Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Composition is (sometimes) Research.

A recent article by the English composer John Croft with an assertion for a title, Composition is not Research, has received a lot of social media attention within Newmusicland.  Within the narrow context of academic employment for composers and the even-more-narrow context of evaluating the non-teaching, non-service activities of faculty composers, the title is mostly true, but only for the reason that most of the music faculty composers anywhere write is going to be quietist in nature, producing usable repertoire, but not music which asks questions about the nature, extent and limits of listening in general or music in particular.

I make a lot of music that falls into that quietist comfort zone too, but I also make music with a more radical or experimental nature and, reliably often, characterizing it as a form of research is not only fair but accurate.  When — and I'm just following Cage here — the outcome of a compositional procedure is unknown, then characterizing the work as experimental, indeed as experimental research, is fair.   The method, using a speculative thesis, testing it, repeating it, advancing conclusions, trying alternatives and consequential procedures, etc. is research plain and simple. Moreover, the areas of exploration enters into the fields of acoustics, material sciences, psychoaoustics and cognitive science which are established areas of scholarship. I find that composition which engages these areas adds an interesting and challenging aesthetic dimension to the research at the same time it risks adding to the given definitions of the music.

Thus, I am comfortable in asserting that this kind of work is research suitable to a university setting and suitable materials for evaluation as research whether for degree or academic employment and advancement.  My sense, however, is that the more urgent  question behind an article like Croft's is a question of the place of aesthetic production without an explicit research dimension, i.e. repertoire music designed as reliably performable rather than requiring compositional, performative and auditional risks, within a research program or institution.  I don't know the history in British institutions, but this has been wrestled with in US academia since after the Second World War in which the decision of an institution to offer graduate degrees to composers reflected a serious division among institutions, with some insisting on a terminal master's degree of some sort for composition, others promoting degrees based principally on creative work, MFAs, DMus etc., and others recognizing a PhD in composition as a form of research.  However, that era of wrestling on principle soon gave way to a considerable loosening of the categories and even — let's say it — degree inflation, such that many institutions established doctoral programs with PhDs or DMus-ez without investing much in their distinction. And, with regard to faculty hiring, there seems to be little discrimination based on the presence of a research program per se, but certainly on aspects of publication (commissions, performances, recordings, sheet music) and when the publication of written words is expected, composers are not always expected to produce scholarly papers in the manner of musicologists or theorists, but material that more immediately represents the composer's viewpoint, source literature not secondary, if you will.

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