100! Centenarian

We’re a centenarian. A good moment to take stock of the first eight years of Carolan’s life. So, please indulge me in some personal reflections on how Carolan’s story has unfolded so far and the lessons I’ve learned along the way about interleaving musical practice with slow research.

A history of an object in 100 posts

I’ve spent time revisiting our 99 blog posts to date and, in an attempt to bring some coherence to the story, ended up constructing a visualisation of four key threads of Carolan’s life: the lutherie of its making and maintenance; my own musical practice; sharing it with other players; and its parallel life as a research probe.

How the first 8 years of Carolan’s life unfolded

The first three years of Carolan’s life, from first concept through to the publication of an initial brace of research papers, pretty much unfolded as a conventional research project. The initial design and build were intense, culminating in Carolan’s maker, Nick, playing its first ever song (Post 23). Carolan then launched into its musical voyage. Half of this centred on my own musical practice, taking it to traditional Irish sessions (Post 25 and Post 40), recording at home (Post 38) and fortunately at Real World studios! (Post 57). The other half involved encounters with other guitarists, from professionals such as Lulo Reinhardt (Post 27), Tim Edey (Post 35), Remi Harris (Post 31) and Kevin Armstrong (Post 39) to many local players, most notably at Beeston’s Oxjam Festival (Post 33 and Post 36).

Research unfolded in parallel, leading to two initial publications, one focusing on Carolan’s concept and build at the New Instruments for Musical Expression (NIME ’15) conference ­­­(Post 46), and a second reflecting on these early deployments and consequent nature of Carolan’s digital footprint at the Computer Human Interaction (CHI ’16) conference (Post 53). Carolan also appeared as a bit part player (a case study in research terms) in further papers towards the end of this period, such as a reflection of the digital crafting of Artcodes.

Once this initial rush of papers was out, we faced the challenge of what to do next. What new research questions were there to answer? Carolan’s musical life also all but ceased. While intriguing as an instrument, it was not sufficiently playable (nor was its piezo pick up sufficiently reliable) to be a ‘go to’ guitar for gigs and recordings. The initial enthusiasm waned. There was only one blog post over the next two years. Carolan had entered limbo.

However, our guitar continued to sit as a brooding presence in the Mixed Reality Lab and sometimes Steve’s home, a constant reminder of the original intention to explore the lifelong footprint of a guitar. And people would keep asking about it. Had Carolan’s active life ended so early? Was it now just a museum piece?

New life first rekindled through this blog, resuming the practice of regular blogging with a series of guitar and music related posts, often focusing on the wider research of the Mixed Reality Lab. This was very much blogging as a regular, personal ritual, driven by an itch to write not unlike to urge to pick up a guitar and play. In turn, this stimulated the desire to play Carolan again and the significant decision to invest in engaging a luthier to overhaul the instrument, leading to some major surgery including a neck reset and new pickup (Post 66) and eventually a new bridge too (Post 93). The result was a guitar that now sounded good and played well and could be gigged and shared. Carolan was ready to resume its musical life.

That was in September 2019. The global COVID pandemic then intervened.  However, if anything, this served to focus greater attention on Carolan as many other research projects slowed down or even ground to a halt. My own musical practice involved playing Carolan at online folk clubs (Post 79) and putting together a set for the Nottstopping online festival (Post 78) which included, for the first time, scanning and playing along to Carolan as part of a performance. In parallel, Carolan began its life as a ‘guitar in residence’ at the folk club, spending weeks at a time staying at the homes of various players (Post 80, Post 81, Post 82, Post 88, Post 90, Post 95). The nature of blogging also further evolved during this period, with recent posts musing on wider guitar-related issues or ideas from other disciplines that I had encountered, such as the study of oral tradition (Post 91) or even the philosophy of ‘thingness’(Post 96).

Some methodological naval gazing

This journey from initial research project, to limbo, to a new balance of musical and research practice gives food for thought on the nature of research.

Slow research. Carolan is an example of longitudinal HCI research [1], or perhaps more generally of slow research [2], or perhaps even of ‘slow science’ (if it can be considered to be science at all) [3]. Indeed, at eight years and running it’s a pretty longitudinal example. The most striking aspect of the process was the point three-years in at which the original aims were largely met and Carolan now had to confront an uncertain and more opportunistic and improvised future as a research probe. And even now, questions remain as to whether there will eventually be more ‘proper’ (i.e., published) research papers, perhaps developed from the latter musings or even a ‘proper’ methodological reflection?  

Blogging proved to be an especially important practice that bridged between research and music, clearly involving elements of documentation, self-reflection and theorising, and yet also exhibiting qualities of musical practice – something I ended up pursuing for pleasure in its own right. Blogging also feels in tension with conventional academic publication – should I be spending so much time writing blog posts when I could be writing papers? And might publishing my thoughts early – however nascent – somehow compromise later papers?

Autobiographical research. Carolan is an example of autobiographical research [4], a highly subjective approach very much focused on the researcher themselves. Personally speaking, a great benefit here has been that I can continue the research on my own – it is perhaps by now the one research project that I can pursue through my own skills in my own time. Of course, there have certainly been others involved (I’m especially grateful to Adrian, Dimitri and rest of the team) and I’m always open to collaboration, but in a world where my role is often to ‘manage’ projects, it’s good to have a hands-on project (am I nostalgic about the days of being a PhD student?).

However, there have also been tensions in this autobiographical research, especially concerning the spill over between my musical and research lives. There is an awkwardness about playing the guitar in front of research colleagues (who could ever do this without a twinge having watched the toe curling David Brent performance from The Office [5]) as there can also be when discussing research with musical colleagues whose gentle and polite scepticism about the point of it all can do more to sow doubts than any harsh academic reviews (no bad thing). Blogging and practical experiments tend to take place at evenings and weekends – in personal rather than work time – further blurring boundaries between work and home life that I had been trying to separate of late.

Research probes. The specific form of Carolan as a research probe has been significant to this story. A public commitment at the outset to explore the lifelong footprint of a musical instrument made it feel like a failure to give up, though begs the question of what will ever be an acceptable end to the project – Carolan’s demise, or perhaps even my own? Howell et al’s call to acknowledge and discuss failure in autobiographical research [6] resonates here; the sense of failure that arose during Carolan’s limbo period was a spur to further action, while some of the flaws in Carolan’s initial making had to be confronted and repaired before it could move on.  This was compounded by the visibility of the project to musical friends. Whereas researchers might naturally expect a project to only run for a few years, musicians expect Carolan, as a guitar, to have a truly long lifespan, and would often inquire how it was getting on, a question to which I needed to find a good answer.

Carolan’s striking visual appearance raised the stakes further, inevitably attracting interest from musicians wherever it went, demanding an account of its parallel research life whenever it made a public appearance. Finally, the expense of making Carolan made it too valuable to trash, while its size made to too large a presence in my life to ignore. In short, committing to make such a large, expensive and striking research probe brought with it a parallel commitment to sustain an active engagement with both music and research.

So, today, as we hopefully emerge from the pandemic, Carolan seems set to resume an active life both as a guitar and as a research probe. By now, both journeys are highly improvised – responding to opportunities and even whims as they arise. There remain many questions for the future. Is there new research here? Can Carolan’s musical and research lives somehow be better interleaved and it’s story better presented? And what is the even longer-term plan? To be honest, I don’t know for sure, but I have a few ideas, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next stage of the journey …

References

[1] Karapanos, Evangelos, Jens Gerken, Jesper Kjeldskov, and Mikael B. Skov. “Advances in Longitudinal HCI Research.” (2021).

[2] Lindquist, Julie. “Time to grow them: practicing slow research in a fast field.” JAC (2012): 645-666.

[3] Owens, Brian. “Long-term research: slow science.” Nature News 495, no. 7441 (2013): 300.

[4] Neustaedter C.and Sengers P.. 2012. Autobiographical design in HCI research: Designing and learning through use-it-yourself. In Proceedings of the Designing Interactive Systems Conference (DIS’12).

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEtQj9wuqhs

[6] Howell, Noura, Audrey Desjardins, and Sarah Fox. “Cracks in the success narrative: Rethinking failure in design research through a retrospective trioethnography.” ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 28, no. 6 (2021): 1-31.

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