On Thursday January 19th and Friday January 20th, 2017, City, University of London is hosting a conference entitled Bright Futures, Dark Pasts: Michael Finnissy at 70. This will feature a range of scholarly papers on a variety of aspects of Finnissy’s work – including his use of musical objets trouvés, engagement with folk music, sexuality, the influence of cinema, relationship to other contemporary composers, issues of marginality, and his work in performance. There will be three concerts, featuring his complete works for two pianos and piano duet, played by the composer, Ian Pace, and Ben Smith; a range of solo, chamber and ensemble works; and a complete performance (from 14:00-21:00 on Friday 20th) of his epic piano cycle The History of Photography in Sound by Ian Pace. The concerts include the world premieres of Finnissy’s Zortziko (2009) for piano duet and Kleine Fjeldmelodie (2016-17) for solo piano, the UK premiere of Duet (1971-2013) and London premieres of Fem ukarakteristisek marsjer med tre tilføyde trioer (2008-9) for piano duet, Derde symfonische etude (2013) for two pianos, his voice/was then/here waiting (1996) for two pianos, and Eighteenth-Century Novels: Fanny Hill (2006) for two pianos. There will also be a rare chance to hear Finnissy’s Sardinian-inspired Anninnia (1981-2) for voice and piano, for the first time in several decades.
Keynote speakers will be Roddy Hawkins (University of Manchester), Gregory Woods (Nottingham Trent University, author of Homintern) and Ian Pace (City, University of London). The composer will be present for the whole event, and will perform and be interviewed by Christopher Fox (Brunel University) on his work and the History in particular.
The composer and photographer Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, who studied with Finnissy between 2000 and 2004, has created a photographic work, continuum simulacrum (2016-17) inspired by The History of Photography in Sound and particularly Chapter 6 (Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets). The series will be shown on screens in the department and samples of a book version will be available.
Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, from continuum simulacrum (2016-17).
The full programme can be viewed below. This conference also brings to a close Ian Pace’s eleven-concert series of the complete piano works of Finnissy.
A separate blog post will follow on The History of Photography in Sound.
All events take place at the Department of Music, College Building, City, University of London, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB.
Thursday January 19th, 2017
09:00-09:30 Room AG09. Registration and TEA/COFFEE.
09:30-10:00 Performance Space.
Introduction and tribute to Michael Finnissy by Ian Pace and Miguel Mera (Head of Department of Music, City, University of London).
10:00-12:00 Room AG09. Chair: Aaron Einbond.
Larry Goves (Royal Northern College of Music), ‘Michael Finnissy & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: the composer as anthropologist’.
Maarten Beirens (Amsterdam University), ‘Questioning the foreign and the familiar: Interpreting Michael Finnissy’s use of traditional and non-Western sources’
Lauren Redhead (Canterbury Christ Church University), ‘The Medium is Now the Material: The “Folklore” of Chris Newman and Michael Finnissy’.
Followed by a roundtable discussion between the three speakers and composer and Finnissy student Claudia Molitor (City, University of London), chaired by Aaron Einbond.
12:00-13:00 Foyer, Performance Space.
13:10–14:15 Performance Space.
Concert 1: Michael Finnissy: The Piano Music (10). Michael Finnissy, Ian Pace and Ben Smith play Finnissy’s works for two pianos or four hands.
Michael Finnissy, Wild Flowers (1974) (IP/MF)
Michael Finnissy, Fem ukarakteristisek marsjer med tre tilføyde trioer (2008-9) (BS/IP) (London premiere)
Michael Finnissy, Derde symfonische etude (2013) (BS/IP) (London premiere)
Michael Finnissy, Deux jeunes se promènent à travers le ciel 1920 (2008) (IP/BS)
Michael Finnissy, his voice/was then/here waiting (1996) (IP/MF) (UK premiere)
Michael Finnissy, Eighteenth-Century Novels: Fanny Hill (2006) (IP/MF) (London premiere)
14:30-15:30 Room AG09. Chair: Lauren Redhead (Canterbury Christ Church University).Keynote: Roddy Hawkins (University of Manchester): ‘Articulating, Dwelling, Travelling: Michael Finnissy and Marginality’.
15:30-16:00 Foyer, Performance Space.
16:00-17:00 Room AG09. Chair: Roddy Hawkins (University of Manchester).
Keynote: Ian Pace (City, University of London): ‘Michael Finnissy between Jean-Luc Godard and Dennis Potter: appropriation of techniques from cinema and TV’
17:00-18:00 Room AG09. Chair: Christopher Fox (Brunel University).
Roundtable on performing the music of Michael Finnissy. Participants: Neil Heyde (cellist), Ian Pace (pianist), Jonathan Powell (pianist), Christopher Redgate (oboist), Roger Redgate (conductor, violinist), Nancy Ruffer (flautist).
19:00 Performance Space.
Concert 2: City University Experimental Ensemble (CUEE), directed Tullis Rennie. Christopher Redgate, oboe/oboe d’amore; Nancy Ruffer, flutes; Bernice Chitiul, voice; Alexander Benham, piano; Michael Finnissy, piano; Ian Pace, piano; Ben Smith; piano.
Michael Finnissy, Yso (2007) (CUEE)
Michael Finnissy, Stille Thränen (2009) (Ian Pace, Ben Smith)
Michael Finnissy, Runnin’ Wild (1978) (Christopher Redgate)
Michael Finnissy, Anninnia (1981-82) (Bernice Chitiul, Ian Pace)
Michael Finnissy, Ulpirra (1982-83) (Nancy Ruffer)
Michael Finnissy, Pavasiya (1979) (Christopher Redgate)
‘Mini-Cabaret’: Michael Finnissy, piano
Chris Newman, AS YOU LIKE IT (1981)
Michael Finnissy, Kleine Fjeldmelodie (2016-17) (World première)
Andrew Toovey, Where are we in the world? (2014)
Laurence Crane, 20th CENTURY MUSIC (1999)
Matthew Lee Knowles, 6th Piece for Laurence Crane (2006)
Morgan Hayes, Flaking Yellow Stucco (1995-6)
Tom Wilson, UNTIL YOU KNOW (2017) (World première)
Howard Skempton, after-image3 (1990)
Michael Finnissy, Zortziko (2009) (Ian Pace, Ben Smith) (World première)
Michael Finnissy, Duet (1971-2013) (Ben Smith, Ian Pace) (UK première)
Michael Finnissy, ‘They’re writing songs of love, but not for me’, from Gershwin Arrangements (1975-88) (Alexander Benham)
Michael Finnissy, APRÈS-MIDI DADA (2006) (CUEE)
21:30 Location to be confirmed
Friday January 20th, 2017
10:00-11:00 Room AG21.
Christopher Fox in conversation with Michael Finnissy on The History of Photography in Sound.
11:00-11:30 Room AG21.
11:30-12:30 Room AG21. Chair: Alexander Lingas (City, University of London).
Keynote: Gregory Woods (Nottingham Trent University): ‘My “personal themes”?!’: Finnissy’s Seventeen Homosexual Poets and the Material World’.
14:00-21:00 Performance Space.
Concert 3: Michael Finnissy: The Piano Music (11): The History of Photography in Sound (1995-2002). Ian Pace, piano
14:00 Chapters 1, 2: Le démon de l’analogie; Le réveil de l’intraitable realité.
15:15 Chapters 3, 4: North American Spirituals; My parents’ generation thought War meant something
19:35 Chapters 9, 10, 11: Wachtend op de volgende uitbarsting van repressie en censuur; Unsere Afrikareise; Etched Bright with Sunlight.
What characterizes the so-called advanced societies is that they today consume images and no longer, like those of the past, beliefs; they are therefore more liberal, less fanatical, but also more ‘false’ (less ‘authentic’) – something we translate, in ordinary consciousness, by the avowal of an impression of nauseated boredom, as if the universalized image were producing a world that is without difference (indifferent), from which can rise, here and there, only the cry of anarchisms, marginalisms, and individualisms: let us abolish the images, let us save immediate Desire (desire without mediation).
Mad or tame? Photography can be one or the other: tame if its realism remains relative, tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits (to leaf through a magazine at the hairdresser’s, the dentist’s); mad if this realism is absolute and, so to speak, original, obliging the loving and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of Time: a strictly revulsive movement which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call, in conclusion, the photographic ecstasy.
Such are the two ways of the Photography. The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality.
Ce qui caractérise les sociétés dites avancées, c’est que ces sociétés consomment aujourd’hui des images, et non plus, comme celles d’autrefois, des croyances; elles sont donc plus libérales, moins fanataiques, mais aussi plus «fausses» (moins «authentiques») – chose que nous traduisons, dans la conscience courante, par l’aveu d’une impression d’ennui nauséeux, comme si l’image, s’universalisant, produisait un monde sans differences (indifferent), d’où ne peut alors surgir ici et là que le cri des anarchismes, marginalismes et individualismes : abolissons les images, sauvons le Désir immédiat (sans mediation).
Folle ou sage? La Photographie peut être l’un ou l’autre : sage si son réalisme reste relative, tempére par des habitudes esthétiques ou empiriques (feuilleter une revue chez le coiffeur, le dentist); folle, si ce réalisme est absolu, et, si l’on peut dire, original, faisant revenir à la conscience amoureuse et effrayée la letter même du Temps : movement proprement révulsif, qui retourne le cours de la chose, et que l’appellerai pour finir l’extase photographique.
Telles sont les deux voies de la Photographie. A moi de choisir, de soumettre son spectacle au code civilise des illusions parfaits, ou d’affronter en elle le réveil de l’intraitable réalité.
Roland Barthes, Le chambre claire/Camera Lucida.
Eadweard Muybridge – A. Throwing a Disk, B: Ascending a Step, C: Walking from Animal Locomotion (1885-1887).
Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, from continuum simulacrum (2016-17).
The video of the full debate which took place at City University on June 1st, 2016 ‘Are we all Ethnomusicologists Now?’, is now online for all to view.
Participants were Amanda Bayley (Bath Spa University), Tore Tvarnø Lind (Copenhagen University), Laudan Nooshin (City University), Ian Pace (City University) and Michael Spitzer (Liverpool University). The debate was chaired by Alexander Lingas (City University).
The position statements provided by Nooshin and Pace have been placed online: Nooshin’s is here, and Pace’s is here. Pace is preparing a longer article on the subject, and both these protagonists may at some point respond more directly to the other’s arguments.
The debate was filmed, and this will be placed online presently. Here are two accounts/responses, from City MA Music student Rachel Cunniffe, and City graduate Ben Smith.
Rachel Cunniffe, Debate: ‘Are we all Ethnomusicologists Now?’
On Wednesday 1st June, as part of the music department’s year-long 40th anniversary celebrations and the City Summer Sounds Festival, the first of three public debates was held in the performance space. The motion was based upon the famous suggestion made by Nicholas Cook in 2008 that due to blurring boundaries between musicology and ethnomusicology, “we are all ethnomusicologists now.” The questioning of this assertion, accompanied by discussion of tensions which remain between the two disciplines to the present day led to an interesting and heated debate.
The event was chaired by Alexander Lingas (City University), and the panel was comprised of Amanda Bayley (Bath Spa University), Tore Lind (University of Copenhagen), Laudan Nooshin (City University), Ian Pace (City University) and Michael Spitzer (University of Liverpool). Taking to the microphone in alphabetical order, Amanda Bayley was the first speaker. She noted the importance of understanding music as a social creative practice, and the achievements of the ethnomusicological discipline in examining what music can tell us about the world through its interdisciplinary approach. Amanda also advocated Cook’s suggestion of an ‘intercultural musicology’ which would encompass a greater interaction between ethnomusicology and music history. Finally, drawing from her ethnographic study of a String Quartet rehearsal in 2011, Amanda noted how ethnographic approaches can also contribute to understanding the history of music and music pedagogy.
Tore Lind then spoke of the ways in which ethnographic results may come with a degree of unreliability, yet interaction with participants and gathering a range of views will undoubtedly provide greater insight to the topic in question. He also suggested that while he is ‘an accomplice’ in the construction of the musical realities he presents, this does not deem the work invalid or unreliable as musical knowledge is socially generated. Laudan Nooshin followed this with a discussion of the difficulties in defining ethnomusicology, its complex identity and history, and the exclusion of other sub-disciplines in music through the creation of this binary, such as music education or popular music studies. Laudan also presented some ethnographic work which had been undertaken for this debate; some participants felt the boundaries have blurred significantly though some considered prejudice and exclusion towards ethnomusicologists to remain. She concluded by noting that many musicologists have been attracted to and utilised ethnomusicological approaches in their work, mentioned the increasing number of ethnomusicologists being hired in music education and the expanding role of ethnomusicology in the curriculum, and finally suggested that in place of criticism scholars of both disciplines should consider how elements of each discipline can enrich the other.
Next, Ian Pace discussed issues surrounding the ethnomusicology of Western Art Music, many of which will be expanded upon in a forthcoming article. He expressed concerns for the subsumation of musicology into other disciplines, as a result of the multi-disciplinary and sparsely ‘musical’ approaches of ethnomusicology. The lack of attention paid to the actual sound material in much ethnomusicological work, Ian argued, is also contributing to the deskilling of the profession and therefore questions whether the descriptive nature of this work has a place in high level scholarship. Ian also noted that ethnomusicology should not be devoid of critique for political reasons. Finally, Michael Spitzer asserted that Cook may have been optimistic in his statement, and claimed that musicology has come under attack for its ‘inadequate [analysis of] social mediation.’ To this he responded with the question, what’s wrong with formalism and the analysis of sound? Michael concluded by criticising the ‘zero-sum game’ which he claimed to still exist between ethnomusicology and musicology.
Presentations were followed by questions from the floor, which ignited much lively discussion. Passion and enthusiasm for the topic was clear, and one audience member fittingly concluded the evening by thanking the music department at City University for hosting a forum in which these issues can be discussed.
Ben Smith, ‘Are we all Ethnomusicologists now?’
In what was an interesting and lively evening, with a number of intriguing points brought up by the panel members, I would like to detail and comment upon the wider implications of three particular ideas which resonated strongly with me. These were: A defence of formalism from Michael Spitzer, and Ian Pace’s critique of what he called ‘musicology-without-ears’ and the implications of non-critical musicology towards Western Art Music and commercial pop music.
In bemoaning the fear of formalism within ethnomusicological work, Spitzer spoke convincingly about the importance of musical analysis, outside the consideration of social or cultural context. Bringing in some Pierre Schaeffer as to how certain modes of listening can move towards bracketing out real-world elements of music (that is, the music’s sign-content, so that we may consider the ‘inside of the sound’), he said how, if we wish to move closer to a deep understanding of musical content and musical structure in-and-of-itself, we obviously must consider the object of study on its own terms. Rather than making a case for or against the possibility of total musical autonomy (and the implications of this for musical scholarship) formal music analysis can be simply seen as one crucial element of a multi-faceted toolkit required to consider a musical work in its totality. The removal of formalist approaches to musical analysis does not realise any liberal vision of negating some out-of-date approach to ‘great works’, and the opening up of the musicological discipline to consider the music of the masses, but rather only achieves in bracketing out an invaluable musicological skill.
Linked to the worrying attitude to formalism Spitzer mentioned is the unquestioned assumption that an autonomous consideration of music is impossible. It is clear where the canonic figures of ethnomusicology stand on this matter (Pace quoted John Blacking and Bruno Nettl in his talk); and that music is utterly inseparable from culture has been taken as dogma by many later writers. This received wisdom towards musical autonomy has had a grave result for the amount and quality of musical considerations proper within ethnomusicology, resulting in what Pace categorized as ‘musicology-without-ears’.
In his talk, Pace touched on a number of reasons as to the disappearance of critical thought and consideration of the music itself in certain ethnomusicological writings. One possible reason given was that western, post-colonial guilt acts as an inhibitor to critical engagement (something that becomes more troublesome – not to mention redundant – when applied to non-colonial music). This misguided liberal notion creates differing intensities of critique, depending on whether the object studied is deemed ‘elitist’ (read: Western Art Music) or ‘ethnic’ (or popular). Scholars, increasingly aware of the play of social power relations, are all too worried of the implications of appearing ‘ivory towered’ and delivering proclamations against ‘low culture’ from on high. Although I would not want to remove a needed sensitivity from academic discourse, such liberal treatment can in fact serve to patronize the so-called minority culture being studied. It suggests some cultures should not be subject to the same scrutiny as others; that there can be no universals. The over-careful handling of other musical cultures and cultural practices does them, and their practitioners, a disservice.
Writers such as Kenin Malik, Amartya Sen, and Slavoj Žižek have pointed out how the kind of multicultural liberalism described above can not only be condescending, but also paradoxically aligned with right-wing thought. Malik writes that both ideologies similarly ‘see cultures, or civilizations, as homogenous entities. Both insist on the crucial importance of cultural identity and on the preservation of such identity. Both perceive irresolvable conflicts arising from incommensurate values.’ Žižek has said the same, but frames it in another way: Political differences become cultural differences, not to be overcome or challenged, but simply ‘tolerated’.
Alongside post-colonial guilt (or the latent racism Malik and Žižek allude to) is, I believe, a sentimental primitivism. An interesting political example of this is the figure of the ‘crying Indian’ which gained prominence in the 1970s. Essentially rehashing Romantic notions of the ‘noble savage’, this hippy trope defined Native Americans as a symbol of a ‘pure’ lost humanism, mythically connected to and in harmony with the world. In fact, studies over the last few years have shown that widespread de-forestation and the hunting-to-extinction of various animals by early Native American tribes occurred on a scale that greatly exceeded the practices of the colonial settlers. Similar primitivism in ethnomusicological work is not hard to find (here is Steven Feld on his work with the Kaluli tribe of Papua New Guinea): ‘With characteristic patience, Jubi [Feld’s native helper] was imitating calls, behavior, and nesting. Suddenly something snapped: I asked a question and Jubi blurted back, “Listen – to you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest.”’ This primitivist aspect of ethnography also contributes to the removal of proper musical consideration, as the music itself is romanticized as well as the people creating it. The musical object is firstly deemed untouchable, and further, any element of the ‘sound itself’ which provokes a response in us is deemed ineffable. In a kind of postmodern turn back towards romanticism, the articulation of ‘how’ music works is seen as ultimately impossible to understand, and if so, why bother trying?
Malik has written extensively on the history of multiculturalism, particularly in Britain. One of his descriptions of the reasoning behind such cultural turns in left–wing thought is worth quoting at length, as it drives right at the heart of issues mentioned above:
‘To be radical today is to display disenchantment with all that is ‘Western’ — by which most mean modernism and the ideas of the Enlightenment — in the name of ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’. The modernist project of pursuing a rational, scientific understanding of the natural and social world…is now widely regarded as a dangerous fantasy, even as oppressive…In place of [a]…progressive universalism…contemporary Western societies have embraced a form of nihilistic multiculturalism.’
Putting the point even more plainly, Sen has suggested a more apt name for multiculturalism as it stands would be ‘plural monoculturalism’, since multicultural ideas and policies can serve only to increase the isolation between different people and cultures. This is precisely what so much ethnomusicological study does – in treating the studied musical culture with a patronizing reverence and refusing to delve into the substance of the music itself, it ‘others’ the culture in question even more strongly. The multicultural aim to break down the walls of musical formalism and academic elitism, actually creates a greater distance between the academic and the people studied. As Ben Watson points out: ‘replacing musicology with social anthropology (Georgina Born) or sociology (Sarah Thornton) actually drives thought and its object still further apart’. Watson extends this argument, specifically dealing with commercial pop music, by noting how the turn away from academic ‘elitism’ is not only misguided, but redolent with scholarly pitfalls:
‘In the same moment that it claims to ‘break down cultural barriers’, the sociological turn reproduces a class division between the analytical academic and the musical culture ‘out there’. Appeals to the ‘popular’ promise to solve the ‘elitism’ of classical music, but actually reproduce it. What is confusing is that the opposite of the ‘popular’ is concealed: this is because it is the very discourse employed by the analyst. Analysts may declare that they ‘really like’ the music under consideration – Abba’s ‘Fernando’ or The Adverts’ ‘One Chord Wonders’ – but they also speak a meta-language that stands above pop music and its audience. The guilt of intellectual privilege is not to be wished away by changing the object of scrutiny.’
When no serious substitute is suggested for analysis (or consideration of sound), its removal from scholarly work leaves a black hole, often filled with empty jargon, and an approach that sidesteps value judgements at all costs does nothing but allow for the unchallenged stagnation of culture. Across all scholarship, it is worrying when critical perspectives disappear, but, as mentioned above, this problem is amplified when dealing with western music, and particularly so with commercial pop music. With the latter, since the object of study lies within a market-controlled industry, studies that fail to incorporate a proper dialectical critique, can end up essentially perpetuating the hegemonic economic forces which make up in the background socio-cultural structures of such music.
Focus Group Musicology and The Pop Industry
The movement away from a so-called academic elitism shares parallels with the turn towards populist politics under Bill Clinton and New Labour in the 1990s (what Adam Curtis describes as a politics by ‘focus group’). Pace touched upon the ethnomusicological adoption of this, mentioning the long quotations from less-than-expert sources (often little more than cherry-picked vox pops) found in a lot of ethnographic work he had read, which the authors used as evidence to form scholarly conclusions.
As well as determining what people thought on various issues of the day, politics by focus group also played a part in deciding the issues themselves, that is, populism became a yardstick for measuring political importance. The same has become true in some academic work. Pace made mention of a telling quote from Nicholas Cook in this regard, in which Cook argues that musicologists should ‘study social reality as they find it’: ‘The point is not that Madonna is good or bad but that she’s there’. Surely it should be obvious that treating any object as somehow valuable simply because it exists is a worryingly regressive formulation, and blindly panders to market forces. This, deeply negative, cultural effect of combining a populist approach with the study of commercial pop music is symptomatic of a more general problem with postmodern thought. Terry Eagleton notes that: ‘Postmodernism, among other things, concerns the cherishing of cultural difference; it is therefore an irony beyond anything flaunted by its own fictions that it is now actively contributing to the remorseless cultural homogenization of the globe’.
And so, with some pop music scholarship, the structural problems of ethnomusicological study detailed above become layered with the further complication of an uncritical openness towards the objects of study. This can be coupled with (I will expand upon this below) a fetishization of musical products as commodities, which divorces them from historical context, and fails again to critique the cultural and economic forces that surround the music.
In Performing Rites, Simon Frith writes positively(!) that pop music ‘holds consumption at the moment of desire, before it is regretted’; that its ever repeating novelty has nothing to do with the recycling of commercial trends cynically employed by record companies, but simply that it is a ‘momentary diversion’ from the real world (amusingly, a search for the word ‘neoliberal’ throughout the book comes up empty). Indeed, a concluding line of Frith’s, that music allows us to ‘live in the present tense’ is a relegation of musical function to pure escapism. This is to say that the great thing about music is only that is stops us worrying – or even thinking about – our outside existence. By utterly ignoring the effect of the market on the consumer, and allowing music simply to function as ‘the negation of everyday life’, Frith misses so much of the social totality of the hegemonic culture which has such an insidious effect on the production and (trigger warning: value judgement) quality of much commercial music. Read even more unfavourably, Frith’s ‘present tense’ analogy can be equated to pure commodity fetishism (compare it with Walter Benjamin’s term Jetztzeit (now-time), used to criticise the ossified experience of commodity capitalism). This fetishization of the present in Frith creates a system of thought that cannot engage in a dialectic way with the innate temporality of history.
In another article entitled ‘What Is Bad Music?’, Frith displays his post-colonial /multicultural /postmodernist attitude proudly. Against the insinuation of his provocative title, Frith is quick to move far away from any qualitative judgement of music, writing that ‘bad’ can only be defined according to individual truths; which form part of one’s own ‘fandom’ of any particular brand of music. He describes, for instance, how some on the left decry the misogyny and homophobia of some rap music (without further comment) along with a few other examples, before shifting the focus onto how ‘badness’ is ‘performed’ differently by various musico-social groups, as if to suggest that homophobia and misogyny are concerns purely for ‘the left’ to worry about. It is precisely the kind of thinking of the ‘plural monoculturalist’ Sen and Malik describe. This is (but one example of) the kind of scholarship which sees all cultures as equal, but not all humans. Surely the inverse position is true.
Here is the video of the research seminar which took place on November 25th, 2015, on the subject of ‘Can Composition and Performance be Research?’, which featured a panel made up of Christopher Fox (Professor of Composition at Brunel University and editor of Tempo), myself (pianist and Head of Performance at City University), Miguel Mera (composer and Head of the Department of Music at City University), Annie Yim (pianist and DMA student at City University), and Camden Reeves (composer and Head of Music, University of Manchester). Christine Dysers (PhD student in Music at City University) was unable to be present due to illness, but a statement by here was read out by Sam MacKay (PhD student in Music at City University and organiser of the seminar). The session was chaired by Alexander Lingas (Undergraduate Programme Director and Reader in Music, City University). Greatest of thanks are also due to Bruno Mathez for making and editing the video.
The panellists were responding to two key articles: John Croft’s ‘Composition is Not Research’, Tempo 69/272 (April 2015), pp. 6-11, and my own ‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’, Tempo 70/275 (January 2016), pp. 60-70. As of this week, Camden Reeves’ article ‘Composition, Research and Pseudo-Science: A Response to John Croft’, Tempo 70/275 (January 2016), pp. 50-59, and Croft’s reply to Reeves and myself, ‘Composition, Research and Ways of Talking’, Tempo 70/275 (January 2016), pp. 71-77, have been published – these are not yet available via open access, but can be downloaded from Tempo for those with access to this.
Here I wanted to summarise the arguments I presented at the forum, and also respond to some of Croft’s response. Some of my thinking has moved on a little from the positions I outlined in my Tempo article (which I acknowledge may contain some inner contradictions or inconsistencies), but the majority of positions presented there are ones I continue to uphold.
The debate has been dominated by the issue of whether composition can be research, with much less attention given to performance; I would like to redress that balance. I believe that it is tacitly accepted that a musical composition is likely to qualify as some type of research much more than is the case for musical performances and recordings. This is reflected in the relative numbers of composers and performers employed in academic positions in universities. I have compiled some approximate figures for the situation as it exists in autumn 2015, in large measure using data derived from departments’ own websites. These figures are slightly modified and checked from those given at the seminar – if anyone notices any other omissions or major errors, do let me know and I will make the appropriate corrections.
There are 53 departments offering various types of music or music-related degree, excluding the ten UK conservatoires, in which the status of composition and performance is of a different nature. These are as follows:
Russell Group (19): King’s College and Queen Mary, University of London; Birmingham; Bristol; Cambridge; Durham; Leeds; Liverpool; Manchester; Newcastle; Nottingham; Oxford; Sheffield; Southampton; York; Cardiff; Edinburgh; Glasgow; Queen’s University, Belfast. Mid-ranking Institutions (‘Other’) (13): Royal Holloway and Goldsmith’s Colleges, and School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; City University; Brunel; Hull; Keele; Open University; Salford; Surrey; Sussex; Bangor; Aberdeen Post-1992 Institutions (received university status after 1992) (21): West London; East London; London Metropolitan; Westminster; Middlesex; Kingston; Anglia Ruskin; Bath Spa; Brighton; Canterbury Christ Church; Chichester; De Montfort; Falmouth; Hertfordshire; Huddersfield; Liverpool Hope; Oxford Brookes; Winchester; Wolverhampton; Edinburgh Napier; Ulster
I have looked only composers and performers employed in academic positions (i.e. integrated into the academic career structure from Lecturer to Professor) at these institutions. On the basis of research outputs, I have counted those composers and/or performers who have also produced a fair number of written outputs as being ‘0.5’s for the purposes of counting. I have counted only university (not college) appointments at Oxford and Cambridge. By this method, I arrive at the following figures:
All Universities Total Staff: 691
Composers: 198 (28.7%)
Performers: 76 (11%)
Practitioners: 274 (39.7%)
Russell Group Total Staff: 318
Composers: 89.5 (28.1%)
Performers: 21 (6.6%)
Practitioners: 110.5 (34.7%)
Thus there is a ratio of around 4.3:1 of composers to performers at Russell Group institutions, 3.5:1 at mid-ranking institutions, but 3:2 for post-1992 institutions. Performance is clearly less regularly valued as an academic field of study in the more prestige institutions, compared to composition (where the representation is very similar across the sector).
There is a highly sophisticated debate (and concomitant outputs) on practice-as-research in fields such as theatre and dance (my own former institution, Dartington College of Arts, were at the forefront of this). The apparently clear distinction between ‘creative’ and ‘professional’ practice mentioned by Mera in the seminar is however far from clear-cut; it is widely debated and problematized in critical literature, rarely defined clearly, and some departments elide the distinction by using concepts such as ‘Creative Professional Practice’. In comparison to all of this, the debate in music has been rather elementary. Composition has been an accepted academic field for a long time, like fine art and drama; but changes in the RAE/REF in the mid-1990s, allowing the submission of practice-based outputs, forced a re-thinking of this. It is in this context that more fundamental questions about the status of composition and performance in academia have come to the fore, as they have had to consider the types of issues and paradigms developed in other practice-centered disciplines.
I believe that practically all composition and performance are research in some sense; in the case of musical performance the following would be some of the types of research questions that any performer has to answer in order to play a piece of music:
Which tempi should be used for various large-scale sections of the score in question?
How much flexibility should be employed within these broad tempi?
On a smaller scale, what forms of stylisation and elasticity would be most appropriate for playing various types of rhythms?
Through various combinations of accentuation, articulation and rhythm, to what extent, and where, should one tend towards continuity of line, or more angular approaches?
In polyphonic or contrapuntal textures, to what extent should one be aiming to project a singular voice which is foregrounded above others, or a greater degree of dynamic equilibrium between parts
Should one aim for a singular prominent climactic point within a movement, or can there be several of roughly equal prominence?
I could continue with many more; what is important is that by articulating them in this fashion I am not simply making explicit what might as well remain implicit in the acts of musical preparation and performance, but also underlining the fact of their being choices in various respects, not necessarily something which all performers acknowledge (inwardly or outwardly) or act upon. ‘Gigging’ performers, or those who value primarily ‘intuitive’ approaches, might be amongst those less likely to be concerned about the possibilities of rational choices in the process of preparing a performance or recording.
But even if most practice is a type of research, there remain different levels of which such research is conducted – though this is equally true of written work. The question of ‘is X research?’ is banal and inconsequential; what matters is how we determine equivalence of quality between different manifestations of research. We should be wary of over-rating either practice-based or written work which entails a fraction of the thought, prior skills, time and rigour of the most intensive types of research, and ensure a critical research culture exists amongst practitioners if musical institutions are to be more than dressed-up low level conservatoires.
The possibilities for peer review of work whose output is in the form of practice have not been sufficiently explored, and I propose we need a ‘space’, equivalent to a journal, for reviewing and then either publishing (where outputs can be placed online), or simply detailing and drawing attention to (where outputs are copyrighted elsewhere) creative work. I would welcome any communications from others who might be interested in trying to set such a thing up.
Various participants in the seminar appeared to assume that I did not believe that practice could be research unless accompanied by a written component. This is by no means my belief; rather I have questioned whether some relatively unreflective practice should be considered equivalent to more traditional forms of research, but would again emphasise that these questions also apply to some types of written output. Mera pointed out my comments on popular and cultural studies, in which fields I find great variety of quality, and suggested this is true of much work on contemporary music too: I would wholeheartedly agree, and have argued as much on this blog, as well as in various book reviews and review-articles which have appeared recently (as in my extended study of critical reception of Brian Ferneyhough, in which I have given a harsh view of hagiographical writing).
I wish to add a few comments on some points made by Croft in his response to my article. There are many problems with this response and ways in which I believe he misrepresents various of the figures he critiques, but I will limit myself here to his responses to my article. Croft writes the following:
The distinction at work here, loosely put, is between discovery and invention. Before my critics leap on this statement with accusations of essentialism or definition-mania, let me repeat that an attempt to characterise something is not an essentialising move – it is, however, an attempt to get at a fundamental difference between two types of activity: describing and presenting; making and finding out; or, in Aristotelian terms, poiēsis and epistēmē. It’s hardly a new idea, and deserves more than the breezy dismissal it receives, both from Reeves and from Ian Pace in his response. Einstein was not just ‘making something’. He was describing the world. A composer, on the other hand, is making an addition to the world that is not primarily descriptive. (And no, not like a smartphone or a blancmange.)
Smartphones and blancmanges aside (why are they so fundamentally different to musical composition in terms of their relationship to description?), I do not accept that either Reeves’ response nor my own entail a ‘breezy dismissal’; in my own case I dispute how clear-cut is the dichotomy presented by Croft. He goes on to locate cases within literature on practice-as-research which themselves frame the concept of research so as to include creative practice, with which I would agree. The following is the definition of research supplied by the REF:
1. For the purposes of the REF, research is defined as a process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared. 2. 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. 3. It includes research that is published, disseminated or made publicly available in the form of assessable research outputs, and confidential reports (as defined at paragraph 115 in Part 3, Section 2). (p. 48)
I do not know why Croft is resistant to this type of highly inclusive definition, though suspect (as indicated in my Tempo article) that this reflects an analytical/positivist philosophical bent rather than the more synthetic and idealistic attitude which I find more enlightening. Research does not merely describe the world, but can create new forms of perception and experience, such as are fundamental to artistic creation. One does not have to be a postmodern relativist (I am certainly not) to see that research can shape rather than merely identify reality. Composition does not come from nowhere, and all music is produced and heard in relation to other music and sonic phenomena; to treat musical creation independently of reference (whether or not willed by the composer) is in my view simplistic. Croft goes on to conclude:
This is not the place to launch a critique of STS [Science and Technology Studies], but I do think practice-as-research is in trouble if it depends on a view of science that confuses ideas and things so profoundly. However, Pace seems to espouse a version of this view in his suggestion that, if Einstein had not come up with relativity, someone else might have come up with an ‘entirely different paradigm’ instead. Most physicists would find this idea absurd. (p. 75)
The above relies on a flagrant misquotation; in my Tempo article I wrote the following:
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. (p. 68)
Nowhere here or elsewhere in the article do I use the phrase ‘entirely different paradigm’. The point is that ‘Relativity’ is not itself the phenomena being identified, but a scientific model use to give shape to external phenomena. I will leave it to others to debate whether this was the only possible model which could have been used, or for that matter whether this model will always remain undisputed in the future.
Croft also writes:
Pace, at one point, agrees that composition is ‘not intrinsically research’, but that it might entail various activities that are research. If this is his view, we do not disagree; this is exactly what I said in my original article. But at another point he states that ‘research’ is just a word for what composers have always been doing, except for the additional requirement of supporting text. One interpretation of this might be that composition is research, and the text simply points out how – but this would contradict the earlier statement that composition is not intrinsically research. Another would be that composition is not research until turned into research by the text. This certainly doesn’t square with our usual use of the word ‘research’. You could, in principle, do scientific, literary or historical research without writing anything down. Moreover, if documentation can turn non-research into research, this undermines the ‘material thinking’ justification for practice-as-research: if we take this line seriously, then compositional knowledge-how would not be amenable to translation into knowledge-that. This is a far cry from Pace’s insistence on ‘explicit articulation to facilitate integration into academic structures’. (p. 76)
Pace seems to think that without such an accompanying text, composingbecomes merely a matter of composers composing ‘in the way they always have done’. This points, perhaps, to a tendency to dismiss any idea of a domain of irreducible non-conceptual thought as some kind of romantic fantasy of ineffability. I have no problem with ‘opening a window’ on the compositional process, but when this is anything but superficial, it is often poetic and rarely in the language of aims and objectives; nor is it a matter of ‘making explicit’ for the purposes of ‘integration’, as Pace puts it. Amenability to such language does not turn something into research, as we have seen; but in any case, much of what makes music meaningful is generally resistant to such ‘integration’. (p. 77)
Here is what I wrote:
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), but few would have a problem seeing them as valid research-based outputs. (p. 64)
All I am arguing there is that an output is not itself research but the product of research. Croft could as easily read the above as saying that writing is not research, and dismiss all attempts to produce written articles and books, as he uses it to suggest that I am supporting his position. Another passage to which he refers is:
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. (p. 70)
This needs to be read in the context of these previous statements:
Ultimately his [Croft’s] model of research seems to require a particular type of conceptually based knowledge which can be communicated verbally, which I find too narrow. (p. 64)
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). (p. 67)
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. (p. 69)
I am a bit more reticent about the second of these statements now than when I wrote the article. The point here was a pragmatic one, which might be somewhat at odds with the sentiments elsewhere. Documenting process can surely do no harm, and indeed do a lot of good in terms of clarifying and facilitating the dissemination of research, but on the other hand one should not necessarily privilege written outputs in this respect, as I said in the talk. But this does not contradict my basic view that practice can be research independently of any written element, in strong distinction to the position Croft (and at first Mera) appear to attribute to me. Documentation does not make something research, just help a little with making research more accessible. 300 word statements hardly seem a huge price to pay, though I remain somewhat in two minds about this point.
I also wrote:
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. (p. 67)
All I am saying here is that composers should not automatically assume they are high-level academics, any more than should those who write articles and book chapters. It hardly seems so unfair that they are held to research standards just like other types of academics.
Croft takes further exception to my arguments here:
Pace’s suggestion that composition is somehow a less demanding activity for an academic to undertake, and that it needs the words to make up the difference, hardly warrants a response and has no bearing on the question at hand. (pp. 76-7)
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. (p. 69)
This is the same point as I made about composers expecting to have to put in no extra effort when working in universities. But Croft neglects my qualifier ‘some’. I have certainly seen some other PhDs which are absolutely on a par with more conventional types, just believe these are not always typical.
I end with my fundamental point: trying to provide very exclusive definitions of ‘research’ is fruitless; what is needed is to find equitable ways of assessing composition, performance, written and other types of outputs in ways which do not put any work at a disadvantage simply because of the form of the output.
On Wednesday November 25th, 2015, a research seminar took place at City on the question ‘Can Composition and Performance be Research?’, featuring speakers from amongst City faculty and research students, and from the wider academic community. Below is a video of the event, and some reflections and commentary by City PhD student Roya Arab.
Reflecting on a panel discussion on John Croft’s article at City University, Nov 2015
Scholars, students and practitioners gathered in the performance space of City University, Wednesday 25th November, to hear various takes on John Croft’s article ‘Composition is Not Research’ in Tempo’s April 2015 edition. Convened by Alexander Lingas, the panellists included Christopher Fox (Professor of Composition at Brunel University and editor of Tempo); Ian Pace (pianist and Head of Performance at City University); Miguel Mera (composer and Head of the Department of Music at City University); Camden Reeves (composer and Senior Lecturer at Manchester University); Annie Yim (pianist and DMA student at City University); Christine Dysers (PhD student in Music at City University). The absence of John Croft or Piers Halliwell (who had written ‘Treating Composers as Researchers is Bonkers’, May 2014) was felt.
Professor Fox opened the discussion with some background to Croft’s piece, having first heard his ideas at the Duke of Cambridge pub, after which he had encouraged him to write his thoughts down – the article was well received by Tempo’s editor Bob Gilmore, who sadly passed away before the edition’s highly accessed, and responded to, publication. Fox further informed us of how York University’s music department, at its inception in the 1960s, was filled by the director Wilfred Mellers ‘all with composers’, how they got students, liked them and to keep them in further studies ‘had to invent a compositional research degree’. Fifty years on from the genesis of such research – by the mid-eighties one of its manifestation being ‘composition as research’ – John Croft’s article has raised a few heckles, questioning the validity of composition as research, its ability to further knowledge in composition and possible misapplications within the discipline to name a few of the gripes. Ian Pace in his written response (Nov 2015) broadened the topic by looking at practical institutional funding and structural changes, development and uses of ‘practice as research’ within other creative disciplines and in other countries then going further to posit ‘performance as practice’ into the discourse and championing the potential for new kinds of practice. Luk Vaes highlighted the issue of changes in REF terminology requiring the arts to conform to the scientific model and the absence of solutions. He suggested looking at the EU where the dichotomy between academic and artistic training is being dissolved (Vaes, 2015). David Pocknee in his written response questions Craft’s presumption of a fixed methodology in scientific research, which he dispels as a ‘myth’ and ‘not the actual way in which science is conducted’ (2015, 16) instead suggesting the need for new theories and paradigms for ‘extraordinary science’ (ibid, p19).
During the panel discussion which was recorded, Miguel Mera reminded us these debates were not new especially in other disciplines, he questioned the stem based understanding of research and suggested the need for equivalence, ‘to share what we do…to share knowledge’ however ‘ hard it is to measure’; whilst Camden Reeves considers it ‘up to us to decide …..what we value as intellectual pursuit is research’, he feels composition is ‘coming under attack’ with a move to segregate composition into research and not research and expressed reluctance for providing written explanations, believing the work (composition) speaks for itself. The students on the panel welcomed the debates around the subject.
As a new student to musicology (having previously studied archaeology), I read some of the articles relating to the subject prior to the panel discussion. During the discussion and in the articles I had read, there was a notable absence of attempts to locate possible ‘scientific’ lines of enquiry, using quantitative analysis to help inform the debate. As I commented on Luk Vaes’s blog on Croft’s article (Vaes, June 2015), since funding for practice as research “dates back to mid-1980 in the UK, would it not be pertinent to list the research projects that have garnered funding and study the outcomes in order to establish ‘stock of knowledge’ (as outlined by REF) these research projects may have added to or enhanced…. Maybe a call out to relevant educational institutions to send lists of PhDs awarded in the fields of ‘musical composition and/or performance as research 1980-2010’. Once the list is established and presuming the PhD studies 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”. Such a study would additionally allow an overview of who is being paid for what, when and where, thus providing a useful database for multiple levels and angles of enquiry. Equally, I wonder how many composers and performers are creating (researching) works (findings), which further knowledge and have impact, without operating within educational institutions and seeking funding for research?
On the blog (ibid) Luk raised reservations about the disputed fundamental terminology within musicology. I responded that “grappling with terminology to situate the discipline more firmly in a hard-science biased academic/institutional framework seems to blight most social sciences and art, 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”.
We can never overcome the reality that a scientific fact like homeostasis, a term first coined in 1865, which is the control of internal conditions, be it temperature, specific blood conditions or other variables within living organisms (Turtle, 2015) has a constancy and applicability of use that no treatise on composition or performance could ever have. There are far too many unquantifiable and unqualifiable variables in composition and performance (not least reception in all its forms – by academics, critics, musicologists, institutions, funding bodies, music industry, trend setters and the general public) to allow for ‘a system’ to be taught affectively. Yes, much of science comes from lucky chance, but once decoded it can be repeated. For a start, one would wish for performance and composition to not be so prescriptive but nevertheless, people do teach thousands of composers and performers systems that have been deciphered and interpreted through long-term study and analysis of music and musicians, but how many end up being good performers or composers and how many of those get ‘discovered’ or paid in their lifetime for their works? (clearly ‘good’ is a relative word but there must be some general consensus that people can agree on). Once you teach a human biologist about the fundamental theories and practical applications of homeostasis, they apply it time and time again – it’s good every time because it works every time.
There is no escaping the problem of ever diminishing funds within educational institutions and from funding bodies for creative research and study. I personally believe social and creative disciplines need to get over their feelings of inferiority to the hard sciences and in the case of the debates surrounding ‘composition and performance as research’ there seems to be a need for a concentrated effort to establish clearer parameters for presenting ideas within the academic structure and examining output in a systematic manner, strengthening the discipline’s position to affect change within educational institutes for expanding the research remit, through providing good examples. This I am guessing would take a more honest, reflexive and nuanced understanding, acceptance and treatment of the challenges, constraints and freedoms that studying/practising music within educational institutional frameworks pose.