Reconciling research and commissioned work

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my MFA project and how to approach it. The topic has been built around two commissioned pieces, and since receiving feedback on my final recital – which boiled down to ‘needs to take more risks’ – I’ve been trying to balance in my mind the needs of the commissions – to create a satisfying work, suitable to the performer and his/her focus and musical interests while producing work that not only fits with my research questions, but actively experiments with the issues raised and leads me to a better understanding of what I’m trying to investigate.

It’s a tricky balance and I’m feeling that I need to do a LOT of research around the subject matter of these two compositions – on drama, text, poetry and stage design for the opera, and on Richard Long’s art practice, Dartmoor and modern song cycles in general for Crossing Dartmoor.

Last week for our postgraduate composition seminar, we were given an article to read which raises this very question. It’s titled Opus versus output,1 by Nicholas Till and investigates the approach to practice-based research taken by British educational institutions. One section in particular seemed of immediate relevance to my current conundrum:

‘Speaking personally as someone who has pursued both a professional artistic practice in theatre and practice as research within a university context I am very well aware of the difference between producing a professional piece of work (usually to commission) and producing a piece of work in which I have myself determined the questions and issues that I wish to address, and in which I am in control of the methodology for that research process… the bottom line is different, since with the former one has a responsibility to deliver an achieved piece of work to an audience rather than simply to gain new understanding or insights.’2

I get the impression that Till’s view is that the two can’t really co-exist because of conflicting goals; however, I think it should be possible. I think that at the very least, it should be possible to have elements of the work that can be experimental and testing out new ideas, while others are on more solid ground in order to realise that ‘achieved piece of work’. I haven’t yet quite worked out how I will do this, mind you – still at the very beginnings of this thought process, but I feel that it should be possible. I know I WANT it to be possible! Till puts forward the example of Jacopo Peri’s early opera Euridice as being ‘dry and, dare I say it, “academic”‘3 but that that work paved the way for Monteverdi’s Orfeo, ‘a passionate masterpiece that showed the true artistic potential of Peri’s cautious first steps’.4 Yes, sometimes the first exploration does end up being artistically uninteresting, but while I accept that this may be the result, I don’t feel that I need to limit myself to being a Peri rather than a Monteverdi. Now I just need to work out how to do that…

1, 2, 3, 4 Nicholas Till, ‘Opus versus output’, Times Higher Education, 7 March 2013. <> Accessed 30 September 2013

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