Scott McLaughlin Blog Post

University of Leeds, School of Music

Artist Website

University website

I’m a composer working with the physicality of sound, exploring the behaviours and agential possibilities of vibrating objects; which can be musical instruments, but also any other object that makes sound. The central idea in all of my composition since about 2010 has been that of ‘Material Indeterminacy’, surfing the contours of the indeterminate sonic behaviours of objects. I develop strategies for practice that inverts the standard musical paradigm of control. Traditionally, the performer bends the instrument to their will. In my model, the performer is an activator and supporter, providing energy for the instrument to do what its material ‘wants’. Composition becomes a way of contingently structuring forces in what Andrew Pickering [1] refers to as a ‘dance’ of human and material agencies.

In thinking of my practice as a way to carry out research—and disseminating it in a way that can be useful to others—I invoke a model of forking paths via Tim Ingold’s “wayfaring” [2] as a way of moving in reciprocal engagement with our environment; not as a passive passenger but active and situated. A key aspect of my research is the forking; not so much the paths themselves, but what happens along-the-way to afford each new direction. Sometimes (rarely…) we can describe these epiphanic moments with great clarity, but more often this is a near-invisible co-incidence of the forces and terrains through which our practice channels. We may not notice the fork until later, presenting as a conflict between current and previous versions. If we’re lucky, we’ve been tracing just enough of the debris of practice that we can recover some evidence; a change in environment, a previously unconsidered relation that suddenly fizzles with meaning. Something shifted, and we were in the right place to go with it.

The idea of Material Indeterminacy described above is not a path, it’s a distant beacon that drives some part of my curiosity. The beacon is never quite reached and never quite the same as the last time I thought about it, yet something stays the same. The idea drives practice, but I can only articulate it through the works that I make. Over time, I have found that the continual unfolding stream of this practice has pooled around basins of technique, ways of working in relation to specific families of vibrating objects. Below is simplified diagram of my the continuum of my research across ten years. The idea first took hold in woodwind instruments, then found ways to transform and carry into percussion, strings, and even the piano; which in 2010 I couldn’t even contemplate writing for since it seemed so distant from my interests. Pianos have not changed since 2010, the idea changed enough to open a way into pianos.

The research always unfolds this way. Working with the objects, exploring their behaviours under different conditions and in relation to the practice of musicians, and developing strategies for human agencies to recede and reveal material agencies. The practice unfolds and it crystalises into ‘pieces’, coherent snapshots of a relationship at a particular moment. Pieces have an identity of their own and can in some ways be separated from the continuum of research, but there is a tension in fitting all of the above to the REF. How to map a dynamic research continuum onto a static grid of outputs.

The core of my research is the idea of Material Indeterminacy. Everything springs from that idea in a circular and iterative manner: that is, everything continuously updates, expands, and enriches that idea. When trying to make my research reviewable, I first have to explain Material Indeterminacy. Since this in itself would fill a 300-word statement, I’ll include for each output a single-page supporting document about Material Indeterminacy: the same document for each output, sketching the network of ideas and other art-works to contextualise the idea. In each specific output I can address the research dimensions of the work—process/questions, the research insights, and research dissemination[3]— in relation to this supporting document.

While the idea of Material Indeterminacy drives the vast majority of my artistic output, the idea is not in itself a REF output. The output itself is most likely a musical score and recording. In my case the output will not make research dimensions clear, so I need a statement and possibly also supporting documentation: if I only submit the artefact, at best, reviewers have to assume generic research dimensions—which is unlikely to yield a high score for progressive research—at worst, they simply don’t know how the work addresses these questions. To ensure the continuing presence of my work’s research dimensions, and to make it reviewable in REF terms, I use the 300-word statement and specific additional supporting documentation to address the areas of process/insights/dissemination. The key here is to make a coherent explication of the research, concisely unpacking aspects that may not be obvious to even a subject specialist.

  • Research questions/process can be summarised—with respect to Material Indeterminacy document—as part of 300-word statement. I would also include concise supporting materials indicating key elements of process: annotated video/images/sketches showing materials and exemplars of transformations; explanation/walkthrough of key techniques, etc. (where not obvious in the output).
  • Methodologies and contexts are covered broadly by the Material Indeterminacy document, but key contexts for specifics outputs can be indicated in their 300-words.
  • Dissemination is tricky, and needs two axes:
    • (1) I need to distinguish between dissemination of the artefact itself (performances/recordings/score) and the larger package that includes explicit reference to the research (talks and papers, workshops);
    • (2) and demonstrate dissemination to the overlapping areas of academic researchers, professional stakeholders, and public. The research-specific parts can be summarised in the 300-word statement, but some kind of supporting diagram may also help with the bigger picture.
  • Insights can be demonstrated in the 300-word statement, focussing explicitly on how this specific output forks-off from the overall Material Indeterminacy research question.

[1] Pickering. Andrew. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science (University of Chicago Press, 1995).

[2] Ingold, Tim. Being Alive (London: Routledge, 2011).

[3] ref-2019_02-panel-criteria-and-working-methods, paragraph 266.

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