Tag Archives: practice-based research

Fragments in the Form of a Serial

On 10 May Mareli Stolp will be performing the world premiere of Fragments in the Form of a Serial for piano and film, with music by Michael Blake and film by Aryan Kaganof. This performance project forms part of her PhD study, and was designed to interrogate issues of intermediality, improvisation, collaboration and creativity between different types of creators and performers.

The performance begins at 18:00, and will include a short lecture and discussion. Entrance is free.

In light of discussions about ‘Practice-based Research’ and the ‘integrated PhD’, this is an opportunity to engage with a specific instance of this kind of research and to use this blog as a forum for discussion.

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Practice-based research: International Perspectives, South African Challenges – Stellenbosch University, 6 December 2011

In 2010, Stellenbosch University introduced an ‘integrated’ PhD programme in its music department. The ‘integrated’ nature of this degree resonates with the characteristics of ‘practice-based research’ (PBR), an emerging research tradition that has been at the centre of several debates in arts research in recent years. Although practice-based doctorates are now well-established in many creative disciplines, its application in music has only more recently come to the fore.  In the 2007 issue of The Dutch Journal of Music Theory, which is devoted exclusively to ‘Practice-based Research in Music’, the editors cite a ‘perceived deficiency’ in the PBR discourse, which ‘deal[s] mostly with visual arts and dance’ (Borgdorff 2007:v), and where ‘[M]usic is virtually absent’ (ibid.). Draper and Harrison comment that ‘[P]ractice-based doctorates are well established in many creative disciplines, but it is only recently that similar music programmes have come under scrutiny’ (Draper 2010:1).

The purpose of this presentation is to give a brief outline of some important developments in PBR internationally, and to focus the debate in the South African context. Borgdorff, writing from a European perspective, highlights the fact that the international debates around PBR display elements of both philosophy (especially in terms of epistemology, ontology and methodology) and of education politics and strategies (Borgdorff 2007:1). This binary structure suggests the form of this presentation: philosophical considerations pertinent to PBR in music will first be examined, followed by a delineation of the position of PBR in education politics, both internationally and specifically in South Africa. In general, the focus will be on PBR and doctoral studies.

I will begin the discussion of some philosophical aspects of PBR by presenting a possible definition of the term. Linda Candy from the University of Technology, Sydney, defines PBR as follows (Candy 2006):

Practice-based research is an original investigation undertaken in order to gain new knowledge partly by means of practice and the outcomes of that practice. In a doctoral thesis, claims of originality and contribution to knowledge may be demonstrated through creative outcomes in the form of designs, music, digital media, performances and exhibitions. Whilst the significance and context of the claims are described in words, a full understanding can only be obtained with direct reference to the outcomes.

This general definition delineates two important aspects of PBR: first, that the ‘contribution to new knowledge may be demonstrated through creative outcomes’; second, that the ‘significance and context’ of these contributions are presented in the form of written text, thus creating the possibility of peer review. 

According to Sligter, research in the humanities should not be limited ‘to the verifiable knowledge … as sought after by the exact sciences’ (Sligter 2007:41). The knowledge that PBR engages is generated by practice, and is to some extent embodied in the creative outcome of the work. In this sense, knowledge generated through PBR can be said to be both perceptual and conceptual: in music, the initial research questions or problems are suggested through the personal experiences of the performer while engaged with practice, and followed up in a reflexive and methodical manner. The outcomes of the research are presented in some form of discursive medium, usually accompanied by practical work (in the case of a doctoral thesis, audio-visual recordings of performances could be included).

A recurrent issue in the PBR debate is the difference between PBR and ‘pure practice’. Schippers states (Schippers 2007:35):

We can easily identify research methods and patterns in almost any progression towards a performance, from defining a general idea or concept, to the initial choice of repertoire/material, to research into books, scores, records or memory, to final choices of approach, repertoire and material. In processes commonly identified as research, these stages would correspond to defining the research question, literature review, and choice of methodology.

The issue, therefore, is not so much with the nature of the processes followed by performers as opposed to researchers, but with the implicit nature of the knowledge gained through practice. What distinguishes PBR from ‘pure practice’ is the act of making these processes explicit, and changing the nature of the knowledge gained from ‘subjective’ to ‘objective’.

According to Candy (2006):

Searching for new understandings and seeking out new techniques is part of everyday practice. However, this kind of research is, for the most part, directed towards the individual’s particular goals of the time, rather than seeking to add to our shared store of knowledge.

Furthermore, the 2004 brochure for the doctoral programme in the creative and performing arts organised by the Orpheus Institute in Ghent, Belgium, states (Tomassi 2007:2):

Artists may create or re-create artworks using a researching mind. But the PhD in the creative and performing arts is based on research that is deeper or broader in scope. Candidates must already be able to create or perform at a high international level. Their artistic work has raised questions or problems that can be further articulated and analysed only through research. Hence, by posing and resolving such issues, the artists also alter their creative or performing processes.

These texts highlight the fact that discursively articulated research outcomes are essential to PBR. This distinguishes it from practice not purely in terms of processes, but specifically in terms of outcomes.

Candy’s definition of PBR quoted above is articulated from the perspective of the art and design discipline, and leaves some specifically music-related issues unanswered. The transient nature of musical performance means that ‘outcomes’ in the case of performances are demonstrably different from outcomes generated by artworks or designs. This complicates the ways in which knowledge ‘may be demonstrated through creative outcomes’. This core issue of PBR in music can be addressed by individual practitioner researchers in their individual research projects. Much interesting work has already been produced that suggest ways of dealing with this issue, and it is potentially in this area where some of the most innovative work in PBR will be done in future.

A description of ‘arts research’ that applies specifically to music is given by Borgdorff, who differentiates between research on the arts, research for the arts and research through art (own italics). In this three-part model, the first case (described as the interpretative perspective) denotes research that has art as its object, and is common to disciplines such as musicology, social sciences, art history, media studies and theatre studies (Borgdorff 2007:5). The second indicates art as the objective rather than the object: it implies research that provides insight into concrete practices (an example could be an investigation into extended techniques through the practical engagement with such techniques), and is described as the ‘instrumental perspective’ (ibid.). The last possibility, which Borgdorff calls the ‘immanent perspective’, characterizes practice as the essential component of both the research process and its result; the assumed separation of subject and object is challenged through this approach, which is meant to articulate a form of embodied knowledge (ibid.). The immanent perspective is available exclusively to the practitioner, a fact which is seen by Cobussen (Cobussen 2007:29) to be problematic in terms of research outcomes: unless this perspective is translated into a discursive medium which is accessible to a wider intellectual community, it cannot be said to add to the knowledge store.

Cobussen, drawing on the work of Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Suzanne Cusick, argues for ‘embodied knowledge’ or immanent knowledge as intrinsic to the epistemology of PBR (Cobussen 2007:28):

… emphasizing that music-making is first of all a physical activity and that the mere physicality of that activity can teach us something (new) about the music in question, Cusick opens the door to a musical phenomenology and, consequently, for research activities based on the corporeal contribution of the musician, until now almost absent in academic musical practices.

The research activities, based on the ‘corporeal contribution of the musician’, must be assimilated into a discursive medium in order to make them accessible to a wider intellectual community and open to peer review. Schippers quotes examples of PBR doctorates that have used innovative and unprecedented methods of presentation to convey the ‘essence of the artistic process’ (Schippers 2007:36). As PBR develops, increasingly more individual research projects will serve as examples for how the embodied knowledge in practical work can be identified, interrogated, assimilated and presented in doctoral dissertations or theses.

I would like now to present some information on the implications of PBR in terms of education politics, both internationally and in South Africa. During the last two decades, tertiary institutions worldwide have come under pressure to adapt to the ‘rapidly changing social, technological, economic and political forces emanating from the immediate as well as from the broader postindustrial external environment’ (Bartell 2003:43). One result of this transformative process is a general move to integrate practice-oriented and research-oriented institutions. Individual institutions have begun to branch out in terms of their specializations, with conservatoires  in Europe that formerly presented mostly performance diplomas now offering research-oriented master’s and doctoral degrees, and Anglo-Saxon universities, formerly facilitating only purely academic degrees, opening the door to practice-based research projects.

In Australia, where all universities and conservatoires have amalgamated over the last twenty years (Schippers 2007:34), the integration of practice and research is by now well-established: in 2004, 79% of universities were engaged in PBR projects (ibid.), and the Queensland Conservatorium awarded their first practice-based doctoral degrees in 2009. South African universities have undergone similar changes since 1994: the amalgamation of universities and ‘technikons’ (technical or practice-oriented institutions) was articulated as part of the higher education policy in 2002 (Harris 2004:73).

PBR situates practice within research. These two concepts (‘practice’ and ‘research’) traditionally existed in different ontological and epistemological realms. The researcher and the musical artist have in the past occupied two separate roles in the music discipline; what PBR envisages is that one person could fulfill both roles, facilitating a critical exchange between practice and theory, and integrating these two seemingly disparate positions of performer and researcher within the academy. Several groups from different continents and contexts are currently engaged with issues related to PBR, and specifically PBR in doctoral degrees. The work done by the Polifonia Working Group in Europe will be mentioned here; because of time constraints, the important work done at Queensland Conservatorium, Australia, while also significant, will not be discussed.

The ‘Polifonia Third Cycle Working Group’ was created to examine professional music training specifically in Third Cycle[1] studies, and to study issues related to the Bologna Declaration Process.[2] According to the group (Polifonia 2007:9):

 … conservatoires traditionally offer vocational training that leads to a career as a professional musician, composer, or in some cases also as a music teacher … Offering Third Cycle or doctoral studies has historically been the preserve of universities … It would seem logical to be able to research and communicate about music in all circumstances and from all aspects within the institution that deals most specifically with it and by those people who are executants, rather than confining this activity to those institutions that happen to offer musicology as a scientific study field. For this reason amongst others, professional music training institutions have started to offer doctoral studies of different kinds as well.

The working group highlights several problematic issues with regard to PBR, of which one is the lack of precedents for this type of research (Polifonia 2007:12):

These newer research areas do not yet enjoy the support of a well-established framework and their practitioners may work in isolation, in the absence of a network of other researchers, conferences, publications, etc. and no substantial body of previous research may yet exist.

The extent to which PBR could potentially probe beyond the bounds of traditional musicology will become apparent through each individual research project, but the Polifonia working group makes the point that ‘the Artistic Researcher will probably set his or her own kind and level of perception as the ultimate object of investigation as well as the standard for describing and assessing musical phenomena’ (Polifonia 2007:15). This view resonates with the ‘immanent perspective’ articulated by Borgdorff (Borgdorff 2007:5). The idea of immanent perception as primary source, and the development of a personal method of research presentation, are the areas where PBR departs most significantly from traditional types of research. As to the research process, the working group suggests that after the initial phase of identifying a topic, formulating a hypothesis, conducting an adequate literature review and investigating the research question, the process ‘is concluded with the production of documentation that reports the results in an accessible manner and which is available to interested parties, thereby allowing other researchers working in the same field to assess the results and build on them’ (Polifonia 2007:14).

The issue of assessment and examination is specifically addressed by the Polifonia working group. The group departs from the assumption that third cycle studies form part of a coherent educational system comprising of first and second cycle studies, the outcomes of which should adequately prepare a student for the requirements of the research-focused third cycle study. This implies that assessment of practical capability and all issues relating to practical musicianship should be located in the first and second cycle studies, and the participant in a third cycle study should not be judged on a practical level alone (although the working group does suggest that a practical audition combined with a viva voce could form part of the initial application procedure). Rather, the integrated nature of a practice-based research third cycle degree means that the practical work done must be judged within the context of the research outcomes generated by the work.

The South African context presents both similarities and departures from the European situation. According to the Education White Paper of 1997, South African universities must be structured to focus on research, education, and outreach. Performance or purely practical work has no clear position within the university structure. Universities in South Africa are subsidized by the NRF and the Department of National Education (through the SAPSE system), based on the research output of staff members. This system does not recognize creative or performance outputs as the equivalent of research output (for example formal articles or books), which means that practical staff members that are not engaged in research projects generate little or no subsidy from the government for their respective departments. In lieu of this, some individual institutions have created their own ‘reward’ systems for creative and practical output (i.e. composition and performance). The University of Stellenbosch, for example, works on a ‘point’ system according to which practical staff members are compensated financially for practical work done in their respective fields. Similar systems exist at the University of the Free State, Rhodes University, the University of Kwazulu Natal and the University of the Witwatersrand.[3] What this suggests is that many institutions acknowledge ‘equivalence’ in the amount and quality of work done by performers in relation to researchers; this, however, has no bearing on the nature of the output. One could argue that this type of institutional compensation is, in fact, compounding the problem of institutional division between academic and research staff, rather than addressing it in a productive way.

In this context of education politics, PBR can play a significant role, for it facilitates a type of research that is contingent on practical engagement, but produces peer-reviewable research products as a result.

In general, until 2010 South African tertiary music institutions presented professional degrees[4] where traditional research and performance were viewed as separate examinable endeavors, or doctorates that required research output of a scholarly nature. Michael Biggs of the University of Hertfordshire, England, gives the following description of the different types of doctoral or third cycle degrees (Biggs 2000):

We should perhaps begin with a careful description of the degrees to which we are referring. Doctoral degrees are of two main types: the PhD, and awards bearing titles such as DMus, EdD, DDes, etc. The former are exclusively research degrees, in which the student may undertake a programme of research training but is mainly working independently on a research project with a supervisor. The latter are taught or professional degrees, in which the student will be taught for at least one-third of the programme (Harris Report, annex G). In parallel with this distinction, but frequently confused with professional degrees, are practice-based projects or submissions.

This definition, although formulated by a British scholar, also applies to the South African educational system. Biggs’s first definition can be applied to the PhD or DPhil offered by many university music departments. The DMus degree as presented at, for example, the University of Pretoria, fits none of these definitions: no part of the degree is officially ‘taught’, practical lessons are determined individually between student and practical teacher and there is no form of research training involved. Currently, no South African University offers either a ‘professional degree’ as Biggs defines it or a taught degree in music at the doctoral level. The typical Doctor of Musical Arts degree offered at many American universities consists of a large amount of coursework in addition to practical lessons and examinations. No South African university is offering a doctoral degree on that scale at the present time. A doctoral programme based on PBR falls under Biggs’s first type, the PhD, and must therefore not be confused with ‘professional’ degrees.

By 2012, the first students in the integrated PhD programme at Stellenbosch University will complete their studies. The results of these degree processes will hopefully encourage further developments in the application of PBR at South African universities, for it will set a precedent for doctoral degrees that utilise performance as the primary source of new knowledge. PBR in music departments in South Africa hold the prospect of addressing the critically high cost of maintaining such departments through the generation of subsidies for recognized doctoral research and intellectual outputs. But more importantly, an intellectual and artistic engagement with PBR by South African performers and scholars presents much potential for renewal and innovation in a discipline that has been isolated for too long from full academic participation at our universities.

[1] The bachelor, master’s and doctoral level degrees are referred to by the working group as first, second and third cycle degrees.

[2] The Bologna Declaration was signed by 29 European countries in 1999, committing themselves ‘to a harmonization of their higher education as of 2010’ (Sligter 2007:41).

[3] I am grateful to Nina Schumann from Stellenbosch University, Nicol Viljoen from the University of the Free State, Jeff Brukman from Rhodes University, Mageshen Niadoo from the University of KwaZulu Natal and Grant Olwage from the University of the Witwatersrand for furnishing me with information regarding these procedures at their respective institutions.

[4] It should be noted that at present there is no consensus on terminology for third cycle studies at South African universities; the terms  Dmus, PhD and DPhil have all been used by various institutions, leading to confusion as to the specifications of the different degrees.

(Posted on behalf of Mareli Stolp)

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)