29 March 2018 – Is music “research”?

Searching the music of Hellawell and going from one video to the other on YouTube, I chanced on the one of Hellawell discussing the topic “can music be considered as ‘research’“. Turns out Academic composers in the UK (e.g. composers working in Academia, usually as composition teachers) are now requested by the UK bureaucracy to present their compositional projects as “research”, because an Academic is supposed to do research. Only – and I find that Hellawell cogently argues his point – if some composers and compositions can be considered as “research”, most can’t, because the act and process of music composition – and “art” in general – isn’t scientific research. He scores a strong point when (at 4:05) he argues that, based on the research criterion, Wagenseil would have been granted funding by the UK academic bureaucracy, but “J.S. Bachrrrrr” would have pitifully failed….

Researching some more, it turns out that this issue of composition as research is a hot topic these days in the UK. John Croft, a composition teacher at Brunel University, published a paper that apparently made some waves (link will open new tab to .pdf document), in which he strongly argues against the notion that composition can be equated to research, and chafes that academic composers seeking funding are forced to lie about what their compositional projects are actually about and to make up things for the bureaucracy. The problem with that, he adds, is that the ability to lie and make up things that will fool the bureaucracy is not necessarily a skill that goes hand and hand with compositional excellence.

And this in turn seems to have spurred a large discussion, to which pianist Ian Pace also contributed with a more moderate and compromising view than Croft’s (and more leads to the controversy – not always courteous – here).

I do find that at times Croft stretches the argument, as when he asks voluntarily silly research questions designed to make the answers absurd:

Imagine, if you will, a research funding application from Schoenberg. Research question: ‘can I make music in which all pitch classes are played equally often?’. Answer: yes! Or one from Grisey: ‘can I make chords out of the pitches revealed by spectral analysis?’ Answer: yes! Can I write a piece by sonifying the human genome? Actually, yes! If the answer to your ‘research question’ is always (trivially) ‘yes’, then there’s no research going on

(incidentally, Hellawell uses the same kind of argument, with his Wagenseil vs Bach quip)

But, sure, it seems to me that Schoenberg, Boulez, Xenakis, Grisey’s compositional endeavors CAN be framed in “research” questions. Schoenberg: “can I invent a coherent compositional system which does away with tonality?”. Ultimately the answer was yes, but contrary to what Croft says, the outcome wasn’t given and Schoenberg had to toil and sweat and research before coming up with “the system”. Boulez: “can I invent a coherent compositional system that organizes ALL the parameters of music – not just pitch, but rhythm, timbre, dynamics – in a rational way that does away with all the accepted ‘traditions’”? (about this, see my review of Structures). And ultimately he did, but there was lots of research, trial and error involved, and in a way “Structures II” is a “refutation” (as much as a confirmation) of “Structures I”, and the later-Boulez is a “refutation” of the early Boulez of “sérialisme intégral”. Xenakis: “can I invent a coherent compositional system that does away with Boulez’ serialism and is based on stochastic functions?”. And ultimately he did, but it involved research and the solutions weren’t given. Grisey: “can I invent a coherent compositional system based on OTHER parameters than tonality or Boulez’ serialism?”. And ultimately he did, basing it on “the pitches revealed by spectral analysis”. But he didn’t just wake up one morning and came up with it. It was a long process of trial and error. Etc.

I don’t quite agree with this either:

the most original music, whatever its debt to the past, has a kind of waywardness or intransigence that has more to do rejecting unwanted influences, or hermetically pursuing something that nobody else is interested in. In this is it the opposite of research – in general, a researcher cannot simply decide to ignore swathes of previous research because it suits her to do so, or cultivate a deliberate obliviousness to the scholarly context in which she works. But for a composer, this might be just the right thing to do.

I mean, Copernicus and Galileo are steeped in Ptolemanic astronomy and Aristotelician physics, they’ve been taught them, they know them upside down – know their flaws too, but flaws don’t mean they are false, and most in their days conclude that their flaws mean only that they need to be perfected. But unlike most, Copernicus and Galileo decide to reject them and invent completely new astrononmy and physics. How is Schoenberg different? He is deeply steeped in the late-romanticism of Wagner and Mahler, he’s been taught it, he knows it inside out, he’s composed in that style – but he’s aware of the flaws, and decides to reject the system and invent a totally new one.  It’s exactly the same intransigence, the same rejection of “unwanted influences”,  the “hermetical pursuit of something that nobody else is interested in.”

But that doesn’t invalidate the point Croft is making. Hellawell is probably slightly more accurate in that he contends that, sure, SOME composers and compositions do respond to the “research” criterion – but not all, and most composers and compositions do not. And despite his argumentative tricks, Croft’s point remains unassailable: composition is NOT academic research and cannot bow to the criteria of academic research, and fuck off you damn ignorant bureaucrats!

This is excellent :

There is a fundamental distinction at work here: research describes the world; composition adds something to the world. Research, at least of the scientific kind to which musical composition is generally assimilated, aims to produce generalisable results; the significance of a piece of music lies, on the contrary, in its particularity. This is not to say that music has no cognitive dimension, or that it does not have a kind of truth – only that it does not have the kind of truth that is discovered by research. (…) Notwithstanding various efforts to dissolve such distinctions, it remains the case that, if Einstein had not existed, someone else would have come up with Relativity. If Beethoven had not existed, nobody would have written the Ninth Symphony. (…) There is a reason we prefer Darwin to Lamarck, and it isn’t one of style. Einstein corrects and supersedes Newton; Schoenberg does not correct and supersede Bach. One can understand Gauss’s flux theorem perfectly well never having read a word of Gauss; one cannot understand Debussy’s music without ever hearing a note of it. A good theory can be poorly articulated, but there is no such thing as good music badly composed.”

Ultimately, either all the academic composers of the world unite! and start pressuring the bureaucrats to devise criteria specific to music and arts that are NOT those of scientific research, OR, as in the Soviet Union, everybody can go on making a public display of belief and adhesion, while everybody (including the bureaucrats) knows it is pure crap. As long as it satisfies not even the bureaucrats, but the norms that the bureaucrats are tasked with enforcing… Croft complains that the skills needed to please the bureaucrats (mastering the art of faking) are not necessarily the ones needed to make a good composer. Sure, but we know that there are many skills involved in being a “succesful” (e.g. commissioned) composer, many of which have little to do with “good” compositions. We see so many performed composers that seem to be better PR’s than original and interesting composers, don’t we?

And after all, given a compositional system in which you decide to work – whether you’ve borrowed it from a given “tradition”, like tonality or serialism or spectralism – or you’ve invented it from scratch (like Schoenberg or Boulez or Grisey), every new work can be argued to be a new application of that system, and in that sense, a work of research. Not all scientific research is a paradigmatic breakthrough (Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein), most is an application of such paradigmatic breakthroughs. “Given Newton’s three laws of gravity, can I spot where Uranus will be in the sky in two years from now”? Likewise, “given the spectral rules of composition, can I combine my materials in such a way that will produce a new, original and valuable work for flute, clarinet and viola, which is indeed what I’m inspired to compose right now?”. Well, if that’s good enough research for me, then it should satisfy the bureaucrats.

I’m not in a position to make any definitive pronouncement on the issue. Obviously, some academics don’t agree with the notion that composition can’t be assimilated to research, and it’s a heated debate. But I’m not sure it is relevant to try and solve the issue “ontologically”, e.g. questioning the very “essence” of composition. Just as birds chirp and don’t necessarily reflect on the act and process of chirping, composers compose, and bureaucrats – not necessarily well-versed in the processes of music – need “objective” criteria. Also, academics are expected to do research, that, in turn, is part of the very essence of the job. A composer doesn’t absolutely have to chose academia (after all, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, etc, etc, didn’t, and anyway academia wasn’t organized as it is now), but if he does, the collateral damage is that he has to submit to the rules of academia. So maybe the presentation of a composition project will be all fake and designed only to satisfy the demands of the bureaucrats, but it doesn’t seem so difficult to present a composition, any composition, as “research” . Doesn’t a composer “research” to organize his materials according to a certain system and unfolding logic in order to attain a result that has an impact on an audience?

2 thoughts on “29 March 2018 – Is music “research”?”

  1. Brendan Beehan said something to the effect of “There is no such thing as a good book badly written.”

    1. In a footnote to his article, Croft wittingly makes the point that “We may sometimes feel, on the other hand, that there is such a thing as bad music well composed. But I think in such cases we usually mean that some aspect of the music (for example, the orchestration) is good, while other aspects are poor; or simply that the music is highly polished cliché.” Thxs for your comment!

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