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The Programming Ethnomusicologist

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Author Profile: Patrick Egan
This Outreach member has published 17 articles.
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This is a short series of blogs designed to introduce myself and to circulate some ideas that I have been formulating about ethnomusicology and digital practices.
My story has been one of exploration, I have been weaving theory together between the IT world and ethnomusicology since the early 2000s. In this first blog, I’ll introduce my background, and some of my ideas that have led me to the “digital humanities” with ethnomusicology.
The Programmer
In 2001, I began my studies for an undergraduate in Information Technology in my home country, Ireland, developing multimedia applications, and from there I built up a background in IT. I graduated with a BSc in IT at Waterford (WIT) four years later. The course at WIT was setup very much like courses in other Irish institutes at that time - they offered students practical, real-world experience with things like processing audio and video files to building databases and websites. Most of the theory was centred around things like human computer interaction and software design for the industry, with less emphasis being placed on theorising or deep critical thinking about the significance of what the digital meant to us. In essence, you got what you would expect from an institute of technology.
b2ap3_thumbnail_concertina.jpgAs I recall, I spent quite a lot of time between 2001 and 2005 developing websites which were themed around music, as being a player of traditional Irish music on concertina, I had always hoped to include this passion in my work. My projects utilised everything from developing code to streaming radio stations and manipulating video footage and creating animations, to implementing project websites that introduced traditional music. The IT world around this time was rising out of the dot com crash, and was becoming an exciting place for programmers. All sorts of ideas and possibilities were starting to emerge with regard to “what you could do” with the personal computer. Still, we were working on getting websites “to work”, and the one of the words meriting a successful website in those days was it’s “functionality”. No such thing as using API, infographics or “Big Data” just yet...
b2ap3_thumbnail_800px-ZIP_Drive_100_2.jpgIn the computer labs where we worked, floppy disks were only just giving way to the new “massive” 250MB “ZIP” disks, which were a godsend after years of using floppy disks in the labs. I also remember many hours of the day were spent working with not a sight of a laptop in the computer lab, where groups of students, working in threes, would spend their evenings coding, attempting to get their assignments done on time for the end of term. Macromedia Dreamweaver 4, and Internet Explorer 6 were the usual, and Firefox was some developer’s browser, still in it’s infancy. We used tables and frames to build websites, and mathematics with cubic splines to build images, we compiled java code to construct interfaces, and created applications that merely took your details and returned results. WAMP and Tomcat sometimes took hours upon hours to install and run correctly, and web services were for those who had enough time at the weekend to tweak and debug. Early days!
There were benefits to the new broadband connection at WIT too. Emerging at this time were P2P services like Napster and bitTorrent. In college we could do great things! There was nothing like the faster internet connections outclassing our 56k dial up at home and the endless amounts of bandwidth. I remember the revolutionary file sharing website “Audiogalaxy” being a marvel, as I could search through thousands of files, downloading vast numbers of music albums and “rare” live concerts. I could listen more music than I ever wanted. The website TotallyRadio.com offered a vast array of genres in music, a lot of my time while doing assignments was spent listening to rare old reggae vinyl broadcasting digitally from the Roots Garden Sound System in England, and the odd bit of world music.
Luckily, I was able to manage a balance between getting my work done, and looking after other musically led hobbies. I graduated from WIT in 2005 with honours. It was the perfect time to go straight into the industry, equipped with all the knowledge of these technologies, how to document project lifecycles, and we were well briefed about the ways in which one might capitalise like an entrepreneur in the then roaring celtic tiger.
But with little “experience” in the industry, like many other graduates, there were not many options at that time. I took the next job going – entering into broadband sales for a number of months. In actual fact there were four of my peers from WIT who ended up working in the same company, providing customer service in the call centre. With my first experience of the start-up world, being a sales agent was a far cry from being a developer, and it wasn’t long before that job had it’s day. Pretty soon, I went on the hunt for an alternative. After six months in the industry, I then decided to further my music studies, and see how I might possibly link up my music interests with my programming background.
I took up ethnomusicology at the University of Limerick.
The Ethnomusicologist
Studying in Limerick was the antithesis of the call centre. It proved to be an enriching experience, not least because the staple academic diet was to be inspired daily by not only great thinkers, but also some very creative musicians from home and all over the world. The prospects were great, and I was back where I needed to be - in a general sense, combining music and computers. The course content itself was interesting in so many ways. I took a documentary filmwork course, researched traditional music in the wilds of Galway, learned and wrote about shamanism in Siberia (see article attached here), and theorised on contexts of Irish traditional music performance. I was a world away from programming, but I was finding this new world to be a fascinating place.
Later in the year, one of our course modules contained a reading list for the topic “Hypermedia and Ethnomusicology”, and when I began to read up on the topic, it became clear to me that there were no substantial projects or resources online made either by or for ethnomusicologists. Even the word “Hypermedia”, seemed archaic, in the context of programming it was a word that was hardly ever used.
I was asking myself, was there something deeper to be understood about why the word "Hyper-media" ... as it sat next to the word “Ethnomusicology”? Why not, "Digital Ethnomusicology", or "Technology and Ethnomusicology"? I wondered how the ethnomusicologists might perceive the IT world. All those years working on databases and websites previously, talking about technology, and here I am reading about “hypermedia”?
The module reading list went as follows:
It was this reading list that got me started. The IT world in ethnomusicology. What did they have to say for each other? And how might I add to it? I was sure there was someone out there who shared my interest, for as they say, for every idea thought up, there has to be a number of others thinking the same thing!
And so began my exploration into this hazy world of half-programmer, half-ethnomusicologist (which inevitably led to Outreach). Outside the academy, in my mind it looked like maybe it was time for a new breed of professional, who’s experience and instincts were matched perfectly to the tasks conjured up when the whole world was to “go digital”. Between 2007 and 2014 there was a burst in the dissemination of cutural heritage materials in digital form online. But where was the place in which programmers and humanities experts met? A few important conferences later, and my ideas were beginning to take shape. The digital world as taken off, but for whom? And in the academy, have the humanties students been prepped? The "Laws of Cool" might have something more to say for this!
The Digital Supermarket Online
The IT industry has indeed changed so much since my time at WIT. No longer are websites simple and built purely on their own code, or are they stand-alone resources.
I wonder what the course reading list for Hypermedia and Ethnomusicology is in today's university department ... Ethnomusicologists are publishing digital collections (see Alan Lomax and ACE), posting them to Youtube, Soundcloud, creating groups on Facebook and sharing their thoughts all over the web. Data on everything an anything now seems to be everywhere. In terms of the presentation of materials, pre-coded widgets are allowing developers and cultural heritage institutions to “plug and play” code, connecting large sites and online resources in a mere couple of seconds. It is now so easy to connect your video collection to the world on Youtube. Databases are storing data and this data is being shared through apps, who are also providing data with other websites. The web 2.0 world has got itself into many corners, and the trend is rising.
To gain some insight into the significance of these trends, it is talks such as Johanna Drucker’s below that remind us what digital resources really stand for. What is “the shape of things to come"?
In my own working experience, I have noticed some key similarities in the ways in which cultural materials have been published online. In the past number of years here in London, I have been working with steering group committees on various music oriented projects outside of the academy, whose main aim has been to bring archival materials to life, and to raise awareness of particular cultures. A lot of the time, the options for these projects is to use Content Management Systems like Wordpress, Drupal or Joomla as core software for their websites to run on. Mostly, this is because they are open source (free code) systems, easy to use, and straight off the shelf. Most of the time also, the "functionality" of these interfaces and structure of these pre-coded projects follow the “trends” of the day. In general, these projects are half coded from scratch, and half utilise the code from external websites.
This, for me, is the crux in the matter. It is so important to ask, How do current digital development practices affect the ways in which cultural heritage is distributed and shared online?
In my experience as a programmer, once you get started in the industry, you find out very easily how your ability to code with free will differs greatly from project to project. There is nothing more difficult for a programmer but for them to try and hack away at someone else's code. Open Source software frameworks such as Drupal and Wordpress are useful for the ethnomusicologist, but should we be thinking about the significance of these tools, before engaging with them?
For the programmer, the more complex the organisation you are working for, the more difficult it is to create dynamic, lightweight applications. As much as you would like to free yourself to work on your own projects and create entirely light-weight, re-usable and scalable work, there are always those constraints that are imposed by two main culprits – time, and money.
Every organisation has its politics, and every project has its limits. But I wonder, what are we missing every time we finish a project, go-live or forget about further development once the project time or funding runs out? The digital environment for humanities material needs to be created without the influence of industry or trends of the day. It is these questions that have brought me to where I am at this moment. To digital humanties.
The Digital Humanist
b2ap3_thumbnail_kings.jpgMy journey continues. Here I am in London, the year 2014. My exploring continues, and somehow or other, by way of persistence and to ask the questions I have always wanted to explore, I find myself in a PhD programme, sitting in a room full of digital humanist colleagues at King’s College. One of them is using a hypothesis about how to chart a digital map from a centuries old story that originated in Scandinavia. Another is looking at the reactions of artists to the interaction of man and machine within early computer art in the 1970s. I get the feeling that in one sense, none of us have anything in common, but at the same time we are all on the same page. We are all searching for the same thing in different ways, trying to make sense of the world in a digital way. It just happens that this is the institution department which allows us to gather and share those thoughts and to feel comfortable with them. We attempt to make sense of the digital wave that has come upon us, to ask some real questions, and to be allowed the space to answer them without the strait jacket of company politics, supermarket style software production, or other agendas. In academia, the imagination is king.
For me, I can now begin to ask the right type of questions. Like, how have ethnomusicologists been reacting, resisting, or transforming the ways in which they do their research, as technology changes at a rapid pace. But more importantly, how do they consider the significance of digital files and the equipment that mediates digital material, also the actions that are borne out of born-digital material? The mass-digitisation of collections allows us to explore and re-think. The topic is so current, that last year the British Forum for Ethnomusicology held a conference in honour of the subject "Ethnomusicology in the Digital Age".
The right kind of developers get inspiration from creating resources suited to their content, and given the time and resources, I am sure that the programming ethnomusicologist would be freed to enable a more mature approach to developing digital tools for such environments. They would be described as the ones who create an ecology of meaning through digital languages. They would explore to the full how these new environments might be created with respect to both IT development and humanities style presentation and care. Everyone knows that the call for digital understanding has been brewing for many years now, we now need to talk it through together.
In my next blog I will explore some of these issues, drawing from literature and examples of what has been going on in the world of ethnomusicology, and to focus on how the debate is currently being played out...

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Guest Thursday, 02 December 2021