Sunday, June 28, 2015

AMS presidents ponder

by Richard Freedman

Last week in New York City hundreds of members of the International Association for Music Libraries (IAML) and international Musicological Society (IMS) gathered for a week’s worth of presentations, meetings, and discussion to consider “Music Research in the Digital Age” (our previous coverage HERE). It's a statement of fact, of course: these days whose work is not somehow inflected by new digital media, and new ways of interacting with them? And whose interactions with colleagues has not been made more rapid and frequent by the advent of the digital domain?

Over the course of the conference, reports on individual initiatives, like these—
Fons de Música Tradicional at the Institució Milà i Fontanals (CSIC-IMF) in Barcelona

Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives
—were framed by plenary sessions that sought to get everyone thinking in a more intentional way about where we've been, and where we might be in another decade, both here and abroad.

At one session American Musicological Society president Ellen Harris assembled three of her predecessors in the office to offer individual and institutional perspectives on all of this: past presidents Anne Walters Robertson, Elaine Sisman, and Christopher Reynolds. Their remarks were rounded out with responses from Philippe Vendrix (Centre d'Études Supérieures de la Renaissace [CESR], Tours) and myself. We had agreed in advance on three intersecting headings:
  • Collections. In the last decades we’ve watched the explosive growth of new kinds of digital resources: sound and image archives, facsimiles of print and manuscripts editions, digital encodings of musical notation and other information, and new modes of scholarly communication in blogs, multimedia journals, and beyond. How do we make sure that these resources are visible and discoverable? How is ubiquitous access to materials manifest in current work, and what kinds of research questions are scholars asking?  What questions might they ask next? How are new modes of publication changing the material aspect of our work?
  • Collaborations. Musicologists are working together in new ways. We’re also working more than ever with library and IT specialists, and with a widerning range of scholars from other disciplines (not just literary and historical studies, but the social and hard sciences as well). How have digital technologies in particular encouraged such collaboration? How might participation in multi-authored publications or projects change the character of our work? What possibilities seem especially ripe for international collaboration? What barriers are there to such work, and how could the AMS and IMS/IAML work to reduce them? How are state (private) funding bodies likely to view such work?  How sustainable is any of this?
  • Communities. What good is our work in the world at large? Who has access to it (here I am thinking of the open-access and open-source movement)? In the age of Wikipedia, who will bother to look at current musicological publications? How do we communicate with peers in other disciplines, with professional and amateur musicians, and with the public at large? How can digital modes of publication help us reach such folks? And what of the next generation of students and scholars? How is the teaching of musicology and the formation of musicologists changing? How are North American graduate programs changing?

The presidents offered personal reflections on the old and new cultures:

Using examples from plainchant to Machaut, Robertson explained how medieval readers would have been completely at home with the idea of a “web” of knowledge, texts, and images, for this simple reason: “in the pre-modern period,” she reminded us, “words that are set to music are connected to other words, much more so, I would argue, than they are in the modern era, when copyright rules and notions of individuality among authors and composers have eroded the fundamental principles of scholarship and exegesis that dominated in earlier times.”

Sisman related her own tale of digital discovery, which began with an attempt to put Haydn’s earliest Esterhazy contract—and his earliest symphonies—into their original time and place. The results took her sent her skipping through star maps and other observational aids, eventually returning to illuminate Haydn’s music, no less than the circumstances of his employment.

Reynolds (with UC Davis music specialist Michael Colby, immediate past president of the Music Library Association) told the story of how a chance flea-market encounter with sheet music published by women went from hobby to database. (The Christopher A. Reynolds Collection of Women's Song, 1850 -1950 is now part of Special Collections at Davis; permalink to database HERE). Colby told the parallel story of how this valuable collection found a home, and is becoming visible, thanks to innovative approaches to the cataloging and electronic publication of meta-data. Together they helped reflect on important issues of curation, sustainability, and publication.

Vendrix and I took turns responding to these presentations. Among our reactions:
New technologies of writing have always complicated the relationship between authors and readers. This is especially true of the performing art of music. From the beginnings of western musical notation, to the advent of the printing press, to sound recording, and now to the digital domain, new technologies of transcription brought about means for controlling the effects and purposes of music, even inaugurating a new sense of it as intellectual property. Each was a "new medium" of its day, and each brought with it new ways for composers, performers, and listeners to interact around musical ideas. Now it is transforming scholarship, too.
Now music scholars and scholarship are also being drawn into the process of technological change: we once viewed print (books, journals, editions) as the durable means through which we put our best ideas before colleagues and the wider musical public in durable form. But as digital texts remake the world of scholarship as surely as YouTube and Spotify have remade the curatorial function of the recording industry, critical authority and responsibility are changing, too. Editions prepared with open-source standards like the Text Encoding Initiative and Music Encoding Initiative editions, for instance, can be shared across any computer system, and can preserve with remarkable detail almost any level of intervention in a text, and distinguish my vision of a text from yours. Linked Open Data standards permit the interoperation of giant arrays of digital projects, connecting information about places, people, institutions, and musical works in complex ontologies of semantic tags. These are inherently destabilizing forms: layered and collaborative. The tools of the trade are reshaping scholarly cultures, no less than artistic ones.
We all know that the present is a notoriously poor vantage point for regarding the future. But it is tempting to predict the following developments:
  • New Modes of Reading and Writing. The advent of digital texts for music will open the medium will open the medium to new sorts of research questions make possible by the interaction of close and distant modes of reading. We will be forced to imagine new ways of searching in musical texts, new ways of citing them, and new ways of representing our findings.
  • New Forms of Publication and New Scholarly Communities. These new modes of reading will engender new forms of publication. Here we might think not only of digital alongside print, but the creation of new multi-author works, and publication in which the same author might take part in various ways, as editor, annotator, analyst, and respondent. Old distinctions between scholarly and pedagogical publications will also be blurred, and in turn the line between research and teaching will be porous. Process and community building will matter as much as finished work. This in turn will have profound effects on the ways in which we evaluate and credential our work, with special impact on the younger scholars best prepared to participate in the digital domain.
  • New Disciplinary Intersections. The AMS, IMS, and IAML will foster dialogue among the tools and methods of its constituent members in the craft and study of music. But modes of inquiry will be put in counterpoint with digital disciplines practiced elsewhere in the academy, and beyond, including branches of Literary Studies and Linguistics (topic modeling, studies of style and authenticity, and syntax), Cognition and Brain Science (with computationally intensive investigation of neural networks that might inform our understanding of listening, composition, and the history of style), and Informatics (through big data techniques like clustering, similarity networks, and machine learning systems).
Music historians are uniquely poised to take a leadership role in all this. No one knows which of these predictions will hold up, but I for one will make a beeline to the next congress to see what will have been accomplished.

Richard Freedman is John C. Whitehead Professor of Music at Haverford College in Pennsylvania; webpage HERE. He is author of Music in the Renaissance in the W. W. Norton series Western Music in Context (2012). When not busy in the classroom or with research he enjoys giving public lectures on music, notably a series of pre-concert talks for the Philadelphia Orchestra and for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and work with One-Day-University (a traveling set of continuing education panels). More than Mozart, a set of 14 recorded talks for those curious to be better listeners, can be purchased through Barnes and Noble and Recorded Books.

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