6 min read

Notes From a Coffee Shop

Notes From a Coffee Shop

Hello and welcome to another dispatch from The K.N.R.U.

This week I am making a deliberate effort to push this project in a direction that is a little more honest/personal/transparent/rough around the edges.

The fact that I am somewhat bombastically framing what is supposed to be a simple blog/newsletter as a 'Research Unit' is a perfect example of the kinds of shields I tend to put up to make it easier for me to write or put music out into the world. I think there's other kinds of value in this kind of performatism, but I don't want to have to endlessly stage manage The K.N.R.U., or for each post to need to be 'in character'. And as much as I'd enjoy it, I do not really have the capacity for each and every post to be a major new music project or piece of weird noise software or whatever. So this week I am deferring the previously promised deep dive into the Coral Games music system in favour of something a little more blog-like. An example of some classic over-thinking and the vaguely-working-things-out that passes for my creative process.

This morning, I was reading the latest post over on Velcro City Tourist Board, which is about the act of note taking. And happily, I was sitting in a coffee shop with my notebook at the time. This is something I used to do a lot until about a decade ago, but drifted away from as more of my writing became computer-based. I made an effort on the last 65days tour to carve out some time again for notebook writing in coffee shops and found it immediately useful, so I am trying to stick to it.

And funnily enough, when skimming my recent note-taking I realised that a lot of what I wrote was a kind of meta-commentary on the act of note taking itself. Why I was doing it, what it was for, and so on. And most of the conclusions I was coming to are put more articulately in the aforementioned VCTB post.

An excerpt from something I wrote sitting in a cafe in Paris with my notebook during the recent(ish) 65daysofstatic tour:

In terms of 'output', the useful production here is not these words. It is me being a person who sat in a cafe and scribbled in this notebook. And so armed with this identity, I can continue to exist as the kind of person who sits in a cafe collecting their thoughts in their notebook... Writing is for the act of writing which is the act of forcing yourself to organise, reduce, quantise thoughts. It's a composition. Pattern-making.

This isn't meant as, I dunno, a humble-brag, showing off about being the kind of person who sits in a cafe scribbling in a notebook because I think that's a cool thing to do. Because it's not like I am writing anything particularly profound here. But also - it is a cool thing to do! I enjoy it and feel lucky that my life gives me the time to do things like this. And doing it in the first place helps reinforce the idea that I am somebody who can do this.

It feels very different to me than writing on a computer. When typing, I can almost keep up with my thoughts as I have them. When scribbling in a notebook, my hands are so much slower than my brain. It forces my thoughts to slow down and reveal themselves to me more clearly. Often, this strips away any illusion of profundity I thought they might have possessed. It is usefully humbling. And as the above excerpt and the aforementioned VCTB post are getting at - the act of doing this is not about actually making things anyway. It is about the process of doing it. Literally 'practice'.

Thinking about all this over coffee this morning brought to mind an article I read recently by Raven Leilani, so I re-read it to remind myself why. The full text is behind a subscribe-wall, but you can type any made-up email and get access to it. (Raven Leilani wrote Luster which is one of the best books I have read in recent years. It felt like the book was lightly electrocuting me the entire time I held it. Strong recommend.)

Anyway. The article is very good, although not quite what I remember it being. It is nominally about how to write about sex, but also, underneath that, gets into a more fundamental concept about daring to not know what you're doing. As the sub-heading reads: "Good sex writing embraces the moral difficulty of not knowing." I like this bit, from early on about what she describes as "the primal bedrock of artmaking":

My best teachers have made me alert to this intentionality, a way of meaning it without the immediate necessity of knowing what I mean, which for me comes much later, when the draft is finished and I haven't touched it for a while. Meaning it is fealty to the feeling, to making yourself available to embarrassment and the untidiness of discovery. Meaning it is joy, rage, spite. Meaning it is dangerous, because it is disharmonious with the costume many of us, for good reason, have developed to survive.

I like this a lot. I like the idea of being able to find ways to give myself permission to push away all these intellectual or distancing frameworks of music-making or music-thinking. I particularly like the easy inclusion of 'revisiting a draft and reverse engineering the meaning in it' as a perfectly acceptable way to think about/validate what you might have made. I feel like this has some good Walter Benjamin's Angel of History energy to it. We can't ever know what we're doing! We can only excavate meaning from the wreckage of our past as we're dragged into the future!

For years, 65daysofstatic would proudly describe our creative process as 'making it up as we go along'. And then in 2014 I started doing a practice-based PhD in music. I was convinced, or convinced myself, that actually we did know what we were doing, we just didn't necessarily have the language or theory to articulate our process to ourselves, but that was fine - there was actually considerable power in this 'not knowing'. The PhD was a kind of calculated risk in this sense: how much 'knowing' could I achieve without ruining the creative process for myself?

Well, I have been out the other side of that weird experiment since 2020, and whilst I learned a lot of things, I do not particularly miss it, apart from the focus it gave me, access to some excellent synthesisers and recording studios, and the ability to read some quite difficult books.

The idea of doing a practice-based research project is that you get to make stuff. So my thesis was a lot shorter than usual PhDs, but also I made several hours of music. I had a series of 'research questions' and then the 'answers' to those questions were the pieces of music or software or whatever I made to explore them. And this was fine as far as it went, but it still required me to be able to pose appropriate questions in the first place. I was still supposed to be able to articulate an idea ahead of or at least through doing the work. Not knowing why I was doing something wasn't really very useful in this context, even though it was - and is - vital to me in, y'know, actual life.

I don't want this to read as a blanket dismissal of academia. I am sure some people are great at this kind of research and in the end I did in fact manage to complete a PhD. And yes I did learn how to 'know' more things about my practice that I still find very valuable and yes, it did indeed also ruin parts of my creative process in ways I am still working out how to undo, or if I even can.

Broadly speaking, these days I value more than ever a holistic stumbling toward whatever fuzzy ideas interest me, without questioning why I am headed in this particular direction. Unfortunately (fortunately??) as this blog post probably demonstrates, I can only engage with this holistic stumbling dialectically, alongside chronically over-thinking and dissecting everything. There is no way to solve the contraditions between these approaches. The only hope is to synthesis some new complexity, a practice that can make space for both of them at once.

Hopefully this process of daring myself to write out these unfootnoted, unresearched, barely-edited thoughts and reckons about my work in a public setting will be a step in a useful direction.