reorienting towards practice-based research

I’ve been thinking a lot about my PhD lately, and how to address the methodology problems VT pushed me on last time we met. I didn’t have a good answer at the time, and just recently as I’ve addressed a few waves of crisis I’ve realised that I’ve been holding myself back with the belief that by engaging in practice-based research would be selfish and not relevant to the broader field of improvisation studies. Liam pointed out that in fact that is very far from the truth, and that the best thing I can really hope for out of this is a strengthened conviction in my own practice and ideas around it.

How to actually go about integrating a more practice-led approach into my PhD is another matter. The idea of reading some of the literature around artistic practice as research makes my stomach turn a little. But I guess that’s going to be an important component. [Cue me churning through a bit of the library catalogue… this is thankfully something I will be unable to do on the island next week.] Okay, so I’ve just perused online a text called Perspectives on Artistic Research in Music which happens to be edited by everyone’s favourite white male academic, Robert Burke, along with Andrys Onsman. Disappointingly, the vast majority of the essays within are by men. Same with most of the titles available in general (and everyone has to refer back to Borgdorff). For sure, I’ll delve into these writings and try to engage with them. But it’s so frustrating to think that even here I might have to try to fit what I’m doing into such a heavily masc-dominated research framework… Of course I know there’s no pure break with patriarchal structures, of which the academy is a big one. Bleurgh, anyway.

Okay! More searching. This is a weird and silly blog post but whatever. Just came across another text, this one edited by Mine Doğantan – a Turkish academic and pianist … and not dude! I’ll be interested to read her take somewhat comparatively to Burke/Onsman, to interrogate my own prejudices and frustrations.

Lots to read and think about, even before I meet with LD tomorrow.


tuesday morning listening | aviva endean

My amazing colleague Aviva Endean has just released her debut solo album, cinder : ember : ashes, and I’ve spent the morning soaking in delicate multiphonics, beatings, hummings, distortions, and dronings. For an improvising solo clarinettist’s album, there’s great variety, with each track exploring a really different sounding technique or idea in microscopic definition. It’s a remarkably beautiful recording, and you can get a sense for it here:

Listening to this definitely adds weight to the idea that I should be working towards a solo album of my own, perhaps in the next year or so. Which means revisiting the monthlong solo improv challenge I waded into and then panic-swam out of in May. Perhaps I don’t need to be so restrictive – taking more liberties and not insisting on such a perfectionistic definition of the purpose and method. Such restriction and perfectionism might have worked well for VT, but it stirred up some old trauma, struggles, and anxieties for me.

Aviva’s work also reminds me of the importance of taking it slow, exploring sonorities and instrumental fault-lines. Stretching ideas only as far as they will go, and not needing to play continuously in one unified block. Some days this might happen, but others it really really won’t. And that’s okay!

not starting over but moving forward | monday evening listening

I had very good intentions at the beginning of this year for this blog, but then got properly sidetracked and focussed my energies elsewhere. I’ve done a good bit of writing – with two articles currently undergoing peer review, plus another CD review for Tempo, and a piece and an interview for Kupka’s. But if I’m honest, the lack of informal writing practice here has been letting me down. Not only my writing, but my thinking, the flow of ideas and also excitement about them. This is important, and I need to prioritise this time.

I’ve also been doing a little self-reflection, assisted by the tarot, that has emphasised the need to work with listening and analysis as well as working from texts. In fact, the cards I drew today were remarkably optimistic about this and what it could offer my project and I was surprised how clear and true that felt. But I’m still not sure what role recordings will play in my research. Previously I considered doing a kind of audio listening review, but I think that might get quite out of hand. I’m also quite certain that I don’t want to go down the path of comparing recordings made my women/trans/nb people to those made by men – I’ll just end up saying something like “see, they’re the same, especially because every improvisation recording is very different” and anyway I don’t want to play into the hands of utterly imbecilic sexism like this recent example.

So perhaps instead I’ll do what I can to go deeply into specific recordings and analyse them from the perspective of some of the theoretical frameworks I’m dealing with. The problem with this is that a lot of them are about conceptions of subjectivity, and I don’t want to go making claims about other musicians’ intentions and experiences. But I do want to go deeply into the music, and into the experience of listening to it (this is also musicking, a creative practice, after all).

Last week I was extraordinarily fortunate to get to work with Ros Bandt, as well as Vicki Hallett and Jem Savage of NEAL (New and Experimental Arts Lab), in Geelong as a spin off from our Rogue Three mini-tour. I’ve known of Ros’ work for such a long time, but never had the chance to meet her until now. It was exciting and super heartwarming to not only do so, but also play with her and chat over the course of an entire day in residence at the Courthouse Youth Arts gallery. Since then I’ve been listening to some more of her music – this is a little old, but so very good:

The textural layers of sounds are super immersive, definitely creating a resonant and somewhat alien underground environment. Earthed and otherworldly. I feel at once kind of at home in the vibrations, the sense of foundations with flexibility of tiny movement, and have a certain discomfort in the combinations of sounds, the eeriness they evoke.

This is not, strictly speaking, improvised music, but music processed and composed from improvised extracts. The liner notes to the CD this video is taken from show the graphic scores Bandt produced when composing the works in the studio.

tuesday morning listening | joëlle léandre & elisabeth harnik

I’ve been avoiding writing in this blog lately, after I slipped off the monthlong challenge I’d set for myself/V set for me. I think my practice did develop during the two or so weeks I did manage, and in an intensive way, so I’m hoping I can pull myself together and restart that work soon (today maybe…), but in the meantime life goes on and much is happening that is exciting and wonderful! I’m busy planning for my travel and interviews in Europe, and later this week is the Rogue Three album launch (finally! exciting!). Week before last I was in Melbourne, and played Make It Up Club with Miyama and Ryan, and presented at the AJIRN conference, which was well received. Plenty of other exciting work to be done, like working on Rebecca Saunders’ Bite for solo bass flute and maybe making an article out of the AJIRN presentation and submitting it for publication. And L and I are playing a set alongside Nicole on the weekend, then giving a presentation at BFU “in defence of difficult music” Wednesday week.

Anyway, here’s some great listening I was alerted to thanks to Elisabeth sharing a review in The Wire on fb. Shorter, more stylistically contained tracks – this is also how we approached recording for Rogue Three. Really fun stuff! I’m not sure how I’m going to work with recordings for my dissertation. Probably I think I’ll write a brief profile of a selection of artists, and include a description/brief analysis of some of their main recorded works. A kind of literature review, but done retrospectively to the philosophical work I’ve been developing, applying it to what I’m hearing. It would also be great to document certain performances that I attend. Need to think more on this.

day eleven | embracing uncertainty

In the second chapter of Sync or Swarm, David Borgo goes deep into the idea of uncertainty: exploring it, performing it, experiencing it, documenting it, and evaluating it. After my doubt-filled post yesterday, I decided today to embrace uncertainty, perhaps even in a quiet, unassuming way to celebrate it.

I was feeling in good tone-production shape, with richness in the lower notes and a singing quality to the higher ones, and doubtless that helped. I played around with scale shapes, runs and leaps, climbing and descending. Interval play was also key, jumping around/across/through registers, letting each pitch sound with clarity and precision of attack. Emerging multiphonics and non-standard fingerings, quarter tones and eighth tones thrown in for good measure. A little aeolian sound. Singing and playing and working on my pitch matching and anticipation. A little double and triple tonguing. Bit of tech practice intertwined in the music-making of the improvisation session. It wasn’t really a piece but it also wasn’t not a piece … it was one hour of play.

That’s not to say that there weren’t moments of boredom or frustration or technical insufficiencies. There definitely were. For some reason I had zero ability to circular breathe today – maybe that goes with the rich tone, my throat was too open or something. So I worked with that too. I just worked with whatever got thrown up and when nothing was really coming then I fabricated ideas or exercises. Thought experiments as well as technical ones and musical ones. I kind of let the wave of an hour of time just take me where it would a little bit.

I did get sidetracked for a moment, flipped through Arcana VI (the John Zorn edited collections of writings by musicians) and read the first two pages of Clare Chase writing on Density 21.5. There was something about her energy for that work, her description of encountering it in her teens thanks to her teacher John Fonville, and being slightly baffled but also drawn into the instrument in a way she hadn’t been before… it renewed my own energy for the flute in that moment. I often think to myself that I ought to learn that piece. Maybe I should revisit a few things like that (also in the lead-up to Darmstadt haha). Anyway, it was maybe only 2mins of getting distracted. Then I hooked myself back into my own playing.

When the alarm went off at the hour mark I had the desire to keep playing. Maybe not to keep improvising, but maybe to start working on something spelled out for me, to put my great sound to good use. I was already late and had to do my reading before BFU reading group so I didn’t dig out another score, but I kind of wish I had. It’s a rare but wonderful feeling for me, that desire to keep playing and working at this kind of richness. Hopefully it’s still there for me in the morning.

day ten | what am i doing here again?

This challenge is stirring up old and new insecurities. I’ve always had such a difficult relationship with practice. I get nervous when performing, like most people, but it’s practice that really does me in (and performance nerves for me are usually associated with lack of preparation … because practice gives me so much trouble).

One of the reasons I found myself so much more comfortable in free improvisation was that it changed my relationship with practice. I could just not practice some days and that was fine. I could just practice technique and a few little things like circular breathing, that have prescriptive steps to follow – much less confronting than having to try and fabricate something music-making off of a page or out of thin air. Is that my problem?

This challenge has left me wondering if I’ll ever be able to improvise alone. Or will I, if I have an audience, even if that audience is a microphone – something to play to? Am I practicing improvising or am I just improvising? It’s so unclear to me right now!

I think I started out just determined to improvise, not “practice”. But an hour every day, alone in a room, that does seem an awful lot like it might be practice. And maybe because of that I keep setting myself those mini tasks and limit point to come at, setting myself up for small and large failures. Is that my problem? Failing? Or task-ing?

But I also spend a lot of time not really engaging with what I’m doing and just farting around. I’m somewhat disinterested. Somewhat bored even. My energy drops. My focus dissipates. This kind of mucking around is supposed to be good for creativity, right? But it feels like cheating. Is cheating my problem? Or am I just way too judge-y?

So many questions and uncertainties. Again I am reminding myself to embrace the “queer art of failure”, to “stay with the trouble”. These are the ethics I am interested in. But they’re so much more fun when I’m doing them amongst others. Time alone with myself and my flute is so much more confronting.

day nine | back after the bleurghp

Missed two days. Sunday was the Marx conference, sucked up the whole day. And then yesterday was recovery – I got down on myself a bit and ended up bingeing Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Police show if you can believe it … anyway.

I did my hour early this afternoon, but then had to run into the city straight away to pick up a few things before the Nakba solidarity rally. Palestine is bleeding my heart right now. So incredibly awful. I’m not sure I have a lot of good reflections to write this far from the session.

I did have a moment of switching gears that was particularly good, where I tuned into the cacophony of practicing brass and the air conditioning and voices in the corridors and the distant sound of a flute flying through scales in the atrium and I found myself at ease in the moment with where I was and what I was sounding in amongst these other forces. It was relatively fleeting. But it was there and it felt so much more satisfying than the work of just pushing at techniques that I’d found myself doing before that. So I know that’s what I’ve got to keep returning to.

Tomorrow I’ll be doing my hour in the morning and at home before heading in to hear the new music ensemble concert at 1. Hopefully I’ll have some fresher reflections to get down then.