Once again, Carolan has been ligging on the academic conference circuit. Previous outings included our Louisiana road trip to the New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) conference in Baton Rouge (back in Posts 46 and 47), and the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference, first in San Jose (Post 56) and most recently in Glasgow (Post 65). This time were on our own patch, hosting the 2019 Audio Mostly conference in our home town of Nottingham. This is an annual conference that, in its own words, “brings together thinkers and doers from academia and industry who share an interest in sonic interaction and the use of audio for interface design”. Topics include “product design, auditory displays, computer games and virtual environments, new digital musical instruments, educational applications and workplace tools”.
One of the highlights, especially from Carolan’s point of view, was Andrew McPherson’s keynote talk in which he reflected on the nature of digital- and digitally-augmented musical instruments. Our ears pricked up when Andrew introduced the question of “guitarness” – what is the essence of a guitar? To probe this matter, his research team had created a collection of unusual digital guitar prototypes, each of which embodied a different sense of guitarness. The prototypes varied according to physical form (whether they had a guitar-like body versus a less conventional tabletop form) and control mechanism (physical strings versus touch sensors) – leading to the four combinations shown below.
Four ‘guitar-like’ instruments. Clockwise from top left: Strings-Guitar, Strings-Tabletop, Touch-Guitar and Touch-Tabletop – shown as congruent and incongruent pairs. Taken with permission from: Harrison, J., Jack, R.H., Morreale, F. and McPherson, A., 2018. When is a guitar not a guitar? cultural form, input modality and expertise. In Proc. NIME.
They then recruited both guitarists and non-musicians to play combinations of the prototypes and got them to fill in questionnaires and interviewed them afterwards. You can read the details here, but in a nutshell, guitarists tended to be more bothered about the input mechanism, preferring the stringed prototypes, but were somewhat divided as to which physical form was best. Non-musicians, on the other hand, tended to care more about the physical form, expressing a preference for the guitar-like forms, but were more split about the input mode. All of which gives us food for thought as to how far you can mess with guitarness before your creation is viewed as a new kind of instrument.
We got to try out their designs for ourselves at the conference hands-on demo session. Experiencing the prototypes led us to compare the kinds of digital augmentations embodied in these prototypes that affect how they generate musical sound with Carolan’s own augmentations which are focused on ‘added value services’ that surround the guitar but without directly affecting how it makes music. Should interacting with Carolan by scanning its Artcodes also affect its sound – perhaps triggering effects or generating music in some way?
One of the lovely features of music conferences is that they often involve a performance programme alongside the academic talks and demos. Audio Mostly featured an official concert, but also an informal gig at Peggy’s Skylight, Nottingham’s newest Jazz Club. Carolan was pleased to be invited on stage to perform and delivered a couple of traditional Celtic tunes followed by a rapidly improvised rendition of Hound Dog (as close to a Jazz standard as we could get – though Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker – and indeed Elvis – would no doubt be spinning in their graves).
Playing Carolan onstage at Peggy’s Skylight bar
We also had a first try at scanning Carolan on stage so as to replay videos from its history that we could then play along to. This very nearly worked (were it not for some last-minute sound issues). In spite of not working as planned, the idea felt intriguing (and had worked quite well in practice), raising the possibility that Carolan’s augmentations might indeed affect how it is played as a guitar – in this case, acting as some kind of extended ‘looper’ that retrieves previous performances and brings them into the current one. This first attempt has definitely planted a seed for exploring future more interactive performances …