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Sunday, 27 September 2015

Russia Diary: I

The Tchaikovsky Composers’ Academy
—and the delicate art of composition teaching

Chaykovsky city
Recently I was fortunate enough to land a place on the Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble Academy—as I write this, I’ve just returned to London, after spending nearly a month in Russia. This was a residential course, well-known to quite a few apparently but something I myself stumbled on, after hearing the Ensemble on the record label Fancymusic, and writing about some of it. 

These days, the contrast between the instant availability of music—on the internet—and the confinement of that music to a particular geographical location is pronounced. It was great to meet and talk to the amazing bunch of Russians working now, whose music I’d only heard recordings of, on the internet and on CD. Plus, experiencing music in person, and the personalities making it, has to be the only way to gain a more complete feeling this work.

Here, I will write about two, separable but also interlinked things. The first part will concern the activities associated with the Academy itself: specifically, composition teaching, something that I had not encountered in any significant depth until just now. The second will discuss the broader situation of new and experimental music in Russia, young composers and musicians, which is forthcoming. Although the pedagogy of the Academy was fascinating in its own way, I think it’s this broader musical context that I was most excited and inspired by when I was there.

Composition pedagogy and the Academy
(The mix of composers—‘pedagogic anxiety’—Ablinger—Furrer—Cendo—Kourliandski)

Examining a score, all photos by Leonid Imennykh
Don’t get me wrong, good company is solidarity. Company is fortifying. Company is stimulating. But I’ve not been a student at a conservatory composition department; composers are people I usually have met at the pub after gigs. Of course, pedagogic environments also encourage the ordinary kind of mutual relaxation (read: drinking)—but there’s a difference: you’re not with these people because they all just turned up to the gig and the pub afterwards. These people are here because of a selection process. 

Now obviously, concert audiences also are self-selecting according to aesthetic preoccupations. But the idea that a group of people represents a ‘deliberate mix’, of nationalities, styles, approaches, deliberate because selected, all within a single discipline (composition) was a new one for me. In the same way, the composition tutors—on this occasion, Peter Ablinger, Raphael Cendo and Beat Furrer—represent a similar, deliberate mix. 

The mix of composers represented a cross section of younger Russians, with a few non-Russians thrown in for spice. Some of the more experienced Russians—Marina Poleukhina, Vladimir Gorlinsky—had had music performed at Gaudeamus, Darmstadt, Witten. Similar things could be said about the German composer Benjamin Schauer—a veteran of practically every residential course for composers going. Others were less experienced. 

In the context of this mix several things—embarrassments—fell into my head. One was: that I hadn’t had any extensive individual composition teaching. Apart from a few occasional meetings with people at Cambridge, I didn’t have regular supervision. When I was a Junior at Trinity (whilst still a school student) I had some individual composition teaching as part of my A Level—limited to, if I remember, a term or so of weekly half-hour morning sessions. 

The second was: I’d never to date received any money to write music for anybody. Either in the form of a prize with a commission attached, or a straightforward commission. I think all the other composers, many of whom were still below 25, had enjoyed such things. 

To be honest, I’m not sure these things are especially significant. The point though, is that the company of a bunch of young composers—however amiable they might be—will always reinforce such ‘career-anxieties’. Indeed the whole Academy was really a lesson, a personal lesson, in anxiety-management.

In fact, one could say that the entire enterprise of composition teaching is fundamentally an exercise in anxiety-management. The teacher is presented with a student who slides a piece in front of them. In my case—but I expect this is greatly generalisable—these portfolio pieces represent things which the student has a rather conflicted relationship with, things that on the one hand they may be proud of, but on the other they are desperate to be rid of. Such things can’t be written off as juvenalia—they are the very pieces submitted to ‘land’ selection on the programme. They’re also set in stone—there’s nothing ‘to be done’ about them any more. They are, often, personal failures, personal embarrassments—but the student is well aware that they needn’t be (and usually aren’t) seen as such. The teacher has to manage this situation—delicately, or indelicately, depending on how they think the student should be treated. 

I think I felt this kind of ‘pedagogic anxiety’ very acutely—in that I had not been prepared for it—such that a few people mentioned that I was rather intense in lessons. Other people, who’ve had a bit more teaching, might be better at using their work as a defence mechanism; but I found that difficult, not least because I was not particularly happy with much of my portfolio even before criticism. 

Peter Ablinger
One thing that struck me during the Academy was the various tutors’ differing approaches toward these pedagogic problems. Peter Ablinger had perhaps the most straightforward approach, the kind of approach one would expect or desire. Each student had essentially to be ‘given’ something. Ablinger would suck the end of his spectacles, and some relevant detail from the back of his mind would at once issue forth, something that would turn out to have great but subtle significance. Some small, but careful piece of advice: that the student should really listen, to the environment say; or make sketches, or line drawings. Some of these things were little lessons he no doubt gives to many others (‘draw what you see, not what you think you see’). I suspect Ablinger’s tendency was to try to find out what sort of piece the student is ‘writing over’ (i.e. writing over and over again), and uncover some internal inconsistency latent within it. In doing so, inevitably, he would betray his own priorities. A recurrent—one could even say favourite—topic of his, was rhetoric; that the music could often find itself hoisted by its own rhetorical petard. Or that the student had not fully anticipated the rhetorical effect of some gesture or other. Or that—in my case—the presence of an historical reference, even accidental, coloured the music rhetorically in a way to made it less subtle, less ambiguous. 

I think Peter generally has a desire to, at least, be some kind of revisionist of musical rhetoric. That whilst rhetoric is always present in any performed art, it can, and perhaps arguably should, be rearranged or externalised, such that the moment-to-moment ‘happening’ of the piece does not form itself out of rhetorical duty; but rather that the entire piece, or indeed, the entire series should be seen as a kind of rhetorical entity. ‘Post-rhetorical’ entity, even. In some sense this is related to his wanting to be linked to conceptual art; that while he is reluctant to call himself an artist (he is a composer) nonetheless, the pieces find themselves having deliberate family resemblance to Beuysian vitrines or installations. In the sense that Lippard and Chandler write of ‘dematerialisation’, one could think that Ablinger’s essential project is ‘demusicalisation’, or ‘remusicalisation’. Thus the presence of ‘music’ as an unreconstructed topic is one that, if it is present at all, has to be abstracted through some materiality essentially external to any immanent ‘musical’. (One might think of Quadraturen V: Musik, where the sound of a cassette tape of Eisler’s East German National Anthem is analysed, quantised, refracted and set for orchestra. One could even hypothesise that a method for ‘composition beyond music’, his choice phrase, would be to take the essentially ‘immaterial’ abstract of musical language and ‘materialise’ it in some way—via environmental or objective sound, speech, recordings, data—before recombining it (back) into some explicitly musical medium.)

Ablinger’s wish to align with conceptual artists sometimes led him to make slightly strange statements, about how music had not yet experienced a ‘conceptual’ moment, in the way that the visual arts had. This is sketchy at best. I think it’s clear that music has had multiple conceptual moments, but because of institutional differences (notably the lack of an equivalent to the institutional ‘white cube’) music and the visual arts have developed differently. It’s more difficult in music to create an Danto-esque self-reinforcing artworld; an institutional support structure into which anything can be put and made into art. But this isn’t to say that since the 1950s and ’60s, many musicians and artists haven’t tried. 

Anyway, Peter is somebody I ally with despite these quibbles, though perhaps I’d be less inclined to side so straightforwardly with Harry Lehmann and the younger crowd of Konzeptmusik enthusiasts. It might also be worth pointing out at this juncture that the present situation of contemporary art is really, pretty ‘fucked up’, so attempting to ape it, or encouraging students that it might or ought to be, might not necessarily be the best thing to do either. 

Beat Furrer in Votkinsk
(Tchaikovsky's birthplace)
Beat Furrer’s approach was different. Ablinger said that Furrer was terribly Swiss—in his habit of taking exactly as long as needed to say anything. Furrer’s English was good, generally, but it was his little hand gestures—of things stratifying, or being joined, or interleaving, or splitting—which were most salient. Furrer is clearly a conductor at heart, and in his music one can explicitly ‘feel’ his dirigent-ish temperament (think of the opening of Nuun, or moments from Wüstenbuch). 

Furrer’s approach felt more—perhaps—aristocratic. I don’t think he felt he needed to ‘give’ anything, or had any kind of paternalist ‘duty’ in teaching; rather, talking to him was closer maybe to the ‘and so, what do you do?’ of ceremonial exchange. I don’t mean to say he was lofty (though he’s clearly a bit sheltered), or that he didn’t make good observations when they occurred to him. But if they didn’t occur, I don’t think he would attempt to ‘construct’ an observation (Ablinger might feel he would need to—though I should say, not always). Furrer would instead just keep asking questions, perhaps even to keep the exchange going.

I think this may relate to a conductor’s common rehearsal situation; that there are passages, sometimes rather lengthy, that one can pass over without too much comment. They’re played through, maybe even a few times for clarification, and the rehearsal can move on. 

I found Furrer something of an enigma. One of the things that has always puzzled me about his music is how certain things keep recurring, certain gestures or bits of material find their way into piece after piece, dramatic and instrumental. If I were in a good mood, I would attribute this to some sort of self-similar musical world, language, extensibility. In a bad mood, I’d see it as formulaic, repetitive, tautological, even cynical. I don’t think even Furrer himself has a good explanation for this. But I think it is also true that, while many things crop up still in his music, in recent years his music has morphed quite a bit. His new opera, La Bianca Notte, which he showed an extensive passage from, was very interesting—his largest opera to date and notably, his first setting of Italian, which had a very considerable effect on the music. This was much more outwardly ‘romantic’ than any other of his pieces. His harmonic control in the piece is also absolutely exquisite, much of it developed from the Shepard-Risset tone, orchestrated for ensemble. Furrer’s writing is much more intuitive than Ablinger’s, though I’m sure he would be loath to admit it. As is his wont, musical material and structuration must be modernistically justified. Perhaps Furrer is an unreconstructed modern living in a postmodern age; his detachment from the multi-polar musical world of today would imply as such. (There was a revealing exchange when one student asked him about the presence of film music as an inevitable connotative musical language amongst listeners. No matter how much structural listening one applies to a piece like Nuun, one can’t escape the image of Batman being chased. Beat skirted the question.)

Cendo on the beach
The generational difference between Furrer and Raphael Cendo was quite marked. Cendo too comes from a European establishment avant-garde (he rarely writes music without commission). But his style is intensely intuitive—while it has a specified aesthetic language, it isn’t interested in ‘structural ingenuity’. In fact before the Academy his music was entirely alien to me. I’d spent so much time immersed in Anglo-American experimentalism that, when I first heard some of it, its artificial ‘saturation’ and reliance on extended technique after extended technique, were completely lost on me. I found it obsessed with spectacle, immersion, overload and overdrive; it was lacking in subtlety; it was full of spectacular noises, but lacking in any true mystery. It took me a while to remember just how much I did love French music—but in particular, meeting and ‘witnessing’ Cendo, this enormous overgrown teenager, was the best thing I could have asked for, in terms of understanding his music. Cendo’s music sees as positives all of the things I initially regarded as negatives. Spectacle, overdrive, overload, hyperactivity, immersion, and Cendo’s own buzzword of choice, ‘saturation’. His music has a kind of adolescent aesthetic, which once you see it is charming in its way. He also detests the prettification and sparkle of other French music (notably Murail) which he labels ‘bourgeois’. Cendo sees timbre as something of a be-all, a natural progression in musical material from Stockhausen to Berio to Lachenmann, thence to ‘saturation’. But he hates the historic impressionistic ‘pretty’ or ‘delicate’ French timbres, which I suppose he thinks are sickly, like fancies, bon-bons. What he likes are his own vigorous, fervid, dark-coloured, pungeant timbres, layered in layer-over-layer, which can often overwhelm the listener in a energetic and sometimes violent wave of intensity. His is music which one does not ‘lean in to’. His music comes at you with the force of a truck, with a cowcatcher and flames painted on the sides. 

Because for Cendo there is a rather straightforward institutional story to the history of modern music (he was trained at IRCAM after all), there’s no problem for him to say, as became something of a catchphrase, ‘I like it. You must to continue with this recherche.’ For him, there was no problem with the idea of composition being research, it’s plainly self-evident. It’s ‘searching’, it’s what all artists do. I’m not sure what he would make of that famous Picasso line, ‘Je ne cherche pas; je trouve.’ He probably would think it was bourgeois.

Dmitry Kourliandski
I think though, one of the strongest impressions was left on me by Dmitri Kourliandski. He is the true hero of the Academy—which when you stop and think about it, is an extraordinary thing. Here we were in a small, provincial Russian city in Perm. A backwater, save for the fact that it had an important regional music conservatory, and was close to where Tchaikovsky was born. Somehow, and for some reason, for the past few years, the leading lights of European new music had been attracted here. The previous tutors included Pierluigi Billone, Antoine Beuger, Jean-Luc Herve, Frank Bedrossian, Philippe Leroux, Klaus Lang. Dmitri has to be one of the reasons for this—his charisma and connections, and talent as a composer and ambassador, as well as his talent at teaching. As Sergei Nevsky was stuck in Berlin, Dmitri took the masterclasses Nevsky would have taken. Kourliandski’s teaching was incredibly natural, generous, but not ‘soft’. He was unafraid to confront students with the inconsistencies at the heart of what they were doing. And Dmitri was extremely capable of seeing past whatever musical surface—of noises and commotions, of subtle notation—might be there to bamboozle the listener or teacher. For Dmitri, it was the music, whatever, wherever that is to be found, if not ‘beneath’ the surface than just ‘behind’ it. Dmitri also asked all the right questions—questions beginning ‘why’, whose answers were not expected to be justifications of some technique. They were more basic than that; ‘why this music’, as opposed to some other music? These deeply aesthetic questions Dmitri had careful control over—they weren’t fielded ‘lightly’. In a way, the student had to be presented with everything else first, all the technical niceties, before they could fall away and a real discussion of the music could be arrived at. 

This is a brave thing to do with students. It’s much easier to focus and ask questions about the surface, about notation and technique, about compositional procedure, about orchestration and colouration. It’s hard to ask those aesthetic questions to which no one has decent answers—but it is those questions (‘what exactly is this music?’, ‘what does this music mean?’, ‘what does this music tell us about music in general?’) to which we spend our entire lives trying to find answers.

Kourliandski is like so many of those teachers who easily can become invisible. Because he was always there—always on hand to be asked about small things, always asking how you were doing, sending you the odd message on facebook, always there at every student presentation, always with some comment or other, always humble and never making a big deal about his attendance, never attracting attention to himself—one could easily forget about him. But safe to say the Academy would not exist in the richness it does without him. 

Part II to follow shortly, in which there’ll be more depth of discussion of some of the young composers active in Moscow alongside Kourliandski, such as Alexander Manotskov, Alexey Sysoev, Alexander Khubeev, Vladimir Gorlinsky, Sasha Elina, Kirill Shirokov, Marina Poleukhina, Mark Buloshnikov, Alexey Zaitsev, Daniil Pilchen, and others.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Adventures in … augmentation dots?

A couple of months ago, Aaron Cassidy gave an interesting lecture on rhythm. Aaron’s music is extremely complex—and in recent years, particularly since the Second String Quartet (2010) he has been interested in, if not simplifying, at least consolidating the vast amount of information his scores contain.

But there was one little moment in his talk (which is worth watching, by the way, particularly for his  exposition of the intricate rhythmic flow of elite cycling[1]) which sparked me. It was that Aaron had never found a convenient way to notate 9’s and 5’s. (See 1:06:00 in the talk.)

This got me thinking. Surely there has to be a convenient way of notating 9’s and 5’s—indeed, I’d felt I’d encountered it before.

It’s particularly odd that we haven’t retained a 9-length note, especially because of the tempus perfectum maior being the summit of mensural time measurement. Indeed, this frustrated the musicologist Willi Apel so much that he invented his own notation for a 9-length note. But more on that in a moment.

First, let’s see if we can tackle 5’s. Anyone who is familiar with Conlon Nancarrow’s brilliant pencil scores for his pieces will have seen his solution for notating 5’s. Consider the following excerpt from his Study no. 7. Is there a clearer way to notate this?

Nancarrow’s solution was to invent a new notehead to attach to the minims that would lengthen them by one quaver. The notehead looks something like a turn ornament. When this is done, the clarity of the line increases greatly.

While this is an elegant way of achieving a clear 5, it lacks extensibility—that is, if you want a length of 5 crotchets, you have to tie two of these together (unless you’re willing to use a stemless one like a semibreve, though Nancarrow never does this). Meanwhile, a length of five semiquavers is impossible to represent, without inventing some other notation.

Incidentally, George Crumb had another way of showing this length—by positioning another dot to the left of the note. The logic was probably that the note is double-dotted, but the second dot subtracts rather than adds that length. Thus a dotted note length 6, instead of being lengthened again to 7, is reduced to 5. I think this is a nice notation, but it suffers from lack of clarity if these dots collide with each other (if two Crumb-dotted notes are close together).

In a recent piece (a piano trio) I’d experimented with the ‘half-dot’, using a small circle—a la the harmonic marking—as an extendable way of achieving a length of five.

I was later very pleased to see that Ben Johnston does the same thing. See this excerpt from his Two Sonnets of Shakespeare (1978). The strings and winds divide the 8/8 bar into two notes, length 3 and 5, with the 5 showing the small clear circle after it.

The nice thing about this method is that it’s totally extendable. The Johnston half-dot can be appended to any note to add a quarter of its length.

Using this notation, let’s again look at that Nancarrow fragment. How would it appear using these Johnston half-dots?

Just using the half-dot, in combination with the other dots we already have, can yield some beautiful results. Notating ‘augmentation dot rubato’, as it might be called, is easy and can summarise enormously complicated rhythms with comparative notational efficiency. Consider this version of the song Old Man River.

With mensurstrich bars, the rhythm expands gracefully over the barlines, and while there is definite visible syncopation, when a human being plays this back, they would flex the rhythm according to feeling, rather than attempt the impossible task of actually calculating the underlying demisemiquavers. If this melody were notated ‘normally’, one would have to write something like this:

Here, one is trapped by the grid of the demisemiquavers, and further, it is much more difficult to see the melodic line, let alone flex with it.

Incidentally, one interesting feature of augmentation dots is that they can be used to subdivide bars of their length. A single-dotted note subdivides a bar of 12 (or 6). A half-dotted note subdivides a bar of 10 (of 5). And a double-dotted note subdivides a bar of 14 (or 7). In this way each of these lengths can be ‘converted’ into a bar of 4—in the same way that one could place a large 4-tuplet over the bar.

(From these notations, one can see that Sibelius struggles to notate the groupings in the upper, plain bar. In 14/8, the situation is particularly bad. I should also emphasise that Sibelius does not do well when notating these things—appending symbols to notes is fiddly, and if you realign anything in the bar, the whole arrangement can go out of alignment, leading to a time-consuming manual fix needed. I experimented with making these dots ‘custom articulations’, but even then problems arise. There is no way to make a custom augmentation dot, not even using a plug-in—it is a deeper part of the Sibelius architecture. The closest one could get would be to write a plug-in to detect notes of a given length and insert a symbol next to them. But even this would be subject to the same problems as doing it manually.)

So far, we’ve only considered the half-dot, as a notation for 5. But to notate a 9, we need another augmentation dot. Notating a 9 is like notating 4.5—we’re adding only an eighth of the length again. We need to invent a ‘quarter-dot’.

My proposal is to use, again, a clear dot, but with an oblique strike-through. I’m not particularly sure how clear this is—and another notation could plausibly be found.

This notation is interesting as it subdivides 9 into 4. This can produce some nice results—such as 5-4 ‘swing’. Consider this melody—from On the Sunny Side of the Street—the swing here is very light, close to the sort of swing rhythm that a jazz musician might actually use. It close to being straight quavers, but not quite.

The augmentation dots are interesting as they represent a ‘consolidation’ of the underlying grid. The 32nd or 64th notes that underlie the rhythm are present, but only ‘sort of’, as the rhythm is more ‘felt’ than calculated. As an example, consider this more complex ‘transcription’ of the waltz section from Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus overture, a piece which has many ‘conventional’ rhythmic nuances. Viennese waltzes by convention have an early onset second beat. I’ve also taken some liberties with the melody, to create ‘augmentation dot rubato’.

Here the augmentation dots really do nothing more than ‘suggest’ the push and pull of the rubato, as again, actually calculating the rhythms is extremely difficult. In computer playback, however, the extremity of the rubato is clearly audible.

In summary, then, here are all of the durations, from 8 to 16, summarised using these ‘custom’ augmentation dots. Some are common practice, others are invented.

The duration 18 presents some interesting difficulties. While it is possible to notate a semibreve with a quarter-dot, there is another notation, coming from Willi Apel, which is interesting and plausible.

This notation ‘dots’ a dotted note. It would, in other words, take a dotted note, and add half its length again. This, in 9/8, results in a dotted minim plus a dotted crotchet. Apel’s notation was to use a dotted minim with two dots, one positioned above the other. (This example comes from the appendix of his seminal book, The notation of polyphonic music.)

I therefore offer not one but two options for notating 9’s, depending on context. One could use the quarter-dot if you were equally subdividing the bar, into two halves of 4.5. Or one could use the Apel dotted-dot to imply threefold subdivision, as in tempus perfectum maior.

The 21/8 duration also presents some interesting opportunities. If one had divided the bar into three double-dotted crotchets, one could use a dotted double-dotted minim (a minim with two horizontal dots and one vertical dot) to show this. Or, one could use a double half-dot. Both these options appear above.

The only lengths my scheme omits are 17 and 19, but these are very uncommon. In any case, they can be shown as 17 = 12 + 5, and 19 = 10 + 9, or any other subdivision.

How, then, might we notate the rhythm that Aaron was interested in, at 1:06 of the video above?

How ideal is this solution? Could it be made clearer? Quite possibly. Different varieties of noteheads, that unlike Nancarrow’s, could be made ‘white’ as well as ‘black’, and hence extendable, might solve some of the clarity problem. One can see here that when the score is small, the quarter-dot is very similar in appearance to the half dot. Nevertheless, the rhythm on the right does have greater transparency than the one on the left.

The other thing these augmentation dots can do to aid us is give us greater precision in approximating a 7-tuplet rhythm like Aaron’s using 2-limit or 3-limit quantisation. Consider the following approximations.

The first, a) is very highly approximate, but gives a sense of the overall shape of the rhythm. On the other hand, I like b)—as it has much of the slightly lopsided quality of the 7-tuplets. The third approximation c), using its triple dots, is ungainly and not ideal (but almost identical to the 7-tuplet rhythm). However, I think my favourite is the fourth approximation d)—the advantage of this one is that it shows where the second half of the 4/8 bar occurs, something all the other rhythms do not.

Actually, not quite, as the second approximation does that in its own way—expanding out the first beat, and ‘contracting’ through use of the half-dot, the second beat. The question one is led to is ‘is the third note of b) “off the beat”?’ Indeed, is the third note of the original 7-tuplet rhythm “off the beat”? These are deep questions, to do with our notions of beat and rhythm—and when we use augmentation dots in this way, we can bend beats at will, it makes beats gluey, and while they retain their gravitational quality, they can fall away from the underlying grid.

In the end, these augmentation dots signal at least one way of explicitly (i.e. not merely through conventional performance practice) suggesting movement away from a rigid underlying grid. In Chopin performance, say, no one expects rhythms to be attacked robotically or without a healthy amount of license. But that kind of conventional performance approach cannot be ‘written in’ to a modern score particularly easily, especially when, for performers, the material may be very different from conventional notions of rubato pianism.

But with these augmentation dots, the rhythms are mostly ‘felt’; they elide the grid they sit on; they subvert it to a certain degree. Consider again that ‘transcription’ of Fledermaus. As a pianist, if you were presented with that excerpt, how would you play it? Would you try to ‘calculate out’ all the subtleties of the rhythms, or would you sight-read through and ‘feel out’ those subtleties?

I don’t have as much interest as Aaron does in re-inventing notation—as I feel that, given the limits placed on rehearsal time for new music, and the pressures on musicians performing it, more conventional notations are usually more efficient and transparent, and can still be used powerfully. But I do agree with him about how for a rhythm to be a rhythm (as opposed to a series of durations), it must have points of gravitation; it has pattern to it. It has 2-ness or 3-ness; it has upbeats or downbeats. To bend and stretch rhythms, so that they’re fluid and can be bent by the performers themselves, but still retain ‘up-ness’ and ‘down-ness’, ‘off-beat-ness’ and ‘on-beat-ness’, is a great priority.


Some of these ideas crop up in a piece I wrote for harpsichord, which was recorded recently. The score is available to download here, and can be listened to below.

[1] One can’t, or at least, I can’t, watch the section of the talk without thinking of Alan Partridge’s cycling commentary on The Day Today: ‘they look somehow like cattle, in a mad way, but cattle on bikes’.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Squaring the damn composition—research circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francesconi ‘weighs in’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musicologist Bob Gilmore at work
Mapping the experimental world

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Ashley
Aesthetics to the rescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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