“Artistic Research in Times of Ecocide”

(or Artistic Research = Human Research).

Lecture on Artistic Research,
Brussels Conservatory/School of Arts

23rd April 2014, Royal Academy for Arts and Sciences.

Dear colleagues, friends, students,

usually when i give a lecture, i prepare a text in advance (a “lecture” is a “reading” after all), but i hardly ever take a look at it when i’m on the stand. Instead, i improvise on one or several themes, i look at you listeners, i play some music to illustrate a point. The text can be consulted on one of my blogs later on, or i have hand-outs ready for those who are interested.

For today’s lecture i’m in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand i wish i could, for once, stick to a prepared speech because today’s topic is of great importance to me and i wouldn’t want to forget certain points like i tend to do when i start improvising. On the other hand, i’ve never felt very inspired myself by people who just stand there mumbling, with their eyes fixed on a sheet of paper, rather than to interact with their audiences.

Well, let’s see what happens.

We’re all here today because we’re interested in Artistic Research. Musical Artistic Research, primarily.

To some people, performing musicians aren’t really “artists” at all: they don’t create, they only reproduce. This school of thought (and i’m using the word “school” deliberately, because very often this opinion is handed down to us by well-meaning schools and teachers), this school of thought is, in my opinion, based on a fallacy: on a misunderstood interpretation of “respect for the composer” and on a conservative attitude. After all, this institution is called a “conservatory” for a reason. Never mind the real historical origin of the name: little by little its meaning has shifted towards “conserving” old ideas on music education, but also towards conserving the music itself: once a work is written, the ink and paper become a fossilized museum piece that has to be conserved intact, unchanged and unchangeable.

The performer then takes the role of a sort of “translation machine” that converts the scribbles on the paper into audible sound, in the best of cases with some knowledge of what those scribbles really meant, back then: we’ve been using the same musical notation shorthand for centuries, but its meaning has sometimes changed quite significantly, and conservatories don’t always provide their students with much historical insight. So we end up conserving the material, the skeletons, the outward signs and appearances of music. Not the “music” itself. And we believe that by “playing what is written” we show the greatest possible respect to the composer.

Conserving what we have isn’t necessarily wrong, just like renewing for the sake of renewing isn’t necessarily right. But the idea that the performer is nothing more than the humble and obedient servant of the composer, a sort of human juke-box as it were, is definitely up for reconsideration. It would lead us too far today to discuss this topic in depth and it would take up too much time (we would have to explore more than one historical and philosophical minefield), but it’s good to be aware that musicians have not always been so compliant, and that composers have not always been the neurotic control-freaks they often became after the romantic era.

I remember an interview with Frank Zappa, at the time when, influenced by Boulez (amongst others), he started to take himself seriously as a contemporary composer. In the interview he complained about classical musicians being incapable or unwilling to reproduce exactly what he had composed, and considered using synthesizers instead (the Synclavier, to be precise), because electronic machines did a better job of it. Machines don’t add their own personalities to the music, the way human musicians do. And they are incomparably more precise.

In cases such as this, i’m all in favour of composers using electronic devices. Anyway, i have never understood why contemporary composers keep trying, at all costs, to squeeze the most unnatural sounds out of 300-year old instruments rather than to use the thousands of unbelievable and fantastic sounds that modern electronics and truly contemporary musical instruments are capable of producing. Maybe the reason lies in the feeling of power they derive from ordering around real human beings to execute their works. I suppose they might find this much more satisfying than simply issuing commands through a computer keyboard. Be that as it may, in the end the sought-after “special sounds” that we poor musicians have to beat, scratch and over-blow out of our instruments, and the “shocking” dissonances of contemporary music have become far more boring and more cliché than the traditional IV-V-I cadence.

The classically trained musician then, i believe, is (or can be) an artist and should add his or her own personal qualities to the composer’s work. Composers who don’t want this, should indeed work with machines, not with people.

Artistic Research should be done by artists and should be centered around human and deeply personal elements, not academic ones. This is very important to me as an artist and musician. Music is an art that reaches out, a form of communication. Communication implies at least two directions: from the performer to the audience and vice versa. In the case of living composers and performers, there is (or there can be) a similar communication, as long as the composer is prepared to listen to what the performer has to say.

In the case of a dead composer, the performer has no way to obtain first-hand information or elucidation. This often cramps our style: we have to study scores, treatises, biographies and descriptions, but we’re never really sure about anything because there is no feedback. Sometimes this lack of certainty results in careful, sterile, and annoying performances that are as musicologically correct as we wish to imagine but that are of no interest to anybody. Then music loses its true purpose and meaning: touching an audience.

Studying the sources can be seen as part of the Artistic Research.
Personally i’m just as fascinated by this kind of research as the next guy or girl, as long as there is a human element in it. For instance, in Viennese Classical music for double bass (one of my favorite fields of interest) i love to study the original scores and to discover ways to really understand the articulations, which are not always what they seem to be at first sight. But true Artistic Research requires that, from there, i figure out what these articulations mean and what their effect is in a real performance.

I’m not interested in research that merely describes and quantifies. As a performer, i would consider that kind of research frivolous. Counting the number of notes in a Bach piece and finding symbolic meanings in the numbers is not Artistic Research if this knowledge doesn’t lead to a significant change in the performance. This kind of Research is best left to Academics. Or to Quiz Kids.

Artists have other obligations. I’m interested in finding out what my little “discoveries” really mean. In the first place, why did the composer use these specific articulations? In the case of Viennese Classical music, when i wanted to get to the bottom of it, i had to consult as many primary and secondary sources as i could find, and finally i discovered that the articulations are very intimately connected to the regional dialect that was spoken at the time. In other words, this is very much a “spoken” music. This knowledge enables me to find a way to perform the music in a certain way. I know where i’m going with this music in real life, i.e. in concert or recording. My aim is not to add another 500 pages (that nobody will care to read) to the ever growing amount of trivia.

From this starting point, the research can go further: can i change the original articulations? After studying and playing many works from the same period or composer, i have an understanding of the possibilities and permutations that were in use. I also know that indications were not absolutes and that musicians had a lot more freedom then than they did later on. Does a change in articulation have an effect on how i feel when i play the piece, and does this result in a different way of playing? How does this affect the way i interact with the audience? Do i always use the original articulations regardless of acoustics, or do i change them, using my knowledge and, hopefully, good taste?

Artistic Research the way i see it, is all about performing. Otherwise it’s not Artistic, but Scientific Research. As performing artists, if we study scores and sources without taking the element of actual performance into account, our research is not truly artistic in nature.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Our research has to have a purpose in the real world. It has to connect us to an audience. Music without an audience is no music. A tree falling in the wood, with nobody there to hear it, doesn’t make any sound. (It doesn’t. Sound doesn’t exist. It is “made” inside our brain. See “This is Your Brain on Music” by Daniel Levithin). In other words, Artistic Research in music remains just an intellectual exercise as long as we don’t “play our Research” for an audience.

“A purpose in the real world”. Here we enter an area where personal choices have to be made. I don’t for myself believe in Art that is detached from the real world we live in. (Other artists, writers, philosophers may have a very different view: the slogan “L’Art pour l’Art” used to be the embodiment of one such perspective).

In the meantime, through greed and shortsightedness, man (the word “man” can be seen here in its double meaning of “humanity” and “the male gender”. Generally, throughout history, men seem to have been the greatest driving force in war and destruction), man has brought not only human civilisation to the brink of collapse, but our criminal neglect of all things nature has also led to irreversible damage to many other life forms beside our own. The genie is definitely out of the bottle, and we have no clue how we’re ever going to get him back where he belongs.

An Artist then, can no longer pretend that Art is somehow unconnected to the world around us. A performing musician can and should, in one way or another, become part of an energy that connects and empowers people.

All easier said than done, i admit. But we can start by trying to find better connections with, and by building better bridges towards our listeners, our audiences. The classical music world can sometimes be too self-centered and too self-absorbed, too busy as we are being “Artists”.

The Audience. For me this is the key to my Research. A musician, indeed music as such, is nothing without it. I’m still puzzled, after over 40 years in music, about the quasi complete absence of the “audience” element in classical music education. As if the audience were no more than a necessary evil, and the less it’s talked about, the better. It would be like studying medicine without ever considering that one day you’ll be treating patients (come to think of it, that’s probably the way it really goes…). Coming from a pop and rock background, i happen to have a very different view. Well, maybe the background has nothing to do with it, i don’t really know. What i do know is that music is a two-way communication, or it should be. It is not something we impose on our passive listeners from the lofty heights of our superiority.

Depending on what audience i play for, sometimes i can and must play the same piece very differently. Of course these differences will be much more pronounced with a small audience than in a big concert hall where the individual listeners blend into an amorphous blob, and when you’re part of a huge symphony orchestra the interaction with your audience will be reduced to something in the close neighbourhood of zero. This is one of the reasons why i regularly need to get out of the orchestra and find real human contact with the listeners.

If you want to be more than an anonymous cog in the orchestra’s machinery, if you want to get back to the essence of what making music really means, there is no other solution but to find your own individual way, your true voice. Mind you, not every musician has this need, and many are quite content to spend their entire professional lives playing in an orchestra pit or teaching. That’s OK too (although i have serious doubts about non-performing musicians in teaching jobs). But for me, over the years several elements have combined into an irresistible urge to go out and find other ways of connecting with the world as a musician.

I won’t go into all of these elements today, they were numerous and ranged from discontentment with the way music is taught, to frustration with the established and ritualized world of classical music (when are we going to get rid of those ridiculous black-and-white monkey suits?), and the feeling that something essential was missing from my life as a musician. I had become a prisoner of certain set thinking patterns about classical music. I consciously decided to start doubting after a discussion i had with a teacher in the Ancient Music department, at the end of which i came to the insight i might have been wrong all along.

The idea that classical music as we play it now is the culmination of constant improvement over the centuries, and that our present-day playing and instruments are obviously a lot better than those of 200 years ago, has been proven erroneous many years ago by people such as Harnoncourt, and studying Ancient Music at this conservatory for a number of years, at the ripe old age of 50, was one of the best decisions i ever made as a musician. Because there, contrary to what i had been led to believe, i found an exciting attitude of openness and of questioning, of doubts, experimentation and alternatives, and the pure joy of re-discovering that the performing musician is as essential a part of the musical experience as the composer. In a strange way, this attitude seemed to connect closely to my early days in rock music. My whole outlook on music was transformed.

Like i mentioned, having started out in music with pop and rock has often proved to be a true blessing, and over 20 years on the road with a Double Bass Quartet has left its traces as well: you can’t survive for that long with an ensemble as special as a Bass Quartet, if you don’t care about your listeners. You have to be entertainers, not only musicians. You have to talk to your audience as well as play for them.

As a result, i don’t have the mindset nor the history of a true classical musician who began playing the violin when (s)he was 3 years old and who has followed a traditional path of lessons, practicing 12 hours a day, serious concerts in serious venues and very expensive instruments. The downside is that, with the very different path i have found for myself, i don’t really have the automatic facility (s)he has. But i feel that there are quite a few things that more than make up for it.

In the end, all of this made me think that in today’s world, now that we seem to have made a mess of epic proportions of planet Earth (to a point of no return, i’m afraid), now that we have to face the fact that humanity is committing Ecocide, music may help to bring some relief (if not hope) to many people, and that the best way to do it is to play for small audiences where real communication is possible.

With my partner Haruko Tanabe i started a Duo in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Tsunami and the dramatic explosion of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. We played at many charity concerts and events. A musician only has limited possibilities to help, but doing nothing was not an option. From then on, we never looked back.

Since my baroque studies, i have been using ancient instruments and gut strings very often, even in the modern opera and symphony orchestra, so the choice for an ancient bass was quite natural. Because of its resonant sound and its soloistic, reedy sound quality i chose Viennese Tuning (D-A-D-F#-A). Haruko, having just discovered the Viola d’Amore, is now primarily using that instrument. The coupling of both, results in a very special resonant sound from only two instruments. Using these ancient instruments also satisfies my inquisitive mind’s need for historical research into old music, period bows, articulations etc.

There is no original repertoire at all for our combination of instruments. Rather than a drawback this has proven to be a major advantage. We can and do arrange all kinds of music, and nothing is sacred enough to remain untouched if we like it. Our repertoire goes from baroque to contemporary, but also from pop and folk to film music. The arrangements go from “simply” substituting an original Viola part for the Viola d’Amore as in J.M. Sperger‘s Duo-Sonatas for Viennese Bass and Viola (we sometimes alter the Viola part so as to make better use of the harmonic possibilities of the instrument) to complete re-arrangements and the creation and adaptation of contemporary pieces written for us.

This is exactly what we need: the audiences we play for range from music lovers to Alzheimer patients, from people in social shelters to 3-year olds in kindergartens. So we can’t and won’t play traditional classical music programs. We change programs according to whom we’re going to play for, and even then we usually change our program right before or in the middle of a concert, depending on how the audience reacts or on what they would like to hear.

For me, all these things are part of true Artistic Research. The preparation of pieces, figuring out what are the best possible arrangements, and continually changing them. The feedback from the audience and from the sounds we produce at the concert, the choice of bows for specific pieces and the search for strings, both gut and synthetic. The design and testing in practice of a travel bass, in collaboration with luthier Patrick Charton, the inventor and creator of the B21 bass, imagining and ordering the construction of “new-old” instruments such as the 7-string Violone by Pierre van Engeland. Studying ancient scores for articulations and indications. Copying traditional songs by ear and transforming them into little suites, with quotes from classical music…and so on and so on.
This is Artistic Research at its best, the way i see it.

Having started out in a circuit of charity events doesn’t mean that’s all we do. We played at the BassEurope Convention in Copenhagen with a classical program, we recorded a CD with music by Sperger and Ariosti, new recordings with old and new music are planned, next summer i’m playing at the Amsterdam Bass Convention with the Vanhal Concerto arranged in Duo-form, and with Giuseppe Lupis“Codex Lupensis”. Furthermore i’m working on a Video Masterclass in which i’ll analyse the entire Vanhal Concerto, with (of course) the focus on performance practice rather than theory, and i’m preparing editions of some works by Sperger.

But charity concerts and tours remain very important to us. We have a Japanese Tour every year. Our latest tour was in March/April 2014 and took us to Fukushima, amongst many other places. The full account of our trips can be found on our blog:

Playing at Fukushima brought Artistic Research as close to real life as it gets. Because not only did we play for the people who still live in the contaminated zones, thereby showing them they’re not forgotten (this is their worst fear) and bringing them a moment of happiness, but we teamed up with a Tokyo journalist who wrote a long report on the trip. Along the way we took hundreds of photos, we constantly measured radiation, we took notes and we talked to people. We played for older people and we played in schools and kindergartens.

Here we resolutely left the purely musical field and we entered a zone in which music was both a goal in itself, and a medium through which something bigger and more important could happen. That is also the reason why i wanted to publish a blog about the tour. Artists can no longer be content to be only artists. Art can and must contribute to a better world.

Preparing special programs for the audiences there was a lot of work (Artistic Research, again). We chose European classical as well as Japanese music: Folk from the Fukushima region itself, children’s songs, jingles from children’s TV-programs, Japanese pop music. Just literally transcribing the music is not enough. We intertwine the pieces with classical music quotes, we mix and match and we make little suites out of the songs, sometimes with Leitmotivs to connect them. We often have mixed audiences of very young and older people, so both the children and the adults have to be catered for. For the grown-ups there are different layers within the pieces, but we make sure they don’t obscure the simple melodies for the children. We make arrangements of repertoire pieces such as Paganini’s Moses-Variations, into which we introduce foreign elements such as negro-spirituals, a Japanese folksong, a double bass concerto by Dittersdorf, some Liszt, a national hymn or “Mona Lisa”…

As you can see, a musical purist i am not. Purity is important in medicine and for drinking water. That’s it. In art, i don’t believe very much in purity just like i don’t believe in “l’Art pour l’Art”: it’s a great slogan, but nothing more than that.

In our crippled-beyond-repair apocalyptic world of exploding nuclear plants, global warming and all-out Ecocide, i think Art and Artistic Research had better stay connected to real people. At the very least, Artistic Research should never try to imitate Academic Research. Rather, let us use what Academic Research has to offer us, as long as it helps us to become better performers. And “better performers” means: performers who succeed in connecting with their audiences. Ultimately, the best way a performer has for showing respect to a composer, is to translate his or her music in such a way that the audience is touched and elevated.

At the risk of sounding impossibly naive, leaving out all the fancy wording and the arty-farty or pseudo-scientific gobbledegook, i would say the ultimate aim of Artistic Research is simply to make the world a better place.

Korneel Le Compte, 21st April 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s