John Croft's articleFootnote 1 raises many important issues and has already served as a catalyst for a wider debate. I welcome this, although my own conclusions on the subject are quite different from his. Much literature on practice-as-research in several disciplines is written by those who stand personally to gain from wider acceptance of the concept and the lack of more sceptical voices leads to a lop-sided treatment.Footnote 2 Croft's work in some ways acts as a counterbalance in this respect; what he identifies is a by-product of a British higher education sector in which many boundaries between university and conservatoire music departments have been broken down.Footnote 3 This is in marked contrast to the situation in Germany, for example, with its non-negotiable doctorate + Habilitation qualification in order to obtain a permanent position in a university department, that few practitioners will have obtained unless they have developed large-scale elaborate theoretical frameworks, and demonstrated expertise in a second subject too.
But this blurring of boundaries raises as many questions as it solves, many of which have only been addressed by a few of those working in the sector. Historically, university departments have provided a broad field of study and research in music, within which performance in particular is not necessarily a central activity, while conservatoires have always had high-level professional training at their heart. The exclusivity or otherwise of this training depended upon the programme undertaken (performer's course, graduate course, degree course, etc.), but the distinction with a university remained clear. In some ways it still does: there is intense competition for conservatoire places and many of those studying in university departments would be unlikely to gain entry. The situation is less stark the other way round, not least because most university departments have a much more pressing need to recruit students than do most conservatoires. Nowadays, as conservatoires gain degree-awarding powers of their own, they are employing more academic musicians and becoming more embroiled in the funding opportunities offered by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), although this has had less effect upon most instrumental and vocal teachers (and their equivalent in non-academic positions in university departments) than upon composers.
Crucially, if one comes to study composition, whether at a university or conservatoire, is one seeking to learn essential technical skills, or to engage with a much wider reflective and critical approach to composition? The distinction may seem clear, but I am not convinced that all students at such institutions, or their teachers, are really so drawn towards the latter option. The same question applies to performance, creating further difficulties when numbers are bolstered by the acceptance of students who simply want to perform and make a career of that, and are resistant to more critical thinking. The need for student satisfaction and demonstrations of ‘vocationality’ (replete with employment statistics for marketing purposes) demanded by management can make unreflective and technically-focused courses the safest of options. But as composers and performers are integrated into the full academic structure of university departments, there is pressure on them to produce research; I am not arguing that Croft is necessarily advocating this state of affairs, but it is one of the reasons his article has attracted such widespread discussion.
I would like to broaden the discussion to include performance as well as composition, not least to challenge a perceived hierarchy in academia in this respect. There are many more individuals whose primary activity is composition than performance in full academic positions in UK universities with music departments (one or more composers in practically every department, performers much rarer). Furthermore, performers often face greater difficulties in having their work accepted as research: a quite typical example is a comment from an academic from a non-artistic field who, when presented with the fact that non-text outputs accounted for 42% of REF 2014 submissions in music,Footnote 4 expressed surprise that this category would include composition, which was viewed narrowly as the production of ‘texts’. Those whose work is almost exclusively in the form of the journal article, book chapter or monograph can find it very hard to view something in sonic rather than written form (let alone a live event, not a recording) as research.
There are certainly many difficulties in assessing both composition and performance according to existing academic research criteria. Both elude the possibility of peer review in the manner familiar for text-based outputs, and although various scholars in practice-based fields are considering ways in which equivalents to these processes might be established,Footnote 5 this investigation remains in its early stages. I also believe that equivalence of ‘academic’ and practice-based PhDs has been taken too much for granted,Footnote 6 a subject I will return to at the end of this article, and that the quality of the latter has frequently been assessed by parties who are far from disinterested.
The framing of practice-as-research – a radical concept which should be distinguished from practice-led research or research-based practice, each of which can be mapped onto Christopher Frayling's 1993–94 tripartite of research ‘through’, ‘into’, ‘for’ art and design respectivelyFootnote 7 – can simply constitute a means for integrating practitioners into academia without requiring they fundamentally change the types of outputs they would expect to produce. However, as has been demonstrated in other disciplines, such an integration can open up possibilities for and stimulate forms of work that might not otherwise have been considered. Musicians and musicologists have only very occasionally participated in the wider and sophisticated discourses on these issues developed by scholars and practitioners in other artistic disciplines, above all theatre, who have embraced practice-as-research.Footnote 8 Croft's article does not engage with these discourses at all, many of which would have set many of his arguments and positions (and especially his definitions of ‘research’) into relief. For example, his standpoint is countered by brilliant examples of practice-as-research such as Henry Daniel's dance-based Skin, created at Transnet, Vancouver, which became the focus for a set of objectives coming out of a wider tour, incorporating studio-based dance into a wider cross-disciplinary discourse, re-focusing the dancer/performer/undergraduate student in the role of a ‘research assistant’, and looked to create new guidelines for wider practices-as-research;Footnote 9 Dianne Reid's video choreography aimed to answer the question of how to make her sweat bead on the surface of the TV screen through a work encapsulated in 12 sub-headings relating to its structure and thematic content;Footnote 10 Jane Goodall's framing of specialist knowledge, in this case relating to popular fiction, on Renaissance science and other sources, formed an essential part of a research process leading to the production of her own thriller fiction, in a way which is more enlightening than hackneyed talk of intertextuality.Footnote 11 All of these are not merely new frames, but new species of practice.
Croft's article appeared too early to have been able to engage with the first substantial monograph on practice-as-research in music, a collection less ambitious or adventurous than other publications mentioned, but nonetheless a worthwhile addition to the literature, including a few truly theoretically rigorous and cogent essays.Footnote 12 This had been preceded by a special issue of the Dutch Journal of Music Theory in 2007Footnote 13 and the Swedish Journal of Musicology in 2013, the latter more focused upon the looser European concept of ‘artistic research’;Footnote 14 Croft does not engage with the work contained in either of these journals either, in which he might have found at least more nuanced considerations of the ways in which the various expectations and criteria of research can be fruitfully applied to practice, which itself can be construed as entailing knowledge and understanding.
Certainly Croft makes some important points, particularly the suggestion that the concept of composition-as-research privileges certain approaches, such as those using elaborate compositional systems and/or cutting-edge technology, regardless of the results. To these I would add intricate aesthetic formulations drawing liberally upon canonical ‘theorists’, or the self-conscious situating of one's practice relative to whichever other composers seem opportune for the career-minded. With respect to the issue of systems, however, Croft's claim that ‘good and bad music can be made from any system’ is glib, and suggests the systems’ role is essentially arbitrary; on the contrary, some crude systems are unlikely to produce good music.
Croft's basic formulation that composition is not intrinsically research is one I accept in this naked form, and I would say the same about performance. But both are outputs, which can entail a good deal of research. A new type of blancmange or smartphone may not themselves be intrinsically research either (nor, as Lauren Redhead vitally points out, is writing),Footnote 15 but few would have a problem seeing them as valid research-based outputs. Croft talks about technical explorations, such as ways to electronically sustain a note without it sounding mechanical, or the production of theoretical treatises, as research informing composition, but the composition itself is not research; he is simply describing research-based practice. Ultimately his model of research seems to require a particular type of conceptually based knowledge which can be communicated verbally, which I find too narrow.
In other ways, Croft's portrayal and definitions of research can seem myopic and even rather haughtily superior, and do not constitute a significant advance on Piers Hellawell's more elaborately argued essay on the subject.Footnote 16 Here one can sense special pleading: Croft and Hellawell appear to want all the benefits, financial and otherwise, of secure university positions, jobs which are sometimes envied by more traditional academic researchers in an overcrowded academic workplace, but without being subject to the demands made on those other types of academics.Footnote 17
A good piece of composition probably cannot be encapsulated by a series of research questions (except perhaps in some cases of Konzeptuelle Musik), but many aspects of the composition can be productively informed by them. The examples proffered by Croft are yes/no questions, rarely as fruitful in any context as ‘hows’, ‘whys’ and so on. Indeed some questions can themselves be answered in a non-verbal manner through creative work.Footnote 18 Brian Ferneyhough's Sonatas for String Quartet could be framed in terms of the question ‘is it possible to sustain a large-scale composition with extensive use of a post-Webernian vocabulary, and if so, how?’Footnote 19 For me Ferneyhough's piece avows that this is indeed the case, but that was not necessarily self-evident when he began the composition; a good deal of research went into the process and the nature of the resulting sonic output is far from straightforward, constituting a nuanced and multi-faceted response to the question. Croft's example of Beethoven's Ninth can also be framed in terms of a variety of questions to do with the possibility of expansion whilst preserving certain formal properties: how to integrate voices into the symphony (at which structural moment should one first introduce soloists or the choir? What type of music should occur on this first occasion, and should it be pre-empted earlier by instruments? If a soloist or soloists on this occasion, how would this moment relate to the music of the choir when they enter?).Footnote 20 I agree that we hear Beethoven ‘composing himself into a corner, necessitating a radical way out of the resulting musical impasse’, but that is a predicament with which many historians or archaeologists, say, will recognise as they try to find a coherent model which incorporates a range of fragmentary, confusing and contradictory primary source material.
I regularly ask myself questions about the music I play, such as ‘how is it possible to maintain interest, momentum and sonic diversity in a contrapuntal texture without obviously foregrounding one voice above all others?’ or ‘how can one maintain a sense of overall coherence in performance whilst maintaining a sense of fragmentation and non-closure?’Footnote 21 These are complex questions, which continue to emerge in different contexts, and possible answers are far from self-evident. In some cases I have abandoned the quest, but that is the nature of research; other scholars have also doggedly pursued a hypothesis over an extended period of time only to abandon it when they find it irreconcilable with data to hand.
Contrary to Croft's claim, much research does indeed disregard swathes of previous research when it is not particularly relevant or useful for the task in hand, and rejects unwanted influences (some historians of nineteenth-century Germany have worked hard to move away from the Sonderweg theory, for example;Footnote 22 some looking at the Chartists in Britain have tried to shake off much of the baggage of earlier Marxist interpretationsFootnote 23). Croft also criticises the need to specify the nature of an original contribution before a work is even composed, but it should be pointed out that a similar problem exists for written academic research when one has not yet devoured sources, archives, done field work, let alone interpreted what is to be found there. Composers are far from alone in finding such demands difficult to sustain.
Croft claims that certain research questions come down to whether one can write music that convinces oneself. In one sense this is of course true, but the business of needing to convince others – whether performers, audiences, funding bodies, promoters, or whoever – exists well beyond the academic world; most art is subject to judgement by others who may not share the view of its creator, and this is no bad thing. He dislikes the idea that the purpose of a musical composition is to ‘report findings’; so do I. But that is not the only possibility: it can be an output that applies findings and in the process puts them to the test more vividly than a purely theoretical output might be able to. John Cage's HPSCHD, for example, embodies the findings of a particular approach in a way I am happy to call research.Footnote 24
The narratives of ‘impact’ are very problematic for practitioners, because of the difficulty in measuring them. But many have done so successfully, and in ways I do not believe simply constitute trickery. Compositional achievements can beget other achievements, as can achievements in performance, and of course each can inform the other, as well as informing work in other artistic disciplines and other scholarship. If we were beholden to ‘the number of people that hear a piece’, it would be impossible to claim impact for much radical contemporary music compared to its commercial counterparts; I for one am glad that the definition is not simply a populist one.
Does Croft really believe his own description of the compositional process: picking up a pencil, starting at the beginning, stopping when the piece is finished (does he never work on sections in an order different from that of the final work?), maybe asking performers some questions? Most composers regularly ask themselves a great many questions when composing, often relating these to wider ideas and paradigms, even if working alone. What is being asked, not unfairly, of a composer employed in a research-intensive university is that at the least they verbally articulate the questions, issues, aims and objectives, and stages of compositional activity, to open a window onto the process and offer the potential of use to others. As a performer I am happy to do this (and wish more performers would do so) and I do not see why it should be a problem for composers too (the argument that this is unnecessary, as all of this can be communicated solely through the work itself, is one I find too utopian).
Reticence on the part of some practitioners in doing this might well be a reason why funding bodies and research panels are less familiar with these possibilities, and as such would find it easier to fund a project like the one Croft describes to do with ‘sustainability’. Unlike Croft, however, I do not believe it is impossible to make a convincing case for the originality of musical material, or interpretive approaches, but more practitioners need to try doing this more often. Croft asks whether a composer's work is ‘helped in any way by the thought that it is research, or the presentation of research “findings”?’, but these are selfish reservations, as such reflection might well help others too. Composers may wish to be paid a salary to compose or perform in the way they always have done, but perhaps they would then be better employed on a teaching contract for composition with the recognition and remuneration for their composition or performance coming from elsewhere.
The problem of research funding becoming a major yardstick for progression in the modern university is a very real one, especially as funds become scarcer, but is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, outside academia it is commonplace to seek money for practical projects and the criteria involved can be just as narrow and constricting, as well as more susceptible to the personal whims of those involved with funding bodies who are not required to be transparent or accountable about their criteria. At a REF panel discussion in February 2015, it was argued that the REF can entail a large amount of financial support for innovative practice-based work.Footnote 25 There remain various obstacles towards achieving this (not least from individual institutions inclined to downgrade practice-based work in general), but it is not an unrealistic goal. If this requires practitioners to articulate ways in which their work has value and consequences not just in and of itself but also to others as a contribution to knowledge, this seems a fair price to pay.
Croft's description of research as something which ‘describes’ rather than ‘adding something to’ the world is also too narrow, and it suggests categories beholden to analytical philosophy (notwithstanding the references to Gadamer, Schopenhauer, Langer and Heidegger) and a Popperian view of scientific knowledge which has been cogently argued against by Hazel Smith and Roger T. Dean.Footnote 26 Those who develop a new type of drug to ease aging symptoms, find a new bridge structure (in the engineering rather than musical sense of the term) which is not only aesthetically striking but also secure, are obviously adding something to the world not wholly unlike what a composer or performer might do, but those who provide a vivid and well-sourced portrayal of everyday life and cultural practices in a fifteenth-century Sicilian village, or posit a type of dinosaur which none have previously imagined, are not merely describing but shaping and constructing the world. Even musical analysis, not to mention contextual, historical and sociological study, adds something to experience, at least for me; not all literary study might be as boldly creative as Benjamin on Baudelaire, or Barthes on Balzac,Footnote 27 but these examples show how such study can be an immensely creative practice itself.
I cannot at all accept Croft's portrayal of either scientific or musical discoveries. It is by no means necessarily true that, as Croft says ‘if Einstein had not existed, someone else would have come up with Relativity’; someone might have come up with a quite different, but equally influential paradigm. Yefim Golyshev and Josef Matthias Hauer came up with ways of using twelve-note rows very different from those of Schoenberg;Footnote 28 the history of modern music is beholden not simply to a phenomenon that Schoenberg happened to chance upon, but to a very particular individual approach. Without the person of Schoenberg, twentieth-century music history might have been very different, and twelve-tone music a minor development known only to a few people interested in Golyshev and Hauer. It is certainly simplistic to say that Schoenberg would ‘correct and supersede Bach’, but the assumption that science follows a model of linear progress is not much better. There may be a reason we prefer Darwin to Lamarck, but there is also a reason why the apparent scientific ‘progress’ represented by racial theories of Social Darwinism can be viewed as a retrogressive step compared to what preceded it. Similarly, there is such a thing as ‘good music badly composed’: an obvious example would be music marred by a lack of understanding of some of the physical characteristics of particular instruments, which can however be improved with some care and instruction (and maybe that dreaded collaboration with a performer).
There is a good deal of practice-based research, some of it published in verbal form, which undoubtedly devalues the whole concept: especially various manifestations of the frequently narcissistic practice sometimes called ‘auto-ethnography’.Footnote 29 These include often unremarkable ‘performance diaries’, given some apparent theoretical weight by the mention of a few treatises and other texts, texts from composers reproducing long letters or e-mails between composer and performer/dancer/film-maker, or new work deemed distinctive and research-like simply by virtue of the use of one or two unusual techniques, or a less familiar instrument. Nor does musical practice become research simply by virtue of being accompanied by a programme note, which funding and other committees can look at while ignoring the practical work.
The major problem is surely not whether outputs in the form of practice can be research but how we gauge equivalence with other forms of research, when practitioners and other academics are all competing within the same hierarchical career structures in universities. I have some doubts as to whether some composition- and performance-based PhDs, especially those not even requiring a written component, are really equivalent in terms of effort, depth and rigour with the more conventional types.Footnote 30 Other inequities exist: composers and performers often teach ‘academic’ subjects in university music departments, but rarely are non-practitioner academics deemed able to teach high-level composition or performance. This can contribute to the downgrading of more traditional approaches to research, compounded by the inconvenience of the time they require – especially those that require mastery of foreign or archaic languages,Footnote 31 or lengthy trips to remote locations – in an era when academics’ time is squeezed ever more. Institutions may prefer to employ someone who can produce a composition in a few months, rather than taking a year over a major article or book chapter that requires much preliminary groundwork.
However, issues of equivalence can also drive wedges between academics producing different types of textual outputs: I have difficulty accepting an equivalence between many essays in the field of popular music studies (many of them saying a minimal amount about the sounding music) that rehash the ideologies and paradigms to be found in any cultural studies primer, with detailed, painstaking and highly specialised study of medieval musical manuscripts, subtle exegeses of musical practices in remote communities, or sustained application of sophisticated analytical techniques to already-complex music. But the former may receive a comparable REF ranking when judged by peers engaged in work of a similar nature; the result could be a regrettable deskilling of the academic study of music.
For me, learning and performing repertoire both new and old has often been accompanied by questions for which I have to find answers, by studying compositional structure, style, genre, allusions, and all the forms of mediation which accompany these, then making decisions about which aspects to foreground, play down, elicit, how doing all this in a manner with which will be meaningful to listeners. If I say that I have learned a good deal from listening to performances and recordings of Walter Gieseking, György Cziffra, Charles Rosen, or Frederic Rzewski, or Barbara Bonney, or Nikolaus Harnoncourt, or even Marcel Pérès, this is not simply in the sense of old-fashioned conceptions of ‘influence’ and osmosis (not that these do not also occur). I listen to these performers to garner some idea of what is distinctive about their approach, and how they have set about achieving this. In a critical, non-slavish manner it is then possible to draw upon their achievements and also to discern what other possibilities might exist, opening up a new range of interpretive – and I would say research – questions.
This approach is at odds with nebulous ideals of instinct and inner authenticity, or (worst) with the search for the style required to make a success (though this is itself also a form of research), the most dispiriting aspects of music school, conservatoire and some parts of the profession. But my approach is far from uncommon, and in this sense the articulation of practice in research terms is a positive and productive activity.Footnote 32 It may be less spectacular than some of the wilder fringes of theatre and visual performance – such as Lee Miller and Joanne “Bob” Whalley's joint PhD project, collecting urine-filled bottles on the M6, replacing them with other detritus, renewing their wedding vows in a service station, then grounding this in the thought of Deleuze and Guattari, Bakhtin, dialogism, heteroglossia and semiotic multi-accentuality, deliberately framed in such a way as to frustrate Popper's criteria of falsifiabilityFootnote 33 – but is no less ‘research’ as a result.
Unlike Croft, I believe that composition-as-research, and performance-as-research (and performance-based research) are real activities; the terms themselves are just new ways to describe what has gone on earlier, with the addition of a demand for explicit articulation to facilitate integration into academic structures. This process is made problematic by other factors but that is no reason to give up on the best ideals.
Croft argues that we should ‘guard against actually believing in our research narratives’; I believe we should guard against believing in myths of compositional autonomy and individualism, and be less surprised when demands to do whatever one wants, whilst being paid reasonably generously for it out of the public purse, fall upon deaf ears.