The Exploration of Musicians in Alexandria
#Intro and Question
My experience while researching The Egyptian Gazette led me to an understanding of a culture that I did not understand before. Not only that, but my knowledge of computers in general has been greatly improved and expanded. Through the contents of this newspaper, I was given a unique perspective into the daily lives of the people who lived in Alexandria in 1905. While researching, I noticed that concerts seemed to be a very common event in Alexandria. The element of music in the lives of these citizens intrigued me, and caused me to wonder whether most of the musicians were local, or if they were more famous traveling acts.
Pursuing the Question in a Useful Manner
To begin my pursuit of this question, I searched for instances of the word “band” in the paper for 1905 by using an Xpath query for
//div[@type=”item”][contains(.,’band’)]. This proved to not be the most useful technique, as many advertisements for concerts do not contain the exact wording that a “band” is playing. This information seems to be implied. Additionally, I learned that sometimes the mention of a band can be in a context that does not serve my purposes whatsoever, and that the wording could be changed to improve the results of my search if I replaced “band” with “concerts.” I discovered that often times the musicians were never credited whatsoever, and that the artists behind the concerts described were sometimes left nameless, thus many advertisements never mentioned bands. In addition, many of the acts were orchestras or solo acts, not bands.
The discovery brought me to the realization that creating a logical way to retrieve the origin of the bands in question may prove to be a more difficult task than I previously thought. Were I confident that every act mentioned had been wrapped with a “PersName” type tag, or something similar and searchable, this would be quite a simple task. However, that is not the case. Many of these documents are partially written, and are full of errors that make this an unrealistic vision.
In order to still present a data set with a useful and relevant information, I decided to go through the instances where a concert is mentioned manually, removing any extraneous articles which were unnecessary for my purposes. This was a heavily labor intensive technique, but it allowed me to access the information I needed. By removing unwanted results, I was able to reduce my query results to 86 relevant items, and from that I could read through the articles and figure out where each musician is from.
Critique of Programs Used and Challenges Faced
Throughout my time doing research on The Egyptian Gazette, my main obstacle was technology. Oxygen XML Editor gave me countless issues, and although it is extremely likely that they were entirely fault, this still speaks to the accessibility of the program. In addition, it seems that the entire class struggled with the program, and perhaps there is a better XML Editor that would be easier for first time coders.
Not only was Oxygen a faulty program, but also Cisem OCR gave me similar problems. The OCR was so poor that by the end of the semester, I gave up entirely on the idea of it and resolved to manually type out each page. I’m not sure if any other OCR converters are better, or if this is a common problem that needs to be solved within the industry, but I was extremely underwhelmed with the performance of this program.
Data Analysis and Cultural View
One aspect of the data that immediately stood out to me was the amount of musicians mentioned. I was surprised that there was a large amount of people who played music in Alexandria during this period, seeing that in 1905 the first commercial flight was not for another nine years . Musicians from as far away as England (bands from both the English H.M.S. “Suffolk” and “Lancaster”) travelled to Alexandria, and according to the articles, were received well by the people who lived there. It seems that concerts were quite an integral part of society in Alexandria, and that it could be a profitable venture to travel there to take part in music.
A notable musician mentioned is Signora Bellincioni, an opera singer whose appearance was described by the Gazette as “undoubtedly an event in the local theatrical world,” and “one of the most remarkable achievements in the art of music-drama that we have ever witnessed.” Admittedly, The Egyptian Gazette is hardly one for understating things, so it can be hard to tell if the reception was ever quite as dramatic as it was made to seem by the writers. However, it does seem that this is not a local musician, as the name is never mentioned in the paper again. Due to the dramatic nature of the statements made and the rareness of this name, it is safe to assume that this is a professional travelling musician with a notable amount of prestige and recognition.
Despite the immediately apparent variety of musicians, after further research on the names which were not given a source, I discovered that the vast majority of musicians mentioned were locals of Alexandria, and many of them were amateur. Often times, these musicians were referred to by casual names such as “Professor Felix,” which suggests that these names are recognized in the community and that their musical acts are somewhat well known. The knowledge that most music came from a local source is useful when interpreting the culture of Alexandria. This shows that the residents seem to be fans of art that is more made “by the people,” so to speak. The residents of Alexandria support each other and enjoy the art that they create as a community. Leisure time consists of celebrations put on by other community members, and they seem to support each other in these endeavors. To me, this suggests a sense of community involvement and support that surprised me.
Another thing that stood out to me was that there was not a single negative review of a concert that I could find. It’s not clear whether this was a common practice for newspapers in this era, or maybe it is due to the fact that I am accustomed to very harsh critiques. The overwhelming positive tone of the commentary on concerts seemed as if the reviews were not honest or real, and that anyone could get a positive review. This element of how journalism has changed interested me. Comparing modern musical practices to the ones found in 1905 Alexandria is a useful thing to do because it gives us insight into what it was like to live there during that time. One comparison I found very easy to make was that of the charity concerts put on in Alexandria being somewhat like our modern festivals. One event was put on for the benefit of the Alexandria Foundling’s Institution, which one can only assume is an educational institution, and again included musicians whose names were listed with casual titles such as Miss Claire Richard and Miss Verita. The Egyptian Gazette noted “the Theatre can only be described as colossal,” which is similar to the sort of impact modern day musical charity events are meant to have.
Overall, my experience in Digital Microhistory Lab gave me a new appreciation for the application of coding and Internet functions towards history. Applying even basic coding towards documents allows them to be manipulated and worked with in a way that increases one’s ability to put different historical moments into context with each other. This use of technology can provide a new basis for humans understanding the history of us.
That being said, sometimes the intent of the research ends up at dead ends. My research on the origin of musicians in Alexandria caused me to arrive at the conclusion that the information is either not present, not yet discovered, or fairly useless (that is, if I am correct in my findings that the majority of Alexandrian musicians are simply from Alexandria). This finding is not entirely useless, however. The conclusion that it brought me to was that Alexandria was fairly self-sufficient when it came to the arts. This teaches us about how our society is different from theirs, which is insightful and helpful when attempting to completely understand the day-to-day history of the world.
In the end, Microhistory is a field that values small discoveries about the lives of people. Despite disappointment and frustration, that is exactly what I did in this class. My knowledge of Alexandria, Egypt in the year of 1905 now includes the fact that the music was that of the community, and that the community valued music for being something that not only brought people together, but also was capable of helping different institutions grow.