Experiencing Peter Gabriel (book) – progress update 2

I’m now halfway through Chapter 5 of “Experiencing Peter Gabriel,” so that’s exactly halfway through the nine-chapter book. Woo-hoo! You may be interested in the book summary and writing sample.


An excerpt from Chapter 3 of “Experiencing Peter Gabriel”

Around the same time, Gabriel made an orchestra-accompanied cover version of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” for an obscure film of war-related footage and news headlines and clips from war movies combined with new versions of Beatles’ songs, called All This and World War II. The film and soundtrack double-album also include recordings by the Bee Gees, Leo Sayer, Tina Turner, Elton John, Frankie Valli, Rod Stewart, the London Symphony Orchestra, and numerous others, as released in November of 1976. Gabriel’s version of that Beatles’ song was thus his first solo release, and it is fairly charming, although he occasionally sounds rather like Kermit the Frog. He later worked on a number of film scores and film songs from 1984 to 2008 and then revisited the idea of orchestra-accompanied cover versions much more extensively on his 2010 album Scratch My Back. In a related project, the 2013 response-album And I’ll Scratch Yours includes other artists’ stylistically-distinctive cover versions of some of Gabriel’s songs.

MuSNet, mark II

If the profession in which you spent the past dozen years or so never resulted in you getting a continuing full-time job (or any job at present), would you try to develop something that would almost certainly end up useful to only a few hundred others in that field? Of course, you wouldn’t! So, I’m going to stop trying to do that right now, in favour of developing a music history & culture educational website that will potentially become part of an existing, large-scale, foundation-supported initiative and thus matter to a vastly larger number (millions) of people. My small business advisor and self employment coordinator are probably not going to like my change in focus, but this renewed approach is seriously the only way I will be able to move forward.

A Digital End-Run around Musicology

I’ve been struggling for quite some time as to how to proceed with a combination of music scholarship and information technology. I have a Ph.D. and work experience in musicology (including research and courses taught on popular music and film & TV music), but I also have a Certificate and work experience in software development (including a web database project for the American Musicological Society).

My first attempt at a Digital Public Music History & Culture, the Music Discussion Network (MDN), would have resulted in a member-based community open to the public to post links to pieces of music, fill in relevant information fields, and participate in discussions about that music. It would have been paid for through annual fees of $40 per member (a cart mechanism was incorporated into the site), and I also experimented with on-site ad placements (i.e., about music, but it never worked very well). The first incarnation of MDN, however, never made it past its beta-testing stage in the summer of 2011.

My second attempt, the Music Discussion Network mark II (MDN2, now at http://music-scholars.net/mdn), was inspired by the Khan Academy (instructional materials for high-school students in math, science, etc., at http://khanacademy.org) and its humanities sub-site Smarthistory (an art history web-book mostly used by university students, at http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org). The Khan Academy is free, public, and funded by multi-million-dollar educational-foundation support from the Gates Foundation, Google, and so on. It has delivered 225 million lessons to people all over the world (including discussions, etc.), and even Smarthistory (which was originally developed at other institutions) has had 5 million visits. For MDN2, in late 2011 and early 2012 I made eleven music instructional videos of about 10-15 minutes, but each of those took about 20-25 hours create. Without institutional affiliation (i.e., unemployed), it seemed extremely unlikely that I would be able to (1) build a full system without getting other scholars to collaborate on it with me or (2) monetize my efforts, such as by making its materials available for purchase by students enrolled in specific courses at colleges and universities.

My third attempt, the Music Scholars Network (MuSNet, http://music-scholars.net), tried to combine MDN and MDN2, but according to a member-contributed subscription model geared specifically towards music academics, including adjunct instructors and graduate students. The site thus included job postings, calls for papers, teaching materials (such as my instructional videos from MDN2), conference information, research activities, and so on, and discussions possible for all posted items. MuSNet had a substantial portion of its materials available to the public, but only its members would be allowed to add or discuss things. It offered a 1-2 month free trial, then a modest membership fee of $30 per year (incorporated via PayPal). A web survey suggested that some music scholars would be willing to pay a small amount for such a thing, but it was never clear that this could become a viable business that would grow beyond more than a few hundred members. Very few music scholars have the time or energy to participate in such a thing and it is also not how they expect to do things, so it actually makes much more sense to focus instead on building something useful for interested members from within the vastly larger public of music aficionados.

MuSNet2 will focus once again on instructional materials, but it will be free, public, and with discussion capabilities available to any registered member. It will retain the name “Music Scholars Network,” but with the significant change in emphasis that anyone who studies music is a “music scholar.” The site will initially be built by me, including at least a few new instructional videos each month, but it will also be “collaborative” in the sense of including links to many existing music instructional videos already made publicly available by others but also fully researched and tested by me. I will thus endeavour to have the site become similar in scope to the Khan Academy’s Smarthistory web-book within about six months and with a large-scale, public, promotional undertaking through YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. This renewed focus would potentially reach hundred of thousands (or even millions) of people, as opposed to a few hundred music academics. The site would then become part of—and paid for through—an existing system of educational materials, such as the Khan Academy (free and public) or a college or university that offers online arts and humanities courses for money (increasingly the case in the UK) or Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs, which are free and typically have thousands of students for each course). Once MuSNet2 is part of a larger system, it could then also begin to include contributions by specialists covering additional areas of music history & culture. That is what Smarthistory was able to do to expand its art-history offerings once it became part of the Khan Academy.

Digital Humanities and/or Music

The 2012 Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences took place at Waterloo, Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University and University of Waterloo from May 26 to June 3.  In the past, I would have exclusively attended music society sessions, but this time about two-thirds of what I attended had to do with the digital humanities.  I have very good reasons for that!

For my ongoing attempts to find the correct path forward for http://music-discussion.net (free/open/public vs. partially monetized vs. closed/publisher-based, etc.), the Society for Digital Humanities (SDH) does quite useful work.  So, from May 28-29 I attended various SDH papers and events (including a paper on MOOCs: massive open online courses; and several papers on copyright issues), and on June 1 I mostly attended inter-society, panel-like symposiums about public knowledge and open-access.  The June 1 meetings largely involved new methodologies and infrastructure concepts being explored for research projects, scholarly societies and journals, academic publishing, and (to a lesser extent) teaching.

On June 1 and 3, I attended some sessions of the Canadian University Music Society (CUMS), especially ones involving film music, Canadian music, and jazz (and even papers involving Canadian jazz film music), plus a symposium on the future of music in the academy.  Music is still trying to break down traditional music-department silos, such as achieving a balance among such things as performance, theory, and history; classical, popular, jazz, and world music; majors and minors; and core requirements, electives, and general education courses.  However, it is my impression that it would be at least as useful to break down the silos separating music itself from the wider humanities, such as history, art history, and English.

Although the theme of the Congress was “Crossroads: Scholarship for an Uncertain World,” it is rather telling that I (developing an independent project and currently without an institutional home) was the only person in evidence both at SDH and CUMS.  So, for 2013’s Congress at the University of Victoria, I will propose a music-related joint session between SDH and CUMS, and I may also participate in UVic’s annual summer digital humanities workshop.  A leader in the field is Ray Siemens, who is a professor at UVic and also an old undergrad friend of mine.  He and his wife Lynne (also an old friend) introduced me to a lot of people, and I look forward to building a greater level of understanding and collaboration between the digital humanities and music–especially music history and culture involving a wide spectrum of 20th-century music.