Digital Madeleines and Breadcrumbs: Discovering the Musical Past through Multimodal Analyses

Posted on June 24, 2015 by

On June 22, 2015, I co-presented with Francesca Giannetti (Rutgers University) at the IAML/IMS Conference at Julliard in New York, New York. My presentation was part of a larger panel on Virtual Spaces and our talk was entitled: Digital Madeleines and Breadcrumbs: Discovering the Musical Past through Multimodal Analyses. The slides from our presentation are available below, followed by the transcript from my talk. Francesca’s remarks are available on her site.


Several years ago, as I began my research on Venezuelan pianist and composer, Teresa Carreño (1853-1917), my original plan, largely influenced by traditional music scholarship, was to publish a monograph in the form of a bio-bibliography, which would provide a context, and connect scholars and students with primary source materials to enable and encourage further research. I soon realized, that due to circumstances such as geographic dispersal of primary sources [slide 3] and the staggering amount of performance reception from Carreño’s fifty-five year long international career—documenting her performances solely in print, a fixed medium, would not be as meaningful or conducive for data sharing and reuse in future research.

 [slide 4] Teresa Carreño was a musical prodigy, who by the age of seven had given several piano concerts in her home country, and in 1862 at the age of eight, had made her public debut in New York City’s Irving Hall. Over the next fifty-five years, Carreño reigned as one of the top virtuoso pianists, becoming a household name in every major city across North America and Europe, as well as a highly sought after performer by music directors, conductors and composers. She was also influential in promoting the work of American composer Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), as well as Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). Despite her legacy and the lengthy trail of primary source materials left behind, Carreño has been largely overlooked by scholars.

[slide 5] In today’s talk, I will provide a glimpse into my research process, and the development of the open-access project, Documenting Teresa Carreño. Moreover, I will explore the ways in which making content and data open, accessible and reusable can contribute to research and scholarship about Carreño or other aspects related to her and performance during the nineteenth century.

Using digital modes of curation and visualization, I am documenting a representative selection of Carreño’s performances based on the data derived from primary source materials, as well as newly created metadata. [slide 6] This process involved reviewing different publishing and content management platforms, including Viewshare, WordPress, and Omeka, to assess their flexibility, intuitiveness, and interoperability, which could enable scholars, the public, and myself to interact with, view, contribute, and potentially reuse content and data for new research and scholarly output.

Documenting Teresa Carreño, is an open-access knowledge site, which brings together select primary source materials intended to document her career as a virtuoso pianist between 1862 and 1917. I chose to develop the project on Omeka, a free open-source web-publishing platform [LAMP stack] for several reasons. It is a multimodal system for content and collections management, and archival digital collections. While it was built for Libraries, Archives, and Museums—scholars, public historians, and non-academics alike, are using it as a publishing platform. It has a flexible templating system with plugins and themes that can be uploaded and customized. One of the benefits of using Omeka, is that it is built around Dublin Core metadata elements and encourages the use of controlled vocabularies through this metadata schema, as well as, authority and vocabulary plugins. The platform also encourages sharing and re-use of data through its interoperability with systems that use open data protocols, such as OAI-PMH metadata harvesting and APIs. My site is an OAI-PMH Repository, enabling anyone to view and re-use my metadata. [hope to make performance data available for download by others]

[slide 7] The main content of Documenting Teresa Carreño consists of detailed annotations with information about Carreño’s performances, such as venue, date and time of event, ticket prices, performers, and repertoire. [slide 8] Each performance is presented as a single Item Record and includes metadata, as well as source citations and transcriptions of primary source content [slide 9]. This type of information, in addition to the interactive map and timeline tools [slide 10] allow scholars, students, and the public to interact with primary source materials and visualizations, therefore encouraging exploration and alternative ways to access and interpret content, beyond what a standard narrative or annotated bio-bibliography can provide. Additional information about functionality and features of this platform, as well as technical aspects can be found on my blog or methodology page. [slide 11]


Considering source materials as data

A great part of my research has involved mining archival materials and sources, including correspondence, concert programs, and periodical literature, by scraping or transcribing content.1 This is followed by data processing and metadata creation, as well as new content or visualizations based on the data. I have re-examined many of the primary sources used by Carreño’s first biographer, Marta Milinowski, as well as newly discovered or overlooked materials to document her performance career, which can be reinterpreted or reused in future scholarship.

As my research is focused specifically on Carreño’s performance career, I have identified and gathered the following types of data:

  • Artist names, venue name, composition titles, composer names, ticket prices, event times, event dates, and event locations, specifically addresses and coordinates.

Based on this data, I have created descriptive metadata and enhanced it with spatial and temporal data, such as coordinates and dates, in order to visualize Carreño’s impact on the musical world with the use of geospatial software. For example, using the locations and dates of her known performances, I have geo-coded each performance and created a table that will generate a map of her performance trail, in this case, using a web-based geo-spatial software, CartoDB [slide 12]. [slide 13] Using this data, I created a torque map, which generates points for each performance in chronological order over the course of her career; performances recurring in the same location appear as overlapping circles demonstrating the frequency of her visits.


I have thus far identified a little over 2000 concerts in which she performed as part of an ensemble, solo pianist, or soloist with orchestra. There are additional concerts, however, which may still be discovered as I continue to gather this data. Creating structured data, from primary sources enables me to have a database at my fingertips, which I can search against and run analyses. In addition, it allows me to manipulate the data and examine trends or patterns in her performances. For example, I can examine a series of performances at a single venue, such as Carnegie Hall, by filtering my data to show and explore only the repertoire and composers represented at those performances. [slide 14, 15]. Following my data analysis and visualization, I can create a written narrative to contextualize and connect the data visualizations with primary source materials on my open-access site [slide 16]. I can continue to build on this data, adding additional information as I find it, as well as asking questions or exploring themes that may not have been identified previously.


Data, Applications, and Public Writing

I view my project as a knowledge site and lab, because I can change or manipulate my content within this digital environment. I can experiment with close or distant reading of the data, which may shed new light on or allow me to consider aspects related to Carreño’s career that would have been hidden to me. I am compiling, storing and backing-up my data, so that I can manipulate, analyze, and visualize it using various tools. Creating data visualizations enables me to play with the data, explore and interpret it, look for gaps, as well as allow the public to interact with the content. Visualizing her performance repertoire from a sample of Carnegie Hall concerts helps me see and demonstrate which composers and repertoire were most popular during her tours. I can identify duplicate compositions performed in previous concert seasons; how often she introduced new repertoire; and potentially compare it against her entire career or to that of her contemporaries.

Another important aspect of my work is writing publicly about the various stages of the research process throughout the development of this project, as well as the ongoing research for this project and publications. Writing about the process gives me the opportunity to consider additional applications for the data I am creating, such as visualizing Carreño’s social network of musicians, students, or friends, or applying textual analysis on the transcribed performance reception in order to examine the vocabulary and language used by critics to describe her technique, style, or physical appearance, and compare it with reviews of other artists or analyze similarities or differences over the course of her career. The creation and analysis of this data, as well as, writing about process, informs all aspects of my work. Making it public enables my colleagues and the public to provide input, which I can implement immediately. It also opens it up to trans-disciplinary practitioners, scholars, and the public due to the nature of digital scholarship work. Ultimately, it sparks my curiosity and motivates me to think of and experiment with additional applications for this data, ask questions or visualize it in ways that I might not have done if I were writing in a fixed medium.

Curating my research in Omeka has also led me to think more closely about metadata and controlled vocabulary creation, as well as the access to and discovery of content they enable. By presenting my research digitally and openly in Omeka, I can offer users a different way to access content and data about Carreño, which will help them gain a better understanding of and provide context around her performance career. Creating spatial and temporal visualizations of her performances, allows users to explore her career non-linearly, and interpret it in different ways. The ability to see her concerts plotted on a map helps connect pieces about her life that may still be unknown, such as gaps in performance locations, which may be easier to figure out once her routes are mapped. For example: U.S. concert locations can be compared with maps that show the expansion of the railroad between 1860 and 1890, providing a better understanding of why she appeared in certain cities more often than others. [slide 17]

Although certain parts of my research and writing happen in solitude, my approach is to share and invite others to review, contribute, or collaborate with me about my research. It is a way to participate in the scholarly discourse and to demonstrate how I apply a range of digital tools or methodologies to my own work. It allows other scholars both in and outside of the field of musicology, to see that I am actively researching and writing about Carreño and that I am interested in sharing my work and processes.

Another positive aspect of working on this open access project has been the collaboration and interaction not only with colleagues, but with others in the United States and abroad. I have received feedback from other scholars who are creating digital content and projects and I have been contacted by scholars from several countries including, Venezuela, United States, Germany, and France, who were able to share information or images from primary source materials, exchange ideas, and discuss possible collaborations. These interactions have been beneficial to my research and I believe would not have occurred if I was writing a traditional monograph with no digital presence.



Doing research in public means sharing your research while it may still be in development mode. Some may consider this a risk, however I believe that being open about your research and inviting others into a conversation is beneficial not only to your own work, whether you are a historian, musicologist, or librarian, but it is also a contribution to the scholarly community. Writing about and discussing your research openly allows you to reiterate your ideas, invite colleagues or the public to provide feedback or peer review, which might lead you to ask new questions. It is also a way to demonstrate that you are interested in having conversations about your research with others, before it is available as a publication, and invite them to provide input, which may in some way shape your final output. This is valuable to your research process and scholarship. It also enables you to measure and demonstrate the success and impact of your work through peer-review comments, citation and web analytics, as well as impact on others’ thinking and writing.

My goal for Documenting Teresa Carreño is to allow the public to experience first-hand, unique content derived from primary source materials, through which they can develop their own understanding of Carreño’s career. It will promote her legacy and encourage scholars, students, and the public to engage with me or to collaborate and contribute to the project. I hope that this open-access project will encourage ongoing interaction, sharing, and reuse of content, as well as further research about Carreño’s performance career. Ultimately, I write about my research, because I want to explore new ways of interpreting historical sources and data, dispel the myths created in earlier literature about Carreño, and provide greater context about her performance career.


  1. See for example other projects that are mining performance data, including In Concert: Towards a Collaborative Digital Archive of Musical Ephemera, Music in Gotham (CUNY Graduate Center).

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