From Uncertainty Towards Fluency: My Doctoral Journey

By Dr Peter Knight

The relationship between academia and artistic practice is in flux, and in my view that's one of the reasons why the space in which they meet is an exciting place to be working. I undertook two postgraduate degrees in music both of which had an emphasis on practice-based approaches.

I completed a Masters of Music Performance at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2005 focusing on my experience of playing music and issues around optimal performance, and a Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) at Queensland Conservatorium in 2011. Each was transformative for me.

This interest stemmed from a desire to extend myself as an improviser, to open up new possibilities as a composer, and to also to create new possibilities as a collaborator. Many of my friends at the time were involved in contemporary theatre and dance, and I wanted to get involved . . .

My Doctorate dug deeper into my artistic process and the relationship between improvisation and composition and I focus, in these paragraphs, on this doctoral research.  At the time I enrolled, I had recently begun to get very interested in electronics. This interest stemmed from a desire to extend myself as an improviser, to open up new possibilities as a composer, and to also to create new possibilities as a collaborator. Many of my friends at the time were involved in contemporary theatre and dance, and I wanted to get involved in what they were doing.

I made a very conscious decision, when I began my DMA, to try to use it to move my practice forward; to create the space to try new ideas and to develop new modes of making music. I also wanted to take the time, as an early mid-career practitioner, to reflect upon, and make some conscious decisions about, where I was headed as an artist.  I believed that being more fluent across electroacoustic modes of music-making would open up these possibilities. I was right, and I now spend a good part of my time creating electronic and electroacoustic scores for theatre, dance, and film. 

I began with the following research questions: How do composition and improvisation intersect in my practice as composer and improvising trumpeter? How can laptop electronics broaden my music practice and how can I further integrate it into my practice? How can extended trumpet techniques and trumpet preparations broaden my practice? How do my cultural context and personal biography influence my practice? What does my cultural context reveal about my music? What does my music reveal about my cultural context?

These are perhaps the kinds of questions many musicians ask themselves instinctively. They are in part the kinds of questions that drive artistic practice. However, articulating and formalising them in an academic context was useful. It drove me to seek out artists and researchers who had tackled similar questions and it led me to a range of responses that in turn helped me develop a more focused path as a composer and performer.

My DMA research opened up the space for this development through the creation of two projects: A suite of solo works for trumpet and electronics, and a suite of works for sextet (trumpet/electronics, contra-bass clarinet, prepared piano, percussion, bass, and drum kit). The exegesis that describes the creation of these works reflected on their development and, through the integration of auto-ethnographic approaches, contextualised them both culturally and biographically.

I kept a journal during my DMA research and reading back on a 2010 entry seems to capture how my DMA contributed to my artistic thinking and practice:

And it's remarkable just how far my thinking and my practice has come . . . I have moved from uncertainty towards, not exactly its opposite, but at least towards a greater awareness of the strands of thinking, history and culture that shape my practice.

"I've been tracing back through the work that began nearly four years ago. Listening, reading, flicking through scores. And it's remarkable just how far my thinking and my practice has come in that time. Of course it is hard to be concise about the uncertainty I felt in the early stages of this project – much easier to write about things you know than about things you don't know. But I can say that during the course of this research I have moved from uncertainty towards, not exactly its opposite, but at least towards a greater awareness of the strands of thinking, history and culture that shape my practice.

This growth of awareness has taken unexpected twists and has coalesced in surprising ways but it has been a transformative process for me, and I feel like it has expressed itself in some worthwhile music. And surely it is in this symbiosis – existing between practice and reflection – that the value of this kind of work really resides, as well as in the sharing of the connections that may arise from it." (Peter Knight Journal entry 5/12/2010)

As this journal entry suggests, my artistic practice greatly benefitted from the time taken to reflect and to develop new skills in the context of doctoral studies. The creation of courses such as the DMA offered at the Queensland Conservatorium offer the possibility for artists to take the time and space to open up possibilities and to dig deep into ideas. They also give us the chance to record process and experience, and to add to a body of work that will, in time, help to describe for others what it is that we do.

 

Dr Peter Knight is a trumpet player, composer, and sound artist based in Melbourne. He is also the Artistic Director of the Australian Art Orchestra. His DMA research is available as an iBook via his website