Practice as Research, Research as Practice, Practices of Research

The discussion of practice as research at today’s LCDS research group got me thinking about its relation to “traditional” academic research. In particular, this converged with a thought that echoed Judith Butler’s discussion of the place of philosophy in non-philosophical disciplines, explored in her Undoing Gender (2004). So, I thought I’d sketch out a couple of ideas.

Butler, in her chapter on ‘Can the “Other” of Philosophy Speak?’, suggests that philosophy transformed into something other in its influence beyond (what I will crudely paraphrase as) “philosophy proper” – that is, what happens in philosophy departments, what happens within the conventionalised boundaries of philosophy as an academic discipline conceived narrowly. She points out that some of the most productive and probing philosophical thinking happening is taking place within departments other to philosophy: within comparative literature departments, to cite one example. (I would add music departments to her list; these have added a great deal to philosophical thought – and not only about the aesthetics of music.) This other philosophy now doubles back onto its its presumed “source”, institutionalized philosophy; it is conceived of in relation and tension to it and, ultimately, renders the concept of philosophy as dialogic and polyvocal. The other persists in its problematization and destabilization of the presumed disciplinary norm: ‘Institutionalized philosophy has not been at one with itself for some time, if ever it was, and its life outside the borders of philosophy takes various forms. And yet, there is some way that each is haunted, if not stalked, by the other.’ (Butler, 2004, p. 242)

Does practice as research, I asked myself – in some sense at least – echo this other that is beginning to speak? Does it produce a notion of “research” that is not ‘at one with itself’? For me, someone who undertakes “traditional” academic research, I find this idea tantalising. I am cast in the position similar to that of the (disciplinarily conventional) philosopher to whom an other philosophy speaks; I am a researcher to whom other researches speak. Returning to the source, from which it formerly divided itself, this other research engages it dialectically. In so doing, in the attendance of practice as research to the notion of practice as such, it marks out that (“conventional”) research is itself a practice: research as practice. Put another way, by coming out of itself, into practice, it seems that practice as research could potentially change the model of academic research from which it originally grew, and from which it formally articulated itself in terms of oppositional difference. ‘Practice as research’ is hence not merely an additional way of doing research. A dialectical conception of research lets us consider if the very notion of research has been changed by a doubling that could destabilize and change the practice of research as such.

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Thoughts on ‘Sound Studies: Art, Experience, Politics’

10th July 2015 [final day of the conference]

Yesterday I attended the final day of the excellent conference, Sound Studies: Art, Experience, Politics, held at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge. (I couldn’t make the previous two days due to other work commitments.) I wanted to record some notes on what I found particularly productive about the presentations and the day in general.

As a general point, it’s worth mentioning that this was an interdisciplinary conference at its best. Interdisciplinarity was something that just seemed to “just happen”, instead of being – as is much more often the case – a fetishized ideal imagined as a cure-all to perceived intradisciplinary limitations; no one felt it worth mentioning or evoking how “interdisciplinary” they were being. The genuine disciplinary mix of delegates also contributed to a very open atmosphere for discussion. Those asking questions after papers actually seemed to want to hear the answers(!), to know more, or to contribute to the discussion of work in progress; there was, as far as I saw, no posturing by those seeking to sure-up their name or position within their own disciplinary area.

The first of four sessions included papers on sound and embodiment. In his paper, Professor John Levack Drever pointed to an important and central notion that underpins much of our thinking about sound: that sound studies, and sound design more broadly, tends to presume a normative or idealised listener. He introduced the term auraltypical (as comparable to neurotypical) to describe this listener; he argued that we need to recognise the “hearing needs” of those who do not fit this presumed universalised hearer. Dr Caleb Kelly then gave an excellent paper in which he explored work under development as part of his forthcoming book on Gallery Sound. He discussed a number of contrasting artworks in which gallery spaces, in their sonic capacities, were foreground as embodied spaces. Simply put, this was done through the silencing of the space or the overwhelming of the audience/listener through excess noise. Importantly, he moved a step further to consider what this said about art practices and their place within late twentieth-century and contemporary cultures – e.g. the experience of art as revelatory, pseudo-religious practice, or as entertainment, as commodification of “the experience”.

In the second session, Professor Karin Bijsterveld presented findings from ongoing work about the role of sound as means of study (as opposed to being the object of study) – the classic example would be the doctor using his or her stethoscope as diagnostic tool. She presented a typology of different listening strategies. She also showed how information/data has been undergone “sonification” (made into sound) in order to be understood or presented to new audiences. For me, however, there was a pressing question about the politics of different forms of sonifying, which could have been addressed more explicitly – although, to be fair, it was perhaps beyond the scope of this presentation. Scientific data can be presented as music. But this is a very specific – aesthetic – form of sonification; it is very different from the sonification of pulse on the ECG. For me, such aestheticizing projects of sonification also invite questions about the role of composer: the re-presentation of “objective” data as music seems to me at least as an attempt to withdraw the “subjective” aspect of composition from the compositional process – i.e. it refigures the composer as a filter for the data, and reduces their compositional “choices” to deciding the manner in which data is translated into sound. This aestheticizing sonification re-presents abstract data as a form of revelation: to be experienced “directly” through the imagined directness of music itself.

Professor Kate Lacey stepped in at the last moment to give a paper in place of a speaker who had unfortunately fallen ill. Lacey’s paper was simply excellent, in my opinion. She considered the ‘auditory capital’ associated with different modalities of listening and of making sound. (This “auditory capital” refigured Bourdieu’s “cultural capital”, for sonic practices.) Beside her central thesis, I was also struck by her observation about the politics of ‘giving a voice’ to some material, of making material sonically active while implicating a denigration of the passive. This act we see in the attempts ‘to haul mute subjects into the lively world of sound’. Unfortunately I didn’t have to time to ask how this idea sat in the context of broader contemporary debates about nonhuman materials and subjects; Lacey seemed to suggest that all forms of materials “speaking up” was a form of anthropomorphisation, of subjectifying them in some way. I am honestly not sure where I stand on this idea, but I do know that many would object to this.

In the third session, Dr J.R. Carpenter gave a lecture-performance about the ocean as a sonic space. Some aspects of her presentation were, I thought, very successful. What I liked in particular was her discussion of air and water figured as “in betweens” – as mediums that are themselves considered as intermediary spaces (she developed this idea from Aristotle). Dr Kate Galloway then presenting on projects broadcast on Canadian radio in the 70s. After this talk, I’d be very interested to hear in full some of the broadcasts that were discussed – in particular, a programme presented by R. Murray Schafer that engaged the listener directly, guiding them through the practice of new ways to listen.

Professor Steven Connor gave the keynote address, on ‘Acousmania’ [available on his website]. Focusing on and questioning the “discipline” of sound studies, Connor explored the idea of an imagined ‘cohering force’ behind different studies sound – he called this a fantasy. The most problematic aspect of this fantasy is the alleged assumption that sound and sonic culture are immediate, dynamic, and ‘alive’ (as a opposed to the static, dead, representationalism of visual culture). Sound is always secondary, he argued; when writing (e.g.) histories of sound we are in fact writing histories of the production of sound. I thought he presented a wonderful and engaging talk. His main thesis was made very effectively, although I did disagree with a few details of his argument. The point that sound is indexical or secondary to something other is a fair one. But I thought that this was at times a little overstated. Connor argued for instance that sound is always an epistemology rather than an ontology; it is always secondary to something else, and is a manner of knowing this something. There is no “is” in sound, he said. I asked a question about this (one which, to be honest, could have been better communated after a long day!): can’t epistemologies and ontologies be regarded as in some form of relationship – don’t ontologies get produced epistemologically, for instance? (We could go further down this line of questioning and ask why one couldn’t take a position on the ontology of sound as itself relational – i.e. a relational ontology….) What I was struck by was that despite the talk’s focus on the imagined immediacy of sound there was, as far as I could tell, no mention of the word mediation. Surely this term could let us effectively navigate this relationship between epistemology and ontology, between the production of sound and fantastical imaginings of “sound itself”? However, these points should be taken in the context of what was a thought-provoking and far-reaching presentation.

‘Legacies of the Immaterial in the Arts and Practice’ stream at London Conference in Critical Thought 2015

I’m running a stream for this year’s London Conference in Critical Thought. In the last couple of weeks the conference committee has made its selection from the many paper proposals received, and sent out the notices of acceptance. My stream, ‘Legacies of the Immaterial in the Arts and Practice’ called for papers that ‘ask[ed] what renewed interests in materiality mean for immateriality. In particular, [those that consider] how this issue is critically negotiated through artistic, everyday, and socio-cultural practices’ (quoting the CFP). Three interdisciplinary panels will make up the stream (I’ll update the finer details here once the presenters have all confirmed their attendance).  When organising these panels, I’ve made a conscious attempt to cut across assumed boundaries of disciplinarity, and of theory and practice:

  • The first session explores immateriality, labour, and artistic production. It will bring together those discussing and theorising these themes in socio-cultural fields, as well as practitioners who develop these themes in their own work.
  • The second session will engage with questions of representation. In particular, it will focus upon reading, writing, and producing critically diverse forms of representational practices. I’m sure that questions of mediation, medium, and material will surface here. Again, theorists and practitioners will present.
  • The final panel links closely with the second: it focuses upon language and signification. However, in this last panel, critical perspectives are offered that engage with critiques of materiality and the immaterial through linguistic and poetic practices.

It goes without saying that I’m very much looking forward to hearing the discussions that emerge from these sessions! I should also note that this year’s programme (again, finer details TBC before publication) includes a large number of sessions that explore aesthetic concerns and issues in the arts. I imagine that themes that emerge in my stream will spark connections and debates with many other topics to be discussed at LCCT 2015.

LCCT 2015 – Call for papers [deadline: 16th March]

The call for papers for the London Conference in Critical Thought 2015 has been released!

The CFP is a document made up of various thematic streams. Participants are invited to propose papers/presentations to a given stream, or to a ‘general stream’ (without theme).

I am coordinating a stream entitled ‘Legacies of the Immaterial in the Arts and Practice‘, addressing what renewed interests in materiality mean for the concept of immateriality (in the arts and socio-cultural practices). The full list of streams is as follows:

  • The Return of Actor Network Theory
  • Art and its Externalities
  • Bad Language, Wrong Signification
  • Eating as Encounter
  • Legacies of the Immaterial in the Arts and Practice
  • Interruptions
  • The Politics and Practice of “Just Making Things”
  • Music and Sound at Work
  • Re-thinking Political Violence, Memory and Law
  • The Digital 1: Noology and Technics: Algorithmic governmentality, automation and knowledge in the age of the digital economy
  • The Digital 2: ‘Questioning the Digital’: Critical Approaches to Digital Worlds
  • Theory Lessons: Theorizing the Classroom
  • Radical Transfeminism
  • Truthful Politics

Full details can be found on the London Critical website.

Music and Psychoanalysis study day

University of Liverpool, 13th November 2013

This week I presented a paper about music analysis and dream analysis at the excellent Music and Psychoanalysis study day. This event brought together a number of interesting speakers and delegates. There was a sense of a (re)emerging subdiscipline within musicology; the speakers and methodologies encountered were diverse nonetheless. We heard papers that referred to both popular music (and culture more widely) as well as to more traditional repertoires, and both theoretical and clinical work (Rachel Darnley-Smith’s excellent paper on music therapy). Some focused on artist-producers (Henry Zajaczkowski on Tchaikovsky), others the products/artworks, and still others on consumers and listeners.

Lacanian thinking is clearly making its mark within some sectors of musicology. The day ended with a roundtable discussion, the panellists being David Bard-Schwarz (University of North Texas), Bruno de Florence (ICONEA, London), Freya Jarman and Kenneth Smith (both University of Liverpool). All these panellists freely made reference to a host of Lacanian ideas. There was some excellent discussion from the floor with regard to the emergence of “Lacanian musicology”.

However, I shouldn’t give the impression that there was a unified agreement from the attendees on how and what psychoanalysis might bring to studies of music (or, conversely, of music to psychoanalysis). I’ve my own reservations about some (uses of) Lacanian concepts and critical frameworks, for instance. There are three immediate examples I’d like to put forward, some of which were discussed at the study day itself:

–      First, I’d advise caution regarding the privileging and deploying of particular concepts. For example, while the Lacanian concept of ‘The Real’ might be useful on occasion, it’s my impression that it sometimes seems too easy an explanation for the complexities of expression, anxiety and trauma that arise during some aesthetic experiences. (“Why do we feel this way?” – “Because it’s an encounter with the Real!”)

–      Second, the basic functioning and disfunctioning of subjectivity is, for Lacan, linguistic. I wouldn’t posit music in counterposition to language; instead, I’d say that elements of it tend towards the pseudo-linguistic. This tension within music is itself a site that is productive of meaning, or if not “meaning” in its linguistic sense, then of aesthetic significance. Hence, this is not to say that nothing can be said about music from such (Lacanian) perspectives, but it is to underline an awareness of our own methodologies and assumptions about subjects’/language’s (dis)functioning, which have been taken into them.

–      Third, and this is something Freya Jarman raised during the roundtable, we should be aware of the “doing” of subjectivities, not only their “being” in certain forms (Jarman raised this point in relation to Queer Theory and the politics of musicology). This connects with a larger question regarding psychoanalysis and music: should we be cautious about implying the ahistorical nature of subjectivity in certain forms of discussion, especially when we fall back on particular models of how subjectivity “operates”? Sometimes the positing of psychoanalytic frameworks for the discussion of musical subjectivities seems to gloss over the cultural and historical particularities of given situations; these frameworks sometimes seem to assume ahistorical bases and, accordingly, so do the bases of musical identities and aesthetic experiences. This concern is echoed in Judith Butler’s critique in Gender Trouble of Julia Kristeva’s thinking[1] – here I’m gesturing towards caution over the essentialising of “how subjectivity functions” and a new emphasis on performativity and the cultural and historical particularities of given musical and music-aesthetic discourses.


[1] Butler, Judith 2006: Gender Trouble, Abingdon: Routledge. See the section ‘The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva’, pp. 107-126.

A note on modernism and style

It is convenient to see musical modernism as a style, one that might be held beside the Baroque or Classicism. Its tell-tail signifiers give us bearings by which we might orient ourselves interpretively. They also allow us to categorise it as a movement or a concept and, indeed, to make it safe – to neutralise what Adorno and others identify as its “critical” qualities –  in so doing making this style something more-easily commodifiable alongside the Baroque or Classicism.

Modernism of course has outward hallmarks. But it is more than the sum total of these. Modernism encompasses acts of self-reflexion and sensitivity to the medium of one’s art, including style. To put this dialectically, this is to say that modernism is stylistic whilst finding style to be insufficient.

This insufficiency reveals itself, perhaps most prominently, in what many have called modernist works’ always “unreadable” remainder.  It would be trite to merely pass off this quality as itself a stylistic signifier of modernism; this isn’t just a word or symbol like any other but rather a destabilising influence on the unproblematic functioning of words, symbols, and conventionalised (conventionalising) practices. To reduce modernism’s self-reflexive attitude to merely one of its “signifiers” is to cover over ontological and experiential effectiveness (affectiveness) of this attitude – that is, its capacity to bring about changes in how we make sense of, interpret, and experience the world and our places in it.

Some modernists were themselves aware of the ossification of “New Music”, its becoming a determined self-identity as a set of signifiers. György Ligeti, for instance, when invited to talk at a 1965 congress on “form” in Darmstadt, took this opportunity to warn against the reification of New Music as a set of outward appearances. He noted that, throughout twentieth-century musical development, an ‘arsenal of types came together in due course, such as: aperiodic jumps to and fro in wide intervals, followed by sudden inertia and then a resumption of the jumping movements; unbroken, fixed layers of sound usually built up like clusters…[etc.]’.[1] At the same time, he also warned against the over-reliance on compositional systems that gave rise to similar sonic results: ‘Instead of the coherence-establishing systems themselves [i.e., traditional tonal schema], it is the same types [of sounds] resulting from different such systems that become the established thing.’[2] He practiced what he preached, at this time exploring new directions that broke from many “conventionalised” modernist sounds in works like Aventures (1962) and Nouvelles Aventures (1962-65).

In bringing up this question of modernism and style, I’m not thinking about reasserting an early-twentieth-century modernist mind-set of “modernism as vangardism”/”modernists as the vanguard”, as an always necessarily pushing of the sonic or aesthetic envelope. We’re past New = Modern: consider much late-twentieth century modernist music – I’m thinking here of the music of Ligeti’s late period (e.g. the Horn Trio), of Wolfgang Rihm (the Third String Quartet), Helmut Lachenmann (Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied), and others – that seeks to explore ways in  which the past plays a role in the present (of course, this concern isn’t limited to music of this period).

Style – and the reproduction and consumption of style – is a central aspect of our contemporary period, what Fredric Jameson calls late capitalism. Thus, I want to end by reflecting on, if only briefly, what the modernist style’s dialectical insufficiency means now. Reducing modernism – and indeed many other forms of music – to one style among many is no-doubt a convenient practice in a capitalistic culture that values commensurability, exchangeability. This is not to grossly write off semiotic modes of analysis as inherently capitalist.

Rather, in the spirit of self-reflexion, in saying this I hope to point toward a critical mind-set: one that considers why music is viewed stylistically and what happens when one takes outward appearances as modes of identification and interpretation. This is to consider the values implicit in practising different kinds of thinking and methodological actions. It is to attempt to resist the reinscription of dominant discourses – discourses capitulating with dominant ideological frameworks – in our thinking about modernist music; to resist, in the manner practised in modernism’s own dialectical self-problematisation of style, what has famously been called the cultural logic of late capitalism.[3]


[1] György Ligeti, “Form in der Neuen Musik”, trans. as “Form”, in Ruth Katz and Carl Dahlhaus (eds.), Contemplating Music: Source Readings in the Aesthetics of Music, vol. III (New Yrok, 1992), 790.

[2] Ligeti, 790.

Forthcoming Lachenmann article in Contemporary Music Review

I’ve just sent off the final version of my article for a forthcoming issue of Contemporary Music Review (vol. 32/5). Here’s the article abstract:

Building an Instrument, Building an Instrumentalist: Helmut Lachenmann’s Serynade

Abstract: In Helmut Lachenmann’s Serynade (1998, revised 2000), the solo piano is explored as a pianistic resource from which to build a new instrument and new experiential relationships to it. Drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of embodiment, I show that implicit to building instruments are encounters with wider aesthetic and historical questions – particularly of the relationships between the body and technology as they mutually mediate one-another. As such, Lachenmann’s exploration of pianistic technologies inherently engages with the handed-down embodied relationships that exist between player and instrument – pedagogy – both finding themselves modified and reconfigured in the moment of performance. Instrument and instrumentalist are rebuilt in relation to one-another.