Repertoire, Reflection, Research: how the fusion of musical thought and practice and the contribution of this to musical understanding lies at the heart of the Reflective Musician project

- by Darla Crispin


The ‘Reflective Musician’ project springs from a conviction that ‘many musicians look under the well-known surface, searching for the deeper forces of the works they perform’.  Its primary focus is upon ‘the different types of knowledge that are necessary to access these forces’.  What form these types of knowledge might take is not necessarily self-evident; nor is the project itself tied to any particular ideology as far as this question is concerned.  Nevertheless, a project that seeks to create synergies between musical thought and practice, so that either may inform the other, and that does so with the stated goal of generating interpretations that ‘cast off conformity and emerge as personal and genuine’, clearly has a powerful connection to the phenomenon that has come to be known as Artistic Research.

Definitions of artistic research are notoriously difficult – partly because we are used to a ‘scientific’ precision in the language of research, whereas the scope of artistic research reaches into areas beyond precise verbal formulation.  Where words start to fail, it can be difficult to distinguish whether the cause of this is a limitation in what is being described or in the power of words themselves.  In this respect, the fact that the Reflective Musician project description generally avoids the use of the term ‘research’ in favour of concepts such as ‘interpretation’, ‘insight’ and ‘reflection’, has liberated it from many of the polemics about artistic research, what it is and what it’s for.  Nevertheless, some kind of contextualisation of the project within the wider sphere of the debates about artistic research is important, not least because the discourse within the field is itself advanced by evidence from individual examples of relevant practice such as those provided by this project.

Among attempts at a definition of artistic research, one recently emerging strand has been a desire to avoid unduly restrictive formulae, especially those that see it in opposition to more traditional ‘scientific’ research, and, instead, to encourage its being seen as an expansion of the resources (including traditional research) available to musical scholars, practitioners and, above all, the new breed of scholar-practitioner.  An example of this tendency can be found in the definition proposed by the Association Européenne des Conservatoires, Académies de Musique et Musikhochschulen:

Artistic Research may be defined as a research discipline that serves the purpose of promoting the development of the arts, and which displays all, or most, of the following characteristics:

• It possesses a solid basis embedded in artistic practice – usually that of the artist-researcher or of individual artists within a research team

• It contributes new knowledge and/or creates new perspectives within the arts

• It is supported by critical reflection on content and/or context

• It articulates and reflects on methods and work processes

• It promotes critical dialogue within the profession, and with other relevant professions

• It shares relevant professional knowledge with the public sphere

In one way or another, the Reflective Musician project fulfils all of these criteria and would therefore unquestionably qualify, under the terms of this definition, as an example of artistic research.  Obviously, this is most conspicuously the case in relation to the third bullet-point that refers to ‘critical reflection on content and/or context’; reflection is at the core of the project, as well as being embedded in its title.  However, the project is also an example of individual artists working together as ‘a research team’; its focus upon new or revivified interpretations relates to ‘the creation of new perspectives’; its working methods are both ‘articulated and reflected upon’; it seeks to promote a ‘critical dialogue’ within the wider conservatoire community; and, in its public performances, it has sought to ‘share relevant professional knowledge’ more widely. 

As part of the structuring methodology of the Reflective Musician project, the team has chosen to frame a series of ‘research questions’.  These questions serve two functions: first, they give an orientation to the way the project should evolve throughout its lifespan and, second, they lay down a challenge to generate some useful answers by its conclusion.  As with any research questions, the outcome of the second function is necessarily speculative at the time of their formulation – to the extent that no categorical answers may be forthcoming by the time the project comes to an end.  This does not undermine the validity of posing the questions in the first place as even partial or provisional answers have the capacity to advance knowledge and to generate pointers toward future research topics.

The research questions selected are as follows:

1)What kind of performing knowledge might lead to specific, unique interpretations?

2)What kind of interpretations might lead to ‘new knowledge’?

3)How can this cycle of knowledge → interpretation → new knowledge be studied?

4)How can what is learned through this cyclical process best be articulated and disseminated?

5)To what extent is it a process that can benefit from the collaborative input of a team of artists and researchers?

6)What could such a team-based project teach us about the co-creative aspects of the bringing-into-being of specific, unique interpretations?

In terms of the first question, an important strand of the answers generated during the project relates to the idea that analytical knowledge can itself be a brand of ‘performing knowledge’ and can lead to ‘specific, unique interpretations’.  Moreover, this new knowledge, generated within the act of performance, can be fed back into our analytical understanding of a given work, thereby addressing the second question.

Studying the ‘cycle of knowledge → interpretation → new knowledge’, insofar as this process has been achieved by the project, is something that requires an external perspective and a degree of objective distance.  As such, it is a meta-question to which only provisional answers can be provided within the scope of the project itself.  Already, though, there is a strong conviction amongst the team that this cyclical ‘virtuous spiral’ of knowledge generation is a reality, and one that has potent value to musicians seeking to function as artist-researchers.  Within the dynamic of the research group, there is little doubt that individuals have been shaped and changed by the experience of undertaking the project; what remains to be tested is whether the new knowledge of a project such as this can take its place in the wider discourse in a manner comparable to knowledge generated by more traditional, ‘scientific’ means.

As to how both the performing and analytical knowledge can best be ‘articulated and disseminated’, the team agreed that there was a need to circumvent the usual dichotomy between performing and textual presentational forms and to achieve a more closely integrated format in which these can be set alongside each other in a more interactive manner.  As a result, it was decided to make use of the possibilities offered by the Research Catalogue by adopting this as the platform for the project outcomes.  Employing the RC in this way has itself been a valuable learning exercise whose lessons will be used in future NMH projects.

The project has demonstrated powerfully the benefits of drawing upon ‘the collaborative input of a team of artists and researchers’.  Different individuals have different strengths, different specialisms and different perspectives.  When they come together in a spirit of open-mindedness, they can achieve more than the sum of their separate capabilities.  This extends to situations where one individual’s strengths may lie more in performance than research while another’s may be in the reverse ratio.  In such a scenario, the team approach can be transformative.

This leads to the final question concerning co-creativity and what the processes of the project can tell us about it.  Again, this is partly a matter for consideration from outside the confines of the project itself.  Nevertheless, several interesting pointers have been generated by activities and events carried out within the project.  An example of this is the emergence of the concept of analysis as a technique for stimulating the ‘bringing-into-being of specific, unique interpretations’.  Another example is to be found within innovative approaches to curation, which make this activity creative (not just re-creative) in its own terms and open up areas for creative input on the part of performers, even with repertoire that is normally highly determined.  How musical works are presented – individually or in juxtaposition with others – can radically shape how they are received and the knowledge that is generated in the process of their reception.  There is clearly therefore considerable scope for the exploration of curation as a creative tool that may be employed by composers, performers, scholars and by co-creative groups in which any or all of these specialisms are manifested.

In all these ways, the project has fulfilled much of what was hoped for it at the outset.  To quote the project description:

Performing is, in our view, not some kind of undefinable, occult exercise, nor is it simply a set of behavioural patterns to be externally codified. Rather, it is an inherently creative activity based on its own systems of knowledge which, whether conscious or intuitive, ought to be capable of being articulated in words as well as in practical music-making.

If we manage to make young musicians aware of this, we may be able to break down some of the barriers that currently inhibit them from finding their “own” voices and make musical life so predictable.

Significantly, this description emphasises the aim of making the findings of the project available as tools to assist young musicians in the development of their individual voices.  Such a goal underpins the value and social relevance of locating project work of this kind within the conservatoire environment.  More widely, it can surely be said that the project points to some of the ways that the research ethos can be made similarly relevant.  If students become familiar with viewing their artistic searches in terms of the ‘cycle of knowledge → interpretation → new knowledge’, they will have a meta-tool to enable them to continue to be explorers and creators throughout their professional careers. 

Related article: Architecture of a project