Learning Your Instrument:
As composers and sound artists, our sonic creations come to life through instruments—and not only ‘musical instruments’ in the conventional sense of the term.
Let us take at face value the dictionary definition of a musical instrument as “an object or device for producing musical sounds”. Behind every sound that we conjure are vast networks of objects and devices (both tangible and intangible) which enable the production of a particular sound to be the particular sound that it is—and which establish the sound as ‘musical’, and thus establish whatever cultural value might come along with it. Those networks shape how sound resonates. They are all part of the musical instrument.
What follows here is one method whereby you, dear reader, if you wish, might deepen your understanding of your instrument—of what makes your work work. Your work works because it is activated by a host of social, historical, political, cultural, and bodily dimensions. What are they, and why do they matter?
The form and content of the method is simply Socratic: ask yourself lots of questions. A starter kit of questions is below. They are modelled on a wonderful article by Joseph Dumit, professor at the University of California Davis, Writing the Implosion: Teaching the World One Thing at a Time. There, Dumit lays out his “Implosion Project”: a kind of ‘homework assignment’ of categorised questions one can pose about a specific object in order to “implode” the tangled encodings of “the world in the object and the object in the world”. Dumit’s ‘assignment’ in turn comes out of Donna Haraway’s indefatigably interrogative method for resisting “an everyday in which objects are mere parts of the world and it all makes a certain kind of sleepy sense”. Haraway insists: “one only sees at all through eyes that are themselves devices with histories of their own”. Hence, we might extrapolate that we only hear at all through ears that are themselves devices with histories of their own. The method I outline here is essentially an adaptation of Dumit’s ‘assignment’, tailored for taking as the object of ‘implosion’ the work and practice of a musician or sonic artist. The exercise is of course infinitely adaptable, and different questions can be generated to engage with different kinds of creative practice.
Being confronted with an onslaught of needling questions is admittedly daunting. I wouldn’t blame you if you find the exercise pedantic, or even at times boring. However, in my own experience, I have found the exercise of “implosion” to be, in the end, immensely energising artistically. This is especially the case whenever I find myself somehow creatively stuck or stagnant: for the exercise reveals what is hiding in plain sight, and once that is seen, one can start imagining other ways it could be. I have also found the clarity that this exercise can yield to be genuinely empowering; if frustrations about your practice or your field have been gnawing away at you, coming to a clear-eyed understanding of how things have come to be the way they are (it’s not just you!) might offer a new perspective on what is in your power to shift.
This is important because, historically, the effacement of music’s operative workings has served to normalise Eurological ways of doing things—and ignore or denigrate other ways. For musicians like me, brought up amidst Eurological ways (the university, classical music, European modernist aesthetics, etc.), accounting for what makes our work work is not a muscle we have generally been trained to flex. On the contrary, what proliferates in Eurological spaces are discourses of abstraction: conceptually tidy refuges from the messy, tangled materialities of “the world in the object”, and our own complicities and accountabilities in that world. Moreover, in Aotearoa especially, the eagerness to advocate for New Zealand’s cultural exceptionalism (this is an especially Pākehā thing) can often occlude the global, historical influences that shape how sound resonates in Aotearoa.
With that said, this exercise shouldn’t presuppose where or what result you will arrive at. An acute socio-political critique (of the kind Haraway & Dumit are angling for) might be one result—but it doesn’t have to be, nor is it the ‘ideal' result. An intensely personal reflection on one’s own work, sonic imagination, and what is actually going on at every step of one’s creative process has a real value. Of course, there are always political dimensions to this personal appraisal—but they will still be there whenever you might want to implode them too.
Some preliminary pointers—
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING: Choose a super-specific object to implode. I find it is much more productive to do this kind of analysis in reference to a very specific project and its very specific context. If you try to generalise about your practice and your work as a whole, it’s more likely that you will fall back on inherited narratives which—insofar as those narratives are often designed precisely to conceal the operative workings of things, or disguise their historical formations—may not adequately account for the operative workings of your own practice. So, identify a particular performance or presentation of your most recent project. (Recent is good because the little details—especially about process and how things were made—are more likely to be fresh in your mind.) After all, it’s in the specificity of details that the best opportunities for resistance and transformation take hold.
Don’t try to answer the questions all at once (that would be exhausting). Start with just one category—whichever seems most relevant to what you’ve been thinking about lately. You might come back to the other categories the next day, or next week, or even a year from now. In answering the questions, you will probably generate more questions. Great! Don’t forget them!
Try to keep digging until you hit something new. You’ll probably stir up many familiar ideas and observations: what Dumit describes as “all the stories you’ve learned to tell about the subject”. That’s all important to get out in the open, but try to keep digging until you hit upon an observation that is new to you. (Hint: fixate on one tiny detail, decision, or a single sound. Or: state the obvious; rephrase a metaphor in literal terms; rephrase the passive voice as active—locate the actor.)
Track your affective journey through the task. Taking another cue from Dumit’s Implosion Project, it’s valuable to “note your form of uncertainty as well”. If a question is difficult to answer, there’s probably a really interesting reason why. Contradictory observations are also a feature, not a bug. And take note of your emotional responses to the task. Do some of your observations make you excited? energised? purposeful? confused? proud? ashamed? sad? frustrated? angry? Those affects are all part of the answer.
This exercise is not about your aspirations. For an artist, aspirations are the easy part. Which is not to say they’re useless—but the hard part is the inevitably compromised work of fulfilling those aspirations. With few exceptions, these questions steer clear of asking you what you hope to achieve in your work, what you intend, or what comes next. Instead, this is a post-hoc analysis, inviting you to pin down exactly what went down, to trace outwards through historical time and through global networks. (Though your observations may well inform what comes next!)
On a very nuts-and-bolts level, what actual tasks did you carry out in the process of making this work?
What are the bodily dimensions of those tasks—i.e., what physical and mental faculties/abilities are required? How are those tasks shaped by the anatomical affordances and constraints of the human body?
To what extent are those tasks consonant or dissonant with the natural predilections and abilities of your own body and mind? How do you reconcile the dissonances?
To what extent are those tasks consonant or dissonant with prevailing social norms about what labour, productivity, the work day, etc., look like? How do you reconcile the dissonances?
What emotional responses do those tasks produce for you? How do those emotional responses influence the work you produce?
What aspects of those tasks are personalised vs. standardised? What are the forces shaping that standardisation?
What support did you require in terms of reproductive labour (i.e. the ‘work’ of keeping you alive and housed and happy and healthy so you could continue with your creative work)? Who supports you with this reproductive labour?
What forms of knowledge were required for you to make/do this work?
Where, how, and from whom did you acquire these knowledges?
Going back further genealogically, where and how did that knowledge originate, and how has it come to be imparted to you? What are the historical-political dimensions of those routes of knowledge transmission?
What practices and structures maintain and transfer that knowledge among groups of people?
How personalised vs. generic are those knowledges? i.e., what of your knowledge is yours and yours alone, and what do you share with other people (and who are they)?
What is the role of symbols, mythologies, and meta-narratives in sustaining those practices and structures?
What forms of knowledge were not required for you to make/do this work? What accounts and allows for that ignorance?
Which other people’s labour did this work employ? (Optional: repeat the “Labour” and “Knowledge” questions above for each of those people.)
What is the nature of your relationship with those people? How did you come to be in a relationship with them?
What hierarchies are implicit and/or explicit in your relationship to those people? How have those hierarchies come to be? How do those hierarchies shape your creative work?
How are those relationships shaped by prevailing cultural norms around social and professional interactions? How have those cultural norms shaped the creative work you made/did?
How have interpersonal miscommunications, misunderstandings, and conflicts shaped your creative work?
What was exchanged and extracted over the course of your relationship with those people?
What other non-human labour or intelligence does your creative work employ?
What material tools did making/doing this work require you (and anyone else involved) to use?
How did the tools you used shape the work that you made/did?
Who has access to those tools? What enables the tools’ accessibility or inaccessibility?
What are the commercial and labour dimensions of those tools—how are those tools produced? by whom? what material commodities does their production require? how do those labour and commodity markets shape geo-political realities?
Historically, what scientific, political, and social dimensions have shaped the development and production of those tools?
What are the most lucrative target markets for the commodified tools you use, and how do those commercial imperatives influence those tools and their functionality?
Where material tools are involved, what will happen to them when you no longer have a use for them?
What makes your work work (i.e., function)? What repertoires and traditions set the precedent for your work’s affective power?
How are the sounds in your work shaped by the manner in which you work? How are they defined and sculpted by your techniques, strategies, order of operations?
How do the sonic characteristics of your work affiliate you and your practice with particular musical genres/categories/communities/practices?
Is there a difference between how similar musical materials work in those precedents, and how it works in your work? What accounts for the difference?
What are the circumstantial similarities vs. differences between your own life and labour, and that of the people involved in those preceding genres/categories/communities/practices?
What sounds in your work do you really like and why do you like them?
What sounds would not have worked in your work? Why not?
In what context or situation did you share this creative work? Where did it happen? What was your work amidst?
Who was your audience? How did they come by your work?
What expectations did you anticipate your audience would have, and how did that shape the work you produced?
How homogeneous vs. heterogeneous was your audience? Why is that so?
What current political and social circumstances have influenced the work that you made/did, and the discourse you establish/ed around it?
How have aspects of your own biography and identity influenced the discourse that you, and other people, establish around your work?
What broader meta-narrative or mythological dimensions animate your creative work? How do those narrative or mythological dimensions connect your work with certain people, communities, or identities?
Where did the money to produce your work come from?
What is the economic capital value of the work you have made/done?
What is the cultural capital value of the work you have made/done? By what mechanisms can that cultural capital be transformed into economic capital?
How is that economic and/or cultural capital distributed among the people and parties involved in making the work? How does that distribution of capital relate to the distribution of labour?
In terms of either economic or cultural capital, what are the units of commodity your practice produces? How has this commodity-unit come to be formed?
On what other fields and industries is your field financially co-dependent? How does this co-dependency influence the creative work that is made?
What is the role of the gift economy in your creative work?
How did you come by the professional opportunity to present this work?
In your field(s), how is professional qualification/expertise evaluated and signalled? How did these professional imperatives shape the creative work that you made/did?
Who is most powerful in this professional field? What supports and enables their power?
How do narratives and dimensions of the nation-state impact the institutional operations of this field? How did they impact your own creative work?
What controversies animate and shape the field(s) you work in?
What futures are the most powerful agents in your field working to eventuate (tacitly or explicitly)? How does your own work contribute to that projected future (whether or not you intend for it to do so)?
What histories and realities are validated by the continuity of your field? What histories and realities are overlooked or excluded by that continuity?
What to do with all these answers, and the fractal blooming of ever more questions?
A few suggestions of the uses to which these observations might be put:
Making a piece of art exploring a particular observation, contradiction or double-bind that fascinates you.
Evaluating the accuracy of the language we use in discourse around our work, e.g. aesthetic terminology, names of organisations, the metaphors we fall back on, the things we include and the things we exclude.
Clarifying how we communicate about our work through artist statements, promotional materials, publications, in professional colloquia, informal conversations, etc.
Enriching our engagement with our colleagues’ work, by opening up the many dimensions it can attest to.
In teaching environments, keeping within view—for students and teachers alike—the politics of knowledge exchange.
Ngā mihi nui to Antonia Barnett-McIntosh and Samuel Holloway for their generous editorial support, and to Prof. Amy Cimini for her infallibly energising encouragement and for always knowing exactly the right trail of breadcrumbs to follow.
Celeste Oram is a composer who grew up Pākehā in Tāmaki Makaurau and now lives in Manhattan, New York with her partner Keir. She did undergraduate studies in music (among other things) at the University of Auckland and then a PhD in music composition at the University of California San Diego.