Back in 2012 at a conference at Yale University, Dr Erin Helyard was shown a sheet of music from an 18th century songbook. The person discussing the music dismissed it as not very good – repeating what was a common opinion of the songbook at the time.
Dr Helyard, an acclaimed musicologist, virtuoso harpsichord player and former lecturer at the ANU School of Music, examined the music score. He could hear the music in his head and immediately discerned that it was in fact very beautiful music – and not at all banal as other scholars had claimed.
This was the origin story, ANU art historian Dr Robert Wellington says, of what he's termed the 'digital songbook project'.
The songbook Choix de Chansons, published in 1773, comprises four volumes of around 400 music scores accompanying lyric poems and around 400 illustrations. The scores were the work of French composer Jean-Benjamin de Laborde, and the lyric poems, “whose subjects provide an extraordinarily wide panorama of eighteenth-century life”, were by various authors including the philosopher Voltaire. Choix de Chansons was dedicated to Marie Antoinette – which meant something different to what it means now, as dedications then had to be accepted by their subject. Needless to say, it was an important, well-known work of its time.
Dr Glenn Roe, who was a Senior Lecturer in the ANU Centre for Digital Humanities, came into the picture during the formation of the French Research Cluster in 2014. He became acquainted with Dr Helyard, and saw the potential for Choix de Chansons to be the basis for a digital project. Its images, music and text could be analysed.
“Glenn would work on the poems; Erin, a musicologist and musician, could study and record the music; and as an art historian, I could study the illustrations,” Dr Wellington explained.
“We came to realise that this book represented the combination of skills that a courtier in the 18th century might possess, but that had been separated into different disciplines in universities over time.”
The team, which expanded to include Professor Mark Ledbury, director of the Power Institute at the University of Sydney, and Professor Nicholas Cronk, director of the Voltaire Foundation at Oxford University, succeeded in creating a digital version of the book. Now, supported by an ARC Discovery Grant which has added Dr Christina Clarke, sessional lecturer with the ANU School of Art and Design, the team has its sights set on a more ambitious target.
“The plan is to create an interactive edition of the book online where you can listen to the music, zoom in on the illustrations, read the poems, and access short essays written on the themes of the book,” Dr Wellington says.
In January, a replica of a late-18th century French harpsichord was acquired. With Dr Paul McMahon, a tenor and the Deputy Head of the ANU School of Music, and English soprano Amy Moore, Dr Helyard recorded over 180 songs from the songbook.
The team has also been hard at work doing the nuts and bolts of recording the metadata of all facets of the songbook for the online platform: from the names of the artists beyond the illustrations to the keywords and subject matter of each of the lyric poems. Rendering the contents of the book in this way fosters the potential for a richer experience for the reader/user. Dr Wellington imagines, for example, that someone wanting to understand why so many of the songs in the book are about shepherds/shepherdesses could search for 'shepherd' and be presented with “all the songs that mention shepherds, the prints that illustrate them, and an essay on the topic of pastoral themes in 18th century art, music and literature.”
“Our hope is that this will result in a kind of networked encyclopaedia of things and concepts that will allow us to understand more about art and life in late-18th century France,” he adds.
To help them realise their vision, they're now on the hunt for a research fellow - a “really innovative designer who will help us to re-imagine this 18th century book for the 21st century.” The result will be a scholarly resource as well as a teaching tool for secondary and tertiary students learning art, classical music, and French.
“We don't know exactly what this will look like yet, but we imagine that it will be a dynamic, interactive experience that will allow you to explore the illustrations, music and poems in any number of ways,” Dr Wellington says.
“You will be able to 'choose your own adventure'!”
Over in the ANU Centre for Digital Humanities Research, Dr Katrina Grant is working on a project with Dr Lisa Beaven from La Trobe University that involves digitising maps made in the 17th century that record the countryside around the city of Rome, known as the Roman Campagna. The maps, which, in places, depict a swampy and deforested landscape, are a stark contrast to the idyllic Arcadian land represented in paintings from the same period.
“What’s fascinating is what these maps show us is not that the paintings are a lie, but they’re a construction,” Dr Grant says.
The danger of this for us in the modern day, is that we tend to believe that the 17th century paintings are generally realistic, even if we acknowledge that there’s a level of idealisation happening.
“Although art historians generally recognise that they’re idealised; the sun’s out, maybe a few trees have been moved around to create a well-balanced composition – but the fact they’re so constructed is surprising,” she says.
What the paintings represent is an ideal of a place that was in reality badly affected by climate change. During this period Europe and North America experienced the Little Ice Age, with the coldest snap falling during the 17th century. This impacted the growth of crops and greenery, and, in the Roman countryside, leaving a lot of land swampy and undesirable for habitation.
“One of the reasons we find it fascinating is because we are now in a period, in the 21st century, where the landscape is undergoing climate change of a different type. Are the images we’re creating now revealing of that change, that the landscape is suffering, or are we masking it?”
She gives the example of images on the news of dead fish surfaced in the Murray Darling River, but also tourist brochure imagery that doesn’t show the negatives or how the Australian landscape is changing.
The maps Dr Grant’s colleague Dr Beaven found also contain a lot of useful information: about the fishing areas, the straw huts some people lived in, roads and rivers, and forests that were short on trees. It’s information they recognise would have value to a range of people: archaeologists, art historians, social historians, geographers. They’re now working with Associate Professor Mitchell Whitelaw from the ANU School of Art and Design to lift all the information they can out of the maps and to digitise it, this has included georeferencing the maps, a process of aligning them with contemporary maps to show how the region has changed over time.
“You could just put all the data into a traditional database, but we want to actually locate it on a map to attach it to the place,” Dr Grant explains.
The logic is that scanning a map embedded with layers of information will be a more user-friendly interface than the lottery of going through a search box.
It’s a project, she says, that will draw varied disciplines together.
“Rather than art historians in one corner doing research on history of art and geographers somewhere else, we’re saying that we all work on this, and there’s probably a lot of crossover in the information we discover,” Dr Grant says. “Information about climate could inform the work art historians do, understanding the representation of place, but they also give us important information about historical climate.”
“The data in the maps and paintings could be useful for social historians trying to understand how people worked and lived in this landscape, so it’s useful to talk to art historians to question how accurate the paintings might be and if they could be used as a source and vice-versa.”
The project is in a data-gathering phase, but Dr Grant hopes that a basic prototype of the online map could be built by the end of the year.
With their respective projects in the back of their minds, Drs Katrina Grant and Robert Wellington were having a chat one day about what a publication might look like if they didn't have to limit themselves to that old hat of a book or journal article.
“Screen-based technologies provide us with so many more options than a traditional print format might allow,” Dr Wellington says.
He goes on to list the possibilities: the creation of non-linear narratives that take advantage of hyperlinks to link ideas; the use of sound, moving images, or even animated illustrations to show, for instance, change over time rather than having a static set of data.
“All of these things have been and continue to be exploited by researchers across disciplines,” he says. “Yet academic publishing seems to be a little ossified. The gold standard for a research output is still a book published by a quality peer-reviewed university press.”
“The digital turn in humanities is threatening to shake this up. New digital technologies and software provide us with new methods for conducting our research and sharing our findings.”
The two want to change the status quo. As a starting point, they're inviting other scholars from a range of disciplines to get together and do some blue-sky thinking about what a digital publication could be.
Their Digital Publishing workshop on 15 April will feature representatives from ANU, the University of Technology Sydney, and the University of Sydney. Head of ANU Press Roxanne Missingham will be one of the speakers.
“We're interested in starting to find answers to questions like 'What does success look like in a digital project? Digital platforms offer the flexibility of continuing to add to a project over several years, so when is a project finished? ,” Dr Grant says.
“How will peer review work? What level of technical or digital innovation should we expect a born-digital project to have?”
While digital outputs offer many possibilities, Dr Grant says it's important for academics to be mindful of issues of obsolescence associated with digital technologies.
“Safeguarding the knowledge and ideas needs to be planned from the beginning, so even if technology changes, the research and data isn’t lost.”
Dr Wellington hopes that their workshop will foster productive conversation that could give rise to new collaborative research projects.
“At the very least, we hope this workshop will be the first of many, and that it will inspire humanities scholars at ANU to find creative ways to share their research online.”