‘Making and Writing about Music’: Spotlight on Practice-led Research

Dr Sean Williams is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the Reid School of Music, University of Edinburgh. An active performer using live electronics, he is a founder member of Grey Area and the Monosynth Orchestra playing original compositions, improvisations and existing pieces by Stockhausen, Wolff, Subotnik, Ono and others. He has also performed with Stephen Deazley’s Music at the Brewhouse  and the Red Note Ensemble. Sound art pieces have been shown in Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee, and at ZKM in Karlsruhe. He also enjoys playing records whenever and wherever the opportunity arises, at home, in performance, in seminars, in the Nevada desert, on the radio… and has produced a weekly radio show called Voice On Record on Resonance FM.

As part of our Spotlight on Practice-led Research series, Sean gave us some insights on the ins and outs of undertaking a practice-based PhD. Looking mainly at the use of one particular type of repurposed technology – the stepped filter – his thesis followed the use of two such instruments in the music practice of Karlheinz Stockhausen and King Tubby.  


What was your initial motivation for undertaking a practice-led research degree?

A flippant answer would be that I wanted to continue both making and writing about music. I was, and still am, unwilling to define myself as only either a theorist or a practitioner. Music practice is probably more important to me, but I wanted a formal way of being able to express some of the ideas that I came across in my practice.


What were your research outputs?

I have written two book chapters based on case studies from my PhD; performed a number of concerts both of my own music and of historical works using historical electronic instruments; designed and built an unruly touch based noise synthesizer, several synthesizer modules, and a quadraphonic panning performance mixer. With the help of Aleks Kolkowski I have recorded two original Edison cylinders, and have given several conference papers and seminars. It’s perhaps unusual, but I consider each of these an “output”, even the construction of my own instruments.


What sort of understanding did this approach afford you that a purely written degree wouldn’t have done?

The practice is inseparable from the research, and the writing is a formalised part of the reflexive approach needed to assess the discoveries made in the practical phases which in turn, influences the design, and so on. So many details in the written output would have been impossible to have found out without the practice, and the practice would not have evolved to such an extent without teasing out ideas through the writing process.


How has this approach enriched your research?

It’s made me much more aware of historical narratives which can be found in techniques of practice, and has broadened my palette of tools and techniques considerably. I feel much more connected to a tradition of practice and don’t feel like I’m wasting time reinventing the wheel as I am now much better equipped to evaluate practices and devices from different periods.

It has also given me some great insights into the social and physical relationships with electronic music making practice from the 1950s onwards, and has brought me closer to some of my favourite musicians.


What sorts of assumptions are made about practice-led research?

I’m not sure really. Perhaps a useful assumption to make would be that the research should not be expected to stand up if either the practice or the written parts were removed. So it shouldn’t be 70:30 but as close to 50:50 as possible. A 70:30 thesis might just as well be one thing or the other without having to be both.


What’s the ratio of practice-based and written outputs?

At the University of Edinburgh it’s 50:50. In my case the written outputs absolutely rely on the practice for my historical work, and the practical outputs rely on the written research for my own compositions. As compositions the pieces included in my thesis would fall somewhat short if left to stand on their own merits, but they extend the written thesis in a way which couldn’t be done by simply writing more words.


What are the challenges of undertaking this kind of research?

Supervision can be tricky as you can probably safely guarantee that your supervisor won’t have practice-led experience of doing a practice-led PhD. Otherwise, a big challenge is to divide your labour so that you can get as close to 50:50 as possible. Although in practice it feels more like 70:70!


How do you go about sourcing literature for this kind of research?

Look in all the usual places, plus eBay and abebooks etc. for technical documents and talk to technicians as much as possible. Of course, literature isn’t necessarily the only or even the best source as it can be hard to document practice using the written word, so for my research it was absolutely vital to talk to people. In one case I built a model of an instrument so that I could get Rolf Gehlhaar to show me how he used to perform with it in the 1960s.


Did you have to undertake any specific training in preparation for your research (e.g. training in using certain methodologies)?

No, but I did find an excellent electronics engineer – Graham Hinton – who taught me everything I know about electronics. You have to be prepared to learn whatever language or discipline you need to be authoritative rather than speculative. In my case I’m looking at electronic instruments and their design and performance practice, so I felt I needed to be able to design and build them myself. My technical German is now reasonably good too after having to decipher so many Telefunken, Maihak, and Siemens datasheets.


Was there anything you didn’t know at the beginning that you wish you knew now?

LaTex – The document preparation system. But I picked it up half way through, so it worked out OK. Don’t even think about trying to write a thesis with Word. Oh, and get someone else to video and record your performances right from the start. If you try and document your own performances yourself you’ll do it really badly unless you’re superhuman, in which case you probably don’t need to be doing a PhD anyway.


As practice-led degrees are a relatively recent development, what sort of guidance have you needed/ received from your supervisor/institution?

Well, they are new, but academic practice is the same as it ever was, so the guidance is as relevant as ever. Structuring your ideas, scalability of practical work, starting to write in year one, familiarising yourself with theory but not getting too obsessed by it because it’ll fall out of favour/fashion eventually – all the usual stuff. Maybe the most significant advice I might share would be that unlike a straight Composition PhD, within a practice-led approach, failed experiments are possibly more valuable than successful ones as they can open up much more scope for reflection.


What are your plans for life after the PhD?

Um, more research, and more music. I’m in the middle of a 3 year Leverhulme post-doc researching a similar but wider area of electronic music performance practice, so I’m pursuing the practice-led research as far as possible. Ideally I’ll be able to create a course in electronic music performance, practice based partly on the techniques I’m finding out about, to give the historical context, and to allow students to build on the amazing work done since the 1950s.

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