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It’s Never too Late to be an Ethnomusicologist: A Conversation with AFC Intern Kirk Sullivan

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AFC intern Kirk Sullivan rehousing wax cylinders, which contain some of the oldest ethnographic recordings ever made.
AFC intern Kirk Sullivan rehousing wax cylinders, which contain some of the oldest ethnographic recordings ever made. Photo by Ann Hoog, 2014.

This is a guest post by Folklife Specialist Ann Hoog, who coordinates AFC’s internship program.

This is the first in a two-part series stemming from a conversation with one of our summer interns, Kirk Sullivan. Part II is available at this link.

This week I sat down to talk with one of our summer interns, Kirk Sullivan, about how he went from having an established career in software engineering to becoming a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology. During his internship, he has been working with AFC archive staff to barcode and rehouse the archive’s 10,000 wax cylinders to prepare them for eventual storage at the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia. This is the first in a two-part series. On Monday, read about a project Kirk is working on with the wax cylinder collections in one of the deepest depths of the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building.

Part 1: To Hawai’i or Bust

Ann: So tell me about how you got from being a software engineer into ethnomusicology.

Kirk: I grew up in a musical family. I’ve done music all my life. In high school I probably made that decision to pursue sciences rather than music, which eventually led to software engineering, which was handy for making a living and raising a family and everything, but I continued to do music on the side, in particular, choirs. I’ve sung in a bunch of choirs. And then I did so well in my software engineering career that I became a manager of software engineers, and that got less and less fun. There were less and less technical challenges and all of the people challenges, the people problems. One of the results of becoming a manager was going to this year-long management seminar, including some coaching, and we would talk about, “What would you like in your life,” and, “What’s the structure that you really would like,” and it got me thinking about that. Some of the features that came to mind were: travel, foreign language, and music which has been a theme throughout my life. And so I started taking music courses to supplement the wide range of musical performance experience that I’d had.

And then my kids got out of college and I said, “Well I don’t really have to do this job anymore.” There were a number of things going on at the workplace that made it less desirable. I obviously had the choice of going back to a technical life, and I could have done that, and I just felt like it wasn’t compelling enough to do. I didn’t have to do it, and why don’t I pursue something that I’m passionate about at this point? In many ways, music and travel had been a part of my life throughout, so ethnomusicology seemed to be the best path for that.

I had been in my job for 20 years and I gave two weeks notice that I was quitting. And they said, “How about six months?” And I said, “How about three weeks?” So they then said, “Ok.” If I didn’t do it right away, I think perhaps I wouldn’t have left. I quit at the end of January, but if I had stayed to after the first week of February, I would have had my benefits for another month, so perhaps I should have done that, but I was thinking “I have to quit right now,” or else, I might not do it at all. It’s easy to stretch it out and add another day, another hour, but then you might not leave. I hadn’t even been accepted to the degree program yet, so it was bit of a risk, but I had to quit right then.

A: How did you find out about ethnomusicology in particular?

K: That’s a good question. I don’t really know. I remember I happened to buy a copy of Alan Merriam’s book Anthopology of Music. I thought, “Anthropology and music? This is perfect.” And that probably led me to thinking about, or finding out about, ethnomusicology. I had taken an anthropology class as an undergrad in my senior year, and I thought, “Oh, this is pretty great, if it weren’t for being my senior year, and this would extend my college for another couple of years.”  That would have been a thought, but you know, one of things I did in undergrad was spend a year in Scotland. I took the required chemistry classes that I had to take, and then I took classes in linguistics and Gaelic. I thought, “Well, if I could just stay here, and sort of continue along that path, that would be great,” but it was quite impractical. If I had known about ethnomusicology at the time, that might have felt like a perfect blend, then, too, but again, not very practical. At this point in my life, being that practical is not as high a priority as it was back then. I still have bills to pay and so on, but I don’t have to get kids through college. I have a little more flexibility.

It was complicated when it got to the point when I said, “I want to quit my job.” The Maryland program wouldn’t take me unless I was full-time and willing to be a teaching assistant. I would have been happy to complete the degree on a part-time basis and continue working, but that kind of forced my hand. There was some angst about me quitting my job and us going to sort of half of our income. Back at that time, I was sort of “blue sky” and said, “Well I could do a master’s degree at Maryland and then a PhD at the University of Hawai’i, they have an ethnomusicology program.” This was completely blue sky, where I didn’t even know if I could even get into a Maryland ethnomusicology program with my software degree in hand, you know. And my wife was at that point, completely on board with that idea, but as you can imagine, you know, that’s 2-4 years before the reality actually faced us. So then this recent decision to accept the offer at the University of Hawai’i was another set of difficult decisions and conversations. And even when we made our decision as a team, that did not stop all of that angst and difficult conversations and second guessing and questions, “Is this the sort of thing we should be doing?” At this point in time it seems like an exciting option.

A: Why was the University of Hawai’i of particular interest?

K: That’s such a tricky question. I’ve travelled there for work off and on for years and years, and have loved it each time, but that’s as a visitor and tourist. My wife and I have travelled there several times and have loved it. So when I got into the ethnomusicology program and I was in one of my first classes, in the first or second week, and the professor said, “What would you like to write your term paper on?” I said, “Well, um, um, um, Polynesia.” Anything would have been fine, but if you’re asking me and I have to choose, my sort of tongue in cheek response is, well what if I have to travel there, I better choose wisely, and I say, “Polynesia.” I say that part in jest, but there is some reality to it. Then they encouraged it. I did a paper on Polynesia and surprisingly they didn’t say, “Well, that was nice, don’t do that anymore.” They said, “You know, if you’re interested, keep pursuing it.” Which I did, and that evolved into doing the master’s thesis on the 2012 festival that occurred in the Solomon Islands, the Festival of Pacific Arts. And so this thing that seemed like just the craziest idea originally, that you really couldn’t utter to other people, really, actually has sort of come to be a reality. There’s a lot of things to like about Hawai’i, but one of the things we’ve found is the people are very friendly, the culture is very appealing, and even the music in its variety of forms has been very appealing, so it’s not just the weather, though [laughing] the weather isn’t bad.

Continue to Part II.

Kirk’s primary focus of study as he pursues his PhD is on Tongan choirs in Hawai’i. He hopes to conduct some fieldwork and learn more about its history and development in its current living musical form.


  1. What I am wondering is just what opportunities there for former senior managers who want to make a contribution to ethnomusicology. How much value has management played in Mr. Sullivan’s success so far? Fred O’Regan

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