Finding the Groove by Ed McKeon
My research is part-time. Part time, partitioned time, the relation of moments to a whole; and part time, about time – or rather timeliness. It’s also about a time of parts, a present ‘historical’ moment comprised of fragments that don’t fit together, don’t comprise a new whole – about an untimeliness. You see, I have time on my hands – actually, you don’t see (only the time on clocked hands), but feel time, measure it, sense its weight pressing (a gravitational effect time has when in both short and abundant supply).
When introducing myself as a PhD researcher, I developed the chirpy habit of describing it as the ‘canal boat’ model (slow and steady). Perhaps subconsciously I was reflecting on the relief I felt – both feigned and real – when I kidnapped myself (at the suggestion and instigation of Maya Verlaak) whilst producing a festival for Birmingham Conservatoire in 2014. The idea of following a steady course through serene scenery, dealing with occasional locks to move between levels of an argument, and stopping off occasionally at pubs marking the way was certainly attractive, and of course wouldn’t be without hard work for all my breezy metaphors. It might be like finding my groove, and sticking with it.
Nevertheless, it would offer a welcome change of time, a change in time in changing times. I’d worked in the offices of arts organisations for 15 years after my Masters degree, 9-5 (with evenings for events), Monday to Friday (and frequently weekends), 52 weeks a year (with holidays). When I went freelance to produce music projects, in 2009, my time became illegitimate unless it was productive, which usually means ‘earning’ or at least creating opportunities to earn. A job gives you a title, entitles you to (or earns) a certain respect in ‘polite society’, gives you a reason and presents you as reasonable. (It’s perhaps one of the reasons aristocrats need titles, so they can Lord it over the rest of society that their idle hands don’t require legitimation – they are the law.) A job accounts for you because your time is counted for.
I’d been aware of this difference before I left salaried employment, this dilemma for musicians and artists especially whose work cannot be valued by the time dedicated to it, whose activity generates TV programmes like ‘What do artists do all day?’, and which also makes them vulnerable in the ‘marketplace’. The asymmetry disturbed me: I was inviting artists to take risks that their practice demanded, but doing so from behind the bullet-proof protection of the monthly pay cheque and pension contribution. So after jumping, I set up a not-for-profit company with two friends, Third Ear Music, enabling me – as one of the Directors – to operate in camouflage, to look busy. It worked all too well, even for myself. Finding work wasn’t too difficult; finding work that paid, though, was an art. You learn that the phrases ‘time is money’ and ‘time is precious’ are not identical. It gives you the feeling of being ‘on call’ at all hours, that no time can be wasted. Each hour, and each moment of each hour, is freighted, like the experience of Christian Marclay’s The Clock.
The timing of my decision to go freelance could perhaps have been better, coming only a year after the banking crisis that was used to authorise the descent into ‘austerity’ economics. Much of my work is project based, and therefore dependent on project funding, on grants from funders and commitments from partners open to experimental music and arts, work that has no proven audience or identity because it doesn’t and cannot yet exist. I feel some satisfaction in having found a way to make this work – most of the time – and have been fortunate to be approached for some good ‘paying gigs’, like presenting several programmes on BBC Radio 3, and being Artistic Director of the British Composer Awards (2014-16). Yet one of the lessons that soon became clear was that no-one pays for the time, the imaginative and laboured time, involved in setting projects up to the point of achieving a workable economy. The time to research, to get to know the artists you’re working with, to listen to partners, to write funding applications and so much more – this is all a personal investment. As I teach my MA students at Goldsmiths, the goal is to learn how to keep this time as short and efficient as possible whilst avoiding closing down the creative risks taken. It’s not easy, and not getting any easier.
Project-based work is demanding, exciting, and always changing. Each concept is different, as are the working relationships, the budgets, the risks and the rewards. I love it. At the same time, projects always take the same form – the periods of dreaming and planning ‘in the abstract’, of making the details ‘concrete’, and of the events and their consequences. It’s a cycle that has its own rhythm. It reminded me of a story told by Robert Fink, about the “battle of the speeds”….
In the late 1940s, Columbia Records introduced the LP as a game-changer in the market for home listening, and in particular for classical music. With over 20’ on a side, whole movements – even whole symphonies – could be listened to without having constantly to ‘flip’ the pile of 78rpm discs that previously comprised a complete ‘work’. In response, RCA produced a more efficient ‘record changer’ for its improved 45rpm discs, machines that could play a stack of discs ordered on a central pole, marking only marginal disruptions. The corporate battle resulted in the compromise of the LP and 45rpm ‘single’, but also encouraged a new habit of repetitive listening, with equipment capable of playing the same record or similar records on repeat. Fink presents this as a key moment in the development of Easy Listening, of background music more broadly, and of the domestic hi-fi, as well as in the move towards minimalist music (especially when the music on the turntable was the newly fashionable discovery of mid-eighteenth century Barococo, with its chugging bass lines and dance forms).
Running project after project is a bit like putting a new record on the turntable, whilst also lining up the project after, and the project after that. It can begin to feel as though the machinery is running you (like the proverbial treadmill). It’s not surprising, perhaps, that practices of background and repetitive listening emerge along with the ‘new’ white collar factories, the office jobs that sustained generations, and that have become more precarious in large part due to the facility for home-working in an age of the personal computer and home office. I knew that I was not feeling alone in this when I read curator Barnaby Drabble’s proposal for working processes of ‘de-organisation’, of avoiding incorprating as a habit the working routines and practices of institutional labour, of playing to the same tunes of the same records even – or especially – as a freelance. I needed a different groove, at least as a supplement to project work.
One of the anecdotes that stayed with me, as I learned the ropes that I also had to weave, came from Slavoj Žižek. Responding to the banking and then broader economic crisis in 2008, he wrote one of his most substantial books, on Hegel and Lacan (Less Than Nothing). He made the joke that when the First World War broke out, Lenin didn’t immediately call for a revolution in Russia, but instead ‘went to Zurich to study Hegel’. To act, to act decisively and critically, meant first to stop, to stop acting, to stop acting as if ‘everything is normal’. This anecdote had kept returning, like the briefest ‘break’ between records being exchanged on the player. The opportunity to take time for research at BCU, funded by the AHRC through the Midlands 3 Cities DTP, came with perfect timing. I am so fortunate (and appreciative).
If only it were that simple! Research itself has a rhythm, some of which is baked in: the literature review, consideration of research methods, writing plans, reporting regimes…and the final stages I’ve yet to come. Some of it is personal: whether you work best in the morning, at night, at weekends, in the library, in the research centre, at home, and so on. There are various models recommended by different researchers – one involves training yourself for mental concentration, to become capable of unblinking focus for an intensive four-hour day, after which routine work can be done. Others are able to treat it like a 9-5.
For myself, I’ve learned that the brain processes for my project work and research are quite different. Projects require a total grasp of detail, with an oblique awareness of risks, and a readiness to move into Plan B, Plan C, or Plan D as required. It involves a kind of mental agility and lightness of movement, constantly moving into new space, absorbing information quickly and using it immediately. My research, by contrast, involves dwelling with one thought, one key idea for six years, thinking slowly, returning often to the same ground, sometimes to build foundations and sometimes to uncover more details.
It’s very similar to listening. Over the last several years, I’ve found it ever more difficult to listen to music whilst doing other things, treating it at least partially as background. I have to really attend to it, or not listen at all. John Cage, later in his life, said that he no longer listened to records or the radio, but preferred to find out about new music through live performances. I’m not quite as pure as Cage, though my attention to music is also now mostly through live events – though as I’ve been going to a hundred or more a year for the last 20 years, it’s become an ingrained habit in any case.
Between thinking fast and thinking slow, I’ve been learning how to fit the parts of my time together, how to find a rhythm or groove that allows me to progress my research whilst continuing to produce new projects, to teach, and to take my responsibilities as a parent of children (13 and 10). These also have rhythms, less in my control. The end of the school day signals the close of time for writing, and there’s ‘dad taxi’ for some activities. School holidays need planning and special arrangements. Family needs time, and has its rituals. I began to think of these ‘given’ parts of my day, those over which I have least control, in terms of spandrels, decorative features in architecture that render space redundant, that are structured by the architectural space around them. How could I make productive the time between child one and child two arriving home? What can I do on a Saturday, between taking one to football and getting the house straight?
I’ve been learning how to limit email and admin into these times and keeping more of the rest of the day clear, and have found a way that works for me of reading, noting, re-reading, and condensing notes so that I can follow even complex arguments through a fractured time. This way, I can focus more unbroken time on writing and on the focused thinking needed to hold my research together. If it’s a groove, it’s one that either involves spinning discs, or goes something like one of Christian Marclay’s ‘cut-up’ or ‘spliced’ records.
Of course, these are just micro-strategies, techniques to stay in the groove and to get to the end of the PhD without (the needle) getting stuck. Yet in another way, I realise that whilst my research involves an attachment to one idea over six years, this is but one period in what may be 60 years following the same questions. My research is my obsession; when I wasn’t paying attention, it chose me. Doing the PhD, then, has become a lesson in the importance of time, in skills of patience and discipline, waiting for ideas to follow, allowing concepts to take shape, feeding them with careful reading and nudging words onto the page. It’s as Nietzsche describes (in Daybreak) the practice of philology akin to a goldsmith’s art, this ‘connoisseurship of the word…has to apply purely nice, cautious work and attains nothing if it does not attain it lento.’
Rather than fitting the research around the noisy rhythms of other work and family, it’s more like feeding my research through the clockwork grids of life, savouring the difference, escaping the locked-in groove. This isn’t a ‘time out’ but a time apart, a time to think about time, being a party to time – and when the PhD is done, a time to party, perhaps. This feeling of time, on my hands, falling through fingers, pressing, floating, reminds me more of the groove of Marclay’s Record Without A Cover. It’s a record that’s not fixed, finished and complete as soon as it comes off the vinyl press, but is instead constantly changing, marked by the wear of the stylus, the accumulation of dust and fingerprints. I like to think it ages well.