NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Finding the Grey Zone at The Orpheus Institute

In Australia we train artistic Higher Degree students in the creative arts – it is one of the things we do best … As part of this process, we sometimes work with critical theory, applying it to the making of creative works. The exegesis which underpins this process offers the chance to be both convergent and divergent at the same time. The Orpheus Institute in Ghent, Belgium offers a compelling example of an approach to research and post graduate study in music practice.

By Associate Professor Kim Cunio 

In Australia we train artistic Higher Degree students in the creative arts – it is one of the things we do best.  The overall quality of this training clearly demonstrates that “we creatives” are equal to our social science colleagues. As part of this process, we sometimes work with critical theory, applying it to the making of creative works. The exegesis which underpins this process offers the chance to be both convergent and divergent at the same time. 

The Orpheus Institute model imbricates/establishes theory as a cornerstone of music scholarship … It was originally established to work in “the grey zone” between universities, who offered musicology and music philosophy, and Conservatoires who provided higher instrument tuition.

The Orpheus Institute in Ghent, Belgium offers a compelling example of an approach to  research and post graduate study in music practice.  This unique model employs a system of immersion in scholarly tradition and critical examination of purpose, that sees an engagement with theory as a founding principle of an artistic investigation. This is in comparison to notions of theory being employed in direct response to the process of making art, which can result in an often reductive exegesis. The Orpheus Institute model imbricates/establishes theory as a cornerstone of music scholarship. 

Established in 1996, the Institute provides a location for around 30 artist-researchers providing seminars, study days, workshops, concerts, masterclasses and its own publication series. It was originally established to work in “the grey zone” between universities, who offered musicology and music philosophy, and Conservatoires who provided higher instrument tuition. The institute could be seen as unique in seeking to provide an environment to support high quality artistic research, while at the same time allowing artists to question their own artistic performance.

 I first encountered “the grey zone” on a research trip around 10 years ago. I met students enrolled in the docARTES program, a 4-year doctoral curriculum, delivered in collaboration with seven universities and conservatoires across Belgium and The Netherlands. I was fortunate to also meet faculty who were either employed by Orpheus or who had roles in a number of allied institutions. This visit, part of a wider European cultural examination allowed me to unpack concepts that I sometimes find troubling specifically, what is the cultural legacy of classical music and what is the role of an intercultural composer such as myself in such a tradition? 

Orpheus has worked in a concerted manner to define artistic practice research in all its idioms at a time when we in Australia were more concerned with simply making things. The result is a textual legacy and a compelling case study that we can draw on.

What inspired me about Orpheus was the chance to see a  training regime that is not rooted in individual institutions and their needs. In the discipline of music, the closest Australian institution is the National Academy of Music, which takes the best performance graduates from around the country  and trains them to post graduate level in a highly successful skills-based manner. The Orpheus Institute while partially sharing this approach, simultaneously braids that performance intensity with a deep theoretical engagement. Orpheus has worked in a concerted manner to define artistic practice research in all its idioms at a time when we in Australia were more concerned with simply making things. The result is a textual legacy and a compelling case study that we can draw on.

A number of Australian scholars have travelled to Orpheus to renew their practice. They have described this experience as both inspiring and confronting. Inspiring because of the depth of intellectual rigour and the commitment to not just find the easy answer to a research question; inspiring because it allows us the chance to read within European scholarly traditions with a trust that meaning will be made in the course of a detailed investigation. Yet is also confronting, because at times our educational experiences and approaches are so different. 

In Australia we are (generally) less concerned with notions of belonging to a school of theory and practice, than many of our European colleagues, we have an increasing intercultural cultural understanding, and many of us see that our pressing task is to address the systematic dispossession of our First Nations through the academic arts. Yet at the same time as we address the impacts of colonisation we seem to be fighting for our very survival, something that makes long term thinking increasingly difficult to engender.

Yet this is not to say Orpheus is a superior educational model in all ways. I feel that Australian academic artists are able to transmit creative practices between high art, popular idioms  and traditions with a sense of fearlessness that allows the “meaning” of an artistic work to be made in real time. This perhaps is the less the case in an institution that prefaces scholarly tradition.

One thing is clear however for those of us involved in postgraduate research and supervision, we owe it to ourselves to seek out institutions such as The Orpheus Institute to challenge and strengthen our knowledge of leading-edge approaches to artistic practice research.


A/Prof Kim Cunio, Head of the School of Music at the Australian National University (ANU), is an activist composer interested in old and new musics and the role of intercultural music in making sense of our larger world. A scholar, composer and performer, Kim embodies the skills of the artist, showing that writing and making art are part of the same paradigm of deep artistic exploration.

More from this issue

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