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Truths I hold self-evident

“Art itself is epistemic and represents knowledge; we just have to be literate enough to read it.” Andrew Bentley

Andrew Bentley

Truths that I hold self-evident, amongst others, are that art is one of the major pillars of human civilization, and probably the oldest, given that engineering (yes, pillars) goes back only a few thousand years, and natural sciences a few hundred at the most; that a very small percentage of people are artists, and only a small percentage of those actually write, unless they are literary natives; that many artists who try to write find it rather difficult. I put this down more to disincentives and lack of motivation, rather than the lack of a good education. I suspect the main point is that, when it comes to the crunch, they prefer to spend time doing what they do well, which relates to their artistic ‘calling’. That is why when an artist writes, especially in my own field of music technology, I experience a massive feeling of gratitude, and I drool over what they tell me about their art: these are the ‘gold nuggets’ temptingly dropped outside the doors of the alchemists.

Fifty years ago this autumn, when I went up to university, I was fortunate from the beginning that my professor and head of department Wilfrid Mellers gifted me the idea—controversial at the time—that the insight unique to the practitioner (i.e. the view from the inside, the maker’s view) was essential to a deeper understanding of art and music, and could not be replaced by secondhand knowledge or experience. Quite exceptionally, during the mid-1960’s, Mellers set out to create a university music department where every teacher was both a practitioner and a scholar; the department comprised several composer-performers, two composer-conductors and a composer-educationalist. Mellers himself was a polymath: a composer, performer, prolific writer of music history and analysis, and a much-celebrated public lecturer on topics from American music to Couperin, from Beethoven to The Beatles. There was no doubt that he was a literary native, educated in the first instance in English Literature at Cambridge under F. R. Leavis, probably the most influential literary scholar of the period. (I found out later that Mellers had studied at Downing College Cambridge alongside my very own uncle Wilfred: two Wilfs, with slightly different spellings.)

Mellers’ approach led to another innovation in undergraduate teaching in 1970, conceived by Richard Orton, his colleague and founder of the electronic studio, which prevails until today, the “project system”. Before the project system, music was typically taught as a set of parallel studies in aural skills, theory, history, readings and performance practice; studies that never communicated with one another. Topics were handled asynchronously in terms of stylistic period and subject matter. The student faced the task of assembling a complete view while standing in the crossfire of the zeal and competing demands of teachers of different subjects. The idea behind the project system was simply to take topics of music and deal with them in a multidisciplinary, but holistic, way. Topics were investigated in a concentrated, unhurried and time-synchronous manner, with plenty of scope for practical contributions. Cross-fertilisation of disciplines was at the centre. The project system idea is akin to what is now termed phenomenon-based learning (PhBL). It is contextual learning that depends on the student’s own inquiring mind. It is anchored in the real world and develops cognitive processes to deal with real-life situations. The project system proved a stimulating environment for 1st cycle undergraduate music studies.

More recently I realized that these core ideas—the unique insight of the artist combined with phenomenon-based inquiry—are close to my own understanding of what forms the “magic ingredients” of artistic research (AR). What AR would seem to require is that the artist, besides making the art itself, provides the added value of writing about her artistic viewpoint and/or process. This is not quite the same as saying that writing is what distinguishes research from making art, since research can actually be done through the making of art. Art itself is epistemic and represents knowledge; we just have to be literate enough to read it. However, without textual writing (‘real’ writing!), its knowledge may remain implicit and its research in it may go unnoticed.

What I also imbibed during my first years at university (not only in Mellers’ department) was the tremendous respect within academia towards those responsible for creating the corpus of art; in the case of classical music this was the composers, not forgetting of course their interpreters. Not for one moment would scholars, let alone a mere PhD student like myself, raise themselves on a pedestal higher than these creators, whether or not these greats had themselves had an academic education or a PhD. Most of them didn’t have one. However, for good reason the university had made a point of being a safe-haven for many artists over hundreds of years, making sure it had access to the touchstone. The idea behind it was simple: academia can serve art, but art has its own Parnassus, independent and self-sufficient in the final analysis. Academia just needs to show it a whole lot of respect. For Mellers it was a win-win situation, because he was happy to show us that we can all be creators if we want to be.

People around me, students and staff alike, continue to struggle with the relationship between art and research. It is hardest for the artist-researchers, i.e. those trying to do both rather than one or another, since they cannot afford to ignore the problem. As I mentioned before, they are often not literary natives, and they have few models to follow; the gold nuggets are rare. Some prophets of artistic research would like us to adopt a bonded approach, where research and art are practiced tightly in tandem. Although this seems to resemble the holistic idea of the project system (and this work is often called ‘research projects’), and it certainly is an ‘added value’ approach to AR, it can lead to undesirable dependencies that, in my view, can be detrimental and compromising for both the art and the research.

There are alternative ways for artists to apply their inside knowledge. In music technology, for sixty years we have applied the alternative of a parallel approach, where artistic work and research co-exist and cross-fertilise in a cycle, without forcing one to be the other, nor needing to be enacted in a time-synchronous way. It avoids the interdependency that is created when the two are bonded. In my experience, it is a much lighter burden to pursue art and research in this way. We research small things, while trying to say bigger things in the art. We are still obliged to educate ourselves in parallel as creators and researchers in order achieve this symbiosis. My own instinct is that research works best when it deals with small, contained packages that are easier to disseminate; where the large gains are made by scholars joining forces. By contrast, art works on the large scale, often encompassing elements not needing resolution. Art is not about answers, facts, problem-solving or conclusions; it thrives on ambiguities, contradictions and open-endedness. Artworks are the important outcome. They still encapsulate and embody this background research, and contribute to the research epistemology.

The parallel approach common in our field is only a suggestion. I am not trying to force any researcher’s hand, but I don’t want to see them confined to the single model being touted today. We need diversity of approach. Under no circumstances should entry to doctoral studies be made conditional on accepting a particular research model. Art and research are tricky bedfellows, but in my experience, they have glorious potential for fun under the covers.

Andrew Bentley is retiring professor of music technology at the Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki.

30 years of doctorates in music at the Sibelius Academy

In 2020, it will be 30 years since the first Doctors of Music graduated from the Sibelius Academy. So far, over 200 graduates have completed a doctorate in music. In this blog you can read about our expert’s experiences on the journey.

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