The Listening Crowd, an international conference on new music and audiences, was hosted by The Contemporary Music Centre at NUI Galway on the 13th June 2016. Bringing together a wide variety of individuals immersed in music, its key aim was to examine why we listen, who is listening and how audiences are engaging across genres and around the world. PhD Candidate of Music at Maynooth University Stephanie Ford, tells us more about the interdisciplinary features of the conference and the different approaches now being fostered within humanities research in music. 

The one day conference saw a host of international speakers address a wide range of topics relating to the themes above, with individual panel sessions arranged around those themes accordingly, The first session kicked off following a rousing keynote address by acclaimed Irish composer Kevin Volans, and the day concluded on a high note (pardon the pun) with a live Music Trail on NUIG’s campus, featuring works by Irish composers performed by the highly regarded ConTempo String Quartet, clarinettist Paul Roe and actor Grace Kiely.

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The day undoubtedly addressed many key issues surrounding audience engagement and research in new music. One of the most interesting aspects to arise from these talks from a musicologist’s perspective however, was how practice-led research in music can engage and interact with the ever changing digital landscape, and how using the internet as a form of creative musical research can expand not only the process of composition, but also contribute to a greater understanding of how we, as a society interact with the digital landscape that surrounds us in our everyday lives.

These aspects were explored in a fascinating talk given by composer Jennifer Walshe, entitled Bots, AI, Emojis & Memes: Composition After the Internet.  At times bordering on the bizarre and the surreal, Walshe’s talk covered the cultural significance of memes, an exploration of the internet-driven creative process of Kanye West’s latest album and everything in between. The outspoken originality of her presentation in terms of both content and delivery raised a number of interesting questions about the nature of practice led research in the arts, questions which I believe are relevant to the wider humanities field and its ever increasing interdisciplinarity.  

Jennifer Walshe, composer (photo: Eugene Langan)

Jennifer Walshe, composer (photo: Eugene Langan)

Definitions of practice-led research within the arts and humanities are difficult to clarify, due to the variety of divergent methodologies often employed throughout the course of this type of research. In addition, Estelle Barrett has highlighted that creative arts research methodologies, which focus on personally situated, interdisciplinary and diverse, emergent approaches often contradict the terms of traditional scholarship, going against what is often expected of academic research. While practice led research within the arts has struggled to gain recognition in humanities scholarship in the past, conversely, the notion that the arts practitioner/researcher may be required to co-opt their practice and artwork to fulfill cognitive ends at the expense of artistic development has often resulted in a lack of understanding in relation to this practice on the part of artists and musicians engaged in ‘purely’ artistic endeavours. To complicate matters further, the innovation that arises from practice led research methodologies is sometimes difficult to pre-determine, and outcomes are as Barrett points outs it, ‘necessarily unpredictable’, rendering the validity of such methodologies inconclusive to some scholars.     

However, what is interesting about Walshe’s approach to exploring sound through aesthetic and artistically driven research is her choice of medium to do so- the internet. Seeking out new approaches and initiating anonymous sound experiments via a medium which is in a constant state of flux and change gives her the freedom to explore new interdisciplinary approaches to composition, to extrapolate what might be possible for art and for musicians from a compositional perspective and to uncover what is to be gained as a musician by participating in the online world. She takes the ‘necessarily unpredictable’ nature of practice led research and of the internet and plays with it (her term) in an aesthetic, as opposed to audience building capacity.

Walshe’s sound experiments on the fringes and unexplored hinterlands of the internet are not only beneficial for the ways in which they introduce new knowledges and methodologies into artistic praxis within contemporary music. Her practice led investigations also have the aim of contributing to a wider cultural knowledge and to answering questions which are of central concern to arts and humanities scholars engaged in other areas of research. Walshe is interested in ‘listening to how to be alive in 2016’. In creating aesthetically focused sound experiments, she attempts to navigate what the internet is made of, ‘because it is a way of seeing what our life is made of, what our life today is at this very moment’. By engaging with the present, with the here and now both in creative practice and reflection, Walshe demonstrates how vital this type of artistic research methodology is to contributing to our understanding of the world that surrounds us.

Practice led research of this kind can challenge our perceptions of what is possible to uncover with methodologies that lie outside the traditional realm of academic scholarship. Opportunities to present such research in an environment conducive to alternative and interdisciplinary ways of thinking is crucial to solidifying the valuable contribution that artistic and practice led approaches make to wider cultural knowledge, and to making arts and humanities research relevant and accessible to a broader audience. The artistic and academic exploration of the texture of now has never been more relevant.

The Listening Crowd Session 3 (composer Jennifer Walshe at 38.50 mins):  


Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt (eds.), Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry (I.B Tauris: 2010)

Suzanne Little, “Practice and Performance As Research in the Arts”, in Dunedin Soundings (University of Otago Press: 2011), pp.19-28

STEPHANIE FORD is a first year PhD candidate and John and Pat Hume scholar in the Department of Music at Maynooth University.  She has presented her research at the University of Cambridge and was recently awarded a travel bursary from the British Forum for Ethnomusicology. Her current PhD research seeks to investigate the links between sean nós singing and cultural identity in contemporary music in Ireland.