Digital projects / Canadian researchers collect data from Gregorian chants in the Convent of St. Gall, Switzerland

A new Canadian research project is collecting big data from medieval melodies chanted by monks more than 1,000 years ago. And it’s all searchable. But to what end?

Kate Helsen, an assistant musicology professor at Western University’s Don Wright Faculty of Music, is part of the Optical Neume Recognition Project and explains that this study is the most technologically advanced method of investigating what was previously a completely oral culture – a time and place, when and where people didn’t conceive of writing music down at all – and through greater understanding of these 11th century monks, researchers can now study how the human brain constructs, comprehends and reconstructs everything from language and literature to math and music.

The Optical Neume Recognition Project uses modified optical character recognition (OCR) technology to study medieval musical notation called neumes. This unique computing initiative identifies each neume on a digital scan of a page from a historic book of medieval chant, cataloguing each one and ranking them in order of graphic similarity while additionally storing data about how often a particular neume appears in specific combinations thereby creating a virtual ‘dictionary’ of neume signs.

Instead of poring over hundreds of pages of literally millions of neumes, researchers can now electronically search for information that has been systematically gathered by advanced computer software about each scanned image, using optical music recognition (OMR) software.

“Basically, we are mining these melodies for a better understanding of how the brain breaks down, thinks about and reconstructs melody year after year after year in a monastic context because that’s what was important to them. To sing the same prayer, the same way every year,” explains Helsen, who is currently attending the Music Encoding Conference in Montreal. “A lot of medieval scholars think that it’s not possible to retain all of that information. They’d say that we just haven’t found the books yet but I disagree. The medieval memory was fabulous for a lot of reasons and this is just another example.”

The research team is currently investigating the Gregorian chants of monks from the Convent of St. Gall in St. Gallen, Switzerland, which is considered a prime example of a great Carolingian monastery. It is estimated that it would take 85 hours to sing the entire prayer cycle of the St. Gall monks. But 1,000 years ago, this entire repertoire was memorized and repeated year after year by the monks and this continued for another 200 to 250 years.

“This memory work was done completely without notation. It was all in their heads. Today, we don’t have to have 85 hours of repertoire in our head because we have notation,” says Helsen. “And by developing a searchable database, not unlike Google Books, we are basically creating an electric monk. A device that knows all of the melodies. It’s as though a monk from 1,000 years ago walked into the room and started talking about music. It’s all there.”

The Optical Neume Recognition Project, currently funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), is part of a larger research collaboration known as Single Interface for Music Score Searching and Analysis (SIMSSA), which seeks to create a single clearinghouse for digital images of musical scores, both printed and handwritten, around the world.

Via Press release.

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“Living and dying in the cloister”: XXIII IRCLAMA International Symposium in Zadar, Croatia

Zadar (HR) – “Living and dying in the cloister. Monastic life from the 5th to the 11th century”: the monastic life investigated through monk’s vision is the perspective of the XXIII IRCLAMA International Symposium that will take place in Zadar, Croatia, from May 28th to June 4th, 2016. The meeting intends to penetrate deeply, through the study of space and time of the monastic asceticism, into one of the fundamental structures of development of medieval society between East and West. History, art and architecture are the primary tools by which, through the words spoken and written by the monks, are examined the forms of the monastic complexes, from late antiquity archetypes of Christian Europe in the Middle Ages.

The  colloquium is organized and partly financed by the Project Croatian medieval heritage in European context: mobility of artists and transfer of forms, functions and ideas CROMART, financed by the Croatian Science Foundation, and with a contribution of the Croatian Ministry of Science, education and sports. It has been supported by the Università catolica del Sacro Cuore (Milano), Centro Studi Longobardi.

Programme: IRCLAMA 23 – APAT 28 – final

Appel à contribution – Relics at the lab

RMBLF.be

27 & 28 October 2016 – Brussels

Over the past decade the scientific interest in relics and kindred artefacts has grown enormously. Without any doubt relics as well as relic shrines and associated objects have played a prominent role in European history since the introduction of Christianity. While in the past primary, secondary as well as tertiary relics were merely studied in relation to their religious and (art) historical background, recently the rise of a more scientific and archaeological approach is noticed. Nowadays researchers become more interested in the origin and nature of these sacred objects and ask different questions:
  • What information can relics give us about the people buried in the shrines? Who were these people? What do we know about the way they lived? When did they live? What about diseases and other disabilities?
  • What information can be retrieved from the objects kept with the relics and made…

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Medieval Doodles Of A 7-Year Old Boy: The Wonderful Novgorod Etchings

(via Realms of History)  Novgorod or Veliky Novgorod, is one of the major historical cities of Russia, and it started out as a trading station for the Varangians who traveled from the Baltic region to Constantinople by (possibly) late 10th century AD. But as it turns out, this historically significant settlement of northern Russia is also home to around thousand personal ‘tomes’ that are inscribed on bark of birch trees and are almost preserved in perfect condition. In fact, historians hypothesize that there are 20,000 similar specimens still waiting to be salvaged from the conducive anaerobic clay soil layers of the city environs. And among these documents, there are doodles of a 7-year old boy, thus suggesting how childhood imagination and playfulness were quite universal in human history.

The sketches we are talking about hark back to circa 13th century AD, and they were made by a child named Onfim. It seems daydreaming and heroism-fueled reveries intervened with this 7-year old boy’s spelling lessons, so much so that he went on to draw himself as an imposing warrior with a sword and spear, after just writing the first eleven letters of his alphabet in the upper-right corner. And on closer inspection, one could also discern the horse upon which the ‘hero’ is mounted, along with the extended spear slaying his adversary – while the label of ‘Onfim’ makes the artist’s name clear.

In case you are interested, you can take a gander at the database of these bark-etched documents from medieval Novgorod.

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