THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Music blog

19 April 2021

Introducing the Internet of Musical Events: a project to capture the history of live performance

The British Library is delighted to be part of an innovative new project that seeks to develop digital tools and methodologies to help capture the history of live performance.

The Internet of Musical Events: Digital Scholarship, Community, and the Archiving of Performances (InterMusE) is a two-year project funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council UK as part of the UK-US New Directions for Digital Scholarship in Cultural Institutions programme. Led by Professor Rachel Cowgill, from the University of York’s Department of Music, it brings together an interdisciplinary team of musicologists, archivists, computer scientists, and performance providers from the University of York, the Borthwick Institute for Archives, Computational Foundry at Swansea University, the British Library, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The project arises from longstanding recognition of the challenges associated with the documentation of, and access to, collections of performance ephemera, for which the British Library is a key repository in the UK. Live musical events play a vital role in community life across the globe, yet they often leave only faint traces on the historical record, even in modern times. Sources can be tantalisingly incomplete, confusingly inconsistent, and often scattered between different archives and collections, if preserved at all. While some ensembles, venues and music societies have documented their histories (the Proms Performance Archive being one notable example), the picture is fragmented with no common standards of description or connection between related online resources, or efforts to archive data.

InterMusE will make possible new ways of capturing and, crucially, linking different forms of data around musical events to form a dynamic, open-access digital archive. The research team will work with a diverse range of concert materials including programmes, posters and other ephemera held at the British Library, the University of York’s Borthwick Institute for Archives, the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Linen Hall Library (Belfast), the Royal College of Music, and three former chapters of the British Music Society (BMS): Huddersfield Music Society, the British Music Society of York, and Belfast Music Society. The richness of the resulting data will offer unprecedented opportunities to collect, analyse, and visualise information about musical events and how they have shaped and been shaped by community life over the past century. The digitised data will be used to create a series of online, open-access portals that can be linked with existing collections, resulting in a widely accessible digital archive of musical events.

Huddersfield Music Club programme for concert given by the Amadeus String Quartet on 12 October 1953
Huddersfield Music Club: Programme for concert given by the Amadeus String Quartet on 12 October 1953.

Central to the project is the ambition to equip performing arts organisations and their communities with tools to help promote and enhance their own musical histories and traditions. This is particularly significant as communities begin to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the project’s Lead Researcher, Professor Rachel Cowgill states:

'The experience of living through a global pandemic has, for many, greatly increased the value of music at precisely the time the ‘live event’ has fallen victim to strictures on social distancing and lockdown. InterMusE addresses some of the key challenges emerging for the arts and humanities in post-Covid times, investigating the mutually sustaining relationships between live music and communities and harnessing the capacity of digital technologies to enable collaboration and engagement with members of the public.'

InterMusE will combine computational digital-archiving methods with more accessible, community-focussed approaches such as oral-history interviews, audience reminiscences, and citizen research. This will not only facilitate engagement between particular musical societies and their audiences, but also create a new layer of evidential material for studying the impact and community significance of performance events in the 20th and 21st centuries. As Hilary Norcliffe (Archivist of the Huddesfield Music Society) commented, “Concert attendees are often keen to express their views about what they have heard and experienced but currently there is no means of recording these thoughts. This project offers the means for members of the society to add personal comments, views, reminiscences and materials, whilst also following their own lines of inquiry, thus enriching the archive.”

For more information, see the project website: https://intermuse.datatodata.org/

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