:: Examining Performance

April fuel

Friday, April 1st, 2016

It’s April – so back to work. Needless to say, I didn’t get my first book draft done (my excuse being that I was clobbered by a virus which put me out of action for several weeks) but the government’s proposals to privatise the education system to better prepare children for the job-factories we used to call universities have at least kept me focused. I’ve even contemplated a Fahrenheit 451-type futuristic novel in which the Humanities are studied in secret by teenagers who’ve opted out of the compulsory South Korean-style music-for-profit boy-band creation courses.

On a more cheerful note, I had a great time in Helsinki as part of the exam board for the fourth of five Doctoral events at the Sibelius Academy.  The Sibelius Academy runs the only Doctoral programme I’ve come across which has cracked the ‘performance as research’ conundrum; it’s expensive, individually tailored to each student, with the candidate’s creativity treated with a professional seriousness that’s very heart-warming – ie nothing like anything available in the UK (apart from being expensive).  It was a very efficient trip – I arrived in time to check in  to my hotel, did the judgin’, went to bed and caught the 3.30 (am!) bus to the airport, arriving in Manchester in time for breakfast. The next day I headed to Seville (about the same distance in the opposite direction) for our first Amores Pasados gig of the year. After a rainy start it turned out to be T-shirt weather. We did lots of songs from the album and several pieces that we hadn’t performed before including two of E J Moeran’s ‘Songs of Springtime’. Moeran’s a hugely-underestimated composer (somewhat in the shadow of his friend Peter Warlock), and his lyrical, folk-like settings that wander between modality and added-note harmonies become magical lute-songs in the hands of Jacob Heringman.  There will be more new stuff in our York performance in June, including a Shakespeare sonnet from Tony Banks., and we’ve just heard that John Paul Jones will write us a new piece for the autumn.

I’m now off to Canada for performances of Peter-Anthony Togni’s Responsio in Halifax (19th) and Montreal (20th).  There’s a great review by Dean Frey of our Juno-nominated album (we didn’t win, sadly) here. My mum tells me she’s got lots of cousins (my 2nd cousins, presumably) in Montreal, one of whom was a professional golfer (sounds a bit unlikely!). If any of you are still around come and say hi.  I’m back in the UK in time for more danced Laude with Gavin Bryars in Winchester, then it’s on with the book for a couple of weeks before the Conductus gig in Cambridge. More details in a bit.


album cover


PhDs: the case for the Defence

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Viva vs defence

Whenever I’ve heard friends and colleagues talk about the European or American system of PhD Defence, they’ve often seemed to suggest that it’s close to a process of cruel and unusual punishment. The candidate (or Respondent) has to face an Opponent, who grills them on the thesis, usually in front of a panel of examiners who can also ask questions, and a public audience who can join in as well.  It may take a whole morning, in contrast  to the British viva voce system which is a chat between examiners and candidate in private that rarely lasts more than  a couple of hours.

Having now done both, I can report that the differences between the two systems are not as I imagined them to be. One of my fellow torturers in Sweden said he thought the British system was far more brutal as people often fail, whereas in the European system it’s very unusual for a candidate to fall at this final hurdle. He or she will have already have acquired the necessary credits, and the work will have been scrutinised by several authorities and already be published (and even on sale at the Defence). The Defence then becomes more a celebration of the work – a dialogue between Opponent and Respondent. In fact, Opponent isn’t really the right word (there’s probably something in Socrates that would give a less loaded idea). It’s still a big deal though, and celebratory parties are booked in advance on the assumption that there will indeed be something to celebrate.

The British system seems rather mean in comparison. My memories of examining are very mixed: I never encountered a student that wasn’t fully in command of their topic, which was more than could be said for some of my fellow examiners. You could always tell if one of the examiners hadn’t read the thesis properly by the length of their minor corrections list. On one occasion the internal examiner hadn’t even noticed that several footnotes were missing and he clearly had only a very superficial knowledge of the work. You couldn’t get away with  that in a public defence – which is as much a test of the examiner as the candidate. And in most British universities they only grudgingly award the degree – it’s almost always subject to minor corrections at best  (whereas in the European system all that stuff”s sorted in advance).  And in the case of major corrections  I’ve even known examiners change the rules and require students to make corrections that went directly contrary to the research findings and methodology, having completely failed to understand the research itself. Again, that would be impossible in a public Defence.

Both systems have their weaknesses of course,  and I can’t really comment on the deficiencies of the European system after only one experience (which was a remarkably successful event). But my  Scandinavian opposite numbers were very happy with their system, reckoning that it was fair to the candidate and a proper climax to the student’s research. I only had that feeling about fifty percent of the time with the English system. The one obvious weakness in the Scandinavian system is that by publishing the thesis in advance you tend to get a rather long list of adenda, and it misses the opportunity to reflect something of the ‘Defence’ itself. These are proper typeset publications, incidentally, not the rather home-made-looking creations that are UK PhD theses.


Performance as Research

I’ve always had a problem with the idea of performance as research. They don’t seem at all the same thing to me. One of the consequences of the octopus-like reach of education everywhere in the West has been the ‘academicisation’ of  performance – ie taking a subjective, creative activity and making it part of the ‘objective’ and disciplined academic curriculum. It’s fair enough for performance to be incorporated into the system somehow as that’s how most of us experience music, but it sits every uncomfortably with conventional academic forms of measurement. No one goes to a concert with  a list of ‘performance criteria’ in their head, and it’s not easy to estimate the research quotient in  performance of Schubert songs or Messiah. Was that a 63% Müllerlied or a 65? And what’s the difference? Doctoral studies are particularly at risk from the subjective/objective compromise, and most UK universities have some sort of system whereby a performance (or performances) is somehow justified by a research element. This is really performance and research, and very rarely performance as research. The creative act isn’t considered sufficiently ‘academic’ in itself – and in any case, how would you be able to measure it? Universities might become like art colleges (which produced some of the greatest and least academic musicians of the late 20th century, of course).


The PhD for which I was the Opponent at the University of Gothenburg was a genuine example of performance as research. It was an artwork in itself, with the necessary academic apparatus ingeniously incorporated into it in the form of dialogues with the sources and multiple layers of commentary. It took the form of a written document and a film, and the Defence was the ideal forum in which the complex concepts that formed the intellectual underpinning of the work could be examined. Not only was the dialogue between Opponent and Respondent a kind of performance in itself, but the questions of the examining board were also enlightening and supportive of the whole project. Most surprising (for me) were the questions from the audience. I found myself wondering where on earth you’d find such a high powered,  interested and informed audience back home. That’s without even beginning to imagine the whole thing happening in a foreign language.


So…if you’re a student thinking about doing a performance PhD in the UK, think about going to Europe. Think too about an environment where you meet fellow scholars and performers from all over the world who will open your eyes to things you’ve never thought of. And think about fees: in most EU countries there aren’t any…


The Academy of Music & Drama at the University of Gothenburg brings together a huge range of disciplines from music and theatre to photography and film, and their idea of the creative process and its relationship to academic study is a very sophisticated one. Elisabeth Belgrano’s thesis and film can be seen here.