some thoughts on research

These answers were in response to questions posed by composer Lauren Redhead as part of her series Three Questions for Composer-Researchers.

Can you briefly outline your research interests and their context in, or link with, your practice as a composer?

I think it’s important to make a distinction between the ‘research’ we do as composers when thinking about what we do and how we make connections between things and plan our work, and ‘Research’ as something which is perhaps a more formal articulation of these concerns. My research interests are relatively fluid and derived from the specific needs of a new line of thinking, piece, or situation I want to explore in my work. They are responsive in that respect, and might draw on a wide range of different contexts outside of music, normally as a model for my practice. I would contrast that with Research, which tends to revolve more around my academic situation. Here it is generally focused on a more explicitly bounded enquiry, such as into modularity or series, which is framed as a project. Such a project might include some musicological research (although I hesitate to use that term: I see myself more as a composer who writes occasionally), but is always linked to creative work. I tend to use both these approaches to investigate a topic, drawing on the work of others (creative work, written research) and trying to find connections with my own practice through that.

How does research inform your practice, and how does your practice inform your research?

I have to say I get a lot from formulating Research projects as they create a space to explore something which interests me for an extended period. I think this approach stems from the experience of doing a PhD in composition. Viewing my work in that way was incredibly positive and really allowed me to focus on the things that interested me. I think it gave me a very clearly defined purpose, at least for the duration of the project. But perhaps that’s just how I think. Perhaps I like to have that context for what I do as it gives me a space to work. So I think what I’m saying is that wherever possible I try not to make a distinction between my Research and practice. It’s about trying to combine research and Research if at all possible, as this seems to allow me to focus what I am doing more efficiently. From my point of view this has worked in that it has helped me reflect on what I do as a composer and also to think more broadly about current compositional thought.

What do you think practice, and composition in particular, has to offer the research contexts of universities? Do you think that this influences the way that you compose, document your work, or decide to create new works?

Well I think it can be problematic. There is a pressure to define all creative work as research in some form, even though this may not necessarily be the case. For many composers, that sense of enquiry is not the primary aim, and in fact runs counter to their intentions. For others, it is central to how they think. The problem is that higher education attaches value to the latter and not the former, to the detriment of both. My feeling is that we need to find a way to reward practitioners within an academic (or more specifically academic revenue generating) context for the work they do by drawing on a broader set of criteria for excellence. Of course it’s always possible to frame work so that there is some sense of research present, but this often feels like reverse engineering, and somewhat pointless. I guess I’m fortunate in that my interests as a composer in a university are broadly speaking research driven, but that may be because I’ve been conditioned by that environment – who knows? I just try to make things in a way which interests me and, by implication, hopefully others, with respect to the context I find myself in.

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