Performance as research / research as performance

All musicians do research whenever they prepare a new piece and especially when they plan a concert. What was the composer doing when she or he wrote the piece we are performing? What inspired the poet to write the text, and how did the composer come across it, or choose to set it? What other pieces share similar qualities to this piece, or contrast with it in interesting ways that will combine well with them and please our listeners?

These are the sorts of questions musicians ask themselves as they prepare their performances, and finding the answers to these questions requires thought, hours searching for new music and listening to it, and many exploratory sessions trying new pieces out in rehearsal. It also requires curiosity, a passion for winkling out what makes music interesting and beautiful, and the ability to find sources – whether written, recorded, or human – that can help us to understand music better.

These are the foundations of music performance research, whether it is undertaken by amateur or professional performers, musicologists, concert-goers, or music lovers.

Music performance research can also ask questions about not just what the musicians might play and why, but also about how musicians play their music, and how this playing, or choosing to play, may or may not reflect their training, cultural context, or psycho-physical make-up. It can also ask equally relevant questions about listeners – what they like (or not) and why – and music research can tell us a lot about how music functions in different cultures, or reflects us as peoples.

My current performance research

In my own work, I engage in both types of music research: I plan and deliver concerts and write program notes and blogs just like the next person. But I also love puzzling about how musical performance works more broadly, in particular as it pertains to singing. How do singers and pianists work together to deliver the music and poetry they perform? How can singers understand poetry better, and how might a better understanding of a poem help singers turn out a better performance that will be meaningful for more listeners? What can singers learn from working with professional actors and poets about delivering their text in a meaningful way to their audiences? And what can we learn from living composers about how both they and composers of the past record their ideas in a score? These are the sort of things I think about as I undertake my own work as a performer, teacher, and researcher. I’m also very interested in what (if anything) makes live music different from recorded music for both performers and listeners, and how attending a live concert in a concert space may be different again from watching videos or ‘live-stream’ performances.

To do this sort of music performance research, I regularly give lectures and lecture-recitals and participate in dedicated collaborative cross-disciplinary research projects. In 2012, for example, I was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Music Performance as Creative Practice, which is a joint project between Cambridge, Oxford, Royal Holloway, and King’s College, London, where I ran a series of experimental song workshops exploring the differences in experience between participating in a ‘live’ vs a video-recorded concert performance for performers and listeners.

My main work in this area is conducted in association with the SongArt Performance Research Group, which I co-founded (in 2010) and co-direct (with Amanda Glauert), and which is based at the Institute of Musical Research, in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Our group brings together practitioners and theorists of song performance, poetry, theatre, musicology, philosophy, and psychology with a view to gaining new insights into the practice of song performance that will be relevant to professional performers, as well as to those who work with, write for, and study them and the song repertoire.

I hope that you will be able to join us for one of our performance research events, which take the form of workshops, conferences, and experimental performance sessions held at one of our sister institutions, the Institute of Musical Research, the Royal College of Music, and the Central School of Speech and Drama, in London.

How music became research and vice versa, and why it might matter

Although music performance research has become increasingly popular in many countries of late, it has been especially quick to develop in the United Kingdon, where musical performance and with it performance-related research is highly valued and as a result has gradually become fully professionalized. Since changes the regulations governing government funding to professional conservatoires and universities in 1992, performance research has been encouraged through public as well as private funding. This has caused a collapsing of the distinction between practitioners and theorists or historians in many quarters, and it has also had the great effect of causing much cross fertilization between those who know quite a bit about how music works theoretically (such as musicologists, music theorists, psychologists, physicists, and philosophers) and those who make music as professional practitioners. Now, almost 25 years on, the UK – like many other countries around the globe – has a thriving performance research culture that spans music, theatre, performance art, and also embraces other professions that involve some form of ‘performance’, such as sport, psychiatry, and even medical surgery. Musical performance is an exceptionally rich form of human performance, which as a human pursuit and possibility we undertake across all sectors, whether arts, sciences, sport, or business. It’s my hope that we, like these visionary government leaders in the UK, will set up more and more structures aimed at exploring how similar we all are, and how similar our work is across disciplines.