Reflections on SAAR - Part 1

I spent August 12-18 on the island of Utøya, near Oslo, Norway for the Summer Academy of Artistic Research (SAAR). I was nervous about the week for many reasons, not least of which being isolated on the physical site of a national tragedy. The week was intense and challenging, and I would like take a couple of posts to digest and reflect on the events and experiences of the week.

The goal of SAAR is to bring together artistic researchers (fellows) and supervisors from the artistic doctoral programs of Sweden, Norway and Finland to discuss, critique and analyze current issues in each of the fellows’ research projects. The week consisted of various fellow-led sessions in large and small groups, to present and workshop various topics in many fields, from music to textiles, sound design, stenography, film, visual art and theater. Everyone present was an artistic researcher, but there were no two projects alike. There were five musicians total, all fellows, with five completely different projects and research methodologies. This presented a challenge I was not expecting - a tangible discomfort felt by many non-musician researchers to actively engage in discussion with us because they felt unequipped to fruitfully engage on the topic of music! I lost track of how many times I heard that week something along the lines of, “I am not sure how to help/respond to/answer/etc. you, because I know nothing about classical music” or “I know nothing about music, but could it be…” Of course I was not angry, by any means, just simply surprised. I actually really enjoy engaging with non musicians about my topic, because I believe in classical music’s, and contemporary music’s, universality. But I certainly a communicative and methodological divide between the musicians, and everyone else. This week, I was made acutely aware of the non-tangible, completely abstract nature of music, and especially the music I work with, which is devoid of images and text.

I had, in my typical manner, compiled a list of “current issues” in my research, all spurred on by the present state of my project: I am in the middle of a shift to focusing full-time on my doctoral studies after an extended period of nearly-full time orchestra work. My brain is completely stuck in grant-writing mode and I am beginning preparations for my next doctoral concert (April 2020) after finally setting location, date and program. The issues I imagined discussing all week had to do with how to get better about defining the methodology of my project, coming to terms with the compatibility of what I imagined were conflicting research objectives/methods - the performance part (artistic research) and the cultural studies/interviews/historical part (research research) - and, finally, addressing newly realized issues regarding the ethical scope of my project, i.e. the role of the experimental, non-notated, conceptual in contemporary music and my exclusion of such works in my performance program (thanks, Kyle Gann).

Unintentionally (believe me), the week readjusted my thinking in a couple of major ways. First, that I need to stop putting pressure on myself to constantly contextualize and consistently be “on message” in my research. My artistic research “is not a grant application”, a supervisor told me towards the end of the week. Rather than focusing on narrow objectives, I am going to start focusing and re-working my research questions. This will, I hope, encourage a greater flexibility in my project and and space for creativity. If, after all, I argue that the performance of contemporary music offers the classically-trained musician greater opportunities for creative growth and flexible music-making, why shouldn’t research of contemporary music do the same for the academic researcher?

Second, the long week focusing on my project without my instrument made me realize with shocking clarity how much performance, or playing, is an integral part of what I do, and who I am. Not only is practicing clarinet deeply ingrained in my day-to-day life, but for many years, practicing has also been my mechanism for processing and coping with periods of stress, anxiety, instability, etc. For me, practicing requires a type of focus that makes it impossible for me to think of other things, while simultaneously engaging my brain in new and different ways of hearing, analyzing, and problem solving. I thus inadvertently “solved” my recent distress over the compatibility of artistic and traditional research methods in my project. I realized that playing, performing, is as integral to the project as the interviews I host or the musicology texts I study. Structuring my research questions while keeping this in mind will be a goal moving forward.

Reflecting on the week as a whole reminds me of the first discussion group I led, on Wednesday, with a small group of four fellow and two supervisors. I hoped to engage in a discussion about how our background (cultural, national, religious, what have you) shapes the way we work as creative artists in our respective fields. This “topic” was inspired by two recent experiences. The first was the tour we took of Utøya the Monday we arrived with Jørgen Watne Frydnes. Jørgen was recruited 8 days after the July 22 attack to work on the “rebuilding” and memorializing efforts on the island. Thoughtfully, empathetically, and incredibly sensitively, Jørgen gave us about a two and a half hour tour around the island, explaining both the long national history and the more recent eight-year history of this place, showing us the newer and older landmarks and buildings on the island. While visiting the more personal memorial to the survivors of 7/22 on the south end of the island, I struck up a conversation with one of the Norwegian fellows. She was remarking on the prevalence of horrible tragedies every day, or something similar to that effect, and I responded that I thought that this particular “dealing” with a domestic, national tragedy on Utøya was incredibly unique, and how I was not sure that any similar process of healing and rebuilding had ever, or could ever, happen in the United States. She had not really thought about it that way, and really neither had I, until experiencing the care, patience and sensitivity that went into the rebuilding of this island. I am not an expert on national tragedies, but I landed on Utøya less than a week after two mass shootings by domestic terrorists in the United States killed 32 people, and I think there have been at least 11 domestic terror attacks in the US since 2011. Obviously the United States is a massive country, and each tragedy is absorbed uniquely by its own community, but this kind of national mourning and healing was unfamiliar to me. And it made me think about the cultural differences of different groups/societies/nations) of people, and how these differences manifest, in this case, in dealing with a national tragedy.

This Monday tour was unsurprisingly on my mind the entire week on Utøya, but I also came across some remarks in Music Downtown by Kyle Gann that kept me thinking about how much I am, all of us are, products of our culture and national background. And that even the artistic work we do is a reflection of this background. In a 1993 column, Gann wrote: “Jung believed in five instincts: hunger, sex, aggression, flight and creativity. Americans (especially Republicans) suppress creativity even more than sex. As a result we [Americans] live in a musically dysfunctional society” (Gann 83). Most of my group balked at the statement when I read it aloud, characterizing it as theatrical exaggeration, but as an American, I can understand where Gann is coming from. For example, what about artistic research as a field? Artistic research was conceived as an academic field in Northern Europe, Scandinavia, which I believe reflects more about how artists from this part of the world conceive the work that they do, in great contrast to cultural centers elsewhere. When I explain to my colleagues in the US what I am doing, they are intrigued, but also confused because to my knowledge, there exists no doctoral music artistic research programs in the United States. The curricula of American Doctoral of Musical Arts (DMA) degrees are very, very different from that of my Doctoral of Music degree at the Sibelius Academy. The way musicians define a doctoral degree in music, and all the expertise that a doctoral degree entails, is very different and reflect different cultural systems and values, even when the musics studied or practiced are quite similar.

Second, what about classical music as a genre? I think classical music performance in the United States, the orchestras and opera companies coast-to-coast, perform at the pinnacle of the classical music art form. But a different kind of classical music than that which exists in Finland. In the United States, I have experienced certain limitations in performance practice, which I have always viewed as a sort of “ceiling” when it comes to creativity and interpretation. I relished in this system, I never felt limited by what I could or could not do. I enjoyed the discipline and the rigorous training, but I was admittedly taught that performance, particularly for orchestra auditions, is about “maximizing” what one can do musically within a very defined framework of acceptable approach with respect to the core repertoire. Even in auditioning, this is very different than how classical music is performed in Finland. And even defining the classical music genre, there are great differences in how instrumentalists, musicologists, and critics define ‘classical’ music in Finland and the United States, with regards to contemporary music’s inclusion. That there exists a difference in the way contemporary music is performed and practiced in the United States than Finland demonstrates this.

While this particular discussion in my session did not exactly go where I intended, I at least wanted to lay out the thoughts here. Hindsight is 20/20, and if I had known the week would have been so intense, I would have taken more ample notes on a day-to-day basis! Ultimately, all the discussions in large and small group settings have bled a bit into one another, but I will use the next couple posts to digest some elements that have stuck with me. Part 2 will be an analysis and reflection on the second discussion session I led, which involved a listening experiment. Stay tuned…!


Lucy Abrams