What does it mean to know the past? As a student, I first think of sitting down with a textbook to memorize dates and names. In our project, however, we seek to create a more engaging way of learning about history. The maps that we create, as well as the pictures, videos, and audio clips they include, will immerse us in the music and lifestyles of Paris in the 1920s as directly as possible.
This past week, we read excerpts from Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s book In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time. In the work, Gumbrecht champions the validity of presenting information with the goal of engagement rather than argument. In the introduction, he articulates a central goal of our project: a “desire to speak to the dead…[to have] first-hand experience of worlds that existed before our birth.” 1 Gumbrecht presents detailed information about various aspects of life in 1926 while intentionally excluding a central thesis, in order to tap into the reader’s imaginative capabilities and paint a fuller descriptive picture of the time period. This is our aim as well.
Although our work does not need to lead to a historiographical thesis, there is still an analytical component to the presentation of our research. We will be able to use some of our maps to make evidence-driven arguments about historical narratives. For example, Emily’s individual project, which compares performances by the Ballets Russes and other dance companies, could uphold or oppose arguments about which group was more significant or influential. And despite our lofty goals of immersion and engagement, our research is data-driven, and our day-to-day activities are structured around how to record and organize this data. Sam is putting the finishing touches on the new database and entry form as I write, which means that we’ll soon be able to record events faster, with more internal consistency and fewer typological errors. As we read books, biographies, and performance catalogues, we document performances, venues, addresses, organizations, and other relevant information.. My time in Paris next month will be spent looking for additional sources to fill in the gaps. The volume of information skyrockets quickly: last year’s CURI team documented over 1,300 separate event entries, and that’s only in 1924!
Luckily, our approach is not to record every single musical event throughout the decade of the 1920s. Instead, we will create a number of smaller maps that deal with more specific subject material. So far we have worked on mapping premiere performances of works by significant composers, like Stravinsky, Poulenc, Honegger, and Milhaud. You can interact with the map below: it does not yet have embedded media, but you can zoom in and out, add and remove layers, and click on the markers to see more information.
Next, we will work individually to create maps that display specific event types. Jazz performances will receive their own map, as will performances by competing ballet companies and of music from the Second Viennese School.
Our creative goal is for our maps to be interactive, immersive, and engaging. They will be visual tool to help viewers understand the contextual importance of historical events, and to ask their own questions. Our data will be available on the research website, and it will hopefully serve as a jumping-off point for further exploration by interested users. Most importantly, however, our maps will offer new ways of learning about and imagining the past. History does not fit the confines of simple narratives, fact-sheets, or generalizations, which is both a challenge and a thing of beauty to the researcher. Ultimately, we want our maps to bring people toward personal experiences of a vibrant, complex past that too often is rendered distant, inaccessible, or, worst of all, lifeless.
1 Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), xii