St. Olaf College | News

Student travels to Paris to research historical sounds of the city

Carolyn Nuelle ’18 in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. She spent several weeks in the city this summer gathering source material for a St. Olaf research project.

The chance to explore Paris on a quest for hidden treasure sounds like a tale reserved for a novel. Yet St. Olaf College student Carolyn Nuelle ’18, a French and music major, did just that this summer — with the ‘treasure’ in this case being the source material for an ambitious research project.

She is part of a St. Olaf research team led by Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein that is using technology to create interactive, chronological maps of musical life in 1920s Paris that bring the city to life in a way that a paper map never could.

Nuelle spent two weeks in the City of Lights searching for historical records that can help the team recreate the feeling of being in Paris nearly a century ago.

Delving through the records of some of the city’s greatest houses of historical documents, Nuelle spent much of her time in the National Archives, National Library, Mahler Multimedia Library, and the Archives of the Police Headquarter.

Her objective was to locate primary sources — such as newspaper advertisements, noise complaints, and music manuscripts — that may be useful to Epstein’s team.

Nuelle was not only searching for documents; she spent time snapping photos of the historic sites of the city as well, with a keen focus on music venues and nightlife hotspots. She also recorded some of the sounds of the city that will be added to the maps.

“It was a unique experience to be able to sort through newspaper clippings or concert programs that are almost a hundred years old,” she says. “When you find familiar names or relevant information it gets exciting, like you’re solving some great mystery.”

All of this work will help inform the St. Olaf team’s mapping project, which is part of the college’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program. The project is in its second year and has involved eight student researchers over the two years. This year’s team includes Emily Hynes ‘18 (who is conducting her work as part of the St. Olaf TRIO McNair Scholars program), Zhizhi (Stella) Li ‘17, Samuel Parker ‘18, and Nuelle.

Last year, the team’s focus centered on creating a single map covering all of the musical happenings of 1924 Paris. This year’s team is creating multiple maps to illustrate change over time, casting the spotlight on staples of 1920s Parisian musical life like Austro-Germanic music and the Ballets Russes.

“The most rewarding moments were times when everything kind of fell into place — when I recognized a newspaper clipping cited in a book we’d read earlier in the summer, or when I finally got to see hard copies of a collection of music hall programs rather than having to read them on microfilm,” Nuelle says.

Why the need to send someone to Paris? This points to one of the main problems that the research team has had to deal with.

“Many of the resources we’re using to conduct our research are available through the digital archive of the French national library, but there are always newspapers, music periodicals, letters, administrative records, and other primary sources that haven’t been digitized,” Epstein says.

Nuelle is the second member of Epstein’s team to travel to Paris to search for source material. Last summer Philip Claussen ’16, a music education major, spent two weeks in the city looking for similar information.

“I’d say the best part about going was the opportunity to explore the city with new eyes,” Claussen says. “I’d been to Paris in the past, but not with the sorts of things in mind that I had this time around as part of the team. Being in Paris to find performance venues and sites of former performance venues is really a very exciting experience, as you get a completely different perspective of the city than if you were there simply for tourism.”

The experiences that Nuelle and Claussen had in Paris are what the team ultimately wants users of the map to have.

Epstein says, “Whether someone is physically present in Paris or exploring its musical legacy through an interactive map, the city comes to life; the connections between the present and the past become tangible; and the hidden musical treasures of Paris are revealed.”