Two sides of the same coin, or two currencies? In search of a paradigm for the integrated PhD in music

In 2005 the NRF asked me to garner views from the academic music community in order for the NRF to draw up guidelines for assessing performance and composition as research: specifically, they wanted me to “find equivalents” between music practice and research. I wrote a long report that I submitted in 2006 and I also published a shorter article in the South African journal of Musicology as “Mapping the Field: A Preliminary Survey of South African Composition and Performance as Research” (SAMUS 25 (2005), 83-108).

My aim was to show how the work of performers and composers as process can be recognised in its various manifestations – collecting data, using the literature, processing the data, interpreting it, etc. – as equivalent to the work that researchers do, and to show how the outcomes of composition and performance – portfolios, CDs, radio recordings, DVDs, live concerts, etc. – can be assessed in ways similar to the outcomes of research. That involved my saying by whom such outcomes might be evaluated, and how: what was being looked for in the way of knowledge of existing national and international sources, original contribution, technical proficiency in presentation or execution. The evaluators, in a scholar-rating process also needed, I suggested, the context of national and international journalistic or academic criticism in order to see work in a context of its reception. That would have to be supplied by the people applying for rating. This aspect would not apply however, to the integrated PhD in music; but other aspects would.

The three major things that I think came out of my NRF research were those of equivalence in work as process, equivalence in work as outcome, and criteria for assessing work as outcome. In the article I also had a lot of fun situating the way practice was governed in South Africa by the exigencies of what Bourdieu has called the limited field of cultural production. I tried, in other words, to show that music practice in academe was a very small field exposed to continual change, especially sensitive to socio-political change, and that all outcomes really had to be measured against those changes. “Nothing happens in a vacuum” was my larger message: no sound is entirely innocent, nor can it be entirely divorced from the larger international picture.

The imperatives that Winfried reminds us of in his introduction also remind us that “practice-based research” and/or “practice as research” continues to “gain currency” as he puts it – i.e. it’s never a done deal: discussion about what practice-based research is and how we apply that knowledge continually changes, as well. This gives us a fourth idea: the moving goalpost. For paradoxically, we have ongoing national and international debate on the one hand about what practice-based research is, and on the other hand we have university regulations cast in print (if not stone) by which candidates register and are examined. Thus the candidate is to some extent deciding all the time where to kick the ball, and the teachers – never mind the examiners – are always trying to decide where to put the goalpost down.

To try and offer something for us to chew here, in this tricky debate, I focus only on what music performance and research are and what they do, leaving out composition, which I think is a slightly different case in music practice, with parallels for example with creative writing that performance does not have.

The essence of the NRF’s own research question was: what do music practitioners do that equates to what researchers do? I cannot always separate process from outcome, myself: just as these are difficult to rigidly separate in research, so they are also in performance. You do research for 3 years and then what comes out is also called “research”, an object bound in a book and submitted electronically to go on the research internet. You practice for three years and then what comes out is a practical performance or set of performances – another kind of object for assessment. But the latter seems far more ephemeral than the outcome of thesis. Performance is also likely to have a far stronger affective mode of delivery even if it’s not an emotional experience. (Reading a thesis is rarely an affective experience.)

Using the metaphor of currency, I suggest two paradigms for unpicking how performance and research, with all their similarities and differences, might cohabit the same space in ways that are useful to our discussion.

The first is the paradigm of two currencies. Research is used by one country – Germany, say – and performance by another – Switzerland. You cross the border without a passport because both are members of the EU (in other words, the topic of both is “music”), but one country uses Euros and the other Francs. One person plays a recital one minute and hands in a lengthy piece of critical writing the next. You exchange currency after crossing the border, and you usually have to pay in one or other currency, not both simultaneously (unless you are in the transit lounge getting rid of your change).

Research here is equivalent to performance in many ways: their value is roughly the same but works differently in different “countries”. Both performance and research use “the literature”. In research this means knowing what’s been written on your topic. In performance this means knowing a particular repertoire within the practice and knowing some of the scholarly literature on that repertoire. Literature or repertoire are points of departure in both cases, for new ideas. But performance also works directly with existing literature: the repertoire is not only studied, a small portion of it is performed, which implies it is practiced for hundreds of hours and mastered technically. This is a very different kind of “knowing”: knowing a very limited portion of your literature extremely well. The originality of performance cannot be assessed only in terms of what has been added on as “new work” extending the old in terms of ideas formulated as words, but has to be assessed in terms of how that small portion of the existing literature has been reimagined and re-presented, so that it sounds like a new idea of that work (Lucia 2005:86). And assessing originality requires having criteria to measure newness, in the case of both research and performance.

Both deploy methods by which data is built up: in the computer, in the mind, and in the case of performance, in the body. Performance requires conventional research too: reading history or theory relating to the music being performed, reading about interpretation, analysing scores, etc. Both research and performance require systematic thought and interpretation.

So, it is not difficult to find equivalents in process. Nor in product, either: a thesis is the outcome of systematic thought applied to a body of data in order to interpret it; a piano recital is the outcome of systematic thought and physical effort applied to a repertoire of music in order to interpret it. One major difference, as I keep pointing out, is that performance also, at doctoral level, requires some conventional research as well, because what is being aimed for is a well-informed performance, not just a technical display. With a PhD in performance we are not simply looking for a repetition of another performance but an unusual, out of the ordinary performance.

These two currencies – the currency of practice and the currency of conventional research thus have many things in common, have a similar value, share some processes, can buy the same things. But they operate in different countries, or on different terrain. There is a border to be crossed from one to the other. Not only for the candidate but also for the teacher and the examiner (or other readers and listeners). The critical mode of intellectual written research and the affective mode of performance practice are not the same: you not only cross a border when you go from one to the other, and then operate in another currency, you have to cross a border in order to use the other currency.

The idea of equivalence, for me, breaks down here. You can be incredibly well prepared, physically fit, well informed and well read about every aspect of the music you’re going to play, and you can write a brilliant thesis or programme note that says things no-one has said before; but the moment you sit at the piano you cross into another country, and you have to pay with the other currency. Your examiner also has to change currencies. Where, then, is the “integration” between these two things? They seem to come close at many points, yet they are never the same. And what is the transit lounge, in performance-based research? What is that grey area between one country and another where two currencies can be used to pay for the same thing?

The second paradigm I offer is in many ways less problematic but it is also less concrete, more abstract. It is where performance and research are seen as one and the same currency, but within this currency they are two sides of the same coin, or note. Here it is not a question of equivalence between currencies, or the value of either currency – here we are not even paying for anything. Here we are trying to address the far more difficult question of how we see heads and tails at the same time. They are so close that they are in fact one and the same object, but one has to flip the coin to see the other side, or put two coins side by side, to see both sides. However fast you flip the coin, seeing both at once is an illusion, and having two coins is a compromise.

I tried to think of examples that would illustrate these two paradigms, drawn from my own experience.

The first – two currencies – I experienced when I performed the Schumann Piano Concerto in 1996, with the KZNPO and Alan Stephenson conducting. I had done a fair amount of research on Schumann – his chamber music was the topic of my doctoral dissertation  in the late 1970s – and Stephenson also introduced me to the work of Stewart Young on Schumann’s tempi and metronome markings. Based on our research, we decided to present this old warhorse in a new way, with a much faster first movement and a much slower third. When I explained my intentions to the orchestra at the first rehearsal, by the way, they were met with incomprehension by some people: the deputy principal violin tuned to the rest of the orchestra and said, “who does she think she is, telling us how to play this?”. But other people were very interested, and with Allan’s help we pulled through. It was not a brilliant performance, but it was an unusual one. It is an example of how research feeds into performance, the two currencies exchanged once the border is crossed as you go on stage to play the performance.

My second example – two sides of the same coin – is giving a solo lunch-hour recital at Howard College Theatre in 1985, where I had decided to present some of my own transcriptions of Abdullah Ibrahim’s music in the context of Skriabin – I think it was Skriabin – and Debussy, after beginning with the Mozart Sonata K310. It was an experiment in re-situating Ibrahim as a “classical” composer and at the same time reflecting on the jazz elements in Debussy: in deliberately integrating classical and jazz in the same programme without resorting to Gershwin or obviously “jazz influenced” classical music. Moreover, the Ibrahim pieces were my transcriptions, so I had something invested in them aside from playing them. I expressed my aims entirely through music – there were no critical programme notes exploring and explaining what I was doing to the audience. “Did it work” I asked Darius Brubeck and others, afterwards. “Yes, it worked beautifully”, they said. And that was all. The playing wasn’t world-class, but the recital expressed an over-arching idea that enabled the listener – especially the informed listener – to glimpse both side of the coin at the same time, flipping back and forth between them so fast that the illusion of simultaneity was quite strong.

Will either of these paradigms, in many ways similar but of a different order and leading to differently expressed outcomes, help us to bridge the divide as I have sketched it here, between conventional research and practice, in the same degree?

(Posted on behalf of Christine Lucia)

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