Artistic research! Where are we today?

DOI: 10.32063/1005

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson

Emeritus Professor of Music at King’s College London.

Question 8

Should artistic research be critical, or even subversive? And if yes, how and why?

by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson

Music & Practice, Volume 10


Question 8

It’s worth remembering that composition has been rewarded with university degrees since the fifteenth century and has been regarded as research since that began to matter to university funders in the later twentieth. The difficulty some have with accepting performance as artistic research on the same basis (both are making music) seems to owe much to that foundational belief of classical music culture in the west that only composers create, while performers simply enact their creations. While intellectually many have moved beyond that class distinction now, in practice – because it is so deep-rooted in the upbringing and management of performers – it is hard to erase from thinking about this music, and so it still permeates the music business, the musical public and academia.

Added to this is pressure from the still normative belief (again, not among music intellectuals in theory but often in practice) that substantial innovation in the performance of canonical classical scores is inappropriate, because we already have achieved near-ideal realizations of their composer’s intentions, so that only minor creativity around the edges of interpretation is acceptable.

Consequently, scepticism about how much research there is, or should be, in artistic research is still pervasive. If you can’t accept that substantial change might be appropriate or desirable (or even possible) then you can’t believe that performers have any business researching, or behaving as artists rather than craftspeople.

But where performers seek to be, and are allowed by institutions to be, creative artists, the question immediately arises (because of all these pressures) ‘how creative should they be?’, as if it were a matter for regulation, as if there were ‘natural’ limits consistent with the underlying ideology in which composers rule and performers obey. So, coming to Question 8 here, let’s ask this: is a journey of discovery through performance really research if it’s not questioning the status quo, venturing into new territory, making something that changes the picture? Isn’t that what we mean by research?

Surely, then, we should expect from artistic research in performance more than the usual degree of innovation heard in classical performance. Admittedly, that’s not hard, given how little is usually dared due to the ferocity of critical backlash from this systemically conservative profession. But that is surely the point of artistic research: to discover, to open up significantly new possibilities for meaning-making by working from old scores in new communicative environments. That inevitably involves challenging previous norms, even leaving them behind; which is by its very nature subversive, the more so the more fiercely the status quo is defended by others.

Of course artistic research can also be critical. The fact that that generates so much pushback only emphasizes how insecurely the norm is rooted in reason and how much in identity. Its foundations are weak, without plausible historical or ethical bases (we don’t and never shall know how music sounded in the past; there’s no plausible case that dead composers are harmed by new readings of their scores; damage is done to performers, psychologically, physically and economically by the policing of normativity). There is much to critique, and not just within classical music culture but also beyond. As well as questioning its own values classical performance should be asking questions of its audiences about their relationship with wider society and its cultures, about their own values, about what they think they’re buying along with a concert ticket or a recording. What we provide for them through sound could and should be a lot more than simply reassurance that all is well with their world, which all too often is as much as devotees want from a concert or a recording.

It’s only reasonable to suppose that if one does challenge audiences’ cultural and musical values one will lose subscribers. But in their place we’ll gain much more diverse listeners who for the first time will think that something might be going on in this remote field that has something to say about the world they know and inhabit. Similarly, classical music performance might regain some of the status it once had in wider intellectual life; it might start to be a topic of interest to cultural commentators, to earn a place in arts media by having something to say that contributes to current cultural debates. If, as now, it cannot, what is its purpose?

Question 8 also asks how. I’ve offered some ideas and some examples in Challenging Performance ( But there’s an ever-growing quantity and range, now, in concerts by younger, freelance performers who see the limits of normativity and want to do more with their skill and musical imagination. ‘How?’ is really not the problem. What performers need is encouragement (from within and without institutions) to find new ways to make great music from old scores.