performance versus research

The nice thing about a funded research project at a new university is the possibility of an exchange of experience with a whole new set of colleagues. So I am, for instance, learning that it is not everyone’s cup of tea to write blog posts about one’s research. I see the point, up to a certain level. There is surely no need to publish snippets of one’s first efforts, and only little need to communicate one’s mid-project struggles in any detailed way. At the moment, still in the middle of a mixed collecting and text-accumulating phase (and side-tracked, I admit, by some specialties of modern British life, such as recurring incorrect energy bills), I feel that it is not helpful for anyone if I publicize what I haven’t yet properly thought out. Otherwise, I find it totally excusable, even commendable, to blog about snippets, gems, side-thoughts or meta-musings that would otherwise find no real place in one’s work.

Whether to admit that good research takes time (as I did above) is something that should be withheld from the critical eyes of potential search committees (and hence not be blogged about), as people try telling me, is another matter. I am writing blog posts in order to demonstrate how my particular branch of the trade works for me. This can only be a good thing for the community. I would have liked to have access to similar resources when I was studying. One all-too-often thinks that the problems one encounters are exclusively one’s own. They’re not.

One of the questions I came across in recent discussions is how one combines playing (of music; not with model trains) and research. I have briefly mentioned this topic before. On the face of it I seem to be not very good at this exercise. If I start a day with books, books it be all day long. It seems impossible to stop reading or writing at a given moment in order to practice. My mind tends to stay with what I’ve just done; to concentrate on trills, runs and polyphony in this mood invariably ends in a lengthy coffee break. Conversely, if I have started a day in the nicest and most relaxed way with some technical exercises at the keyboard, and moved on from there to studying repertoire, it seems such a shame to spoil the great start with writing or reading. Normally, I just keep playing until tired and that’s that for the day.

As a consequence, I do my work as far as ever possible in periods: collecting periods, writing periods, editing periods, harpsichord and fortepiano periods. It was reassuring to hear that some of my colleagues are struggling with getting themselves organized in much the same way.

In principle this splitting-up of activities works fine. But why is it that I, in the middle of a fortepiano period, unfailingly get an urge to look up Sweelinck, try some new Froberger, bathe in my favorite Forqueray pieces or spell out some never-tried Bach on my harpsichord, while a harpsichord deadline with Bach and Couperin always makes me want to try out a new set of Beethoven sonatas on the piano? Why do I, in the midst of revising an article, get stuck in a book about Aramis, a fancy and never-realized individual-cab transportation system once projected in the Paris area (actually a brilliant book: Bruno Latour, Aramis, The Love of Technology, translated by Catherine Porter, Harvard University Press, 1996)? Why does it happen that I, still in the middle of Aramis, spend a month making transcripts of lengthy passages from Beethoven’s conversation books?

A few years ago, tired of these mechanisms, I put my musical switching-around abilities to a test. I first played two concerts including a radio concert with brilliant flute and piano repertoire on my Broadwood piano, then half a week later, on my shallower and lighter Viennese piano, Beethoven’s first Cello Sonata, one set of Beethoven’s variations for piano and cello and some Schubert, and finally, another week after that, a harpsichord solo recital with a Bach Partita, a C.P.E. Bach sonata and a good fistful of Byrd and Couperin. People do this sort of stunts all the time, I told myself.

I was reasonably successful, but I also realized that such forced versatility is, at the moment of a performance, no artistic advantage in itself. The audience of one evening has no clue about what I have been doing in front of another audience on another day.  It may be good to know that one survives a few piled-up challenges, but it is totally okay to find the involved excitement and risk too high for true comfort. So I decided to extend the idea of periods to my programming whenever possible. Additionally, with deadlines in sight, I leave the piano keys alone if I have harpsichord music to play and vice-versa in spite of my irrational urge to do otherwise. Again, I found it reassuring that some colleagues here are dealing with the same phenomenon.

Research works a little differently. If there is a chance that Latour helps me with Beethoven’s conversations (as he seems to be doing at the moment), I better spend some time with Latour and Beethoven (and a few others) without worrying too much about the seeming non-linearity of my approach. Creative leaps (and even musicologists depend on these) do not happen along predictable paths. If we, as historians, want to move beyond some tedious re-statements of the obvious, we need to immerse ourselves in a lot of material simultaneously, preferably in a playful manner. When it comes to the final writing stage, of course, some of the fun will have to make place for an element of doggedly keeping doing what one has begun. But an initial playful approach will be a great help for this phase, which otherwise tends to confine the scholar to her or his desk in silent despair.

Of course, what never ought to happen is that one spends more than an hour writing blog posts like this while one ought to cook dinner. To organize one’s day is just not that easy.

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2 Responses to “performance versus research”

  1. Patricia Says:

    Great post, I have to say… Nice indeed to see other people struggles with similar battles.

  2. Patricia Says:

    I have to say how much I liked to read this post and how marvellously it fits with the situations I face in my (far modest) own work. Very nice reflection, indeed…

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