Visiting professor Neil Heyde: Artistic research is negotiation between protection and innovation

Visiting professor Neil Heyde
Photo: Royal Academy of Music

Neil Heyde from the Royal Academy of Music in London has been a Visiting Professor at the Sibelius Academy since January 2021. So far, he has been excited about what he has seen.

“What’s great about the doctoral projects here is that they’re really exploratory. The high artistic level is always at the centre of the work, but there is also the idea that this should be allied with experimentation. It is a great combination.

Heyde describes artistic research as recognizing the process of discovery that happens through artistry. It can mean a million different things – and it also sometimes requires a standing back. It’s the knowledge a researcher discovers through both the physical experience and conceptual experience of making music.

“It can be someone using knowledge that they could only have through their embodied professional experience of making performances, to ask musicological questions, but it has to be about that knowledge that you could only have through being an artist. Essentially, it’s about manipulating materials, and the research frame can help others understand what kinds of material manipulations we engage in.”

Heyde enjoys the opportunity to be able to offer an outside eye at the Sibelius Academy. He sees that one of his roles as a visiting professor is to help build collaborative relationships, to find points in common that can be developed.

The Sibelius Academy and the Royal Academy of Music are naturally global institutions, to where students will come from all over the world. Heyde brings up the question of “ownership” of certain musics. He sees ownership as something that we must invent and discover, not something we inherit. He thinks it is important to protect certain musical heritages, repertoires, traditions and legacies. This can’t be taken for granted in the 21st century.

“There’s a profusion of cultures around Western classical music that we can now really begin to tell as stories of identity. We must protect the centrality of some of the core music in our culture, but we must also acknowledge that that identity of these things is in flux. It’s constantly changing. Tradition is a living thing, and the tradition of Western classical music is now a global tradition, not a European one, not a German one – or Finnish or British. The balance is changing, and I think it’s going to be really exciting to watch that over the next decades. As musicians, we’re all playing a game of identifying with something that is other to ourselves.”

A researcher should dare to be a bit amateurish

Heyde reminds that each doctoral student must be met as an individual. A mentor should ask the right questions to help them find the answers themselves and be very careful not to try to define the research outcomes too early. A free mind is an asset to an artistic researcher.

“Yes, you need to be thinking about your aims and objectives. You need to think about how you control a project, so it is manageable and has its ‘edges’. But you need to find a way not to box yourself into any particular space too early. I want to make sure that we always keep in mind that the artistic work isn’t at all separated from the conceptual work. If they are, we must make a way of intertwining them.”

Heyde encourages researchers even to be a bit amateurish in how they do things – not to be frightened if you don’t quite exactly know where it goes.

“You should dare to go in five different directions at once; to collect material and attempt to categorize it. Eventually that material will give you a shape and you will find a way of turning it into something you can share with others.”

Shoutout to international collaboration and shared values

The Sibelius Academy and the Royal Academy of Music have a vivid research collaboration which has been going on for several years now with staff and students visiting in both directions – virtually during the pandemic, but physically before.

“Our collaboration has been wonderful because we share the core value of placing artistry at the centre of the research project. It’s also very important that we show and tell in public that we really value this kind of international collaboration. What we have witnessed through Brexit and COVID-19 is that internationality can’t be taken for granted anymore and we must work harder for it.”

Research should not be frightened by the unknown

For Heyde, courage in relation to research is about starting a project where you don’t know where it will take you and where you may have to wait till quite late to work out how to package or present it. Bold research goes bravely towards the unknown.

“And the students I’ve been working with here – they have that courage. Clearly this is an environment where they’ve been encouraged to work like that.”

Heyde really appreciates the egalitarian environment he has experienced at Uniarts Helsinki.

“It’s about respect and equality of opportunity. It’s about recognition that that we all have the same rights. That respect feels very present at the Sibelius Academy and I admire that. It’s present in many small things – even in the detail of how the students and staff communicate with one another. I enjoy seeing the respect the staff in the in the DocMus doctoral school have for all the students who are largely well-established professionals. Respect is absolutely critical to supporting experimentation.”