As the summer drew to a close, the Academy was brimming with activity as it welcomed 72 performer–researchers from the UK, Ireland, mainland Europe (Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Netherlands, Latvia and Lithuania) and further afield (USA, Australia), for a captivating three-day festival of recitals, presentations and lectures showcasing the innovative research driving their professional performance careers.

The Doctors in Performance (DiP) conference has been held biennially since 2014, and the Academy is one of five arts institutions that rotate the role of host, alongside the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, Royal Irish Academy of Music and the Sibelius Academy.

Day 1 launched with warm welcomes from Principal Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Professor Neil Heyde and Dr Sarah Callis, chair of the Academy Organising Committee. It was remarked how extensively the field of artistic research has grown and become established as a recognised discipline since the first DiP conference in 2014. Pianist Bella Tang – an Academy doctoral student whose research focuses on how a historical legacy such as that of Dinu Lipatti can influence a performer’s own interpretation – performed Henri Dutilleux Choral et Variations. Neil Heyde mentioned the rich history of this research question, shown famously in Maurice Ravel’s veneration of Emmanuel Chabrier and Pablo Casals’s of Carlo Alfredo Piatti.

The afternoon’s presentations were spread across the three venues of the David Josefowitz and Angela Burgess Recital Halls and the Concert Room, with the discussions led by chairpersons from all the partner institutions. I was based in the Concert Room. A recurrent theme of this first afternoon was the artistic limitations we have to impose on the infinite creative possibilities we face. Vocal performer and composer Raminta Naujanytė-Bjelle demonstrated the gloves, non-tactile wearable controllers that have become a central instrument in her performances in indoor and outdoor venues of all sizes. The haunting vocal processing and incredible reactive electronics in her live demonstration revealed how she strives for organic lines and gestures as a guiding creative principle. Adriano Adewale Itauna told how he refined his own artistic practice by reducing his setup from a sprawling drum set to a single berimbau—a one-string musical ‘bow’ traditionally connected with capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art. His research removes the berimbau from this context to uncover striking new sounds and with the audience gathered in a circle, he gave a moving performance (with a little group singing), showing the way he draws on ideas of faith, vulnerability and a Congo-Bantu cosmogram to build a sense of community.

In the evening, everybody reconvened for the first keynote presentation, given by violinist Mieko Kanno. ‘Caring for the recent past’ reflected on how art can develop an ethical and interactive relationship with the past and strive to care ‘for’ the problems we are facing as a human race today rather than simply caring ‘about’ them. She referenced the significance of ‘kūki’, the ‘air’ in Japanese culture and how ‘reading the air’, alongside ‘curation’ of history and other approaches can hold the key to a reciprocal artistic relationship with our recent past. Woven into the presentation was her sensitive performance of Brian Ferneyhough’s Intermedio alla ciaccona, a piece with which she has a long history herself.

The day was rounded off with a Reception in the Forsyth Room. The afternoon’s presentations had revealed many shared areas of interest, and this was a welcome chance to deepen the conversations over drinks and canapés. Final-year Academy PhD candidate Lore Amenabar Larrañaga showcased one of the latest products of her research, a commission L’eaurelle by Veli Kujala, which she gave a thrilling performance of on her self-designed quarter-tone accordion.

Mieko’s keynote had introduced me to the Japanese concept of ‘kūki’, and ‘reading the air’ for the first time. Thursday – Day 2 – featured an exploration of another fundamental concept in Japanese culture: ‘ma’, translated as ‘silence’ or ‘gap’, which represents an orally transmitted, unquantifiable sense of timing. Ikuko Inoguchi showed how ‘ma’ is fundamental to the musical languages of Tōru Takemitsu and Toshio Hosokawa, and demonstrated this through contrasting performances of their Rain Tree Sketch and Etudes respectively, as well as making connections with composers outside of Japan. Another pianist, Gabriela Mayer referred to a comparable idea of the ‘speaking rest’ as one of the rhetorical figures crucial to the interpretation of 18th and 19th century music, which she examines in her new book, The Art of the Unspoken—the first in Performance Research Ireland’s new series of short monographs. Her intriguing overview of the book showed the significance rhetorical and dramatic elements can create in terms of meaning in this music in a way that reclaims the motivations of 18th and 19th century performers.

Composer-singer Francesco Venturi and flautist Laura Tranini presented two interesting perspectives on the human voice and physical embodiment. Francesco explained how metaphor and somatics underpin his approach to experimental performance practice and voice training, mentioning the need to disembody and reembody, which he captured strikingly in a metaphor of the Greek messenger (the vocalising body) and the encoded tattoo the messenger bears but does not yet understand (the art form). Laura’s presentation looked at the model of the human singing voice as one of the tools to enable flute players to reinforce the body–mind connection, challenging traditional flute pedagogy and serving as the basis for her forthcoming method which addresses finger technique, rhythmic integrity and emission awareness.

Two longer lecture–recitals also had the physical embodiment of an instrument and a musical tradition at their heart. Hardanger fiddle-player and composer Krishna Nagaraja gave a detailed tour of some of traditional Norwegian tunes and remarked that ‘the tune plays you eventually’. He explained how in his practice, composition is the meeting point for several of these internalised influences, which also encompass Indian music, and he demonstrated this in a performance of his Vandreslått (‘Roaming Tune’), which braided folk elements organically with shimmering string crossings (engaging the ‘magical halo of sound’ of the resonant strings), and polyrhythms that expand the tunes’ inherent rhythmic complexities. Just as Adriano had transformed the Concert Room into a more intimate space by bringing the audience into a circle, rolling out a large, decorated carpet had a similar effect for Pete Yelding’s lecture–recital. Seated at the centre, the sitar player, cellist and singer explained how his process of learning to ‘inhabit’ the instrument had enabled him to translate his cello playing technique to the sitar, as a pupil of the last surviving ustad in the Lucknow-Shahjahanpur Gharana lineage, and subsequently how he translated his body’s acquired experience of the sitar back to the cello. He gave beautiful music demonstrations of this, moving between cello and sitar and playing both seated on the floor.

Violinist Sofija Kirsanova opened her recital with a performance of Pēteris Vasks’s Little Summer Music with pianist Georgina Lewis. Vasks’s piece was written in 1985 – the year the Baltic Revolution began – and as such sits at the heart of Sofija’s research into Latvian violin music in the Revolution and post-Soviet transition period 1980-2000. She closed the recital with one of several new pieces she has commissioned relating to these turbulent decades, an evocative work Morning Mist by Ēriks Ešenvalds.

The day’s two remaining presentations focused on interesting examples of piano technology. Joyce Tang presented her research on the Duo Art piano rolls for player piano, which enjoyed a booming success in the first decades of the 20th century, allowing people to reproduce the performances of great pianists such as Myra Hess at home—as well as on the concert stage. Joyce’s research into the challenges of performing live alongside a pianist’s player-piano ghost is culminating in a concert series featuring musicians playing live in ensemble with real Duo Art recordings. Finally, Didzis Kalniņš presented his insights into the technological and artistic history of the piano’s sostenuto pedal, from its journey to the Steinway patent in 1875, and its employment by Liszt, Busoni, Messiaen, Ligeti and others. He gave an engaging performance of music by Lūcija Garūta that uses the sostenuto pedal to imitate the Latvian Kokle, and showed a video of his premiere performance of the newly-commissioned Surfacing by Rhona Clarke, which explores various ways of activating the harmonics of the sostenuti strings.

Thursday evening’s keynote presentation was given by the Academy’s own Daniel-Ben Pienaar, entitled ‘Early Music on the Piano: An Adventure’. Daniel-Ben delivered an insight into his ongoing recording project exploring early keyboard music from before JS Bach on the piano, which began with his recording of the complete keyboard works of Orlando Gibbons back in 2007 and incorporates The Long 17th Century and his 2020 William Byrd project. The principles he describes in his mission statement were immediately apparent from the sparkling music examples he shared, such as developing a personal response to period instrument playing styles and freely embracing non-period features (such as exploiting the full piano range) in a faithful manner that is sure to motivate other pianists to explore this repertoire. He discussed the different curatorial challenges in relation to this and his other projects, one of the sensitive solutions to which involved grouping pieces into made-up suites in a single key, and gave hints about his forthcoming Peter Philips recording. The Q&A session led to an animated discussion that continued as everybody headed up Marylebone Road for the conference dinner.

The final day’s presentations down in the Concert Room brought together performers closely engaged with historical performance practices. The morning began with two organists who presented research on music of the 17th century. Zsombor Tóth-Vajna gave a vivid account of how improvisation was the dominant practice in the organ music of Restoration England post-1660, and how seeing compositions from this period in their original context – as music that would be freely rearranged, juxtaposed, ornamented and otherwise creatively modified – is important in gaining a richer understanding of this repertoire. The strident cornett stop that became common on these post-Restoration organs was in fact developed abroad in the Liège principality—the focus of Luc Ponet’s research. Luc told the story of a mysterious manuscript found in Tongeren Castle back in 2003, which after a lengthy investigation process turned out to contain previously unknown arrangements of Magnificats by Orlandus Lassus that shed light on early 17th century interpretation and rhetoric in this significant cultural centre, where arguably the concept of basso continuo was born.

Victoria Hodgkinson then presented her research on the problems of the 20th-century Fach voice classifications being applied anachronistically in the casting of Handel’s operas in the past 100 years. By analysing performance reviews and other data she showed how a status quo has developed among performers and audiences, and demonstrated through gripping examples of her own performances how transcending these norms can result in unique and exciting interpretations. Conductor Nir Cohen-Shalit shared the fruits of his studies of 19th-century historical performance practice. Through his strategy of examining a wealth of original scores and parts used by orchestras in the 1800s (over 500 documents), he explained how he arrived at a historically-informed conducting approach centred on how a performance ‘could’ rather than ‘should’ go: flexible, risky, spontaneous, collaborative, experimental. He presented a rehearsal video of him conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 with Israel’s top chamber orchestra, and the results of this approach were striking, particularly in the expressive tempo changes.

Energised and inspired by three days of incredible artistic work – which I wish I could have seen all of – we all gathered for a closing roundtable discussion with the Doctors in Performance steering committee members: Sarah Callis (Academy), Markus Kuikka and Anu Lampela (Sibelius Academy), Denise Neary (Royal Irish Academy of Music) and Lina Navickaitė-Martinelli (Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre). Anu and Markus remarked how far practice research has developed since the first DiP conference in 2014, and praised the sense of agency amongst the new generation of performer–researchers. There was shared relief among the committee that the once never-ending discussions on ‘what is artistic research?’ seem to have ended because the substantial body of strong work now speaks for itself. They also made the first live announcement of the International Prize for Artistic Research, which will be awarded for the first time at the next DiP Festival Conference in 2025. The participants acknowledged the diversity of practices and of gender and race represented at the conference, and hoped the efforts to be ever more diverse would continue. It was also recognised that the Academy and other conservatoires are perfectly placed to forge these powerful bonds between performance and research, and that the increase in number of performer–researcher role models will hopefully inspire more and more performers to pursue artistic research and to ensure it remains relevant in today’s rapidly evolving musical landscape.

Congratulations and thanks to all the participants who travelled long distances to be able to share this opportunity, and to everyone who worked tirelessly in the organisation and running of it!

The next Doctors in Performance Festival Conference will take place in Helsinki at the Sibelius Academy, 3 to 5 September 2025, and the call for proposals will be announced in due course.

Main image: Keynote presentation by Daniel-Ben Pienaar ‘Early Music on the Piano: An Adventure’ Image by Matthew Schellhorn.

Person playing cello seated on a rug on the floor with a sitar
Pete Yelding (Bath Spa University) lecture–recital with cello and sitar. Image by James Batty