Inspired by pedagogical need, this project combines musicological methods with digital humanities theory and tools to produce maps that serve students, scholars, and the general public. There are four phases to our work, each phase corresponding to distinct ways that digital, spatial tools can help us research and teach music history.

Phase 1: 1924 Paris

Over ten weeks in the summer of 2015, Professor Louis Epstein and a team of four student researchers created maps that visualized the vibrant musical life of 1924 Paris. Why that year and that city? 1924 marked the most exciting cultural season in Paris since before the war. Three major ballet companies premiered more than a dozen new scores by French composers including Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, and Erik Satie. Conductor and patron Serge Koussevitzky offered two concerts full of premieres by Arthur Honegger, Igor Stravinsky, and others. Paris hosted the 1924 Olympics, which brought thousands of visitors to the city, not including the many American expatriate literary figures and composers who had already been drawn by a favorable exchange rate and the city’s famously vibrant cultural life. Accounts by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson make 1924 Paris a particularly rich object of research.


1924 Paris was an important center of creative activity and an incubator for artistic movements whose influence would be felt throughout the 20th century, so we are well justified in choosing it as the focus of our initial work. But we’re aware that there is more to music history than influence, and we chose to explore the musical life of 1924 Paris in ways that helped us shift study away from artistic movements and influential texts. Our focus on performances rather than music composition or music criticism corresponds to a recent shift in musicological inquiry away from the “work” concept and toward a more affective, imaginative experience of history.1 We chose to make maps centered on performances because we want to help researchers, students, and the general public better understand what it felt like to hear this music in that place on that day. Contrary to most music history resources, which disproportionately focus on music that is exceptional, innovative, or “progressive” (all values defined well after the fact), we’re interested in representing the exceptional while also clarifying what musical life sounded like on a day-to-day basis. Thus our maps of 1924 Paris represent an application of Hans Gumbrecht’s arguments in favor of “synchronic” history and an example of the idea of “thick mapping” proposed by Todd Presner, David Shephard, and Yoh Kawano2 Like its namesake, “thick description,” “thick mapping” is a technique through which far more detail is provided in a map than can be perceived all at once. Map users choose the level of detail they prefer to see, zooming in or out to transition from grand narratives to more mundane details. Our attention to the most mundane aspects of 1924 Parisian concert life – see also Parisians’ continued obsession with Beethoven and Wagner – is informed by New Historicism and, more recently, by Quirk Historicism.3   Finally, we sought to create a historical tool that is affective and immersive rather than narrative-driven and distancing.4  In other words, we don’t experience musical performance as divorced from its surroundings, not even when we’re in a concert hall. The urban landscape around us remains present when we listen to music, and our experiences before entering the concert hall – where we parked, what we walked by on our way – affect how we perceive or receive the music being performed. Accordingly, one of the first maps we made featured all the music being performed on a single night in 1924, demonstrating the possibility for an immersive experience of music history.


We began by scouring musicological scholarship for a factual trinity: date, address, and repertory. Surveys like Nigel Simeone’s Paris: A Musical Gazetteer, Roger Nichols’s The Harlequin Years, and Jann Pasler’s Composing the Citizen swiftly led us to denser repositories of performance information, namely daily newspapers like Le Figaro and Le Gaulois, as well as performance-oriented periodicals like La Semaine à Paris, Le Ménestrel, and Le Guide du Concert. All except Le Guide du Concert were accessible via Gallica, the digital archive of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.


Our initial goal was to create a resource, like Digital Harlem and like Danielle Fossler-Lussier’s Musical Diplomacy website, through which users could search a database of performance information and visualize the results on a map. Technical difficulties abounded (see the “Problems” page) and we soon shifted our focus to making numerous maps that allow users to experience musical life, analyze a subset of performances, or play with performance and other data in new ways. We embraced an approach unfamiliar to many humanists: collect and present data first, ask questions later. We transcribed over 1300 performance listings from historical newspapers and music periodicals, creating a database our users could access. Individual students also researched case studies, for instance comparing the distribution of cinemas and traditional music venues in 1924 Paris; exploring where composers chose to live; and making connections between musical geography and literary figures from the Lost Generation. And of course the students working on the project developed a deep. nuanced understanding of musical life in 1924 Paris. In frequent posts on our research blog, they described the challenges they faced as they researched individuals, institutions, and performances; they celebrated research successes; and they reflected on the process of creating interactive maps for a variety of audiences. Evidence of their learning took more creative forms, too: one student synthesized what she had picked up about French musical culture, politics, social divisions, and technological change in the 1920s in a ten-part “penny dreadful” called “The Unsuspecting Tour Guide,” providing imaginative context for the maps we made. (I highly recommend reading it.)

Historian and digital humanities advocate T. Mills Kelly contends that “a map is a historical source that makes an argument all its own,” and we found that the maps we made did just that.5 For example, after mapping all known venues in 1924 Paris, we observed that there were no documented performance spaces in the eastern third of the city. The map seemingly argued that no one was making music in that area, but here was an argument we could not accept. Surely the immigrants and working-class inhabitants of the 19th, 20th, 12th, and 13th arrondissements enjoyed and sought out musical performance. More likely, newspapers, archival sources, and secondary literature failed to illuminate where they might have heard music in their own neighborhoods. Spatial analysis produced this new, fascinating research question (not addressed anywhere in the literature, so far as we know), and by the end of the summer of 2015, we were convinced that more research questions would emerge as our mapping focus shifted.

Phase 2: 1920s Paris

In the fall of 2015, Dr. Epstein taught an upper-level course for music majors called “Music in Paris in the 1920s.” Students in that class did readings and studied musical works as per the usual in music history classes, but they also learned about 1920s Paris by exploring the maps on this website, the database of 1924 performances, and the primary sources first identified the previous summer. They also conducted primary source research to add to the website in significant ways. Over more than 100 posts to the Research Blog, they contributed more reflections on the research process and on critical lenses for 1920s French music. They wrote dozens of essays about important individuals, institutions, and premiere performances in the style of the primary sources of the period, including correspondence, bureaucratic memos, and concert reviews. These essays serve as important contextual materials for the data in the maps, since the maps can’t present or interpret the facts of music history in as nuanced a manner as longer written pieces can. Finally, the students of “Music in Paris in the 1920s” experimented with new ways of visualizing different aspects of musical life using Google Maps, TimelineJS, and StorylineJS. Their work informed the way the project would unfold during the summer of 2016.

Over ten weeks in the summer of 2016, Professor Epstein led a new team of student researchers to expand the project’s focus chronologically to encompass the “long” 1920s, and to expand the geographical scope to include performances well beyond the boulevard périphique of music associated with Paris. Having already explored the potential of synchronic, thick mapping to provide a new kind of research, teaching, and learning tool, we wanted to show that interactive maps could also answer more traditional musicological questions about transmission and reception. How can maps help us understand how musical works, musicians, and writing about music circulated in the early twentieth century? How might interactive maps help us experience transmission and reception in new ways?

We embarked on four case studies to answer these questions. One case study showed that the music of the Second Viennese School was more present on Parisian concert programs than most students would expect, given the way the Stravinsky/Schoenberg polemic is often taught. Another case study traced the spread of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro across the world following its 1928 premiere. Our most productive case study of the summer focused on the Ballets Russes, a group famously associated with Paris thanks largely to its titillating, scandalous premieres between 1909 and 1913 (including the riot-inducing premiere of The Rite of Spring). Drawing on sources that documented every performance of Diaghilev’s troupe, we created an exhaustive database including locations, dates, and program information.6 Again, the database is open to the public, but this time, users can generate their own chronological maps, seeing only Ballets Russes performances of music by a particular composer, or at a particular venue, or within a particular time span. Thanks to the comprehensive nature of this collection, we can draw significant conclusions about the Ballets Russes’s touring and programming strategies.

We didn’t forget about the research question prompted by mapping Parisian venues in the summer of 2015. We tried mapping venues in a new way, but the lacuna in eastern Pars persisted. We tried consulting newsletters published by immigrant groups (especially Poles, Czechs, and Russians) at the Bibliothèque nationale, but various language barriers made it difficult to determine whether they mentioned music. Finally, partly in the hope that we’d discover performances in the poorer parts of the city, one of our case studies sought to systematically document performances of jazz in 1920s Paris. Once again, the act of compiling a list of performances and rendering that list through a map contributed substantially to our knowledge about Parisian jazz history, but ultimately left us with more questions than answers.

Phase 3: Many Times and Places

This project started with 1920s Paris because that is Professor Epstein’s area of specialization, because it’s a rich period to look at in terms of artistic movements and musical performance, and because it’s amply documented and therefore easy to visualize. But the original impetus for making chronological, interactive maps about music history came from the maps about 15th century Burgundy that didn’t help explain the connection between territorial expansion and musical developments in that period. In the long term, this project is about improving on those maps. Working on 1920s Paris provided us with proof-of-concept maps and allowed us to experiment, fail, revise, and improve. We now know more about digital mapping techniques, we better understand the challenges and potential of embedding media, and we’re constantly adjusting our understanding of how maps can and cannot help us research, teach, and learn about music history. Next spring, we’ll create an array of pedagogical, map-based tools that would be useful in any music history survey. These new maps will visualize transmission, reception, and musical life in numerous times and places. We will explore the development of notated polyphony in 12th-century France; the origins and transmission of the contenance angloise in the 15th century; the spread of Italian madrigals to England in the 16th and 17th centuries; the establishment of opera houses and concert halls in Europe between 1600 and 1900; the training of American composers in Europe in the 20th century; and other topics.7 Once again, St. Olaf College undergraduates will take the lead on this phase of the project, this time not through summer work but through a for-credit, directed undergraduate research course in the digital humanities, funded by the Mellon Foundation.

Phase 4: Sharing is Caring

In addition to making new maps, the students taking the Musical Geography course next spring will also create tutorials to help others use our maps and generate their own. Soon after these tutorials become available, we hope to recruit scholars and students at other institutions to add to our databases through their own research and transcription efforts. Eventually, we might turn to a platform like Zooniverse (created by the University of Minnesota), which allows scholars to leverage the power of crowd-sourcing to do research. For example, we might make millions of pages from digitized newspapers available to the general public, thousands of whom might choose to transcribe concert listings for pleasure and for the edification of contributing to scholarly research. But our real ambition is to develop our own mapping platform, one specifically designed to showcase music historical data, and one well suited to collaboration across institutions, between professors and students, and between academics and the public. (For more on the limitations of existing platforms, see the Problems page.)


This project is largely student-driven: undergraduates do most of the research and much of the writing. They’re not only creating research and pedagogy tools; they’re also learning through doing the research and digital design to create those tools. They’re presenting our work on campus, online, at conferences (including the 2015 Bucknell Digital Scholarship Conference and the 2016 University of Kansas Digital Humanities Forum), and in public spaces (including at the Alliance Française of the Twin Cities). The more we do this work, the more confident we become that making maps is a great way to learn history, including music history.


1 This turn has been partly inspired by Carolyn Abbate’s call to engage with the presentness and ineffability of live performance and her critique of hermeneutic analysis that conflates phenomena taking place over large periods of time and wide geographical swaths. See Abbate, “Music – Drastic or Gnostic?” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 3 (Spring 2004), pp. 504-536. For a classic critique of the “work” concept, see Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

4 The affective turn in the humanities has had its echoes in music scholarship, notably in James Q. Davies, “On Being Moved/Against Objectivity,” Representations 132, no. 1 (Fall 2015, pp. 79-87.

5 T. Mills Kelly, Teaching History in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013, 64.

6 Comprehensive listings of Ballets Russes performances can be found in a series of publications by Sarah Woodcock title “Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev” published in The Dancing Times starting in December 2008; and another series of publications by Jane Pritchard titled “Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: An Itinerary,” published in Dance Research starting in Winter 2009.

7 Several of these topics are inspired by maps currently presented in music history textbooks. Others will be digitized, interactive versions of maps found in Paul Collaer, Albert vander Linden, and F van den Bremt, Atlas historique de la musique (Paris: Elsevier, 1960).

Here you can create the content that will be used within the module.