The questions complement the art
Darla Crispin has been involved in artistic research since the discipline first emerged around 20 years ago. By that time she had already gained her concert recital diploma as a pianist from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London. She continued studying musicology at King’s College London, where she completed a Master's degree and a PhD.
Obsessed with Schoenberg
The composer Arnold Schoenberg must be given much of the credit for her extensive studies. Her diploma recital included music from the First and Second Viennese Schools – Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schoenberg, Berg, Webern. She wrote her doctoral thesis on Arnold Schoenberg’s string quartets. More than anything else, it was his music that shaped her as a musician and academic, she says.
“I think it’s true to say I was, and still am, quite obsessed with Schoenberg’s music. It’s philosophical and difficult music in more ways than one. I’ve performed it and reflected on it to try to understand what it means – both to the listener and to society. It has probably also shaped me as a person, as someone who tries to help others ask their questions.”
The Arne Nordheim centre
The composer Arne Nordheim died in 2010, and in 2012 a centre was established at the Norwegian Academy of Music to uphold his legacy. When Darla Crispin was appointed head of the centre in September 2015, the centre was given a new and broader mandate. As well as researching the music and legacy of Nordheim, the centre is also tasked with being a driver and communicator of artistic research at the highest level. Even the name hints at its international ambitions: the Arne Nordheim Centre for Artistic Research (NordART).
A young discipline
Artistic research has been a statutory obligation for higher arts education providers in Norway since 1995. The Universities and University Colleges Act states that the discipline should be an artistic parallel to scientific research. The government’s Artistic Research Programme covers all creative and performing arts at university level. In spite of this, the concept of artistic research is still a relatively unfamiliar phenomenon to the wider public. Darla Crispin is enthusiastic about the particular characteristics of the discipline.
“There are many ways of being a musician. Some are satisfied with concentrating on their instrument and not reflecting beyond that. Others find it natural to reflect on their performance and analyse their work. In combination, it becomes a reflective practice. If we move to the next level, this reflective practice can be shared with others. It becomes a discussion between musicians about their art and the social aspects of what they do. Artistic research combines all of this: internal, experience-based knowledge and knowledge obtained externally. Strict methodologies turn this process into science, but with its own language. Artistic research combines the ability to produce fresh research with artistic practice at the highest possible level.”
The aim of the discipline should therefore be to give value to artistic practice and experience to make it relevant as research material. Combined with reflection and artistic performance, it can result in innovative outcomes, according to Darla Crispin.
“Artistic performance improves due to the reflection process the performer goes through, and the two aspects combine to create art that is new and unusual, and means something to the world today.”
What is the difference between artistic research in music and what we could call traditional musicology?
“The challenge of artistic research is to ask questions from within artistic practice, while in a traditional scientific perspective the questions are posed from the outside, practices are examined and observations made. The aspect of observation permits conclusions to be drawn that contain a degree of objectivity. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to be completely objective, but that critical distance is important when it comes to science. It ensures that we can draw healthy conclusions. Artistic research, on the other hand, relies on the personal experience of artistic practice. Artistic research will therefore always face challenges when it comes to methodology, because if each project is based on personal practice, it is not possible to apply one single methodology. Part of the process is therefore about constructing methods that are compatible with the project in question.”
“Artistic research begins with the artists’ questions about their own practice. The premise is the focus on the self-investigation into what it means to be an artist.”
The strategy for the Arne Nordheim centre is ambitious and could no doubt come to challenge established thinking and practices at a music academy. Does Darla Crispin hope to inspire all musicians with these research perspectives?
“In the arts we have to respect the artists as they are. We cannot order someone to do artistic research. In fact, not many people do it. But some musicians are attracted to it. They are in the process of learning how to do it, developing knowledge about it, and some are now doing really well. I don’t think everyone wants to get involved, and some will think that this is definitely not for them. And that’s fine. We’re not looking to present this as an ideology or a doctrine. It’s an opportunity. Exploring the discipline is a matter of choice.”
A leader in the field
Darla Crispin has extensive experience from different music education institutions. In London she worked at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where she was head of the Master and PhD programmes, and she was head of the Royal College of Music’s Graduate School while also being in charge of the Master and PhD programmes. She spent five years working as a postdoc at the Orpheus Research Centre in Ghent, Belgium, a pioneering institution for artistic research. It is now the turn of the NMH to benefit from her experience. She wants to turn the Arne Nordheim centre into a leading centre for artistic research internationally and claims there are many reasons why this is a realistic goal.
“Music education in Norway values personal development. This is also the vision of the NMH: Students first and foremost. The Academy values the individual experience and encourages everyone to observe themselves carefully – a key skill in artistic research. This emphasis is a unique quality that sets the NMH apart from institutions in other countries. The Norwegian education system also produces excellent musicians who are articulate and want to reflect on what they do. Compared with other countries, there are also relatively good economic conditions for artistic research. There are good research programmes, especially the Artistic Research Programme which, again, I feel is unique. The combination of talented people and the support we get both internally and nationally offers many opportunities – as well as obligations – to contribute.”
The strategy plan for the Arne Nordheim centre lists a number of challenges ahead. It states that a “silo mentality” could impede the quality of artistic research. This is something Darla Crispin wants to fight.
“A silo mentality occurs when a discipline becomes too short-sighted about what it’s doing. When I see this tendency in researchers, I tell them how the Canadian author Robertson Davies once said that ‘the world is not your own idea’. One way to avoid this is to work together, across cultures, observe each other, learn from each other and see whether we can challenge ourselves to think differently.”
“Research involves communicating with others. Research results are communication. We can’t do our research in silos.”
What if we assume that there will always be certain results that can only be produced by one particular person working alone, working hard, for years and years? What about that form of research?
“I’m not saying that we should eliminate solo research. I do a lot of it myself. In many cases you have to be willing to go through that process, one that is often lonely and isolated. But the point is to test the outcomes of your reflections and not make the mistake of being absolutely convinced that things are exactly the way you think they are. That’s not research. Research involves communicating with others. Research results are communication. We can’t do our research in silos. At least there would have to be some holes in them for exchanging information.”
The strategy plan also questions the quality of the established teacher-student model in music education. What’s wrong with this model?
“I think the model will remain an important educational tool for many years to come. But again, if it’s a silo, if it’s the only benchmark to measure the teaching against, it could start to create its own problems. One potential problem is overdependence between student and teacher or that the teacher doesn’t let the student speak with an individual voice. We should be honest and say so while also looking at the benefits of the model, what we need to protect. An inquisitive mentality, a curious approach that says: let’s look at it, let’s study it and see what works and what doesn’t, then take it from there. My worry about the model is just if it begins to reject feedback. I advise taking a fresh look at it to make sure that it does what it says it does. Such an investigation values everyone involved in the model, both teachers and students.”
“I think the questions complement the art. I think that’s why art is talking to us.”
“The process of creating music is endlessly fascinating,” says Darla Crispin, who envisages research projects on all aspects of musical practice. She believes some of the key questions we need to ask right now have to do with art’s function in society.
“Art and humanity are under enormous pressure at the moment – to show that they are of use. I think many of us are worried that art isn’t artistic enough and that humankind isn’t humane enough if they always have to prove their worth in a mechanical sort of way. Is it the case that art always serves its role in the world in an instrumental capacity? Can art not have its rightful place to be what it is, regardless of use? We should have a discussion about how art and humanity are being instrumentalised. Artistic research is about just that, because the discipline starts with the very experience of being human. Can we be more conscious curators of our own experiences?”
Can we be more conscious curators of our own experiences?
“Artistic research will make us ask questions about how we present music in society,” Darla Crispin explains. “Are there other ways of doing this than through concerts and performances? Can we be more conscious curators of our own experiences? Just as it asks questions about the nature of art, artistic research also queries its own institutions and forms of presentation. Any way in which art and music are presented can trigger questions and reflections and new ways of working.”
Photo by Bodil Maroni Jensen