Italian Madrigals on WIC iPads

manuscript copy
Image from event website

When Professor Mauro Calcagno submitted a request to borrow 5 WIC iPads, I figured it was for his students to use for coursework, which is typically the case with our iPads in the Classroom Program. However, I was intrigued to find out that the iPads would be used by the Penn Madrigal Singers to perform digital editions of 16th-century composer Luca Marenzio’s work. I was lucky enough to attend the event last week, which was organized by the Penn Music Department, the Center for Italian Studies, and the Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center, and co-sponsored by the Digital Humanities Forum. It was so fascinating to see both the digital humanities project that Mauro and his colleagues are working on and the fantastic performance by the Penn Madrigal Singers!

The event kicked off with Mauro explaining the evolution of the Marenzio Project, or MODE – Marenzio Online Digital Edition. The project, which brings together an international team of collaborators and is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship at Columbia University, aims to digitize the secular music of influential Renaissance composer Luca Marenzio for many to use and perform. Mauro and his colleagues who spoke, including Dr. Giuseppe Gerbino of Columbia University and Laurent Pugin of the Répertoire International des Sources Musicales – Switzerland, explained how complex of a project it has been to not only find all of the different editions and parts of Marenzio’s music (each part was published separately during the Renaissance, so think: alto, soprano, tenor, baritone, bass), but also to deal with musical scores as digital objects.

Laurent Pugin, describing digital online editions of music
Laurent Pugin, describing digital online editions of music. Photo credit: Mauro Calcagno

Unlike texts, which can be scanned and digitized fairly easily these days with optical character recognition (OCR), there are several steps involved in making readable digital copies of musical scores. With new digital tools and encoding schema, including MEI (a community-based music encoding initiative) and the software Aruspix, it’s now possible to perform digital recognition of scores, superimpose them so that multiple editions can be incorporated, and compare different copies and editions to find variants. This creates a digital object where all scores are together in one place and can be annotated and commented on live, so that various performers can interpret the music in different ways.

Putting these editions on tablets means that the musical scores are responsive, or that they adapt to whichever size interface they are viewed on. Performers can also change clefs with a simple swipe or click, and can directly annotate, comment on, or change languages very easily. The Penn Madrigal Singers did an excellent job with both the difficult music and using the iPads to perform it.

Penn Madrigal Singers performing Madrigals by Luca Marenzio
Penn Madrigal Singers performing Madrigals by Luca Marenzio

Overall, the MODE project is an excellent example of how digital humanities scholarship is really advancing research in many fields. This project embraces, as Mauro said, “digital technologies as conduits of culture,” especially in the field of early-modern culture. The MODE project certainly also made innovative use of our iPads, and we always encourage you to experiment with them if you have a similarly interesting project. Many thanks to Mauro, the Madrigal Singers, and all the presenters for an excellent event!

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