Week 10 The Composer as (Proud) Academic Impostor: Practice-Led Research and Epistemic Disobedience

A common challenge faced by composers (along with performers, playwrights, novelists, etc.) involved in academia is that of justifying their work as legitimate scientific investigation. A recent article by John Croft, claiming from its very title that “composition is not research”, has contributed to further complicate the issue, and has triggered an intense debate, with a plethora of compelling reactions from academic composers and practice-led researchers.

While many of these reactions have brilliantly succeeded in challenging Croft’s arguments and in reconfirming the legitimacy of composition as a research discipline, I would like to propose a slightly different interpretation of the forces involved: considering academia a locus of reproduction of national and global power discourses, concepts such as “research”, “scientific method”, or “contribution to knowledge” may reveal themselves as parameters of exclusion and control over the intellectual activities and productions of academics.

By briefly drawing on my work and personal experience as a researcher, I try to exemplify some ways and circumstances in which composers can be construed and treated as impostors within academia. Subsequently, while reconfirming my trust in Croft’s bona fide, I try to identify the motives behind a general trend towards the delegitimisation of composition as an academic activity.

I argue that practice-led research assumes the role of a counter-symbolic activity which challenges and disavows the institutional discourses of academia, in line with Walter Mignolo’s concept of epistemic disobedience, formulated within the field of decolonial theory. In addition, I resort to a number of case studies involving work by myself and by various other researchers-practitioners in order to reveal the performative and programmatic potential of practice-led research, and its propaedeutic function in the context of organising and accomplishing demonstrative (non-violent) action.

If the radicalism of creative art production, as recently suggested by Federico Reuben, is often only “imaginary”, it might be also true that it approximates effective activism more than “traditional” forms of research: for this very reason, I argue, the legitimacy of composition and other forms of practice-led research is anxiously and persistently scrutinised and questioned within academia.


Marcello Messina is a Sicilian composer and academic normally based in Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. He holds a PhD in composition from the University of Leeds (UK), and is professor colaborador at the Universidade Federal do Acre under the PNPD/CAPES post-doctoral scheme.

Currently, he is based at Macquarie University, Sydney, where he is acting as visiting scholar under the Endeavour Research Fellowship scheme. His music is published by MAP Editions, the University of York Music Press and Huddersfield Contemporary Records.

Updated:  26 April 2016/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications