their activities as if it were true. Composing, of course, might on occasion depend on research – how do I make an orchestra sound like a bell? How do I electronically sustain a note from an instrument so that it doesn’t sound mechanical? What is the best way to notate microtones or complex rhythms so that they can be accurately played? But none of these is actually the composition of music.

Since publication of this article—which had been doing the rounds for some time as a talk (at the request of the late Bob Gilmore was it put in print)—there have been a few discussions, mainly located in facebook threads. Aside from the back-slapping and general ‘go John’ mood—saying the unsayable, calling out the bullshit, ‘down with REF’ (the ‘Research Excellence Framework’[2]) etc.—the other responses have been along the lines of ‘well, it’s a bit more complicated than that’.

Initially, the thought of this discussion was frightening as hell. In one corner: composers and performers, who possibly have some place within the academy, who are going to be out and proud and not going to take any more of this damn REF-inspired nonsense. In the other: more composers and performers, whose careers—as well as thought, ideological grounding—might have been shaped by ‘practice-as-research’ as an allegedly coherent starting point. But they might dislike REF as much as anyone else, it’s just that they had different ideas about research. Or did they? In any case: all participants recognise the peril. It’s just that some are more present to the peril than others, and have decided to act accordingly (though I’m not sure which corner they’re in).

And then, of course, comes the joke: will Croft submit the article as another published ‘research output’ when the next REF exercise comes around?

All of which got me squirming a little. For a few reasons: the first being a pragmatic one, that I had been thinking a lot about my upcoming doctorate (I enrol in September), which is ‘in composition’. But I had philosophical worries too. Wasn’t the idea of ‘composition as research’ similar to the idea of ‘experimental music’; something, for all its faults, I remain attached to? And what about performers? Were their insightful experiences and discoveries when playing different music (new and old) not constitutive of research, in one way or another? Could composers participate in this discovery? And what about aesthetics? Is artmaking philosophical?, and generative of new aesthetic models? To flip Hegel on his head: is all art philosophy?

Francesconi ‘weighs in’

The other reason: I’d heard this weird phrase, ‘research music’ before.

Luca Francesconi on ‘research music’—from 1min in.

Teaching is one of the most important things we can do, it’s the only real influence we can have in this field of ‘research music’—that's how I call it, because I want to avoid the term ‘contemporary’, which sounds almost like an insult nowadays. Research music means that we try to dig into—to find a way through—the real burning[?] method, which is still the core of every human being [every artist?].

Well—er, what? What, exactly, does Francesconi have in mind? Is ‘research music’ entirely academic and different from music conducted outside the academy (which is then, what, ‘professional music’)? Or is it independent of the academy, but sometimes overlaps? The Gulbenkian is a private charity—is this ‘Third Sector research music’? (Christ…) And what is its putative relationship to teaching?

Actually, Francesconi may be suffering from translation issues here. The Italian musica di ricerca (lit. ‘research music’) is the usual translation of the English term ‘experimental music’. Perhaps what Francesconi was trying to say was that he prefers the term ‘experimental music’ to ‘new music’ (=Neue Musik, of the Bekker/Adorno variety). Perhaps. But this leaves an intriguing problem. If ‘research music’ is, at some level, synonymous with ‘experimental music’, where does this leave us? Can we square the ‘experimental music’ circle and thereby square the ‘research music’ circle, or ‘music-as-research’?

Francesconi give us some hints—the metaphor he uses: ‘dig into’, the way he talks about ‘method’. Is he talking about aesthetics?

Bob Gilmore at breakfast
Mapping the experimental world

In his audio documentary about experimental music (reprinted with additions in Artistic Experimentation in Music: An Anthology, Leiden, 2014), Bob Gilmore attempted to circumnavigate the thorny term, and provided several approaches to it. They were five in number, and in order they are:
1.     Experimental music is ‘the introduction of novel elements into one’s music’.
2.     An experimental action is ‘an action, the outcome of which, is not foreseen’. (both from John Cage[3])
3.     ‘An experiment in music is like a scientific experiment, and as in scientific work, one experiment always does lead to another one.’ (ie. Music-as-research, from James Tenney)
4.     ‘Experimental’ refers to a type of music of a particular historical era, essentially, if not quite exclusively, music of the fifties, sixties and seventies, stemming from Cage’s ‘hard’ (ie. No. 2) definition. (building on Daniel James Wolf)
5.     ‘“Experimental” is all the interesting new music that isn’t avant-garde.’ (Michael Nyman)

These definitions are rather disparate, especially when they’re so bluntly laid out like this. Gilmore points explicitly to definition 3, coming from James Tenney, as being ‘composition as research’. Tenney’s music was marked by this aesthetic predilection—music that could at once constitute acoustic and aesthetic investigation. But, of course, not everyone can compose like Tenney—and indeed, not many actually do.

And, perhaps more troublingly, what about the presence of ‘science’ in this definition? We may well wish to see art resemble science in certain ways—but Croft’s entire premise was to build up an especially ‘scientific’ idea of research (and here we see the impact of STEM emphasis), in order to distance artmaking from this approach. But there are other ideas of research, even within the academy.

And anyway, scientific researchers don’t really fall into any of the definitions above, certainly not 2. (On the whole, scientists know exactly what their experiments are supposed to do, their outcomes are most certainly ‘foreseen’.) And if we accept 3, what should we glean from the linkage? Scientific experiments, if they aren’t used to confirm an already-existing theory (e.g. the LHC at Cern) are designed with a view to generating novel data. The data pertains to a particular model, used to predict particular outcomes. If we are to follow Popper, unlikely hypotheses are posited, and then attempted to be disproven (falsified). If they can’t be, and they can’t be incorporated into some already-existing model, then the model has to be altered or thrown out—this is the ideal scientific method. It’s not necessarily about the world itself; it is about the model being applied to the world. Scientists argue about different mathematical and statistical approaches to understanding experimental findings and data. But while the world is not subject to paradigm shifts—it stays more or less the same—science is subject to these shifts, as new and more sophisticated experimental technologies to measure and manipulate the world are designed, and their resultant data interpreted, new understandings formulated. Scientists, like everyone else, are subject to intellectual fashion, wishful thinking, and their own peculiar form of aesthetics.  

So what would this mean for art? It seems obvious to me that artistic research can’t be any sort of science along those kind of lines, in terms of forever developing a model. If we take the idea of a specifically artistic kind of experiment seriously, what then is experimental music?

Robert Ashley
Aesthetics to the rescue

Composition is anything but experimental. It is the epitome of expertise. It may be aleatoric or purposefully unpredictable in its specific sounds, or purposefully exploratory of a sound, but ‘experimental’ is the wrong word.
(Robert Ashley, quoted in Gilmore)

The irony is that scientific experimentation isn’t ‘experimental’ either, in Cage’s terms (definition no. 2). Scientists know exactly what their experiments are designed to do, and have a clear expected set of results. What Cage, perhaps, had in mind with his definition was the notion of the ‘accidental’, when a scientist happens upon, serendipitously, a new result, through neglect of their equipment, or desperation, or sheer luck.

But what Cage really had in mind was creating for himself a idiomatic way of working, and a particular aesthetic—notably one he could also, for want of a better word, ‘sell’ in later writings. By giving over to chance operations and other experimental procedures, one could ‘stumble upon’ previously unlikely combinations of sounds. One could get away from one’s habitual manoeuvres. The results could be curious, puzzling. Experimental music, when it is done best, is a reorientation, to transform the composer into just another curious listener. In science, experimental puzzlement at a result is not the stated end; it leads to a more sophisticated theory, a more sophisticated model of reality. In music, experimental puzzlement is the end in itself; it is a great leveller; it is taking pleasure in curious bafflement at the never-quite-explainable. In the end, Cage’s experimentation (and, I think, by extension, Tenney’s) has nothing to do with experimentation per se, and everything to do compositional aesthetics.

Aesthetics, then, is the combination of habit, method, reference, style, connotation, meaning, fashion, ideology and sensuality that fuse to make the process of art-making and art-receivership peculiarly itself. Artists are like their publics, in that they make art in a shared world of habit and reference. So far so Danto.

But could this kind of activity constitute research? One clue comes from discussions on the philosophy of music. There is an almost universal condition applying to philosophers writing about music—that they will mention Cage, and 4’33”. Discussions of this piece are alarmingly ubiquitous[4]—in discussions of ‘musical ontology’ (that is, the condition of the musical ‘work’), on performance, on listening, on composing, on musical meaning. But one of the great frustrations for anyone at all familiar with other experimental music is that these philosophers on the whole do not familiarise themselves with the plethora of other pieces that were made by Cage’s generation and the generations that followed. Might these other pieces also have something to tell us about these philosophical problems? About what music is, and what it means? About where the edges of music might lie?

When one views the history of experimental music and art practice in these terms, one sees it often adopts the character of philosophical inquiry. Like philosophers, artists are forever interested in working around familiar aporia. They are interested in the same old topics. Time, memory, the body, space, the external world, cultural detritus, symbols, signs. And just like art, philosophical research has its origin with the experience of an individual, their life, readings, thoughts, preferences. Indeed, the preferences of philosophers are almost as arbitrary as stylistic preferences of artists. Philosophers find certain ideas and approaches ‘attractive’, in an almost aesthetic way. Students adopt, or attempt to debunk, ideas for much the same reasons.

Engels' caricature of the Berlin Young Hegelians (then known as 'Die Freien', the free) looking alarmingly like an artistic movement. 1841.
Say you asked a philosopher why they were, a logical positivist as opposed to a poststructuralist, or a realist or idealist, Kantian or Hegelian, phenomenologist, existentialist, or a Christian as opposed to an atheist. Would they be able to give you a rational answer? In the same way, composers and artists have certain beliefs and approaches, styles, but can they really account for them? Training, formative influences, language, family are all factors. And philosophers, like artsts, are subject to modishness, to the vicissitudes of fashion, wanting to impress or undermine their teachers or colleagues, fallings-out, personal likes and dislikes, and so on.

It’s no secret that philosophy departments have been hit by the recent STEM refocus as much as anyone else within the humanities. Perhaps it was detected by the neoliberal powers-that-be that be that philosophical research doesn’t really have the same ideal sciency character that research should according to their model. Indeed analytic philosophers have noticed this for many years—and have tried to make their work look more like science or, particularly, mathematics. The great dream of the analytic philosopher is to be able to overturn some scientific theory using just the power of reason.

Conversely, parts of the continental tradition have increasingly adopted the character of literature. While the analytics are obsessed with Truth as a logical category (though they can be as maddening obscure as anyone else), French philosophers in particular seem to be interested in, well, ‘Truthyness’. The feeling of an idea being so true, so seductive and magical in its potentiality. What has now come to be known as Theory lives to be applied to art, and is found in art gallery bookshops.

In other words, the ideas of philosophy are rather like style. They live through their applicability, and influence. All philosophers mostly talk to other philosophers and philosophy students, but the most successful ones are the ones that can make their ideas current for other audiences, and attract as many followers and acolytes. Analytics have set their eye on scientists and mathematicians, Continentals on artists, curators and literary critics. And just like artists, the most successful philosophers are the ones that can attract as many protégés and bright young things to their departments, whilst writing sometimes with the lay public in mind too.

But another reason philosophical research lacks ‘sciency’ character is its sheer age. Scholasticism predates science by at least five hundred years—and after all, most of what philosophers do has to be classed as fundamentally scholastic (interpreting, or as they would prefer, ‘reading’, and re-reading, and reading others’ readings). The other half of philosophy is thinking all of itself—which itself is built on reading, but more obliquely. This activity is absolutely ancient, and science is basically a subset of philosophical ‘thinking’ and interrogation and grew out of it. Physics is still occasionally called Natural Philosophy at Oxford.

Perhaps the suspicion about philosophy stems from this very ancientness, that it predates capitalism and industrial society by two thousand years. Of course, artmaking predates philosophy by ten thousand years, at least. But we’ll just leave that there.

Is making art so much like doing philosophy? If artists really know what they’re doing—and provide good, well-researched and interesting commentaries to their work, then it can be. The work, obviously, has to be good and provocative in the first place (a good commentary can’t save a mediocre piece). But many decent art projects are let down by incoherent commentary from curators and artists alike. Contemporary art and music had (and still has) a great capacity to expand the boundaries of our worldview, and mess with our heads. Great, new ideas can do this too.

Here, I disagree with Croft, who is building on Gadamer, about research ‘describing the world’, whilst art ‘adds to the world’. This is a false dichotomy. Ideas can add a great deal to the world, not least in changing our view of it and inspiring actions in people. Meanwhile, art absolutely can ‘describe the world’: it can describe and paint our experience of it, and the experiences of others.

For me though, the crucial link is one of style, and aesthetics. Philosophers have certain ways of thinking about the world that, in the end, are personal, and cannot be absolutely justified. Their research attempts to make reasoned arguments for their positions. But ultimately, one has to find their approaches ‘attractive’ or reject them; one has to find that delicious ‘Truthyness’ in the picture they paint. In this sense, philosophy is so much like art that one could understand why Hegel thought the one could be replaced by the other.

Cartoon by Tom Gauld
Calling a spade a spade: the problem of ‘bureaucratic patronage’

But even if there isn’t necessarily a good way to find a model of research that fits with artmaking, the problem Croft was talking about isn’t really about this question. What he’s really talking about is the fact that he feels uncomfortable with the way that artists and their work have been categorised by the new bureaucratic layer one now finds in the universities.

Creative people have long been part of universities—and composers longer than most.[5] The first recorded doctorate in music at Cambridge was presented in 1461, to Thomas St Just. More famously, a few years later one was awarded to Robert Fayrfax. In this case it was not just the historical study of Pythagorean harmonics—as part of the Quadrivium—that these doctorates represented. It was also the practical application of theoretical principles, and composition too. Fayrfax submitted his mass, O quam glorifica as his doctoral ‘exercise’, and later found himself appointed at Oxford.

Composers, then, can point to a long history of being included in academic establishments. But the problem for composers was the same then as it is now. Having chosen this most precarious of vocations, how ought one support oneself? In fifteenth century England, only the church and various chapels (Royal, or attached to the new colleges at Oxford and Cambridge) could offer much in the way of stability of employment. By the late twentieth century, the situation had diversified vastly. But educational institutions still offer and enticing degree of stability for composers and other artists for whom the wider market seems indifferent or completely hostile.

The number of private patrons interested in new music—a la Betty Freeman or Paul Sacher—has decreased too. The majority of private commissions come not from individuals but from foundations. And despite the much-vaunted anti-capitalist capacities of Adornian Neue Musik, many large-scale commissions come from large industrial corporations. Gulbenkian of the Gulbenkian Foundation (mentioned in the video above) made his money from the Iraq Petroleum Company; the foundation continues to have an oil interests. Sacher’s money came form Hoffmann-La Rouche, a company that still commissions new composition today.

Just as audiences for classical music are falling, it seems the number of composers is rising. This is likely an effect of the boomer-generation composers holing up in educational establishments for support, as patronage models shifted. As a result, more young composers were and are being trained. Counting myself as one of them, one the reasons I wanted to do this doctorate is to give me time and experience teaching (which I enjoy greatly) and doing musicology—as well as writing some pieces!—such that I might be able to get a university job at the end of it. This is the exact same thought that has been had by hundreds if not thousands of other composers: some of them are lucky enough to find themselves employed in those universities.

Fielding some of these ideas with one or two people at the Music and/as Process conference the other day, it seemed there are basically two conversations. One is: what is artistic research and how could we best think about it? This is the subject of the collection edited by Bob Gilmore (Artistic Experimentation in Music), and it’s a very reasonable conversation to be having.

The other conversation is ostensibly similar but really has little to do with this. It is: how can we stay healthy, with institutional patronage? How can we be honest about the work we do, and keep our jobs in educational establishments?

It is natural for composers and artists to support each other. The more of us there are, the more support we can lend to one another. But it’s also crucial for us to be honest about what we really want. If composers find themselves in educational institutions, for what reason are they there? If presence in a university is a mere stop-gap, or a way of prolonging the inevitable spat-out-into-the-world moment, or as a mere day-job, it’s hard for me to find too much sympathy. If they’re there, but  resent and would prefer not to have to make their work more available via writing (writing words) and teaching, the outside world is always ready and waiting. But if educational institutions can support fascinating art—and the great artists and performers who make it, and who themselves are great communicators and inspirations to students—we should fight for them to do so. The only way to really do this is to be truly honest about what it is we’re fighting for. 

Composers (not to unfairly pick on them, but I’ll do it anyway) have been present in universities longer than science has even existed. That has to give us confidence. Certainly we’ve been here longer than these damn bureaucrats.

On the whole, the academic community has done a pretty crap job of sticking up for the system they’re in, as it has been so violently ‘reformed’ over the past few years. Few have been especially active in supporting the Universities and Colleges Union, say, or the student movement, who have been fighting for free education and reductions in cuts. Universities are as awash with money as they’ve ever been, thanks to the new fees regime, and vice-chancellors (the worst of the bunch, and many are highly-enriched former academics) do not wish to lose their newfound bounty. But having a more honest approach to the REF can only come as part of a wider re-appraisal of all the changes forced through the university system over the last few years. We have to fight for a decent university system and not just for our own self-interest or the interest of our field. We’re going to need to do this, especially following the 2015 election.

Academics get scared easily because they fear losing their privileges. But there’s one way in which we, as artists, are different from the philosophers. We’re more flexible. We can make a living independently. I mean, whoever heard of a freelance philosopher?

[1] Some of the discussion following it has been summarised and commented upon by Luk Vaes here:
[2] I notice looking at it now, though, that the REF deigned 76% of submitted research ‘world leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’, which seems to me rather madly high. But then I can remember a certain joviality on Twitter when the results came through last year.
[3] No. 1. from History of Experimental Music in the United States, and 2. from Composition as Process, both collected in Silence, 1961, p. 72 & 39. The documentaries are online here:
[4] He’s so ubiquitous even I have mentioned him five times already…
[5] An article by Piers Hellawell discusses the activities of composers based at British universities more recently, such as Alexander Goehr, Robin Holloway, Robert Sherlaw Johnson. He also discusses his own experiences.

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