archival work: like a virgin

Peeking into this blog to write some about my first archival trip to France.

As a student of early music, it doesn’t take long before one is confronted with the mysterious world of archives. It begins by references to them in secondary literature, footnotes full of mysterious document numbers. Then one finds oneself asking questions that only the archive can answer. Learning how to get from that point to actually sitting down in a reading room in Europe is a massive learning curve in and of itself (which I’ve already written about). So I learned how to find French archive inventories, I made a travel plan, got a place to stay, bought a plane ticket, and ended up in a small town in the middle of France. I didn’t know anything. I had one call number of one document and a small <i>Guide des Archives</i> with general inventory information. I spent the better part of two weeks calling dossier after dossier, never quite knowing what I going to get. Sometimes it would be massive sheets of vellum with nearly illegible church fondations. Sometimes it would be scraps of paper from the 17th c with one 15th c document thrown in for good measure. I sat in the reading room of the archive, surrounded by grumpy old, white, male French scholars, or an old couple coming in to look up genealogical information.

Everything about the experience felt like a mystifying rite of passage. While the archivists were very helpful and friendly, sometimes I didn’t know what to do. It took me a few days before I realized how to call up a document; the first day, they just brought me stuff, and then later they explained how to call up things. And then later they explained how I’d have to look at this one series in a separate office. And then my crappy French speaking skills made every interaction all the more fraught. Just getting out the door, to the archive and back, finding meals–all of these, the simply daily things–made every day feel like an Everest. (though, to my credit, my comprehension skills improved dramatically while I was there.) I have traveled some in my college years, but I’m not a highly experienced world traveler.

I didn’t find anything awesome in the archives. I didn’t expect to, but there was a part of me half-hoping that I’d find another document with Ockeghem in it. I enjoyed the actual work of looking through pile after pile of document. When I was in work mode, the rest of the frustrating life was shut out. I was in my own world. I actually listened to some music on headphones, to block out the noisy silence or the French chitchat that would waft over to me, finding myself less capable of tuning out the language sounds I was less accustomed to hearing. Having the music on helped to create a more familiar work space (especially since I have a sort of general “worky” playlist that already felt familiar).

As I neared the end of the list of relevant documents, I realized that there wasn’t going to be anything of major awesomeness to musicologists. It was disappointing a little. I have some good things and interesting things, to be sure. But nothing that will make me famous. This is okay. And probably more realistic. The archive did have a good library, which I made use of, and as I began reading secondary literature, for the first time in weeks, I began to be able to truly see how archival documents undergird historical writing. It is something I’ve known in the abstract for a long time, but never have quite seen until now. It is kind of an emotional experience—of vulnerability, of awe—understanding with new reverence what it means to write history.


a day in Eyeth

There’s a legendary world in Deaf culture lore. It’s like Earth but it’s for people of the eye, so they call it Eyeth. (get it? EARth, EYEth) In this world, people listen with their eyes with the comfort of being normal, typical, just the way life is, unlike the heavily mediated existence of a Deaf person on Earth. Mediated through hearing devices, pads of paper, interpreters, lip reading, gestures.

I got a small peek into what Eyeth might look like last weekend. I jetted down to Louisville, KY at an unearthly hour in the morning on Saturday. When I got there, the biennial meeting of the National Association of the Deaf was wrapping its week-long meeting and they were launching DeaFestival, a day of arts and fun. My goal was to catch as much music and time with musicians as possible, especially with the Deaf rock band Beethoven’s Nightmare.

When I stepped across the crosswalk of the streets bordering the convention center, I crossed the threshold into a Deaf world. Everyone around me was signing. Every restaurant in the vicinity had a pad of paper on its counter, a few brave servers had learned some signs. I have been in Deaf environments before, like at the Deaf school. But this was different, like a small town, adults conducting business in ASL. There were interpreters and CART at all the events, but it was very much a Deaf majority.

At first I was a little worried. I have a hard time meeting new Deaf adults. As everyone has their own voice, everyone has a unique way they sign, and my receptive skills take a little while to adapt to a new person. Once I got into the groove, though, I found myself able to understand more and more, many different people and many different signing. And my job for the day was listening (LISTEN-EYES in ASL).

A break in the afternoon allowed me to approach the drummer of the band, “let’s talk.” He says “Ok.” And I’m whisked into a conversation about music with total strangers. He pauses in the middle “Are you getting this?” Just barely. A woman about my age said she’s never liked music, she never understood it, and it wasn’t fun to try to lip-read bands. Her friend said, “oh, you need to learn how to feel it. I love music! It’s like a drug!” She’s open to being convinced.

All afternoon I’m whisked around the vendor booths of the NAD meeting, following drummer guy who often introduces me to random Deaf people whom he may or may not know. Another woman was “forced” to take music classes in her mainstream education. (A mainstream education is something to be pitied in Deaf culture.) Many Deaf people haven’t had opportunities to experience music so it is nothing; others love it and over and over again I heard “Once you connect what you’re feeling with what’s going on on-stage, it’s amazing!” After a few hours I was exhausted, had an unanswered list of questions, but had met more Deaf adults than I ever had in one place and learned more about drummer guy (including the fact that he does not ever stop).

So I turned to the bass player, “let’s talk.” We sit down. It was 104 degrees under the tent. He tells me again how much they want to reach out to their Deaf culture with music. He said that things have changed more recently for Deaf culture. I assumed he meant post-Gallaudet protest of 1988. But he said, “No, since Obama.” This surprised me. I asked him if it was the captioning law Obama had passed, and he said, no, that now there is a greater sense of acceptance for Deaf people since Obama. I found it interesting how strongly he felt about Obama that he would put so much strength in this tide of change. Bass player also teaches in a Deaf school. He has middle and high school students and is experimenting with teaching them how to feel different sounds. Like “ear training” for the hands.

There are many more stories, but you’ll have to wait for the article. Much more to process.


je pleure

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been working on an abstract for a conference. It’s supposed to be about technology, music cognition, and society. So I decided that now was the time to explore the puzzle piece of the cochlear implant in the story of the deaf musical experience.

I have written so many drafts of this abstract, each trying to get at the cognitive and cultural nuances of the experience. I met with a professor this afternoon to help me talk through it, and before i knew it, i was sitting there sobbing in his office talking about how I took Ellis to his first concert last Friday night, and how he hated it. (Nevermind the practical considerations: it was after 8pm; he’s 6.5 yo; and it was a recital for violin, soprano, and piano.) Part of me felt crushed, that I wasn’t going to be able to share music with him–that the CI wasn’t going to mediate that experience for him. It wasn’t the right music to listen with the balloon we brought.

This professor is very good at asking questions that break down personal barriers that I confront in the deaf music project. I cry. He offers me a napkin and some dried fruit. Then I get back to work, learning how to negotiate the personal and the researcher.