St. Olaf College | News

St. Olaf researchers map the historical sounds of a city

St. Olaf researchers (from left) Katharina Biermann ’17, Natalie Kopp ’16, Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein, Breanna Olson ’16, and Philip Claussen ’16 are using mapping technology to bring music history to life.

What if a map could not only help us visualize what Paris looked like nearly a century ago, but help us hear the sounds of the city, too?

A team of St. Olaf College researchers, led by Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein, is using mapping technology to create a multi-sensory, interactive tool to illustrate the musical geography of 1920s Paris in ways that a book, recording, or paper map could not do alone.

“We want viewers to experience Paris in 1924 — to see physically where concerts were held, listen to a concert program, follow paths historical figures might have taken,” says Natalie Kopp ’16, one of the student researchers working on the project.

The project is part of both the Digital Humanities on the Hill initiative and the college’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program.

Using this type of technology to bring music history to life has only rarely been done before, Epstein says.

“Most historians and scholars use static, paper-based maps that tend to show things such as political, geographical, or topographical context for music history, but these maps tend to be silent and difficult to relate to how music sounds,” Epstein says.

A tool to see and listen
A historical musicologist whose research focuses on the intersections between music, patronage, and politics in France during the 19th and 20th centuries, Epstein earned a B.A. in music from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in music from Harvard University.

For this project, he chose 1924 Paris because of the city’s status as the capital of the music world in the early 20th century, particularly in the post–World War I years. Paris also hosted the 1924 Summer Olympics, an event that drew visitors from around the world to the already vibrant city and encouraged musicians to perform for a wider audience.

This map — one of several on the research team's public website — visualizes the locations of various musical venues around the city of Paris in 1924, with each category of venue represented by a different layer.
This map — one of several on the research team’s public website — visualizes the locations of various musical venues around the city of Paris in 1924, with each category of venue represented by a different layer.

Using mapping platforms like Google Maps and ArcGIS as well as previously non-digitized, historical maps of Paris, Epstein and the student researchers are creating a public website that enables users to see and interact with several different aspects of the city’s musical geography.

One map represents the various performance venues where music was performed — concert halls, theaters, café-concerts, public parks, private salons, etc. Another map offers a way to explore the locations and programs of dozens of performances of a single composer’s works over the course of one year. Yet another map makes it possible to hear the concert programs performed across the city on a specific date. Altogether, there are currently ten maps with which users can interact, with more on the way.

Through a few clicks of the mouse, users can see and hear the music that was performed in a particular venue, on a specific date, nearly 100 years ago.

Adding narratives
Site users can also get a glimpse into the life of a 1924 Parisian through The Unsuspecting Tour Guide, a set of short stories written by student researcher Katharina Biermann ’17.

Using historical data, Biermann recreates the atmosphere of 1924 Paris through a set of fictional first-person narratives.

“I try to present as accurate as possible an image of what it was like to be in Paris in 1924,” she says. “This is especially important in pedagogical terms, because not all students glean equally from images of graphs and statistical analysis. Stories, though, are so distinctly human that they will reveal what graphs and charts cannot.”

Biermann’s short stories are an important part of the project’s larger goal of making music history more accessible to more people.

“Rather than looking at these data to create a thesis or make a comparison, we’ve been trying to piece together enough facts to form a sort of narrative or story — ultimately to recreate a world,” Kopp says. “I hope our project inspires others to create data-narratives as well.”

Why music on a map matters
Epstein says this project provides an opportunity to open music history scholarship to a much wider audience.

“They won’t get the most sophisticated insights through a map, but what they will get is an experience of what it was like to be in a place at a certain time. They can also better understand the context for any kind of music being performed, since most scholarship focuses on art music rather than popular music and the sounds in the street,” he says.

Student researcher Philip Claussen ’16 says while scholars have made interactive academic maps in the past, it hasn’t been done in the field of music history, and certainly not with the kind of scope this project has.

“We are ultimately bringing the musical culture of 1924 Paris back to life in the 21st century, and in a format easily accessible to 21st-century scholars, students, and amateurs alike,” he says.

Epstein hopes this project is a stepping stone for similar — and even larger — projects in the future. And the team agrees that they would like to see other scholars bring their work to life in this way.

“I hope that more academics will consider adding visual elements to their research in order to facilitate the depth of comprehension of that data they are presenting,” student researcher Breanna Olson ‘16 says. “Frankly, an interactive map is a much cooler way to learn than a huge textbook.”