Monday, August 17, 2015

Transforming Musicology

A Report from Britain

by Carolin Rindfleisch

As a three-year project funded under the British Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Digital Transformations scheme, Transforming Musicology is part of a broader effort to understand how digital technologies and digital culture can transform scholarly work in several disciplines. Acknowledging that musicological research and academic culture are inescapably changing, the project aims to be at the forefront of defining—or suggesting—what “Digital Musicology” can look like.

It is being carried out collaboratively by musicologists, computer scientists, and psychologists at Goldsmiths College, Queen Mary College, Oxford University, the Oxford e-Research Centre, Lancaster University, and Utrecht University. Within its three main investigative strands and four associated mini-projects, the research project encompasses a wide range of musicological subjects, methods, perspectives, sources, and topics:
  • Sixteenth Century Lute and Vocal Music explores methods of digitizing early printed sources from images to encoded scores, and also works towards the enrichment and digital publication of metadata on such sources, so that they can be the subject of large-scale investigations.
  • Musicology of the Social Media explores the phenomenon of non-traditional musical expertise as evidenced on the Web, and employs techniques of social network analysis in studying current as well as historical musical networks.
  • Richard Wagner and the Leitmotiv Technique brings together historical and philological approaches with empirical psychological methods and “Semantic Web” technologies in order to investigate the reception, interpretation and perception of Wagner’s leitmotivs through changing historical and cultural contexts from the Ring premiere in 1876 until today.
  •  Large-scale corpus analysis of historical electronic music using MIR tools is building a corpus of electronic music and using audio analysis techniques to explore it.
  •  In Concert: Towards a Collaborative Digital Archive of Musical Ephemera federates a number of databases of materials relating to historical performances such as concert programs and analyzes them in order to explore trends in musical tastes. 
  • Medieval Music, Big Data and the Research Blend takes a rigorous approach to mining the Web for new sources of conductus texts.
  • Characterizing stylistic interpretations through automated analysis of ornamentation in Irish traditional music recordings uses sophisticated audio analysis techniques to “fingerprint” ornamentation styles in Irish traditional music. 
Taking a particular research question as its starting point, each of these contributing strands aims to explore how digital technologies, tools and digitally shaped research methods can be integrated into the research process, how they can change and broaden the field of questions we are capable of asking and addressing, and how they can enrich the methodological “toolbox” of musicologists. They present a variety of scenarios, which explore ‘traditional’ questions and accustomed source types as well as genuinely digital material.

In addition to its research activities, the project also includes efforts in teaching, scholarly collaboration and public engagement (such as the Digital Libraries for Musicology workshop, a Digital Musicology workshop within the Digital Humanities Summer School at the University of Oxford, or the Hearing Wagner experiment and public engagement event.

An example of a rather traditional music-historical problem that lends itself to the exploration of new digital perspectives is presented by the investigation of Wagner-reception. The unusual vastness of Wagnerian literature has become almost proverbial, Wagner’s leitmotivs especially being subject to varied interpretations in different times and different cultures. In order to find out how Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen has been understood in specific situations, and how those interpretations influence and inform our understanding of Wagner today, the history of Wagner interpretation has been chosen as the subject of a comprehensive and comparative analysis. But if we want to study reception across historical situations and cultural contexts, and yet not restrict ourselves to general characteristics, but compare interpretations down to the individual concepts of leitmotivs, the problem quickly becomes too large to handle manually.

We therefore explore the possibilities of “Semantic Web” technologies. The Semantic Web builds on the existing infrastructure of the World Wide Web, but aims at representing information (or data) in a way that allows it to be handled and “understood” not only by humans but also by machines, in order to enable an automatic inference of knowledge. One of the key technologies of the Semantic Web is thus the so-called “ontology”: a structured and explicit definition and representation of concepts and their relationships in a given domain, which enables data and knowledge to be shared on a common ground.

Can this help us to model and describe the numerous leitmotiv-concepts and the differentiated and varied relationships, contrasts and influences that exist between reception practices and related documents? Can we make use of the enhanced capabilities for searching, querying and restructuring of data sources facilitated by the Semantic Web, in order to discover connections that otherwise might have been overlooked due to the scope of the matter? A particular challenge—which is characteristic for the open and collaborative nature of the digital culture, blurring conventional boundaries and challenging traditional ways of communication and interaction—lies thereby in integrating different perspectives, approaches, academic cultures, not to say “world views”: How can we translate musicological methods and ways of thinking into those of Semantic Web research (and the other way round)? Can we truly integrate “old” and new approaches, instead of just replacing one with the other? Finding questions and perspectives that work both ways makes up a considerable part of the undertaking.

Carolin Rindfleisch is a PhD student with Transforming Musicology at the University of Oxford. You can read more about the other researchers on the Transforming Musicology project HERE.

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