Treating Composers as Researchers is Bonkers

Music's artistic merit does not depend on academic criteria-as I know from experience

Piers Hellawell

The position of the “classical” composer in the UK university is an interesting one, and it gets more interesting the longer the view we take — for this is a landscape in which very little has remained constant. In the 19th century the academic composer was a practitioner — a practical musician of the highest skill, in charge of organ and choir — but his teaching was surely rooted in a backward-looking curriculum that prized neo-baroque technique, and his (it was always “his”) own music was similarly conservative: for great men like Sir Joseph Barnby (Eton College) and Sir John Stainer (Oxford) there was no clear imperative to be an inventor within current trends, a searcher after progressive goals and brave new worlds; these composers were safe within a cloistered musical world that remained heavily indebted to Mendelssohn and Gounod. Today’s composers know a different academe; if not explicitly suspicious of art, the system grows ever more addicted to what it takes to be “objective” indications, outside the music, to justify our existence.

Following the rise of modern musicology, the composer has certainly acquired a more progressive role, as erstwhile functions passed to other hands. Recent Oxbridge figures like Alexander Goehr and Robert Sherlaw Johnson, while also imparting historical tuition on Debussy and Schoenberg, have been figurehead “modern” composers whose professional profile on the scene made them important role models for composers among the students. What was not in doubt was that their “academic output” was embodied in their musical works (though of course they might also separately write criticism or musicology). Nothing troubled the idea that while academics in UK universities wrote books, composers composed — nothing, at least, until the advent, in the mid-1980s, of the research assessment culture, a watershed that now feels very much like a communal loss of innocence, if in some ways a necessary one. The spotlight which, from that point, has shone upon all academic output as the measure of “value for money” from universities, now casts a permanent beam, of increasing intensity, whose heat has for some time begun to have a distorting effect upon the role of the composer.

For the first decade or so of such assessments of academic output it was accepted that composition was, in a nostalgic phrase, “research-equivalent”; composers submitted their works, thence to be peer-assessed. However, the last decade has seen the tidal creep of a new imperative, that new music should be accompanied by the expression of tangible research aims as to its development. When the assessment of art gets entangled in claims about intent and process we enter a hall of mirrors, a distortion of the core issue: lasting artistic value. The judgment of music as a work of art cannot be reliably conducted by prioritising innovation or discovery, for art is not science.

I can best outline this rising tide from personal experience. In the last decade, as a composer in university, I have secured three research awards enabling sabbatical absence to produce three large-scale works (the last premiered in February 2013). Through this process I’ve become increasingly aware of an agenda that I had not conceptualised in terms before 2002, a research priority which, by my third award in 2010, served as justification for the whole process.

During the first of these applications I was relaxed about this new way of looking at artistic endeavours, but for the second, having thought I had again highlighted what was the research activity within my project, I was asked to resubmit the application, with enhanced explanation, before it went ahead. I was thus forced to scrutinise what I shall term the “research agenda” in turn, just as it was now scrutinising my efforts. This was in my interests, since no composer who does not understand this environment has a hope of support within it; many applications from reputable and serious composers in UK academe have fallen by the way-side because their proponents did not think in research terms but compositional ones, merely applying to “write an orchestral piece” and assuming that the interest on the part of a leading ensemble in performing it was itself recommendation enough. It no longer is, if once it was.

The heart of this question is the extent to which research and composition are — or can be — the same thing. All the official wordings obfuscate the yawning question of where the mysterious distinction lies: if composition can flourish without research, what then is the latter’s relation to the artistic whole? Why is it necessary? It is crucial that the link is identified and scrutinised, rather than being merely admitted on the nod. For what it’s worth, my composer definition of research denotes material useful to the composer, that is, of itself, not actually composed but which can inform the work by driving a subsequent compositional process. Clearly such outside sources may loom large — but they may be entirely and respectably absent.

Let us stay briefly with definitions: research is “a course of critical or scientific inquiry”, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. None of us could dispute that critical inquiry as such is a part of our artistic judgment and processes — but scientific inquiry is another matter. A work of art may be put together without any scientific inquiry being involved, and still be of outstanding merit; yet the discrete elision of the artistic process with scientific assumptions brings upon the composer an agenda of “finding things out” in quite another sense from that of discovering musical materials. While every new work is, and must be, a struggle, composers who are not notably deficient in methodology now face a requirement to view the process in a way that might be entirely foreign to their previously validated practice.

An essential part of this new view of the process comes down to language: I notice that the student’s favourite cornucopia of knowledge, Wikipedia says, of the doctrine of cultural hegemony: “how the messages are presented thereby determines the value of the information as ‘reliable’ or ‘unreliable’, as ‘true’ or ‘false’.” In other words, a trend of cultural dominance is imposed by means of establishing “good” and “bad” terminology — an insidious mechanism to which it is impossible not to submit, albeit unconsciously.

I note this because the discrete and un-debated advance of the scientific imperative into the artistic pursuit of composing is implicit in terms like “research questions”, familiar to every supervisor of PhD composers in the UK. The proposition that “in this composition process I am finding things out” — in a specific, not a cuddly personal-development, sense — is a contentious one that dismays many good PhD composers — though not others — and it has gone largely unexamined itself. Yes, the PhD is after all a research degree, but there is more than a whiff of modernist one-upmanship in the implication that art looking for new mechanism is more deserving of support than art that achieves in other ways. Once that implication stalks among us, then the art in question is being rated for its discovery content above its artistic success. In what other field is research valued just as evidence of its own existence? Presumably, in science, research is valued for the worth of its discoveries; the presence of research per se need not excite us. Arguably we should even be suspicious when we find it vaunted in art.

I cannot resist wondering about the pedigree of this cult. A telling story from the young Dave Brubeck notes how, in the 1940s, he sought tuition from Schoenberg in Los Angeles and was asked, on bringing his piece for scrutiny, “Why is that note there?” When he murmured that it was his intuitive choice to sound it there, as composer, the gruff response was: “No. That’s not a good enough reason.” Schoenberg’s life’s work had led him to a belief in rationale that was to be immensely, and unconsciously, influential on following generations and their assumptions about validity in composition — though for Brubeck it was a turn-off. He would have appreciated the counter-view put by Leonard Meyer, writing of Schoenberg’s 12-tone row composition method in his landmark study Music, the Arts, and Ideas (University of Chicago Press) in the 1960s: “It is clear that at many times one does perceive the row and is aware of its transformations,” he writes. “But in such cases our perception is of a pattern or set of relationships which happens also to be the row. Understanding is not dependent upon the fact that we are hearing the row.”

A fascinating playing-out of this schism in artistic thought was aired when a collection of articles on the composer Alexander Goehr appeared in 1980. His Cambridge colleague Robin Holloway, in his contribution, “Towards A Critique”, found in Goehr a constructivist approach to music and analysis, where every work has some embedded element in it, to be unlocked: something has to be “going on” — a classic Schoenbergian inheritance, of which I believe Goehr would be conscious and proud. Echoing Meyer above, however, Holloway countered: “The passage ‘speaks’ because the ear is excited or pleased. The combination might have been brought about by a note-row, a magic square, a throw of the dice, or the cat running up the keyboard. But its cause is not its reason; the intelligibility lies in the sound itself.” In the light of such historical debates as these, the idea of composition as embodiment of (or even vehicle for) explicable and conscious processes could, if anything, be argued to have passed its sell-by date.

Nonetheless, stress upon there being “something going on” — what Holloway called in his article “the assumption of an alleged deep structure in a work” — is itself regularly embedded within the language surrounding the research dimension of composition: big value judgments lurk among the terminologies around what endeavour merits support. Is a work intrinsically more valuable for, say, “advancing the development of new performance techniques” than for exploring some approach to duration or texture? Should a work “exploring the borders between un-pitched string sounds with live electronics” enjoy precedence over another that uses traditional instrumental means to widen the composer’s harmonic world? Exploratory techniques, links to technology — such progressive terminologies now claim the highest ground so confidently that on a clear day you can make out a flag.

When my 2006 proposal for the work that became Agricolas for clarinet and orchestra was sent back for clarification, there was no concern about its substance, dissemination or reception, but only about “what exactly would I be finding out” in the process. The reviews that later greeted the 2012 CD recording of Agricolas or its concert performances have not shown any explicit interest in those discoveries (though at various levels they do exist), nor have they lamented any perceived lack of them. Here then is why I find the confusion between composition and research so bonkers: even if research elements feed into a work of art, its artistic merit may exist largely independently of them. In Robin Holloway’s succinct phrase above: “Its cause is not its reason; the intelligibility lies in the sound itself.”

My resubmitted proposal back in 2007 did explicate a research element in the work — but one that leads me to a two-headed paradox. First, what I discovered, while new and pregnant to me, was not claiming new ground in the narrow field with which I was collaborating; what was new was perhaps its particular artistic application, but only that. Our misty-eyed fervour for such research trysts overlooks the fact that one party is often re-orientated or even inspired by what, to the other half, is just part of the landscape. It may not be “hard research”, even though the synergy is special.

Second, what I discovered while toying under my research fig-leaf, although it led to my “adding to the sum of knowledge” and such pieties, in fact formed a limited part of my resulting work (in which it informs four interlude sections); the bulk of the work is concerned with largely traditional concerns of harmonic structure and orchestral deployment. As I mentioned, in critical reception no one much cared about the specified research, or whether it had any great artistic role; meanwhile, remember, the frumpy, mainstream concerns that were central to my work had not been felt sufficiently research-specific, despite their central importance to the music. They were not “research”.

I am absolutely not suggesting that there is not a large, meaningful and potent research component among today’s composers — only that today’s research-junkie has acquired licence to impose this agenda, which underpins much good work, upon a diverse practice that may involve no such strong role for research processes. If composers are to be forced by their environment to reveal ever more ankle in their working process — as opposed to following their natural course of work, whether or not research-led — the result will only undermine the credibility of all components, engendering ever more pragmatic survival strategies.

I have no idea how such an inflexible status quo, increasingly intolerant of the diversities I set out above, has achieved this state of hegemony. I am not aware of any plausible intellectual or artistic rationale to support it, though some may exist. John Godfrey has pointed out that the orientation of composition to research rests on a massive institutional reluctance to trust and recognise new work as art: from that core lack of belief in an autonomous new music follow our plethora of commentaries, “supporting statements” and other precautionary back-up systems. If this were an arts-driven tendency it would be a tolerant one, allowing that some of us are clearly researchers into our own processes, some are occasionally so and some may never be — and under no pressure to be so.

The rigid mould of this research-eats-composition culture, however, far from embracing artistic diversity, reeks of lust for “accountable” systems of merit, since apparently the music itself, minus any ambassadorial credentials, cannot be reliably assessed qua art — good, bad or indifferent. Given the major role played by composition in current institutional research profiles, it feels very much as if composers face a stiff interview — in what for some is a foreign language — before they may sit down to the dinner, despite being encouraged nonetheless to empty their pockets once the bill arrives.

One wonders what the great men of Victorian English music, cloistered around our cathedrals and colleges, would have thought of a demand to explicate the “research content” of their works. They might have agreed with many composers today that anyone truly qualified to assess our music in important contexts will not need the new priorities of the “research agenda” in order to establish the merits of autonomous art works.

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