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Postgrad [R]evolution: Supervision

Keeping the degree creative

Richard Vella

Richard Vella is a composer who has worked in a wide range of genres and media involving music. He is currently Adjunct Professor and Acting Head of Music and Sound within the Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology.

I mainly supervise PhD candidates in music or those using some interdisciplinary approach with music and sound. The supervisory process for a creative based research degree presents 2 areas for discussion. The first concerns the artist’s creative work; the second is the placement of the creative work within the research context. Too much attention to the latter can result in pseudo intellectualisation or misunderstanding of the creative work and the artist’s relationship to it.

There are 2 types of research students in creative practice, depending on their development as artists: early and advanced (mid career artists are usually too busy “making it happen” to consider a PhD). Early career artists are often concerned with the development of technique and see research as a viable career step. Advanced career artists come to postgraduate research for different reasons. In many situations the reason is consolidation. Often, they have exhausted all opportunities in their practice in Australia and are looking for a process to take them deeper into their work. Needless to say, continuity of employment as an artist in Australia can be quite difficult. Postgraduate research in creative practice can offer that continuity.

Mutual understanding

The research investigation must come from the practice. My supervisory approach necessitates an understanding of the artist’s creative process. This involves: (1) observing the idiosyncrasies of the candidate’s artistic practice; (2) identifying the salient features of that practice; (3) identifying hidden strengths, patterns and weaknesses; (4) addressing any technical issues that may be causing a hindrance; (5) problem solving by reviewing the candidate’s previous work, discussing other artists’ works, or developing a familiarity with existing works relevant to the enquiry. For some people these indicators are not necessary to research supervision. I consider all to be important. They lay the foundations for a viable research investigation and methodology. Sometimes, the candidate is totally aware of their practice and area of research investigation. While this makes the early stages of a PhD journey relatively easy, the representation of the work as a research enquiry still demands a lot of input and interrogation.

The right question

Once there is mutual understanding, it becomes possible to begin a research enquiry: some people call this the research question. The process of asking the wrong question at the wrong time can lead to misconceptions. For me, the issue is “when” and “what type of questioning begins the process?” The only question in the first part of the PhD process is: “how can the artist do something better?” Defining the research investigation is relatively easy once candidates are fully aware of their processes. It enables them to understand their context and how they got there. Nevertheless, the research process involves a continual series of questions resulting from the work until ultimately, an appropriate question is asked. Questions such as “what does the work mean?” or “how do I tell someone else what I am doing?” come later. These questions can be problematic due to the requirement for candidates to initially express their creative work as a research question and formally present the interrogation in a written language outside of the artist’s own creative language.

Show, tell & name

The symbolic representation of a creative work is the artist’s primary mode of communication. It can express subtlety, irony, contradiction, ambiguity, paradox, etc. While in some instances the candidate is able to clearly articulate in formal language aspects of a work, it is often counterproductive to initially expect the candidate to be equally articulate in their linguistic or literary skills. Reporting in many universities is text driven. Many candidates spend more time writing about their work than making it. Formally expressing these nuances through written text is another level of structured communication. For these reasons I ask the research candidates to constantly talk about or informally present aspects of their work. Informal communication permits experiment and play with language. This is the first step towards articulating a methodology and must always be discussed in the presence of the work. Through the spontaneity of talking, an interpretative model can be articulated without the candidate knowing what that model may become.

All this is part of the process of ‘naming’, an important step in creative development. Naming is any symbolic representation of the creative act in which that act is described in a medium outside of its own reality. For example, music notation is a visual representation of sonic events. This applies to the exegetical component, which places the creative work in context. It is often the case that candidates, when passionately saying what they want to do, are usually ‘naming’ what they have done. Accurate naming facilitates the next best course of action. If something is wrongly named, it may create misconceptions about the artist’s creative process.

The exegetical perspective

Once the idiosyncrasies of the candidate’s work are understood and both parties are agreed on the naming, the translation from a creative work to one within a research context involves: (1) extracting from the work criteria for evaluation; (2) relating the criteria to some worldview via some exegetical perspective; (3) applying the criteria to other contexts external to the candidate’s work. These steps are non-linear and can operate simultaneously. The criteria for the exegetical perspective are derived from the creative work. They form the basis for a singular or hybridised methodology and enable evaluation and discovery.

I use the term “exegetical perspective” because “exegesis” implies the presence of a written text separate from the creative work. This separation tends to emasculate the creative work of its own embedded knowledge as more importance is given to the reporting of the work within the exegesis. While it is relatively easy to write an exegesis separate from the creative work, one danger is that candidates can become disenfranchised from their own practice. The experience of the work is the knowledge gained from encountering, engaging with or observing events or actions. An exegetical perspective can be achieved through explanation and experience. If we are to argue that artistic work has its own embedded knowledge and is therefore research, then the explanatory dimension must be present within the experience of the work.

There are a variety of ways to experience an argument, articulate criteria or report a point of view. The exegetical perspective does not always have to be a written text because, like the creative work, it is an interpretation. Metaphor, analysis and criticism are some devices that explain difference and similarity. The exegetical perspective can also be another creative work by the artist that provides critical context. It can permeate the portfolio in a number of forms ranging from commentaries, analyses, critiques, intertextuality, deconstructed performance, etc. The rhetorical devices for investigation can be analogy (the more scientific approach), parodic, oppositional or discursive. Whether it is the complex intertwining of all components or a separately written exegesis, the research is the relationship between the creative work and the exegetical perspective.

A creative work is full of sensations, signs, ruptures, phenomena, ambiguities and contradictions. Their combination produces ‘meaningfulness.’ The task of the creative research candidate is to formulate an exegetical perspective, a lens that provides discovery and coherent understanding, yet at the same time embraces the creative work’s contradictions, anomalies and ambiguities. It is important to remember that the ‘making’ and the ‘writing about the making’ are not the same. They are separate. The supervisor’s role is to ensure the exegetical perspective is in dynamic relationship with the creative work and that experience, explanation and interpretation can also be included in the research reporting.

This article is an edited version of a paper originally presented for the Centre for Innovation Research and Commercialisation (CIRAC), Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology in 2004.

Richard Vella is a composer who has worked in a wide range of genres and media involving music. He is currently Adjunct Professor and Acting Head of Music and Sound within the Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 2

© Richard Vella; for permission to reproduce apply to

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