…Not a diary, but “a critical questioning of experiences”

(Cunliffe, 2016, p. 762).

Insights is a reflexive journal I have kept throughout the making of album KATALH3H and whilst writing Reimagining sample-based Hip Hop: Making records within records. It deconstructs, exposes and provides interpretations of the thinking, analysis and sonic motivations behind both the book and the album. It’s a place of fragility, conceptual pursuits, eureka moments. A few passages find their way into the book as ‘vignettes’ or practice-based ‘anecdotes’. But it’s a much larger patchwork of critical incidents I needed to record in text (during the creative and thinking journey), leading to the theoretical expositions in the book’s chapters and the expression of sonic aesthetics in the album’s beats. In this blog, I will be sharing these passages as posts, inviting discussion and providing hidden, personal perspectives behind the published work. Later posts will focus on revealing studio and production processes via additional media (audio, pictures and video), delving deeper into the sonic experiments behind the album’s sample-creation and end beats.

This first post is perhaps the most academic in style, as it records the methodological rationale behind the wider project’s design, attempting to relate the personal in my sample-based motivations to larger issues and phenomena affecting a worldwide beat-making scene. It illustrates the choice of Autoethnography as the preferred method for the undertaking (indeed, lending this blog its tone), and explains how the methodology facilitates, in turn, a reflexive interpretive paradigm (that will be mirrored in forthcoming posts).

Hermeneutic interpretation describes best the analysis of the studio experiments as fieldwork. This analysis takes place over multiple phases, not only textual. The first phase has been that of audio/sonic production (that of material for sampling). Although this indeed provides empirical material, in the form of artefacts facilitating further-phase analysis and interpretation (some of it textual), it is important to conceive of it as performative interpretation in its own right. This acknowledges the notion of construction of empirical data, already carrying pre-understandings and theoretical manifestations. The second phase consists of reflective journaling (this passage being an example), the production of which is a result – amongst other reflective writing on literature and theories – of aurally analysing the original audio produced (as well as the process of producing it, itself documented in extended audio-visual recordings). Reflective journaling therefore offers second-level interpretations and scans the sonic work for patterns, disruptions and epiphanies. However, the studio fieldwork here consists of both the construction of audio material for sampling and its subsequent integration into sample-based composition/production phases, thus facilitating yet another level of interpretation for the former sonic content (in the context of the latter sonic process). This, in turn, provides further ‘data’ for secondary, textual interpretation in the form of reflective journaling.

As such, a hermeneutic preoccupation describes the more auto/isolated aspects of the fieldwork (representative of the solo ethos of much bedroom, home- or project-studio beat-making production). But the methodology acknowledges the usefulness of a potential interplay between multiple interpretative levels, in order to facilitate reflexive interpretation (Alvesson and Scöldberg, 2017) – and progress from the reflective to reflexive – and to that effect it attempts the integration of pluralism through the adaptation of postmodern thought paradigms. Specifically, whatever “coherent frame of reference” has characterised the hermeneutic level “is then subjected to reinterpretation” inviting external perspectives and multiple voices (ibid., p. 191). These are facilitated through and consist of interviews with peers/experts (practitioners), and regular reviews of the previous level’s interpretations via exposure of findings at conference presentations and through formal article peer reviews.

This regular and constant bringing of the ongoing research in front of an audience, engaging with and promoting review, feedback and reinterpretation (as well as active participation in the case of musical collaborators) is one of the strategies by which the personal engages with the social in the autoethnographic process (further strategies relate to the audio outputs/artefacts themselves and will be discussed below). The study of literature, and both primary and secondary practitioner perspectives (through interviews, testimonials) is another strategy in bringing multiple voices to the study of the – aesthetic – phenomenon.

The focus on sonic production as both construction of empirical data and interpretation (itself taking place over multiple levels, first the production of content-for-sampling, later its integration into a sample-based process and context) is central to the methodology because of a dual rationale. On the one hand, it acknowledges a postmodern criticism over positivist, empirical self-assuredness in the limited ability of the text to represent (in this case, sonic) phenomena. The necessity for sonic construction as both commentary and output, in fact, characterises the structure of the whole project. As conductor/autoethnographer Bartleet (2009, p. 715) comments regarding appropriate formats for reflection:

Due to the musical nature of my project, my reflections were not always in text-based formats. I filmed my rehearsals and concerts and undertook interviews with colleagues and used sound recordings and photographic images to reflect on significant moments throughout my musical development.

At the same time, textual (hermeneutic) analysis is valuable as a way of offering another level (and medium) of interpretation, therefore enriching the analysis/findings and acknowledging the importance of (actually taking) an author stance or perspective (beyond entertaining methodological paradigm binaries and, in fact, consciously integrating opportunities for multiple levels of interpretation). Furthermore, the majority of research today is still communicated in the form of textual publications. Textual limitations withstanding, the sonic rationale behind the methodological choices here reflects the belief (and intention) that only the corresponding medium itself (sound) can be deployed to provide a comprehensive (re)presentation of a sonic phenomenon, and sufficiently ‘comment’ on the sonic aesthetic studied (albeit enriched and/or complicated by textual reflection). Furthermore, the autoethnographic fieldwork constituted by the studio experiments and ongoing sonic production, function as a ‘theatre of (re)construction’ allowing both the performance of a sonic narrative (enquiry) and the construction of (audio) ‘data’.

Although, autoethnography (AE) is a methodology that represents a paradigm shift predominantly explored and developed in the field of sociology, it can be effectively deployed in arts-based enquiry. The key is to perform a high degree of reflexive interpretation (strategies), which relate the personal – in creative practice – to the cultural/general, as in the case of a wider aesthetic phenomenon. In this, I have been inspired by and owe the foundation of this methodological mechanics to the philosophical rationale informing Alverson and Scholdberg’s (2017) reflexive interpretation meta-methodology. The authors argue for a multi-level prism of interpretation that utilises a range of philosophical perspectives, ensuring a reflexive ‘placing’ of the author’s/ethnographer’s narrative within a pluralistic context. This, they argue convincingly, avoids monolithic traps of singular interpretation (re)presented as ‘truth’ and places the author’s voice within a rich spectrum of interpretive possibilities.

A number of sociological autoethnographers – in various strands of AE – provide a range of conditions which ensure an autoethnographic mode of inquiry (or narrative) and can be used as criteria for (its) evaluation. These are congruent with Alverson and Scholdberg’s vision described above, although the social or cultural context argued for does not always explicitly include the study of aesthetic phenomena. The latter can be seen as an extension of the method into arts-based projects. 

Despite autoethnography’s underlying drive to avoid textual representation as a sole/driving hermeneutics, the lion’s share of autoethnographic work considering the arts or incorporating artistic paradigms into an enquiry does so from a – still – predominantly visual space.

In the autoethnographers’ pursuit of the evocative and performative in the text – something the text can learn a lot from painting and theatre for example – there is very little mention of sound or music, as perhaps the visual arts are closer to a textual representation, and the very temporary manifestation of feeling and knowledge in sonic arts fleets a textual reification. Ironically, as autoethnographers strive for the aesthetic in narrative writing, they still unwittingly express a social-scientist/textual approach to research. A tendency that to a sonic artist may seem positively progressive (and friendly to the arts), but – so far – much more applicable to visual artforms, rather than the more fleeting and inherently evocative nature of musical or sonic temporality. A further challenge – ironically to a meta level – is that a sonic AE utilising a highly evocative/performative medium by default, may necessitate a more analytic (second/third) level of interpretation textually to balance out the binary between generalisation and the personal.

As the investigation here finds itself within the structure/discipline of the musicology of record production, understandings informed by the field of sound engineering bring aesthetic-technical sonic binaries to the forefront. To help illustrate the point I will offer a metaphor. In a recent lecture to third year students on a Music Mixing and Mastering course I explained: Mixing (sound) is an artform with engineering in its name because it balances the aesthetic (as in architecture) with the technical (as in civil engineering). The end sonic structure has to both be pretty (or aggressive, or aesthetically relevant) as well as solid, with strong foundations (and this is not just a metaphorical ‘solid’, one of those mix terms freely borrowed from visual vocabulary, but a term describing essential technical mix characteristics that ensure an effective and translatable image/illusion for the sonic output – the mix or song).

MF DOOM’s first album Operation Doomsday is a multi-tiered autobiography composed through persona, samples, and lyrics.

Hess, 2006, p. 307

Alvesson, M. and Sköldberg, K. (2018) Reflexive methodology: New vistas for qualitative research. 3rd edn. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Bartleet, B.-L. (2009) ‘Behind the baton: Exploring autoethnographic writing in a musical context’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 38(6), pp. 713-733.

Cunliffe, A. L. (2016) ‘Republication of “On Becoming a Critically Reflexive Practitioner”’, Journal of Management Education, 40(6), pp. 747-768

Hess, M. (2005) ‘Metal faces, rap masks: Identity and resistance in Hip Hop’s persona artist’, Popular Music and Society, 28(3), pp. 297-311.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *