T H E E X P E R I M E N T A T I O N W I T H I N
A R T I S T I C R E S E A R C H
In the area of artistic research in music the concept of ‘experimentation’ has been discussed recently in various studies. Darla Crispin and Bob Gilmore argue that artistic research can be seen nowadays as a potential mode of inquiry, even though clear definitions of artistic research are still difficult, if not impossible, to find. While artistic experimentation differs from scientific experimentation, both are seen as rigorous and exact practices (Crispin & Gilmore 2014, 10). From my point of view, the qualitative depth of artistic research depends quite a lot on the artist-researcher’s willingness to explore his/her own praxis – even the most problematic and unflattering aspects of it.
Godfried-Willem Raes discusses the interrogative and experimental nature of any good research: "An artist who limits him- or herself to craft is like a laboratory technician who uses test tubes, measuring scales, and reactions according to the rules, regulations, and rituals, but does so without asking any questions, to no purpose that is clear to him or her.” Raes sees no fundamental difference between art and science since ‘relevant art’ – as he argues – always poses questions (Raes 2014, 56).
Partly following Raes’s demand for ‘relevant’ art, Kathleen Coessens locates experimentation in the natural creativity of the artist. She sees music-making itself as experimental. Coessens argues, that in spite of all preparation that precedes a classical music concert, there is still room for creativity: a performance always contains unpredictable elements and occasions that lure the performer into creativity. A performer somehow expects the unexpected and is quick to attune himself/herself to whatever may happen during music-making. The unexpected opens gaps for experimentation (Coessens 2014A, 64–66).
Paulo de Assis argues that ‘unfinished thinking’ is the essential engine in artistic research: it guarantees fluidity between thoughts and practices as well as conceptual and artistic approaches. Instead of fixed or conclusive ideas, according to de Assis, artistic research in music has moved from interpretation and representation towards problematisation and experimentation. This implies multiple ways to rethink the performer’s relationship with the musical work (de Assis 2018, 13, 19). In this way of describing the linkage between an interdisciplinary collaboration (2016) and a duo recital (2018), the concept of ‘fluidity’ as suggested by de Assis becomes a necessity.
Within the above-mentioned definitions of the concept of ‘experimentation’, there seem to be clear differences. Some researchers believe that experimentation is always an essential part of art and music-making, while others seek clearly new inventions and approaches. Raes distinguishes between two extremes: music-making that poses questions vs. monotonous and repetitive art (which might not be seen as art in the first place), while Coessens states that the creative part of music-making is inherently experimental. For de Assis, experimentation seeks novelty and can be seen as a modern continuum of the established idea of interpretation.
To clarify the topic of this exposition, I find composer Bart Vanhecke’s thinking – akin to de Assis’ ideas – the most adequate. Vanhecke distinguishes among three kinds of experimentation related to art: experimentation for, in and through art. He defines experimentation for art to be scientific and not actually artistic at all, whereas experimentation through art means experimentation that happens through artistic practice and expression. Experimentation in art refers to artistic exploration which involves new kinds of knowledge or new types of exploration – a way for artists to expand their aesthetic universe (Vanhecke 2014, 95–96).
Vanhecke sees the artist’s aesthetic universe as a large web of different concepts and understandings. It encompasses the theoretical and historical knowledge of music and repertoire, as well as the procedural knowledge to play an instrument, read scores and compose a new piece of music – but also all of the emotional traces that are left in the musician’s brain by aesthetic experiences. Compositions and performances are hence “the expression of the complete meaning of aesthetic concepts–aesthetic ideas–within his or her aesthetic universe”. Meanings can be conceptual or non-conceptual and intuitive since there are ideas that cannot be expressed verbally (Vanhecke 2014, 92).
For Vanhecke, ‘culture’ refers to the way artists share common aesthetic knowledge with other people. To operate at the borders of the prevailing culture is to question it and to explore new ideas. The way an artist consciously and deliberately explores his/her aesthetic universe can be understood as artistic research (Vanhecke 2914, 93–94). Vanhecke (ibid. 94) points out that “since artists are the only ones who have unmediated, direct access to their own aesthetic universe, artistic research can only be performed by those artists themselves.”
For Vanhecke, experimentation through and in art are both ways to explore within the artistic aesthetic universe. The former (through) refers to the creation of new forms of artistic expression, the outcome of which is experimental and innovative music. It represents bottom-up experimentation, starting from artistic practice and ending in the creation of new aesthetic ideas. The latter (in) is about ‘thought experiments’ happening mostly in the cerebral universe, rather than experimentation, performed in the physical world. Experimentation in art consists of new laws in dealing with one’s aesthetic universe as well as in assessing one’s relation to the external world. The outcomes of experimentation in art are abstract experimental ideas and tools. Compared to experimentation through art, Vanhecke sees the latter more as top-down experimentation that starts from an abstract – and as far as I can see, probably more intellectual – area of developing new ideas, to be implemented later in practice (Vanhecke 2014, 95–97).
For me, the boldness of the experimentation depends on the point of view of the person evaluating it. I suggest that the most challenging task is probably studying ‘tacit experimentation’, i.e. the thoughts and attitudes in the mind of the artist. It is possible that the audience or even fellow artists can be unaware that any experimentation is even taking place. Hence, the only evidence thereof is the testimony and description that the artist is able to offer about his/her individual experiences.
An example of tacit experimentation is the way a musician prepares for a concert. While visible and seemingly drastic actions can be interpreted as experimentation, preparation is mostly about dealing with and bearing one’s own thoughts. Kathleen Coessens discusses the same problem, arguing that the artist’s expertise is tied to a complex domain of (partly tacit) knowledge, experience and actions, which are difficult to trace and which can only be made visible by either theorizing or by the introspection and interpretation of the artist (Coessens 2014B, 69).
Päivi Järviö’s study on the experience of a singer of Early Italian Baroque Music also discusses introspection as method, which Järviö finds the most suitable in dealing with her research topic. Järviö recognizes several possible methods of collecting data on other people’s experiences, but as good as they may be, these methods nevertheless ignore the experience of any one living individual. Ultimately, such generalizations about experiences would then lead to an experience that belongs to nobody (Järviö 2011, 40, 107).
I find introspection within artistic research necessary as well as rewarding. I agree with Järviö on the notion that the introspection of one living individual brings forth special and detailed knowledge. The researcher's responsibility is to be as detailed, open and honest as possible so that the described experience can be perceived by the reader.
t h e e x p e r i m e n t a t i o n o f t h e s i l e n c e e n s e m b l e
The interdisciplinary praxis of the Silence Ensemble can be seen as an example of artistic experimentation. In 2015, dancer Kirsi Heimonen invited me as well as visual artist Petri Kaverma to study the notion of ‘silence’. We, the Silence Ensemble, combine movement, sound and visuality in a project that has provided common ground for all three art forms, and has paved the way for experimental and cross-border cooperation. That very praxis has been at the centre since the beginning. We have found a fresh perspective on the practices of our own art genres and, on the other hand, we have encouraged each other to find new ways of making art.
In the spring of 2016, we organized seven two-hour sessions during which our three art forms productively collided: I played the piano, Heimonen moved and Kaverma drew and shot videos. This experimental praxis was analysed and discussed thoroughly in 2017 and led to a published exposition where our methods and outcomes are described in detail.
The outcome, the most relevant aspect for this exposition, deals with my ‘capturing the now-moment’. It had a strong physical-spatial flavour. For years – if not for decades – I had mainly experienced piano playing as something that happens in a non-spatial, mental bubble which encompasses the idea of a keyboard, the musical work and my mind. But the physical action of a dancer (dancing behind my back) forced me to sense the physical reality of the space in which we were carrying out our praxis. During our sessions, instead of just sitting at the piano, I also started to walk around the space, to feel and experience and somehow own the room. I understand my physical explorations in the 2016 sessions as a very concrete way to seize the now-moment: I’m here, in this room, with these people and these objects. The experience was also a very visual one: in the sessions, I was using my vision much more than usual when playing the piano. The objects around me roused my interest.
The most surprising manifestation of “seizing the now-moment” was that I started to improvise in our sessions, despite having declared at the beginning of the first session that I would not improvise, since that isn’t my genre and I wanted to be me in our project. But the atmosphere and the mutual, beautiful trust worked in a way that lured me into trying out improvisation. That was totally unexpected and unintentional. During the sessions and even afterwards on some other occasions (for instance in conferences), improvising acted as a tool for me to explore the now-moment. Through improvising, I practiced letting go of control and accepting the fact that I didn’t know what is going to happen.
In his dissertation on human-computer interaction, one of musician-composer Henrik Frisk’s outcomes was a radical improvisatory attitude towards all aspects of his musical practice. He sees ‘giving up the Self’ as an essential part of giving up control and heading towards an improvisatory attitude (Frisk 2008, 101). I can easily relate to this notion. I once took a huge risk by improvising at an artistic research conference, when I (with the Silence Ensemble) demonstrated our interdisciplinary praxis live, on stage. Before that demonstration I had improvised probably three times in my whole life and never before a live audience. Hence, my playing didn’t sound very good, but the point was to give up the Self and accept playing at less than my best. My excellence wasn’t the issue as it tends to be in classical music concerts: the issue was seizing the now-moment. I was quite proud of myself.