Yesterday, to start learning about musical life in 1920s Paris, we read several chapters from several books, including Roger Nichols’ The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris 1917-1929 (pp.6-15, 41-58), Nigel Simeone’s Paris -A Musical Gazetteer (pp.11-21), and Jann Pasler’s Composing the Citizen (pp.1-49). As someone who has never been to Paris, many of the place names mentioned in these texts sounded familiar, but I had no mental map of where they were in Paris in relation to each other. Without a mental map, it was easier to get lost in the geographically-dependent scholarly arguments, as well as descriptions of Parisian musical life that relied on a basic sense of the layout of the city.
That’s where our maps come in. As we read, other student researchers and I made lists of musical and non-musical places that were mentioned in the texts. We complied our lists onto a master Google spreadsheet, adding each site’s street address (with the help of Google and a map in Nichols’ book) and providing a description and link to an image of the place when possible. In Google My Maps (in Google Drive), we linked a blank map to our spreadsheet, and all of the locations we found appeared where they should be in Paris! To make the map easier to read, I color-coded the locations (blue = non-musical important locations; magenta = musical locations), and changed the map background to “Simple Atlas.” One of the trickier things about mapping a city is mapping places that don’t have one street address (i.e. a plaza or a collection of buildings). However, Google My Maps can map these places if the name of a plaza, such as Place de la République, is also put in the spreadsheet as the plaza’s street address.
Mapping raises new questions about the nature of Parisian city life, allowing the map-reader to notice patterns that otherwise may not be apparent in a purely textual article or book. For example, looking at the map I generated, it is clear that most Parisian theaters and musical institutions are concentrated on the Right Bank (i.e. north side) of the Seine -why is that?
A map of a place (such as 1920s Paris) provides the reader with a mental image that is extremely useful for understanding scholarly arguments and sorting new information. Not only is it easier to understand authors’ arguments about how the physical geography of Paris shaped certain cultural and social phenomena, but it is also just easier to remember information about the history and life of the city. With a clear schema in place, new information can be mentally sorted and mapped onto this basic layout of Paris. The process of mapping itself is also a valuable tool for the researcher and the learner; not only is it fun (who doesn’t want to spend their day making new maps appear with the press of a button?), but making maps is the kind of active learning that forces whoever is doing it to think about the spatial relationships between places and ideas.