The Sound Studies Institute (SSI) provides opportunities to researchers interested in sound studies to engage collaboratively across disciplines and to discover new areas of convergent enquiry. The following project descriptions represent both current and previous research undertaken through SSI and resulting from our former initiatives under folkwaysAlive!, in partnerships with the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology.

To learn more about our research spaces and laboratories, see Labs.

Digitizing the Ancestors

The AMMSA Archive is home to over 2,000 separate audio items and over 5,000 items tagged as film, photographs, event documentation, and other ephemera largely archived from the Alberta Native Communications Society (in operation  from the late 1960s until the early 1980s). These include recordings of traditional knowledge in spoken and sung expressions as well as conversations and interviews with community leaders, culture bearers and Elders. This project is designed to develop appropriate community protocols for assigning permissions to individual media following the OCAP guidelines, for ensuring high quality digital preservation and archiving, and to establish culturally-appropriate metadata of digital files to ensure the discoverability of content on community-approved platforms.

Recordings are in predominantly in Cree and English (other Indigenous languages appear less frequently) and require collaboration between the AMMSA community, the Sound Studies Institute, individuals from Music, Linguistics, Native Studies, UAlberta Libraries, the Arts Resource Centre, and many other faculty and student partners and assistants. The project is therefore led by an interdisciplinary co-facilitation team of researchers with the Sound Studies Institute at UAlberta, whose mandate is to preserve and make accessible cultural materials and to increase cross-cultural  understanding. The development of protocols, processes and practices for this project are the foundation for several digital archiving and retrieval projects in other communities, languages, and multimedia formats and, more specifically, multiple current projects within the AMMSA Archive.

Resounding Culture

Building on both a reconceptualization of basic premises of national music histories and on the communicative potential of searchable knowledge networks, this project is designed to develop an accessible, searchable multimedia web portal for histories of music and music-making in Canada. The portal will link digitized cultural resources across distinct collections, drawing on the multi- and intercultural nature of musical practices and the potential for innovative use of technology to create a viable alternative to traditional narrative – and often linear – approaches to history

Recognizing the potential for curated collections of interrelated documents to constitute an alternative mode of history, the project will develop cross-disciplinary datasets of online cultural materials using existing digital collections available through University of Alberta sources. From these beginnings (with nearly twenty collections), a framework will be established to model music metadata curation, ensuring the security and sustainability of the current resources, and allowing the addition of new resources as permissions are received. By selecting, curating, contextualizing and linking within these resources, we will initiate an approach to digital music histories that will speak to the diversity of perspectives and practices of music and music-making in Canada, across time and place and within and beyond the discipline of musicology.

Michael O’Driscoll

Spoken Web Project

The SpokenWeb consortium includes 13 university and 3 community partners, and over the next seven years will build a nationally networked archive of literary and creative audio recordings through a program of digitization, technical advancement, protocol development, cultural research, and pedagogical innovation. Concordia University professor Jason Camlot founded SpokenWeb in 2010, out of a project developing a web-based digital spoken word archive of a Montreal poetry reading series from 1966-1974. Across the country, as other researchers were beginning to deal with their own audio archives, the project grew into its current iteration as a multi-partner, North America-wide effort.

An important feature of this SSHRC Partnership Grant is the development of innovative training experiences for students and postdoctoral researchers. University of Alberta professor Michael O’Driscoll and his team see many opportunities to create and improve the ways digitized archives can be accessed, indexed, and shared, enhancing critical engagement with this innovation of literary audio materials. This seven-year project will also train a generation of young scholars interested in literary audio performance and technology.

SpokenWeb has also partnered with two Montreal-based literary organizations that have an archive of audio tapes but no access to the technology or the dollars to facilitate their preservation. As a pilot project, O’Driscoll says the team will investigate how SpokenWeb can best support these community-based organizations, and how, over the span of the project and beyond, engage other community partners who want their own stories told through preservation and access.

Deep Learning for Sound Recognition

How do we recognize the components and attributes of sound, describe and parse an audio recording of music, speech, or environmental sounds, or extract sonic features, classify types, segment units, and identify sources of sounds? Sometimes recordings capture a single sound source: a single instrument, speaker, or bird; others may find multiple but coordinated sources:  a musical ensemble, or a conversation; yet typically in fieldwork, a recording encompasses a complex mix of uncoordinated sound sources, a total soundscape that may include music as well as speech, music from multiple groups performing simultaneously, many speakers speaking at once, or many bird calls, all of which are layered together with “noise” such as the sounds of crowds, highways and factories, rain, wind and thunder. Unlike the analogous challenges in visual “recordings” (photographs), recognizing complex sound environments on audio recordings remains a rather mysterious process.

In contrast to an earlier era of “small data” (largely the result of the limited capacity of expensive analog recorders), the advent of inexpensive, portable, digital recording devices of enormous capacity combined with a growing interest in sound across the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, now contribute vast collections of sound recordings, resulting in interest in sound within the realm of “big data.” To date, most of the sound collection data is not annotated and in all practicality, is therefore inaccessible for research.

Computational recognition of sound, its types, sources, and components is crucial for a wide array of fields, including ethnomusicology, music studies, sound studies, linguistics (especially phonetics), media studies, library and information science, and bioacoustics, in order to enable indexing, searching, retrieval, and regression of audio information. While expert human listeners may be able to recognize complex sound environments with ease, the process is slow: they listen in real time, and they must be trained to hear sonic events contrapuntally. Through this project, we aim to explore opportunities for application of big data deep learning  that will ultimately enable these functions across large sound collections for ongoing interdisciplinary research.

Asch Collection

Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records, developed a personal connection with Edmonton while his son Michael served as a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta. It was during visits to the city in the 1970s and 1980s that Asch discovered Edmonton’s vibrant arts community and here, according to Michael, that he found a centre in touch with its past and willing to take risks to express itself artistically; a community with a major, diverse University; a lively folk music scene, including the Edmonton Folk Music Festival; and a radio station, CKUA, that provided a space for artistic and social expression in which he felt at home.

Gilbert and Lawrence Anderson play at a New Year’s party. Source: VMCTM, Northern Alberta Fiddle Collection

Virtual Museum of Canadian Traditional Music

The Virtual Museum of Canadian Traditional Music (VMCTM) is an online resource for students, teachers and the public. It tells the stories of Canadians and their music, using educational stories and an extensive collection of digital resources including images, video and audio. The VMCTM is accessible in both French and English.

This interactive museum features a variety of narratives from Canadian musical history, including a collection of classic Canadian songs, the journey of South Asian music in Alberta, an overview of Ukrainian roots music in Canada, and the history of fiddling in Northern Alberta. The site also offers a selection of related learning resources, including teacher’s notes and activities for classroom study for grades 1-7.

Funded by a grant from the federal Department of Canadian Heritage through the University of Alberta Museums and Collections, this project was co-produced with assistance from our former initiative, folkwaysAlive!, and in partnership with Smithsonian Folkways Records and the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology, this online resource includes digital collections provided by Smithsonian Folkways Records, the Alberta Fiddle Collection (collected by Rod Olstad and David Stark), Ukrainian Folklore Archive (collected by Brian Cherwick), South Asian Archive (collected by Regula Qureshi), and Ismaili archive (collected by Karim Gillani).

The VMCTM is part of the Virtual Museum of Canada, the largest source of online content and experiences shared by large and small Canadian museums and heritage organizations. These online exhibits explore history, culture, science and the arts, and feature fascinating stories and treasures from communities across the country.

From 1948 to 1986, Folkways Records produced over 2,100 recordings of remarkable breadth and diversity. This virtual exhibition presents the look of Folkways through an exploration of the cover art and design of this extraordinary recording company.

The Look of the Listen: The Cover Art of Folkways Records

Over 200 album covers are displayed in this exhibit, representing a vast range of artistic styles and genres and through images and textual descriptions, the history and importance of Folkways Records cover art emerges. The exhibit includes a series of galleries that represent key sections and themes of the Folkways Records catalogue, encouraging viewers to explore relationships between the cover art and the recorded sound.

As you move through the galleries, clicking on the thumbnail images will reveal individual album credits and commentary. Audio samples and original record liner notes from the featured albums may also be accessed for further reference.

The History of Gospel Music in Western Canada

The roots of gospel music in Western Canada extend back almost two centuries and cross not only national and ethnic boundaries, but boundaries between musical genres as well. This project, initiated by University of Alberta anthropologist Carl Urion, explores both the roots and current practice of gospel music in three overlapping communities of practice that during the 20th century came to be called Black gospel, Southern gospel and Native gospel. A shared body of songs in those three communities is the legacy of our forebears here having sung for and with each other, even during times of violent social conflict.

Here are five brief examples that show the diversity of gospel music communities in Western Canada:

  1. Ever since first contact, Canadian Indigenous peoples have been incorporating European music into an ancient traditional system of exchanging and creating songs. Gospel music in First Nations and Métis communities of Western Canada reflects that long history. A camp meeting tradition that began in the 19th century is very much alive today. People jam this music, exchange recordings of it on social media, listen to it on Indigenous radio stations and sing it at both parties and wakes. There are Indigenous gospel jamborees and special gospel music events in all the Western provinces and territories, and musical exchange across the US border.
  2. Black gospel music has been in Western Canada for over 110 years. In the first decade of the 20th century, African American pioneers from the American Midwest and South brought the music, a central part of a much larger repertoire of styles, to settlements such as Turtleford and Maidstone in Saskatchewan, and Amber Valley, Junkins, and Campsie in Alberta. Between 1906 and 1914, William Smith, an African-American gospel singer and preacher from Denver, led an intercultural religious and social movement in Edmonton. Gospel music was a core practice for its European, Anglo-American, African-American, and Cree members. Immigration from the Caribbean and Africa over the past 50 years added to the rich spectrum of Black gospel idioms here.
  3. Mennonites played a central role in the early 19th century evolution of gospel music in Appalachia, and later in that century they took the tradition to the Ukraine. Ukrainian Mennonites brought American gospel music, in Plattdeutsch and German, to Western Canada as early as the 1870s. Throughout the 20th century Mennonites from Manitoba to British Columbia have played a huge role in keeping the Southern gospel music tradition alive. Their promotion of gospel music has been a factor in breaking down denominational walls. They are still crossing international borders with this music. Mennonites in Northern Alberta with connections to Central and South America sing gospel music in Spanish, English and two varieties of German.
  4. Between 1910 and 1960, almost 200,000 young people attended one of the 90 Bible schools that were established west of Ontario. Those schools played a major role in music education and in spreading gospel music in the West from the 1930s through the 1970s, especially with male quartets, mixed ensembles, and women’s trios. Some of the singing groups from the Bible schools went on to international success.
  5. Three politician preachers, Premiers Tommy Douglas of Saskatchewan, and William Aberhart and Ernest Manning in Alberta, changed the face of politics in Western Canada during the middle years of the 20th century. In Alberta, the pianist and musical director for Premier Aberhart’s weekly gospel radio broadcast in the 1930s was Muriel Preston. Her husband, Ernest Manning, took over from Aberhart as both preacher and premier,  and for more than 30 years Albertans heard gospel and church music on their premier’s weekly evangelical radio program.

About the Project

The project involves collecting audio archives, including vinyl, CDs, and cassette tapes. We have completed archival research; invited community engagement through attendance at gatherings where gospel music is practiced; video-recorded two major gospel music events; and completed interviews with people who make and love this music.

For more information about the project, or to get involved, email