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‘Can Composition and Performance be Research?’ – Video of research seminar, November 25, 2015, and reflections by Roya Arab

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.


City University Research Forum, 25 Nov 2015.
Croft, J., Apr 2015 ‘Composition is not Research’, Tempo 69/272.
Halliwell, P., 2015. ‘Treating Composers as Researchers is Bonkers’. Standpoint Magazine May 2014.
Pace, I., 2016, ‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’, Tempo 70/275.