ECOLM - An Electronic Corpus of Lute Music

ECOLM I - Project Proposal (Technical appendix)

Edited and abridged for publication here

Justification for Data Development

There are no significant existing data resources in the field of this application. A number of pieces of lute music have been made available in various data formats (MIDI files; audio files; specialist music-files; pdf or PostScript files, etc) by enthusiasts belonging to various organisations on the Internet [The largest such collection is here]. In no such case to the applicants’ knowledge has any scholarly rigour been applied to the selection or editorial procedures involved. The aims are purely recreational. One CD-ROM of digital images of lute manuscripts has been produced commercially [TREE Edition, Lübeck: a CD-ROM of graphic images of 10 lute manuscripts from the Goess collection, Schloss Ebenthal, Carinthia]. Two forthcoming projects, however, are likely to be of significant scholarly value:

As far as catalogues and bibliographical resources are concerned, the printed music is well covered in H. M. Brown’s Instrumental Music Printed before 1600; the manuscript sources are being covered in C. Meyer et al’s Catalogues des Sources Manuscrits en Tablature, which will supersede Boetticher’s RISM BVII catalogue. But both publications lack any musical content, and identifications of related works are presented as faits accomplis.

Some "thematic" catalogues of lute-music incipits exist:

But these all cover a limited range of sources, and, useful though they are, they are highly inconsistent in method. Currently, there is no mechanism for including musical data from lute tablatures in the RISM A series of thematic catalogues, and technical problems mean that this is unlikely to occur in the near future.

There are several reasons why the proposed project will achieve goals that are inconceivable without the creation of a data resource of this nature. As well as the points mentioned above in the general project description, additional benefits of a comprehensive data resource of lute music include:

For lute-players, the usefulness of the Corpus is obvious. For other musicians it may not be so clear. Fundamentally its utility centres around the nature of the music’s performance-oriented notation, tablature. This gives a ‘recipe’ for performance rather than a diagrammatic representation of the music, and thus it is focussed on certain technical aspects of performance (left-hand positions, right-hand fingerings) rather than on its structure. (Since the lute’s sound did not sustain for long, the notation assumes that each note will ‘die naturally’ and consequently the actual durations of notes are never generally indicated.)

The Corpus will provide a convenient library of repertory for players, allowing the comparison of different versions of pieces, where these exist, and facilitating choices between them. These differences sometimes amount to recompositions of an existing piece, or vestiges of the aural tradition of improvised elaboration; in either case, the availability of such variant versions will be highly useful in understanding the manner of performance insofar as it affected the actual notes.

For performers and scholars, there are many important opportunities the Corpus presents. For example, in certain parts of the repertory, the different versions represent another aspect of performing practice. Variants often correspond to aspects of the conventional style of performance on the lute and sources vary in how they represent such explicit details. (Examples include the use of notes inégales and the characteristic spreading/arpeggiation of chords which leads to the so-called style brisé.)

Sometimes pieces of lute (and other) music are based on ‘parody’ techniques, in which a section of, or a complete, pre-existing work is used, either as a ‘skeleton’ around which a new composition is elaborated, or as a source of extracts which are ‘glossed’, or commented upon. Occasionally such references are buried within a composition and not acknowledged in the source; IT techniques can be used to locate more such references than human observers may notice, thus allowing major insights into creative influence across the repertory.

The Corpus will also offer a new view on the transmission and reception of the music, especially when the musical data is combined with the codicological and historical information that is known about the sources themselves. The complex patterns of scribal connections and ownership, intimately bound up with the teacher/pupil relationship, might be mapped in ways hitherto impossible.

For those who do not play the lute yet need or wish to discover the repertory and its extent, the Corpus will add a very significant adjunct to the somewhat arbitrary resource of commercial recordings. Although live performance on historically-appropriate instruments is taken as a sine qua non by the project, the crude approximation offered by MIDI playback will at least show something of the richness of the repertory as yet not recorded. It will become possible for the first time for non-players to appreciate the significance of the instrument at all stages of its existence.

Data Development Methods

The essential data resource that is unique to this project is the lute tablature itself. This will be stored in TabCode, an ASCII-based encoding devised by Mr Tim Crawford some years ago precisely for this purpose. [T. Crawford, ‘TabCode for Lute Repertories’, in Computing in Musicology, 7 (1991), 57-59] This simple coding scheme is easily created manually in two forms: a ‘minimum’ form in which the basic musical material is encoded and a ‘full’ form in which details such as lines, slurs, text-items and other extra features are also incorporated.

Since TabCode is an ASCII code, it is assumed that standard data-compression methods (such as zip) will be adequate, although in practice they may not even be necessary. Some experimentation will be necessary to determine whether a combination of the ‘minimum’ TabCode (highly economical in disk-space, but not all-inclusive) with medium-resolution graphical images (expensive in disk-space, but including all the information from the source) might not be the most effective mode of storage. The graphic files (monochrome) would mostly be created by scanning from 35mm microfilm, and would be highly susceptible to standard compression techniques.

The project will be designed throughout as a World-Wide-Web-based resource, and access for use of the data will be provided via the usual browsers, with specially-written scripts making use of the sound and visual display facilities increasingly becoming available as standard in that environment. One special feature will be the provision of music fonts as appropriate for display.