Introducing TREEs (as a method)

Regardless (song by Jo Mango, string arrangement written by Susan Appelbee and performed by Susan Appelbe and Nichola Kerr)
A shadow came out from behind the sun
It orbited the space where the notes rise from
I see through a pinhole
I am moonless, artless
But the sun spins on over you

The pamphlet it said to take this mess
And lay it at your door
Because it’s yours I guess
But I don’t know where to find you
I am darkling, sparkless
But your voice soars on over me

The sun shines on you, I know it does
And I want it to, oh I want it to
The rain falls on me, I know it does
And I want it to, oh I want it to

But where do I find the grace
To feel the light upon my face
To feel the light upon my face
To feel the light?

In our application to the ESRC for funding for the Distant Voices: Coming Home project, we described what the practice-led resarch component of the project would aim to do. We said it would, “develop practice that explores interdisciplinary connections and correspondences between different forms of knowledge created across the project”… “which would provide a second level of interpretation, working in and through art to reflect upon and represent learning from DV processes and practices”. This is an approach to practice-led research in popular music that I have been developing over a number of research projects. It is a specific form of what Stévance and Lacasse would call ‘research creation’ (i.e. “an interdiscipline (that is, any approach involving a close interaction between research methods and practice) with a focus on the idea of collaboration” (2018, p.1). My peculiar form of this interdiscipline is one that works within collaborative or participatory community-based research projects and serves to look at songwriting as a way of synthesising and then presenting findings from across the strands of an interdisciplinary research project.

I am trying to keep these blog posts as simple and jargon-free as possible (I will fail at this later on in this very post), so I thought I would include here the very simplified way I try and describe this kind of process to my friends when they scratch their heads at why I appear to be writing pop songs while telling everyone I’m doing research. That description goes like this:

If, for example, you were interested in environmental issues, and wanted to learn about people’s relationship to taking public transport to work (why they don’t do it more, for example), you could sit down with them, ask them questions about public transport in their lives, and get them to talk about it for half an hour. You could then do a survey at bus and train stations and count up the numbers of people who feel a particular way about it. (How important on a scale of 1-10 people feel the cost of transport is when deciding on their means of commute to work?). Doing this type of research would give you a certain type of answer to the question, highlight a certain form of perspective. But if you ask people to sit down with you and write a song about their relationship to public transport, you get a whole different type of answer. What you find might not tell you how often they use the number 42, for example. But it will definitely tell you something about how they feel about doing so (the rage of being late for work because the bus didn’t turn up transposed into the sound of a punk song for example). Amongst other things, this type of song material gives us a sense of what emotions are involved in this issue for participants, how this topic makes their body move, or their guilt rise. What their oblique perspectives are on it. What images are associated with it.

Now, the next step in this process (for people who do certain types of research) might traditionally be to analyse what we found from interviews or surveys. To do this we would take an overview of the collection of all the answers we received and write up a report or an article. This text would describe majority (and minority) attitudes to public transport, it would highlight recurring themes in peoples answers – how they have a cluster of around accessibility or cost, for example – and the researcher might quote one or two answers from participants that they think sum this up or communicate it nicely in order to illustrate their points. They might explore what was absent from the interviews too. In my work, (I would tell my interested friend if they were still with me!), I’m trying to develop a process where instead of writing up a report or an article that does this work in words, we try to do that through songs or other creative outputs.

The importance of this is that it draws out different threads of meaning (or focal points) from the collected data than other methods would. These focal points are often unexpected or leftfield. And the way it presents them will be accessible to different people (a form of knowledge exchange). It will ‘do’ as well as ‘describe’ its findings, by which I mean that – like the process of songwriting in the first round of data collection – it can serve to enact as well as describe or explore (re)integration. I have also found that this method stops us from roping things down too much with ‘conclusions’ and helps us keep questions and lines of inquiry open and moving. Which in a project as complex and as full of relationships as Distant Voices: Coming Home, is very important.

Distant Voices is a large and long-term project. It is guided and undertaken by a core group of 16-20 people from many different walks of life – some have experience of having come home after punishment (from long and short sentences), others work in supporting roles for those who are coming home at the moment, there are prison managers, criminologists, musicians and the family members of those yet to come home. Given that those who are undertaking the research come from such different backgrounds and have very varied ways of wanting to understand or collect information, this means that collectively we have been making lots of very different kinds of products and collecting many different types of information (that researchers call ‘data’). This includes: the words of all participants when they were being interviewed about their experiences; songs co-written by almost all participants; the text of ‘debriefs’ with musicians and practitioners who have been involved in the songwriting sessions where they reflect on what worked and what didn’t work in the sessions they have helped to lead; ‘field notes’ or written observations from researchers about their experiences or things they have noted at gigs or in songwriting sessions; demos of recordings of songs produced by the project; audience feedback of varying kinds; creative responses to project materials generated by audience and community members.   

So we soon faced the challenge of trying to explore (and represent) connections between these different forms of ‘data’ and collectively trying to understand what it was we could learn from them about ‘coming home’.

In thinking about how to go about undertaking this intimidating project I’ve been very aware of what the research team stated in our application to the funders about equality between researchers and participants on the project. Back in 2016 when we were planning the research, we wrote that, “maximising our learning depends on the academic contributors respecting (and developing) our collaborators and participants as co-researchers, just as they respect (and develop) us as co-creators and co-participants.” (McNeill, Urie, Scott, Escobar, 2016). We are a diverse group of people needing to identify together as researchers and collaborators. This is challenging because we a very diverse group of people with different ideas about what research is and different types of experience with doing it or being on the receiving end of it.

The research team had also written about core group meetings as being, “ the site of training for core group members in social science and arts-based research methods.”  However, we were aware that using traditional methods or seeking to train everyone in traditional methods instantly sets up a hierarchy of knowledge within the group, privileges a method and highlights different levels of ability and experience with language in particular. The dynamic of one group of ‘experts’ teaching the rest how to do research ‘their way’ came to seem less and less appropriate for those meetings and we were therefore seeking a means to work together on developing research methods and strategies that would work for all. In order to try and forge our own approach, I suggested the method that became known to the group as “TREEs” – standing for Tiny Research Explorations and Enquiries.

In order to introduce the idea that we would like to act as researchers together, and to highlight that research could come in many different forms – some of which would be more natural to members of the community than others – I began by asking each participant to ‘analyse’ a piece of data from one part of the project. In this case, the ‘data set’ was the first album from the project, that had just been released – called Distant Voices: Not Known At This Address.

They were asked to respond to a track from the album (or the whole album):

  1. using whatever processes felt natural to them
  2. using their particular skills and interests
  3. and to do this from the perspective of their own expertise, and where possible, to involve members of their own community or others they related to who might have a perspective on the songs that would be important to draw in to the project.

The examples that were given were that this could involve interviewing people, writing a song, making a podcast, taking photos, writing a poem, writing a story, doing a focus group.

Everyone made a plan that involved answering the following questions:

What in the track inspired a response?

What clue/question are you exploring with your tiny piece of research?

Who will you explore it with and why?

How will you explore it?

This was in order to guide participants to think about what they were producing as part of a process of inquiry, rather than an activity simply inspired-by, continuing from, or simply obliquely related-to the album. My practice-as-research training highlights the nuanced ways in which practice that is research is different than everyday practice (see Stevance and Lacasse, 2018 for further detail on these differences), and this guiding principle aimed to hint towards those differences but without bringing institutional politics or prescription of any kind into the group’s initial exploratory activities. The approach also drew on practices that were already common within the Vox Liminis community and had been developed through previous iterations of the Distant Voices project: using creative methods to respond to stimulus material; embracing a multitude of approaches to responding to the presentation of materials intended to generate dialogue; attempting to make spaces of equality and freedom of expression by focusing on carefully facilitated creative processes.

The next meeting of our core group of enquiry (where members brought their TREEs back to share with the group) served to demonstrate the utility of this approach in a number of ways, including: im terms of bonding and integrating the group (who were excited and inspired by seeing each others creativity and endeavour and hearing voices from different areas of experience and expertise); collecting analysis of the album from a broad range of differently situated people from a range of different angles and perspectives; emboldening the group in their identity as co-researchers; broadening their idea of what constitutes research to include their own activities and skills; and enabling their sense of participation in the process, where they were not all able to participate in production of the album.

One core group member played the album to a group he met with regularly for support in being home after punishment and recorded their responses to it; another group member shared it in an online forum for Scottish DIY/indie music fans (anonymously populated with some well-known indie musicians and producers) and shared the sometimes excoriating online commentary on the musicality and production of the material; another played it to a group of friends selected because of their lack of connection to any of the issues surrounding it (criminal justice/re-integration/music scenes) and held a focus-group style interview; one wrote a poem; several of us wrote songs; the artistic director of the album produced a podcast about the process of producing one of the tracks on the album, including discussion with the producer and some of the musicians involved.

For my own TREE, I wrote a response to a track that uses sunshine as a metaphor for the joy and freedom that can be brought to a performer through perfecting and playing music. In my song Regardless, I reflect on the loss of such a sense of sunshine that a lot of musicians have been experiencing over recent years as they grapple with the revelations of, and fallout from, the #MeToo movement in the artistic industries. The song thus draws in another perspective on the idea of music as sunshine and begins to engage with notions of harm caused by crime and how we begin to work towards restoration.  It draws on numerous other cultural reference points for sunshine and justice or sunshine and mental health. For example, it draws on the sunshine mentioned in the biblical idiom – “the sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous, the rain falls on the just and the unjust”, which in the context of the metaphor, describes the indiscriminate nature of music’s distribution of sunshine and how this does not depend on righteousness (or a lack of criminal behaviour). It also explores the flip side of the idea of sunshine by drawing on notions related to the “dark side of the moon”. This phrase describes the conceptualisation of mental health struggles associated with the darker side of working in the music industries and which Pink Floyd explored in the album of the same name.

You can listen to a studio demo of the track Regardless above (song by Jo Mango, string arrangement written by Susan Appelbee and performed by Susan Appelbe and Nichola Kerr).

The production of TREEs in the Distant Voices project has also served to highlight the efficacy and importance of the use of practice-led-research in collaborative research/collaborative ethnography in the following ways:

  • Where a project employs only one, or even several different methods – either data collection methods or ways of conceptualising and communicating learning from a piece of research – practice-led-research in the arts tends to draw together very different strands of thought along different lines of inquiry than other methods (I would call these clews). For example, they might draw on or choose to follow lines of inquiry around what resonates creatively, what generates emotional impact, what draws together disparate elements around an object or a motif. The results therefore compliment other methods (such as forms of coding or grounded theory-based approaches) by drawing in often overlooked aspects of experience. Their presentation will also be of a different form (often non-textual or supra-textual). Where ethnographers might seek a ‘polyphony’ of perspectives (Bakhtin, 1984, 1982, or STS ethnographers: Latour and Woolgar, 1979; Strathern, 1992; Latour, 1996; John Law and Mol, 2002; Mol, 2003) the multiplicity of our TREEs collectively and with relation to other forms of analysis of research data, allow different versions of the real to emerge and co-exist (Thomas, 2018).
  • The use of songwriting or music composition in this way also allows the kind of reflexivity that would be expected of a researcher post-‘reflexive-turn’, working in a field such as this where hierarchical power relations are extremely pronounced and problematic and where historically there has been consistent abuse of power via knowledge. Although important, such reflexivity can be particularly difficult in participatory contexts, as Phil Crocket Thomas has pointed out:

“There is an inferred transparency and ease to increased researcher reflexivity, however reflecting on or articulating (perhaps troubling) feelings about research and fellow research participants can be difficult for the researcher as well as the researched. Further, expressing these to research participants whether on paper or in conversation can be painful, awkward or risk destroying those relationships (Brettell, 1993; Hollway and Jefferson, 2000). This risk is heightened in participatory research where you need to be able to work together for the research to happen. Here, there is a danger that in order to preserve the collaboration members are unable to be honest with each other, or fall into a position of mutual reinforcement, or into a hierarchy of knowledges” (Thomas, 2018).

The artistry of songs, their potential subtlety, the motility or multiplicity of interpretation as well as the potential for polyphony, or for multiple meanings to coexist, allows songs to act as somewhat safer spaces for this reflexive work on behalf of researchers. This is especially the case when reflecting fully and openly might be traumatic, dangerous, or make the researcher overly vulnerable in a professional context. I don’t need to communicate my own specific personal experience of harm through crime, or implicate others in it, to be able to foreground very real emotions and struggles with relation to project materials, relationships and experiences. I also don’t need to ONLY communicate that as from my own perspective, potentially excluding others from the experience (as I will outline shortly).

That being said, we can’t presume increased reflexivity and transparency about researcher positionality will always be viewed as a positive aspect of the research being produced, and  that it will serve to trouble traditional hierarchies of knowledge (as practice-led-research itself does within the academy). It seems that practices that purport to present less of the academic within them, or that seem more ‘objective’, or are seen to work to some extent outside the influence of the academic in question – are more comfortably welcomed into a project which wants to balance the power of voices in favour of the least powerful, and sees such reflexivity, by illuminating the worldview of the more powerful, as being on the wrong side of Becker’s classic question to ethnographers – “whose side are we on?” (1967) This is a very important and valid concern.

On that note, the penultimate way in which I think practice-led-research is important in a collaborative ethnographic context is by serving to helpfully translate autoethnographic-like practice into something more like reflexive ethnography and further, to find a way to allow this to connect with general publics. Autoethnographic research work – of which ‘Regardless’ and other TREE songs, on the surface, could seem to be an example – has faced accusations of being mere privileged self-interest, too introspective to be any use in the world beyond the singular individual, experiential and not analytic, unable to protect its subjects’ privacy (Atkinson, Coffey and Delamont (2003); Atkinson, Delamont and Housely (2008); Delamont, 2009). Take, for example, Delamont’s critique of Behar (1996, 2007): “As the proportion of Behar’s text that deals with her emotions rises, and it has done so remorselessly since her monograph on her Spanish fieldwork (behar 1986) the reader learns less and less about forms of social life inaccessible to them, and more and more about Behar.”

If we can see merit in these criticisms, we can also see why practice-led-research using songwriting might blur the distinction/opposition between an introspective autoethnography whose only focus might be seen as the author his/herself and a reflexive ethnography which has as its focus a realm other than the self and combines sensitive personal or emotional accounts of interrelationship with that realm, with an opening up of discourse on wider academic and social issues with which it transects. When designing pop songs, popular music songwriters use an embodied knowledge (and sometimes a cognitive one) of the potential of certain aspects or expressions of experience to be generalisable to or relatable by a wide audience. They don’t just introspect and then communicate a very singular personal experience. They also imagine and project their intended material out into a wide cultural landscape, before editing, nuancing, and sculpting the contents so that it will have resonance or effect on the audience. What might seem to be a very personal story, if it is effective, has layers of other meaning included, and works on numerous levels to allow others to engage with it on a level of shared experience.  As Rahul Mitra describes it, “by invoking both the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside’ of the researcher’s world, it creates a ‘coperformance text’ (Denzin, 2003). The function of the text shifts from representation to fostering dialogue and evocation among researcher, researched, and audience, so that meaning is effectively cocreated by these disparate (but not necessarily separate) groups.” (Mitra, 2010).

Add to that the consideration that practice-led-research differs from standard creative practice in that it is developed as a form of inquiry (or analysis) (not only expression, experimentation or communication) and in that sense, should be drawing on ‘know-what’ and ‘know-that’ as well as ‘know-how’ (Nelson, 2013). So it draws on academic and other resources outside itself as it proceeds in an iterative spiral. Thus Regardless, although taking its reference point from a personal emotional and visceral response to one of the album tracks, was also developed via a process of incorporating cultural representations of mental health conditions exacerbated by crime (or music practice), drawing on wider community experiences represented by reports as part of the #metoo movement, empirical research on musicians and mental health, as well as sound experimentation – all with a focus on the Distant Voices research aims to discover how individual citizens and communities experience, make sense of and engage in re/integration after punishment. As such, it embodies elements of all these wider aspects of experience and is but one TREE in a forest of responses and voices emanating from the project that all alter and shape one another.

It is also the case that the TREEs method and its place within this particular strand of practice-led-research practice, in the context of CAR, is part of a specifically (and unusually) collaborative project. As we will begin to see over the course of the next few blog posts, TREEs is one method among several that feeds varied and co-creative analyses of data from within the project into a collective process by which the overarching research-led-practice outcomes are then generated and developed.

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