September Conference Review (Part 3: DigiPal)

This is Part 3 of a series of posts informally reviewing three conferences I attended (giving papers at two) in September. For Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here.

The Noises of Art: Audiovisual Practice in History, Theory and Culture (The School of Art, Aberystwyth University / The Courtauld Institute of Art, London / Aberystwyth Arts Centre) 4-6 September, 2o13.

Cantum pulcriorem invenire: Music in Western Europe, 1150-1350 (University of Southampton) 9-11 September, 2013.

DigiPal Symposium III (King’s College, London) 16 September, 2013.

Palaeography, along with codicology, is invaluable to close work with manuscripts, no matter the contents. The study of handwriting can tell us so much not only about the content of a manuscript, but also about the scribe (or scribes) who wrote it. Historians (in any field, including music) can use palaeography to study the writing practices of a specific time period or geographical area, or similarly to help determine the date a MS was created and where (or if certain content should be dated differently than the rest of the MS). Palaeography also happens to be a large focus of my PhD work, specifically examining handwriting practices of a large number of scribes notating songs in British Sources between 1150 and 1300. Because so much of my research involves research on pedagogy, it’s important to note that I believe that palaeography and the teaching/learning of early notation go hand in hand to an extent, so if students are going to learn early notation, really they need to be learning palaeography as well. Most of the time they are actually learning palaeographical techniques, but they just don’t realize it.

The group of songs I’m working with numbers just over 100 (115, more if you include the different text settings of similar musical content), and this type of large-scale (note: large is a relative term here – I’m aware that 100 doesn’t necessarily constitute ‘large’ in terms of data comparison) comparative palaeography is one of the most interesting ways that technology is being used in the field of manuscript studies. When I attended the DigiPal symposium last year, it was a major inspiration for my PhD work, especially from a palaeographical perspective, so when I saw the call for papers this year, I knew I wanted to submit an abstract. DigiPal is a project based at King’s College, London, focused on the study of medieval handwriting in England between 1000-1100. It’s a really useful resource, even though it’s still currently being developed. In particular I find the Glossary helpful, because that’s an area of the field that is famously finnicky – what one person calls a letterform may be wildly different than another scholar’s terminology.

In terms of digital palaeography, there is some work being done in this field that is beyond me, technologically, and without a trace of irony I can say it blows my mind. As of now it is mostly confined to alphabetic writing systems, and within that it is largely specific to the purpose of transcription. But the interesting thing is the way in which the writing systems are being broken down for the purposes of analysis on multiple levels (Find the DigiPal Symposium III Programme hereSession III: Digital Methods contained a lot of the large-scale/hardcore digital analysis work, especially Lambert Schomaker and Jean-Paul van Oosten’s presentations). Projects all over the world are developing using analysis by word, word in context (Eleanor Anthony also mentioned using context as a tool in her fascinating presentation on recreating damaged MSS by way of probabilistic network approaches), letter, letterform, stroke, or shape. And sometimes the reasons a project gives for specifically breaking down a text (or texts) in a certain way can be indicative of the expected outcome – as the field progresses it will certainly be fascinating to see how the methodology can change the results.

Lambert Schomaker probably said it best, though, at the end of his presentation when he noted to the relief of all the palaeographers in the audience that (and I’m paraphrasing), no matter how advanced technology becomes, nothing can take the place of a scholar’s eye in terms of being able to analyse something in its context.

This was something I noted in my presentation during the first session, Manuscripts and the Digital Age.  My paper was called ‘Musical Perception and Digital Surrogates: On Using E-Resources for Teaching Early Music Notation’, and in it I discussed elements of musical palaeography that can effectively be taught to undergraduate students using electronic resources. Rather than developing a tool specifically for purposes of research or data mining, this type of resource can be used to encourage students to develop this ‘scholar’s eye’, and hopefully complement future digital research work with a generation of ‘traditionally’ trained scholars who also know the benefits of working with digital sources. Digital resources I think can be specifically good for palaeography training (which many institutes have already applied to the study of alphabetic writing systems) because there are a lot of minute details that vary across a wide range of sources, and even within individual sources. It’s incredibly helpful to be able to do close comparative work, and digital images allow for this type of research better than physical ones, especially for comparing forms in separate MSS.

Hearing traditional palaeographic work was helpful, too. Any scholar who works with medieval music sources will also have to work with text (90% of the time, anyway), so it’s nice to have had the opportunity to hear about current palaeographical work in a more ‘traditional’ setting (see the last two papers in Session IV from David Ganz and Tessa Webber, both of which were fantastic). It was certainly an information-packed day, and the organisers (Peter Stokes & Stewart Brookes, both at King’s College, London) should be commended for a really useful and creative project, and a great conference.

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