Swafford Talk: “From the Parlor to the Laptop: Victorian Lyrics and Digital Tools”

Posted on March 5, 2014 by

On February 21, 2014, Joanna Swafford (PhD candidate, University of Virginia) visited UConn to talk about her project “Songs of the Victorians” and public humanities tool “Augmented Notes.” Swafford’s research focuses on Victorian poetry, sound studies, and digital humanities. Her dissertation, “Transgressive Tunes and the Gendered Music of Victorian Poetry,” traces the gendered intermediations of poetry and music. Her visit was co-sponsored by the Department of English, the Department of Digital Media & Design, University Libraries: Scholars’ Collaborative and the Connecticut Digital Archive.

One of her goals in developing “Songs of the Victorians” was to make musico-literary arguments in an open-access setting, which would allow scholars to better understand her analyses of poetry set to music in parlor and art songs, by giving them access to the notated music and audio, which can be followed along measure by measure. This will allow scholars in areas outside of music, who may not read music, to both see and hear Swafford’s arguments. 

Songs of the Victorians

Her site includes literary and musical analyses, as well as an archive file, in which the score is linked up with the audio. The printed music on the site was published during the Victorian period (c. 1837-1901) and therefore the first edition scores she is using are in the public domain. The audio recordings are modern and under copyright, however Swafford requested and received permission from Derek Scott, a musicologist and musician, as well as from Hyperion Records. Swafford mentioned that as she continues to add additional songs and audio to her site, she will need to explore licensing and permission options, because sound recordings of the songs she studies are still under copyright. A possible alternative to requesting permission for recordings under copyright might be to commission recordings from individual performers.

JuanitaSwafford chose to analyze both parlor and art songs, because there has been a tendency in music scholarship and the western art tradition to place greater value on art songs (specifically German Lieder) by favoring them in musical courses and in public performances, whereas parlor songs were largely viewed as a woman’s domain, performed primarily in the home (or parlor). Through her analyses, Swafford has demonstrated that parlor songs are not inferior to art songs, neither in their musical nor literary content. For example, in her analysis of Caroline Norton’s Juanita (1853), she points to the composer’s use of musical quotation from the aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s opera Rinaldo, which offers not only a recognizable melodic line to listeners and performers of that period, but through closer reading, reveals an underlying message or second interpretation by the composer that would be understood by those familiar with Handel’s Rinaldo. 

To give other scholars without programming skills the ability to make musico-literary arguments, Swafford built a public humanities tool, Augmented Notes. She built this tool using HTML, CSS, Javascript, JQuery, PyQuery, Python, MEI, and the Google App Engine. The code for Augmented Notes is available on Github for those who want to fork it and develop it further. If you want to try using the tool, Swafford has created a sandbox.

If you’re ready to build your own site using Augmented Notes, you will need to upload jpg files (page by page) of the score you wish to use, as well as the accompanying audio, both mp3 and ogg files, which you will use to match measure by measure against the score. Swafford has also built in the option for scholars to use MEI (Music Encoding Initiative) who wish to encode their scores and provide annotations or critical/bibliographic information. Once you have uploaded your files, Swafford’s tool creates a zipfile, which includes an html page where you can make customize the page to suit your needs.

In the next few months, Swafford will be putting out a call for submissions to “Songs of the Victorians,” which she plans to develop into a nineteenth-century sound studies journal. For more information, you can contact Joanna Swafford. You can also follow her on Twitter: @annieswafford.

To listen to a podcast about “Songs of the Victorians” and “Augmented Notes” given by Swafford at University of Virginia, visit: http://tinyurl.com/scholarslabtalk.

Here are Swafford’s slides from her Feb. 21 presentation:



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