Lauren Redhead recently posted a thoughtful blog post surrounding the question of whether or not composition is “research”. As I’m in the writing up stage of my Doctorate at Guildhall, I’m obviously somewhat vested in the matter, and have also had a good deal of time to think over these issues over the past 3.5 years.
The first comment left on this blog summarises the most basic objection to the idea that composition is research:
Good of you to keep up the thinking and posting on this matter! For me: composition (incl. a score and its performance, also an improvisation) is not research. It can be an application of research, however, like drawing and building a bridge can be a result of research. A score and a performance don’t transmit enough knowledge about how the music is made (has been composed), and – again: for me – dissemination of new knowledge is essential to research. There doesn’t have to be dissemination for something to be research, but the new knowledge must be disseminable, and a performance/score does not make research insights disseminable per se. (Orpheus Instituut)
There are a couple small, but important errors in the thinking of Orpheus, and the many others who dismiss the possibilities of composition as research in this way. Most glaringly: The idea that the research insights contained within a score are not ‘disseminable’ is mistaken.
Firstly, as an aside, a score can (and many do) contain performance/explanatory notes that give extensive insight into the way the work was created. I take the point that these explanatory notes are not “composed music”, but would refer the debate back to Laura’s excellent point that the actual writing of a research document or paper is not technically research either (it is simply “composed language”). In both instances, the researcher is aiming to compile and/or apply their research and make it available to a wider community.
The more important point, then, is that compositional scores do make research available to the wider community of musicians. It is not that the idea is available only in the written-language form, while the score itself is an impenetrable scribble. Nor, for many musicians, is the performance an aural mystery! Music is a language, both in written and aural forms, and both composers and performers who have spent their lives studying it can decode it. A simple example: How did I ‘make’ or ‘compose’ this chord?
The shape of this chord is so familiar that many will identify it as a symmetrical chord without even having to check. Even those musicians who have never seen or heard a chord like this could figure this out. When a musician sees this chord for the first time, it becomes an issue of thinking of the chord as collections of intervals (in this case they fan out symmetrically from the ‘C’) instead of as a functional harmonic construction within a scale or key. The words make it clear, but the idea and the knowledge necessary to come to the conclusion are also contained in the chord itself.
This is why it is a similar fallacy to contend that a building or bridge does not contain within itself the information about how it was constructed. That particular information might be inaccessible to me, but there are many people who can look at a building or bridge – especially if they are allowed to look closely and over time – and draw out nearly every detail of its construction.
It is true that music is a denser and/or more complex language than most, but when one thinks of the knowledge and ideas that were passed from musician to musician purely in performance (this is particularly true in the field of jazz) the existence of a score becomes positively luxurious in the amount of information and knowledge that it carries.
Finally, with all of that being said, I will now say that I myself do not consider either composition or performance themselves to be research. This is hardly endemic: As we have already said, the writing of academic papers is not research any more than either of these two. The problem with calling any of these “research” is not what can be transmitted through them, but that these tasks are all creative processes that seek to make something new. None are the ‘search for new knowledge’ but the attempt to either codify or deploy the knowledge currently held by their creator.