Artist as Researcher: Toward music as a philosophy

A composer, music theorist, artist and philosopher John Cage considered music-making as a form of philosophy: a way to think about, observe, understand and be in this world. The purpose of writing music, according to him, was not about purposes in the first place but simply about sounds – or if necessary, “a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play…an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord” (Cage, 2004, p. 12). As a composer, sound artist and music producer – or simply as an artist who works with sound – I partially agree with Cage, seeing the purpose of making music primarily as that of intentional purposelessness, of a purposeless play, an affirmation of life. Because that is what sound and music and the process of working with them does to you: they seem to affirm life, and make you feel awake within the very life you are living. Unlike Cage, however, I have always been more interested in changing and contributing to the world than taking a Zen Buddhist approach favoured by Cage and letting the world “act of its own accord” (apart from a brief period of practising Zen Buddhism in my early adulthood). And because of this, my artistic work is often informed and inspired by the world and the society at large – their events, phenomena, subjects, potential – rather than by the practices and theories of music and sound art themselves; in drawing content and context from the world around and aiming the results equally at the general public and the disciplines of music and sound art, my work attempts to bring music and sound art outside their territories and into the other domains of life, into their challenges and solutions, blurring the lines between art and life.     

Over the years in my artistic practice I have come to observe how this purposeless play does produce a certain kind of knowledge and understanding that can be applied to the issues in the real world, the world outside music. It is not easily substantiated knowledge, however, but more akin to what philosopher Juha Varto refers to as “otherwise than knowing” in his foreword to the book Artistic Research Methodology: Narrative, Power and the Public by Mika Hannula, Juha Suoranta and Tere Vadén (2014); peripherical and ambiguous knowledge that is difficult to reduce and categorise into generalised representations of art and science, but which might be capable of addressing the crucial phenomena and properties in novel and future situations (Hannula, Suoranta, & Vadén, 2014). For example, when studying and pondering new economic models for a more equal and sustainable society, you might get inspired by the process, and start a new musical piece that imagines to be coming from that more equal and sustainable future; after a period of working on the music, you might realise that a previous conceptual block relating to the study has resolved itself, and that you understand certain complex issues in a broader and more dynamic way – as if the music had provided a more fundamental philosophical perspective on the research, an aesthetic, imaginative and emotional dimension to it. And this is just one example. In general, the practice of composing music and working creatively with sound seems to produce heightened perceptivity and sensitivity toward the world, a dynamic and more relative way of looking at things (as does probably any practice where you can operate between control and surrender, challenge and flow, and which you continue to find interesting, meaningful and immaterially rewarding). The abstract, dynamic and complex nature of sound enables what I think is one of the key functions and potentialities of music and art, that of creating spaces and experiences that allow us to imagine and “inhabit” possible worlds and futures (Jauhiainen, 2019). As Varto reflects on the thinking and discussion going on in art universities around the world, “art is seen as the ability to change the world, not by money or force, but by orientation, by radically transforming the ‘sensible’, or sensory, reality of the eye, ear, taste, touch and smell, which unavoidably results in a change in ideas, understanding and insight” (Hannula et al., 2014, foreword, p. x).

But how does one turn this artistic activity and research into a more rigorous and tangible practice that would benefit not just one’s own field but also the broader society; one that could become even a constructive and effective agent in the greater cultural and social progress? Since I have gradually come to regard my various interests, artistic and others, as forming one interdisciplinary practice rather than several separate disciplines and careers, this question has become both inspiring and troubling, stemming from my personal conviction that the arts could play a catalysing and constructive role in the development of the world, equal to politics and economics (one could always be wrong). In their book Artistic Research Methodology: Narrative, Power and the Public, Hannula, Suoranta and Vadén argue that there are three tasks ahead of artistic researchers: 1) they need to develop and perfect their own artistic craft, creativity and conceptual thinking by doing art and thinking (conceptualising) art by developing a personal vocabulary for speaking about art and its world; 2) they have to contribute to academia and thereby assist in constructing the not yet very strong academic communities around artistic research; and 3) they must communicate with practising artists and the larger public, performing what could be called “audience education” (2014, preface, p. xi). I completely agree with all three points. Using these as catalysts and guiding ideas, I will consider below some of the future possibilities of my work as a practising artist and researcher. Since my main medium continues to be music, through which I also approach my practice in sound art (e.g. presenting compositions as site-specific sound installations), my main perspective here will be that of someone working in the field of music more than sound art.

To my benefit, I have already been actively undertaking the three tasks mentioned to varying extents during my career: the past 25 years of making and conceptualising music – trying again, failing again, failing better – has enabled me to hone my craft and creative thinking to the point where I find myself occupying my own small interconnected territory (aesthetics and ideas) within the field of music; my master’s thesis has examined (and proposed a solution to) the difficulty of analysing, verbalising and presenting the complexity and its creative potential arising within an interdisciplinary artwork (see Jauhiainen, 2019); for few years now, I have been conducting a series of interviews with practising sound artists for digital and printed publications, in order to provide a constructive platform for the artists to reflect properly on their work as well as making their work and the practice of sound art more familiar to the larger public. But there is always more to be done, and naturally these three branches of my work continue expanding and diversifying. The great potential of artistic research, as Hannula et al. point out, comes from its ability to combine “some good features of research and some good features of art” (2014, p. 52), giving it a unique position among different research disciplines, a position not occupied by any other field of study: “artistic research can do stuff that other types of research cannot do, and stuff that art cannot do” (2014, p. 52).

But let us do some contextualising first. The problem in the field of music has tended to be that it does not really encourage artists to write about their work, to verbalise something that is traditionally appreciated for its non-verbal qualities[1]. Music is often regarded as an abstract artform existing outside the words and the concepts, and musical artists are primarily expected to just make music and to engage in the aforementioned Cagean idea of “purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play” (although it is worth noting that despite his assertion, Cage was a very prolific writer about music and sound). Verbalising and conceptualising one’s music is often seen as a potential threat to the sanctity of the music, a sign of the possible weakness in the work (which the artist is trying to conceal with words and concepts), or even regarded as pretentious, a view that seems to hark back to the classical idea of the artist as a passionate genius driven by their “divine” or some other unexplainable inspiration; in other words, an articulate, intellectual and polymathic artist cannot possibly be “authentic”, or at least not committed enough to their art (see dilettantism). This view has naturally been very pronounced in popular musics, which my work has largely gravitated toward, and which favours entertainment and escapism over education and research; to be coming from this more popular domain of music and presenting your artistic work as a serious research has brought with it its own problems of authority and credibility within academia, the art world and the music industry. On the other hand, the research within the more serious art music has tended to focus on the fields like musicology and ethnomusicology – and increasingly, especially in the newer forms of contemporary electronic music, on technology (which is understandable since music and technology have always formed an intertwined progress). And this is all fine; however, my own interest in music and its research has always been outside the purely academic and scientific treatment of the subject (e.g. musicology or acoustics), and my relationship to technology has mostly remained practical: it is a necessary background tool to realise one’s ideas, but hardly worth making it the focal point of one’s work. It remains thus disheartening to go through all the open calls for artworks, research projects and residencies for new music where the main criterion almost univocally is always some kind of technological application or innovation inherent in the work – why not a social, economic, political, or philosophical application or innovation for a change? A call for musical works to redesign the society, perhaps? As a result, I tend to find myself occupying a space between popular and serious music, between music and sound art, between science and art, between the academia and the world; between favoured research fields, art forms, discourses and musical genres, in short. However, this liminal space is also a liberating position to be in, a fertile and less explored ground for developing new ideas, concepts and works of art. As Hannula et al. argue, artistic research must have the freedom of choices, the ability to explore the methodological abundance available across the contemporary academic research (2014). Naturally, for the research to be in any way productive and meaningful, this freedom must also come along with responsibility and willingness to evaluate and contextualise one’s work in the broader history and research of one’s field (2014). In other words, despite the freedom of choices and methods available for the artist-researchers, not everything goes.

A crucial next step in the process of making one’s artistic research matter then, is to familiarise oneself with the research already done within one’s field as well as in adjoining fields, and to pay attention to the research being conducted in these fields (Hannula et al., 2014, p. 10). And not just once but repeatedly, with a long-term commitment. And this should be a collective effort, a peer-to-peer, a colleague-to-colleague exchange, therefore making the best use of what is already accessible and close to oneself; for “the most beneficial act for any research is not to try to reach out and get something from somewhere else but to stay with and within the positions and frames of one’s own practices” (Hannula et al., 2014, p.10). Although I would argue for more interdisciplinary approaches as well, thinking outside the discourses and paradigms of one’s field while participating in those of other, even seemingly disconnected fields, if necessary; and then introducing these “external” ideas back to your own field, to make it become stronger, more interconnected and diverse. In terms of such collective, creative and interdisciplinary activity, there is a rather beautiful concept called scenius, conceived by the composer Brian Eno, which means “the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene…communal form of the concept of the genius” (Kevin Kelly, June 10, 2008, para. 1); there are also several examples of such episodes of scenius happening in the history of art and science: e.g. Paris in the 1920s, New York in the 1970s, Building 20 at MIT, Black Mountain College, the Apollo program, the Silicon Valley now. And it is this kind of “scenius” situation that I would like to see happening more, both within my own field and between my field and others: more collective and interdisciplinary action and activity, research, discussions, debates, experimentation, feedback, and practical and conceptual projects. It is also my intention as an artist researcher to continue building such connections that would enable this kind of dynamic culture and world-building – perhaps not on the scale of a larger scenius like that of the Apollo program, but on a local and global community level certainly. Of course, the democratisation of experiences, knowledge and disciplines, and the methodological abundance that this kind of communal, interdisciplinary practice would enable, should not mean a lack of focus for the research activity, a condition where “anything goes” (Feyerabend, 2010, as cited in Hannula et al., 2014, p. 5). On the contrary, focus, commitment, evaluation, responsibility and contextualising remain essential for any interdisciplinary project. And what Feyerabend actually means with this slogan is that “at the start of the process, there must be no limitations on where the process might take us…that things must stay open and potential” (Hannula et al., 2014, p. 5). In our fast-changing complex world, this kind of open-ended, heterogeneous and experimental research activity and methodology might be best suited for addressing the complex and ambiguous problems facing us; such methodology forms also the core of my own artistic research.            

Alongside the continuing exploration of music and sound, another area where my research and its processes and methods will increasingly be taking place from now on is that of verbalisation, especially writing. The process of writing, like that of making music, is itself a way of thinking, understanding, of becoming – a way of doing research. This writing will consist of academic texts, but mostly of more creative and philosophical essays, articles, texts accompanying and analysing my musical works as well as those of others. As Hannula et al. also point out, there are limits to verbalisation, because different media have different affordances for expression, and when we transpose a non-verbal sensory experience into written language, we get a reinterpretation (2014, p. 27). It is for this reason that I find the creative and philosophical approach to writing more dynamic and meaningful, compared with the academic (or should I say scientific) approach: it is capable of capturing the complexity, liminality and ambiguity immanent in the phenomena of music and sound better than the more representational models of science. It will still fail in this attempt, of course, but it is precisely this difference between writing and music that makes the music-text combination a powerful and interesting research tool for generating new concepts and understanding. For example, in my master’s thesis I analysed a site-specific environmental sound installation that I had created for a public park in Belgium; the theoretical framework used was that of the philosophical concept of becoming (from Deleuze), and the resulting text, which tried to capture the actual nature of the work, became a novel ontological proposition inspired by the abstract music; similarly, the original sound installation evolved into a whole new assemblage of different concepts and a future project through this process of writing. Furthermore, this process of writing about one’s work and research should not be easy and self-absorbed, “an unproblematic mirror of their [artists’] outer and inner reality” (Hannula et al., 2014, p. 33); it should strive to arrive somewhere new, similar to (but different from) the non-verbal artwork it is trying to analyse. Of course, it is the context of the text – what it is for, who it is for, what it needs to communicate, etc. – that will always determine its content, form and expression. Ultimately, my aim is to write such academic and creative texts that could communicate both to the academic audience and the larger public (Hannula et al., 2014, p. 33).

In the Artistic Research Methodology, there is an interesting argument – the core idea of artistic research, if you will – regarding the position artist researchers occupy in the field of research. While the ‘external observer’ works on the other end of the spectrum – with minimal involvement and interference with the research object – the artist researcher operates on the opposite end, that of “Mit-Sein”, “being-with”[2]: others, the world, the life (Hannula et al., 2014, pp. 62-63). In this maximal involvement, the life itself becomes the research method, where the results of the research keep feeding back into the life that is the method. Because of this, the artist researchers care about their topics, leading to the methodological question of, not why, but how might one care about the research topic or object (2014, p. 63). And it is this that forms the core idea of artistic research for me. It is a very powerful question, since it will go on to shape not just one’s own life but those of others concerned, as well as the fields related to the research; it is really a world-making, world-generating proposition, despite its seeming simplicity. Referring to this position as possible “inkling of the methodological uniqueness of artistic research”, Hannula et al. argue that “if and when artistic research is able to devise open and critical ways of caring about something, ways that can be travelled by others willing to take the trouble, it indeed brings something new to the world or research” (2014, p. 63). This indeed is a task, but very inspiring one. How do we care? While the answer still lies in my future research, for now it could be said of art that because it often operates on complex levels of emotion and intellect as well as relativity and ambiguity, it is capable of increasing our empathy, our ability to see the world from different perspectives, and providing experiences of “otherness”, other ways of experiencing the world than those of our day-to-day reality. Artistic practice allows the artists and audience alike to “imagine and ‘inhabit’ possible worlds and futures; immaterial and material situations that provide other, often new ways of being and thinking than those assumed and promoted (or even imposed) by the society at large” (Jauhiainen, 2019, p. 45). This capability of art (including music), and its the inexhaustible novelty-producing processes, are well-suited for devising those open and critical ways of caring, I would argue – especially when (re)structured, strengthened and (ideally) peer-reviewed through the methodologies of artistic research, and presented to the public in clear and engaging ways. Artistic research, in collaboration with other disciplines, could provide the world with a greater understanding and tolerance of uncertainty, relativity and continuous change, an ability for the societies to thrive in harmonious disagreement rather than continue seeking harmonious coexistence.   


Cage, J. (2004). Silence: Lectures and writings. London: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd.

Hannula, M., Suoranta, J., & Vadén, T. (2014). Artistic research methodology. Narrative, power and the public. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Jauhiainen, I. (2019). Future Forest Space: the philosophy of becoming in site-specific generative sound installation (Unpublished master’s thesis). Aalto University, Espoo, Finland.

Kevin Kelly. (June 10, 2008). The Technium: Scenius, or Communal Genius. Retrieved from

[1] Or if any verbalisation is needed, it should be contained to lyrics and their analysis only – the most uninteresting and unimportant part of any style of music, in my opinion: the actual meaning and “message” of music is in its sounds, textures, rhythms, spaces between the notes, whereas lyrics might as well be non-sensical and still work (see I Zimbra by Talking Heads).

[2] A term used by Heidegger. I would replace it with “becoming-with” (after Deleuze), to be more in tune with the contemporary thought and understanding of the world.