Resounding Culture: Recontextualizing resources for histories of music in Canada

The project is developing an accessible, searchable multimedia web portal for histories of music and music-making in Canada that links digitized cultural resources across distinct collections and create a multi-stranded network of histories that intersect, influence, complement, and exist in tension with one another.

Resounding Culture: Recontextualizing resources for histories of music in Canada

This project employs the new possibilities inherent in a linked data (digital) resource to recontextualize musical activities in Canada in a way that will facilitate ongoing historical research across interdisciplinary, multicultural, and multifaceted cultural resources.   Building on both a reconceptualization of basic premises of national music histories and on the communicative potential of searchable knowledge networks, this project is designed to develop an accessible, searchable multimedia web portal for histories of music and music-making in Canada. The portal will link digitized cultural resources across distinct collections, drawing on the multi- and intercultural nature of musical practices and the potential for innovative use of technology to create a viable alternative to traditional narrative - and often linear - approaches to history.  

The project is founded on the widely shared understanding that music history must include and take seriously diverse musical practices. Recognizing the potential for curated collections of interrelated documents to constitute an alternative mode of history, and with funding support from a multi-year SSHRC Insight Grant, the project will develop cross-disciplinary datasets of existing online cultural materials using existing digital collections available through University of Alberta sources for which permissions are clear and the interoperability of technologies has been considered. From these beginnings (with nearly twenty collections), a framework will be established modeling music metadata curation, ensuring the security and sustainability of the current resources, and allowing the addition of new resources as permissions are received. This starting point will ensure the feasibility of the project and allow our research team to develop the necessary experience to create a portal that is both reliable and fully expandable. The resulting web portal will employ best practices of metadata curation for music and related sources. By selecting, curating, contextualizing and linking within these resources, we will model an approach to digital music histories that speaks to the diversity of perspectives and practices of music and music-making in Canada, across time and place and within and beyond the discipline of musicology.


Consider, as a starting point, how a history of music in Canada might incorporate (or choose to omit) the following elements:

• The work of a single artist-creator, for instance, Glenn Gould’s radio production, The Idea of North (Gould 1967), a unique perspective on the Arctic as a place of isolation and challenge, and an experiment in collage and polyphonic layers of spoken of voices.

• The current, cosmopolitan musical life of Montreal, where internationally recognized classical and early music organizations co-exist with a thriving independent popular music scene, intercultural collaborations from across the Americas, and an experimental music compositional world shaped by longstanding connections to France.

• Inuit musical practices that include not only a revival of interest in traditional drum songs and dancing, but also introduced square dancing with accordion (Hiscott 2000), and innovative artists integrating indigenous practices and alt pop styles (Tagaq 2014). 

• The role of Cantonese opera companies in early 20th-century Victoria and Vancouver in facilitating North American cultural contact with China and preserving and spreading the genre throughout North America (Rao 2014).

These examples are intentionally diverse and in many respects not comparable to one another, nor are they in any sense representative of a whole entity that is Canadian music. But precisely because of their disparity, they highlight the challenge faced by anyone seeking to create an account of music in Canada that is an adequate record of the history of human activity there. 

This project proceeds through several interrelated and foundational strands of research to investigate experiences of music and musicians in Canada across approximately 500 years of social history, and that will:

  • explore issues unique to Canada’s social and cultural histories and situate musical developments in relation not only to the concerns for a national ‘voice’ but also to transnational, colonial, and postcolonial histories; 
  • select diverse cultural resources from across distinct digital collections, and curate them within interconnected topic areas that reflect the experience of music-making in Canada; 
  • create a framework for ongoing research by linking multiple digital collections through new approaches to curating cultural metadata; and
  • design the interface and build an accessible web portal for researchers to explore across multiple collections, as well as disseminate findings through public presentations and publication in peer-reviewed, print and presentation formats.

Musicology, Musical Work, and Nation: 

The scholarly discipline of musicology developed in a nineteenth-century western European cultural milieu that privileged written musical works (and particularly ‘art’ or ‘classical’ music) as both subject and object of analysis and contextual study, an orientation that has persisted into the late twentieth century and the principal reason that orally transmitted and popular musics have often been neglected within the discipline. The field of ethnomusicology has long understood human musical activity as a much broader realm of activity, and Small’s concept of “musicking”—considering music as an activity extending beyond the act of composition—has created a useful space for an alternative view within musicology (Small 1998). 

A little-discussed alternative to conventional historical narrative already exists among print music histories in the form of annotated collections of documentary sources. Frequently intended to supplement chronological survey courses, such textbooks have most often followed an explicit narrative of chronological development. But as Benjamin (1999) demonstrates in The Arcades Project, juxtaposed historical documents, excerpts, and commentary need not serve empiricism or a received narrative; by illuminating unexpected links as well as discontinuities, juxtaposed documents and carefully crafted commentary can suggest networks of connections as well as provoke the reader’s critical thought. 

A move from historiographic theory to a concrete new approach to histories of music in Canada is the primary goal of this project. The result will be an expandable, searchable, and accessible database of digitized sources, curated according to themes and networks of relations and disjunctures, rather than through a chronological organization that ultimately will reshape cultural histories in Canada to acknowledge multiple cultural influences and practices and develop the potential for technology to advance our ways of knowing and understanding culture in a Canadian context. 

Bringing the model of source readings into consideration in a developing world of digital resources creates new challenges and new possibilities. The proliferation of discrete research projects in recent scholarly work means that awareness, let alone understanding, of those materials is more elusive than ever. Recent digitization projects developed within unique cultural communities, such as the Canadian Music Centre’s collection of new Canadian compositions and numerous other curated collections of libraries, museums, and university holdings, offer a depth of understanding and access to materials, but their content generally remains ‘siloed’ in the specificity of curatorial overlay. In addition, digitization standards are often not interoperable across these collections; metadata also remains distinct within each resource. 

At this juncture, the principle of juxtaposition of source documents intersects web technology. This timely study will develop metadata and design an accessible web portal that offers browse and search functionality to interlink otherwise discrete multiple media and collections in order to bring them into conversation with each other in a cultural hub that will enhance our understanding of music across cultural and technological boundaries. It is research that will make a significant and original contribution to the study of music within Canadian culture.