Clarity, Challenge and Change


In my post “The Sound of Supervision”, I spoke about my developing an EP of tracks to accompany a forthcoming book on mass supervision – Pervasive Punishment (McNeill, 2018). This work has been coming on apace and I wanted to share some of the context of the work and the process of developing the songs. As I do this, I’m thinking about documenting what Joanne Scott (2016) describes as the most important moments in the creative process when undertaking practice led research – those of clarity, challenge and change.  There’s a lot to talk about over 4 tracks so I might do this over a few posts, but this post I’m going to focus on the background to the development of the EP.

The first thing that was important to establish was the purpose of the creation of the tracks. This project was quite different than the other practice-led research projects I have been involved in thus far, in that it was based on academic research that had already been completed and written up (the book Pervasive Punishment, by Fergus McNeill). There was some wrestling with whether the EP would therefore become more of a knowledge exchange project than a practice-led research one, by which I mean that the function of the music would be to communicate some of the findings to an audience (perhaps a wider one?) in a different way. However, in my work I have always resisted the instrumentalisation of music – that is, the tendency to look at music primarily as a tool to be used, for example, to add emotional force (or indeed a bit of fun) to the communication of specific subjects, or as an add-on intended merely to attract a wider or non-academic audience. In many academic spheres in the age of ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’, this is always a danger.

In intending to avoid this danger, we decided that one of the primary aims of the creation of the EP would be to add to the rich variety of forms of exploration of the research questions in the book (which included data collection methods including formal quantitative and qualitative approaches, and analytical approaches including literature review, statistical analysis, personal reflection akin to auto-ethnography, visual sociology and ‘critical realist’ fiction writing). The music therefore should not explore direct, primary lived experience of supervision, but the wider understandings of pervasive punishment as discussed in the book – reflecting more deeply, aspects of what supervision feels like, sounds like, and what impact it has more widely on society or culture. The tracks could certainly help to convey what it feels like to experience supervision, or to allow readers of the book to engage more emotionally with the subject, however the aim here was more than that. It was also to ask: what does a creative and musical mind draw out from the collected information as its key points of interest (coming from a creative perspective the results will be different from any strictly analytical perspective); what does this sound like (and what has this sounded like in the past); where are the resonances within this and between this and other texts; what is missing from this exploration; how does music help us imagine differently? In my case, music is both the method by which I explore those questions and the means by which I communicate, express or embody the results.

One particular point of challenge in the creative process led to a moment of clarity around one such purpose in this context. Interestingly, this came when discussing cover art for the book and the EP with the illustrator. The intention was to have cover art that would work for both the book and the EP release. Understandably, the illustrator required conceptual starting points for her creative process – what was she illustrating? What were visual analogies for the content of the book? Where should she start in visually imagining such a vague notion as ‘pervasive punishment’ or ‘mass supervision’? Fergus began by giving her some of the very specific images that had been given by theorists over the years to try and describe key aspects of the experience of supervision. This included off-ramps, conveyor belts (Phelps), fields of landmines (Jay-Z), tight shells (Crewe), and paradoxical architecture (McNeill).

When the illustrator began developing images such as these however, it became clear that these images were just too directly or starkly illustrative to be very helpful in creating something that would work for cover art for music. In the end, after some back and forth, we decided that the visuals might have to wait until after the music was finished in order to respond directly to that. This exchange (as well as starting to sift through the research material and other sources in order to draw out resonant phrases, images or concepts for potential lyrical development) got me thinking about the nature of the types of images, metaphors, analogies or visual references that are made in theoretical literature.

Researchers are not trained in the generation of images in the way that artists are. The images that researchers (or pedagogues) use in developing, collating, understanding or illustrating their theories can be what songwriters would call cliched – very direct and often obvious references. As a matter of course in my artistic work, I begin by resisting or challenging cliche (which is inevitably the first thing that comes to mind when exploring a topic either lyrically or musically – these are, after all, the most oft-repeated cultural artefacts and therefore are brought to bear most readily). One of my initial moments of clarity therefore was to ask what those who are trained in the generation of effective images add to this work.

In their recently translated book Research-Creation in Music and the Arts, Sophie Stévance and Serge Lacasse argue that only generalized knowledge exists and that therefore, as unique and singular expressions of the artists’ worldview, artworks on their own do not constitute a form of knowledge. They believe that “the ideas contained within the artistic practice, as well as the results of that practice, need to be extracted, interpreted and compared to other interpretations in order to become knowledge” (2018, p.31) because, as Elkins (2009) states:

for the majority of artists, knowledge isn’t what art produces. Expression, yes.            Emotion, passion, aesthetic pleasure, meaning. But not usually knowledge…

As much as I am in agreement with much of what they are attempting to do in this book, in terms of distinguishing the difference between pure creation and what they term “research-creation”, given that every act of creation does not constitute research or contribute to knowledge per se, there is much within the means of their arguments that I take issue with. The idea that generalisability is a current and defining criteria in categorising music research is troubling to me for a number of reasons. As is their characterisation of music as purely being a singular, subjective expression of an artists’ emotion, passion and worldview.

To return to the initial quote above for example (where they state that music isn’t knowledge because it isn’t generalisable), it is my understanding that a key skill of a popular music songwriter, is to take an image or a concept and imagine exactly its generalisability. On any topic we ask ourselves – what is the human component of this? What will capture the imagination or heart or body of the largest number of people in order to allow them to connect to this? Sometimes this process involves taking what seems to be a general (cliched) image or subject and making it much more personal or specific-seeming. But the aim of this is not to make the idea more singular to the artist or more subjective, but to make it more relatable and effective (conversely, more generalisable). Part of the process of creating the EP here was doing just that – taking underlying research findings that have been given cliched images and exploring how these might be interpreted in a way that might make them more effective across a larger swathe of the population in generating knowledge of the subject at hand. This process may also work to interpret data in a way that takes in a larger proportion of the underlying subjects therefore making the result more generalisable in a different sense.

I will return to this process of taking general concepts (for example, Depth, Weight and Tightness) and bringing personal stories to them in order to reinvigorate their meaning and generate different forms of knowledge in my next post on the subject.



Elkins, J. (2005) “The three configurations of practice-based PhDs” Printed Project, No. 4: 7-19.

McNeill, F. (2018, in press) Pervasive Punishment. Emerald.

Scott, J. (2016) Intermedial Praxis and Practice As Research: ‘Doing-Thinking’ In Practice. Palgrave.

Stévance, S. & Lacasse, S. (2018) Research-Creation in Music and the Arts: Towards a Collaborative Interdiscipline. Routledge.


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