The question, “why make maps about music history?” goes back to the question, “why study music history?” The answer is different for everyone, but for me, it is simple: I study music history because the past constitutes the best stories humanity can offer, and because music is a thread that strings those stories together. The point of studying music history is not to be able to impress everyone at all the cocktail parties to which music historians are inevitably invited; the point is to imagine oneself in another’s shoes. In doing so, music historians contribute to the literature in both a scholarly and artistic sense. Scholarly, because colleagues will scrutinize one another’s work, checking facts, criticizing arguments… artistic, because tapping into history will uncover a narrative as captivating as real life (that’s because it was someone’s life). This project aims to capture that duality, casting very old stories in a new mold – one that will make those stories even more real.

Our project lives in two worlds at once: the world of musicology, and the world of the digital humanities (in which people use computers to get their point across better). More specifically, our team will spend the summer creating interactive maps that represent the musical scene in Paris during the 1920s. These maps will show important venues, premieres, composers’ and institutions’ travels, mentions of certain pieces in critical reviews, the spread of new genres, and anything else we come across that we think merits visualization. We’ve already created several maps. A good example of our work so far is the following map, which shows the premieres of works by Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, and Stravinsky:


As you can see, premieres of these composers’ works were concentrated in Paris, but appear all over the world. Users can turn layers on and off to compare different composers, and we are already looking into adding a timeline feature that would allow us to represent these premieres chronologically as well as spatially.

The majority of our data for these maps will come from primary sources, many of which have been digitized and are available online or in massive, expensive books. However, some sources are not yet on the Internet. Some would say that means they don’t really exist, but we’re pretty sure they do. Carolyn will go to France in early July to look for them; we will give her a big list of information to collect while she’s there. In this aspect of the project, our scholarly contributions are particularly clear. Going to Paris, browsing through some of the oldest, dustiest books on the shelves, and extracting information from them to put on our maps will make a lot of previously inaccessible information available to anyone who finds our website. That’s exciting.

Collecting information means that we have to figure out how to store it. Last year’s team used a Google spreadsheet, which worked well – it’s quite easy to use with Google Maps – but was arduous, and by the time the 1310th record was added, a little overwhelming. We are resigned to the fact that data entry is a lot of work, but we also think it can be fun! This year, we decided to design a smart web form to help us collect data. This form will make data entry go faster and check for typos as we type, so that we don’t have to make as many corrections later. It will store all the data we collect in an SQL database, which has the advantage of being easily accessible, queryable, and editable. We will build an interface that allows us and others to interact with the database. Using SQL to store our data will give us more flexibility in experimenting with various mapping platforms, such as Omeka Neatline, CartoDB, ArcGIS, QGIS, and Google Maps, and will make our data more accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

Accessibility is an important aspect of our project. Our maps will be a research tool and a teaching tool, but they will also be a learning tool for anyone with an interest in the musical history of 1920s Paris. Our goal is that anyone in the world can learn about Parisian music in the 20s in an interactive way – with a focus on the artistic side of musicology. Our maps will bridge the gap between knowing what musicians did and understanding why they did it. Literally and figuratively, they will provide a bigger picture: the context within which dry historical events took place. Reading that Poulenc premiered Les Biches at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1924 and that Milhaud premiered Le train bleu at the same venue the next month is not quite the same as seeing those premieres appear next to each other on a map, and being able to hear the music itself with one click. This project is not about replacing old facts with new ones (though that might happen); it’s about reimagining those facts in a new way, retelling old stories with modern technology.