Practice-Based Research in NIME

Last week I attended the NIME 2014 in London. This was my second NIME, having presented a poster at the 2012 event in Ann Arbor.

What really energised me about this gathering was in fact the workshop on Practice-Based Research, which I took part in on the first day of the conference. Practice-Based Research (PBR) is an area which has been a part of the NIME community since its inception, but I think this is the very first workshop on the topic for the community. The workshop was unusual in that it was a symposium-like event, with a full day of paper presentations on the topic, organised by the Creativity and Cognition Studios at UTS. Amongst the great papers at the workshop I drew some particular insights from a few writers whose thoughts I’ll summarise below. My own contribution to this discussion can be found in the paper I contributed to the workshop, ‘Artefact ‘scripts’ and the performer-developer‘ (a screencast presentation of the paper can also be viewed here), and the full list of papers can be found here.

For my part, throughout my research I have often struggled with the messy relationship between practice and research. The development of technical artefacts (software/code), musical outputs (performances/recordings) and sustained reflection has often been a difficult balance to strike in my doctoral degree. Something that was clear in the workshop was that there are many other researchers in the community asking the same questions about the role of the practitioner-researcher in the field, a field that many at the workshop believe is becoming increasingly dominated by results-driven research in the form of technical reports.

As an interdisciplinary community made up of artists, performers, engineers, luthiers and designers, I believe NIME certainly would benefit from continuing this discourse on the value of practice-based research and its diverse outputs. As Michael Gurevich so elegantly argued during the workshop, in order for the various types of research being conducted in NIME to fully reveal themselves, those doing the research need to stand strongly and make clear the value of the kinds of interdisciplinary knowledge they are contributing.

Some paper summaries:

Michael Gurevich – Methodology Soup

Gurevich’s general argument is that the NIME community has been going further towards a scientific route, however NIME has not always been this way. Practice-based research has been around since the inception of NIME, with performer-researchers historically reporting on their idiosyncratic instrument design work from an artistic perspective. Gurevich argues strongly that the way in which the NIME community understands and deals with the diversity of methods is important for the future of its development. In doing so he classifies several types of NIME papers, including practice-based approaches. He finalises his thought by suggesting that we, as practice-based researchers, more clearly delineate our approach to research and practice, so as to legitimise our research approaches in the broader community.

Jan C. Schacher – Investigating Gestural Electronic Music

“How can I convey the practical insights, the experiences, instrumental reflexes and reflections that I have built up in the course of these performances and works? Is what I’m developing not utterly subjective and tied to the specific musical, performative, and social moment where these pieces come into existence? What would a transferable knowledge be, that I could extract from this practice?”

This paper raises many questions, focusing on trying to tease out what kind of knowledge might be communicable from an artist-researcher’s perspective. In doing so it highlights some messy questions on how to do PBR in NIME. Schacher posits that the perspective of the musician/artist/developer should be considered in NIME research, but he also asks rhetorically what kind of knowledge can be gained from this endeavour. The musical results of an interaction, and understanding the philosophical and psychological dimensions of performing with new interfaces is a strong focus throughout. The author also puts a spotlight upon concerns of performance practice in the field, linking this important aspect of artistic research to the artist-centred perspective of the performer.

Owen Green – The Situation of Practice-Led Research around NIME

“PLR (Practice-Led Research) sacrifices some generality of observation in order to contend with music in its socially-entangled, contentious, noisy complexity.”

The main crux of this article was to propose slippery methodologies for ‘musical research’ in the NIME field. Green’s understanding of research in NIME is broader than that of much of the field, encompassing a more open definition of practice and its role in research. His concern is also focused upon the divide between institutional understandings of research method and how they intersect (or don’t) with musical practices more broadly. Green’s is in part a critique of the focus upon functional and implementation issues of NIME design, at the expense of understandings of practice more broadly. This focus deprives discussion of the musical practice of ‘live electronics’ in his view. The author argues that our research and practice are part of assemblages, where our outputs are directed to differing audiences depending on the particular content of these outputs (technical reports for those interested in design, musical performances for general audiences, discussion of aesthetics for musicological audiences etc). Musical sharing and co-practice are areas Green suggests have been under exploited as ‘methods’ of research. How these are to be integrated and coupled with existing research approaches remains an open question, however it’s clear that a consideration of these inherent musical contexts would further enrich our research perspectives NIME by considering the complexities of real-world practice in more depth.

Andrew Johnston – Some Opportunities for Practice-Based Research for NIME

“At the very least I make this point: if we consider musical expression as a stable construct which we can design for without further consideration, we miss opportunities to explore, and document, the continual exploration, even redefinition, of musical expression through practice.”

An article that resonates with some of my major concerns about research in the NIME field. Johnston’s observation about the dynamic quality of musical expression is followed by the necessary questions as to the relevance of evaluation in this equation. If something is to support musical expression, rather than to enter into a dialogue with it, then how can we evaluate its effectiveness? If we then do consider this dialogue, then what is the relevance of evaluation, and what other ways can we go about understanding the entanglement between design and use? The discussion about affordances, and viewing the interactions between instruments/interfaces and performers/audiences as in constant flux makes a case for a broader view of research method.

Ludvig Elblaus – NIME Design and Contemporary Music Practice: Benefits and Challenges

This paper is an argument for more sustained engagement in the NIME community with the intersections between interface design and practice. Elblaus’ main argument here is that often we view ‘evaluation’ as something we do to prove that our proofs-of-concept work, though they are not necessarily tested properly ‘in the wild’. He suggests that we, as researchers and designers, engage more fully with musical practice and how these interfaces stack up. His advocacy for sustained engagement with interfaces in practice is promising, and he points out that it is really our job as designers to be engaged in this process in order to lessen the disconnect between the space of design and that of cultural appropriation and use (the author criticises the delegation this process by default to musicologists, historians etc).

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