The time of research

Striking a tone, writing a chord 
Listening, feeling, sensing what sounds
Evaluating, imagining alternatives
Performing, listening and feeling again
Comparing versions
Adapting the focus, the speed, the articulation 
Trying to do better
Being happy or unsatisfied with a result
Considering a radical change
Doing an experiment
Trying once more

A learning or creation process in music can be considered a search that shows some similarities with an experimental or applied research process. Even in a context with well-defined goals, such as the rehearsal of music, the striving towards a reliable performance and convincing expression needs a feedback cycle of disciplined testing, monitoring and adapting. For some, this is one of the reasons to contend that art practice is already a kind of research on its own terms, and therefore doesn’t need an academic repackaging. Others point to the inherently engaged process and subjective outcomes of artistic exploration. Subsequently, they argue that artistic research can never meet the standards of falsification and objectivity as required in scientific research.

Indeed, the fact that a musician engages her body and mind as both the site of search and the touchstone of evaluation doesn’t guarantee any relevant findings for others. However, I think that some of the criticism towards the concept of artistic research applies a too limited perspective on the matter, denying the capacity of an artist to turn artistic search into research. In general, this transformation is being characterised as the becoming reflective of practice. Instead, I would like to stress something more fundamental that is a condition for reflectiveness: artistic research implies a different time relationship with the praxis of writing or performing music.

The fact that artistic practice should be a cornerstone of artistic research doesn’t mean that artistic research in music should coincide completely with the unfolding of music in time. On the contrary, it is fundamental for such a research to stop musical time. An artistic research in music presupposes a preceding interruption of the music, caused by something inside or around the music or performance that grabs the attention and pulls the musician-researcher out of the musical flow. It is this capacity of distancing from inside out that is a condition for expert observation, and thus artistic reflection.

Artistic research in music is not a going along with the music but enters a critical resistance towards the automaticity of musical expectations or to the feedback cycle of learning such as described above. Reasons for such resistance can be manifold. There may be a doubting of the do’s and don’ts of values and traditions of artistic craftsmanship. Seeds of artistic research may germinate when ‘trying once more’ starts to feel like an inadequate strategy, eventually leading to an interrogation of the effectiveness of a rehearsal method. The discovery of a new technique or something unheard of, may invite closer scrutiny. Audience interaction and response may cause an existential questioning of the musician’s role in society.

Whatever the cause, at the heart of artistic research in music is a moment of wonder, frustration, surprise or fascination that temporarily stops or blocks the musical flow. It is in that pause between play and replay, between search and re-search that an artistic research question, project or plan can take shape.

From this perspective of interruption, the origin of an artistic research resides in a kind of crisis. A moment of un-knowing which is, paradoxically, the result of practice and experience, and in that sense belongs to the artist only. At this point, the subjective nature of artistic research can become a force. I believe that an authentic – in the sense of ‘radically subjective’ – moment of wonder is a necessary condition for meaningful artistic research. Artistic research is research motivated from within artistic practice. By emphasising authentic motivation, we turn the attention to the dreams and concerns of artists today and to the needs and potential of their practice. Such a perspective fits the conservatoire environment very well.

A research motivation from inside out opens up an almost endless field of possible research topics. Hopefully, authentic motivation will also lead to topics that testify to the growing awareness that there is no such thing as eternal artistic values, that the world is changing, and that an artist can be part of that change. Artistically motivated research embodies the belief that a professional musician can be more than slave to the rhythm, or do more than playing cheerful waltzes on a sinking Titanic. Doing research in a conservatoire environment offers a context to wonder, reflect and experiment and by doing so, take the responsibility of a possible future in own hands.

Text for the master research symposium at Royal Conservatoire The Hague, March 2018