Interview John Griffiths

We have just known and access to the vast digital site Vihuela Database, created by John Griffiths, musicologist, researcher and performer. To know it better, from the Research Center Tomás Luis de Victoria, we wanted to talk with him and publish this interview with interesnting reflexions to wide our vision about reinassance music in general and the vihuela in concrete. 

You just published a huge work made during the last 30 years. What does the database try to achieve? What are its guiding principles?

The objective of the Vihuela Database is to combine in one place all the information available on the vihuela, that is, the instrument, its music, and the people connected with it. The information about instruments includes surviving instruments, iconographical representations of vihuelas, and documents that describe physical aspects of the instrument in some way. There is detailed information about every single surviving piece of vihuela music, and details of players, makers, owners, and many other people. This ranges from patrons, to members of the families of known vihuelists, the artists who painted vihuelists, and the people who imported and sold vihuela strings. In addition, the database gives details of all the original documents that make up our modern knowledge, together with a bibliography of modern writings and recordings. 

It is designed so that it is simple to use. I want it to be a reference that can serve a wide range of users, curious music lovers, guitarists and vihuelists, and also professional researchers.

Has the project changed much from its initial conception? Which aspects of the creation of this database have been the most complicated?

Thirty years ago I started to make databases concerning the vihuela for my own use. The first one I made was a bibliography of old and modern writings on the vihuela. After that, I made another database of the iconography of the vihuela. I did this so that I could have comprehensive information at my fingertips. This second one, for example, gave me the material that I needed to do the research on the vihuela in the fifteenth century that is presented in my article “Las vihuelas en la época de Isabel la Católica*” that provides a clear idea of the development of the early history of the vihuela. Having a database like this means that it is possible to search and order large quantities of material. In this case, it has permitted a significant clarification of some of the errors of earlier researchers, errors that were often repeated by subsequent scholars without ever checking with the original sources. 

Originally, the database was only for my own personal use. It was after using it for many years, continually expanding it, that I realised it could be useful to  make it available publicly to anyone who might be interested. It started as a bibliography; later I added the database of instruments, later the database if people, then the recordings, and finally the documents.

The complicated part of the project was to take seven separate, independent databases and to put them together so that can talk to each other. This is the most exciting part of the database.

*John Griffiths, “Las vihuelas en la época de Isabel la Católica,” Cuadernos de Música Iberoamericana 20 (julio-diciembre, 2010): 7-36.

The Vihuela Database is an enormous site, very complete and thorough, which makes it very useful for many kinds of research projects. Are there any specific research approaches or themes you imagined during the process that could be helped by this project? What kinds of research projects on the vihuela or its music do you think can start from here? Do you have any suggestions about that?

There are several examples I could give similar to the one I mentioned above, about vihuelas in the fifteenth century. Another of the tools that I have developed is the database of fantasia themes. This was originally work that I did in my PhD thesis, before personal computers were known. This includes a search capability. I could use this to answer questions such as: 1) are there differences between the opening themes of vihuela fantasias and themes introduced internally, or 2) are there similarities between the fantasia themes used by any of the vihuelists and Francesco da Milano? 

Of course, one of the marvellous things about database tools such as this one is the way that they stimulate you to ask new questions, and to find relationships between things that would never have occurred to you.

How will the Vihuela Database continue to develop?

At the moment, only a percentage of my material is published on the database. It has been a gradual process of converting material that was originally intended only for me into a form that is adequate for publication. I am presently revising every one of the 3200 records for publication. This work is mainly editorial: making them readable and comprehensible to other readers. I took the decision quite recently to use English as the main language, so there are many parts that I originally wrote in Spanish that need to be translated. Of course, I will maintain all the original documents in the original language, but give a brief summary of each in English. So far, the database has only less than half the total amount of material online.

Together with my technical consultants, we are working on a method that will permit automatic updating of the database as I complete the revision of each record. I expect that these updates will happen weekly, if not more frequently. 

Additionally, we are working on augmenting the functionality of the database. One of the main advances in the next phase of development will be the ability to sort data. At the moment, you can search data but it is not possible to put it into alphabetical or chronological order, if you require it. This will make it a much more powerful tool.

From your experience in the design and construction of this digital site, what kind of complement would you say are the best for music databases? Do you have any recommendation for others projects centred around this goal right now?

I started making the database using Filemaker Pro which is an excellent program for the purpose, especially if it is only going to be for individual use. If you are going to publish on the internet, however, it is much better to use open source software, and software that does not get the data mixed up with the operational software. This means that any time in the future, it will be possible to update the software without compromising the data. For the current website, we have used Django as the programming software.

Which other research fields, whether or not connected with the vihuela and early music, do you think are susceptibles of a similar conception in a database? Do you know any actually working on this direction?

The field of digital humanities is a vast one, and there are many new projects and experiments. In Spain, digital humanities is well advanced in areas such as history, art history and philology but has been lagging behind in musicology. 

I think that one of the positive features of my database is that, when I started to develop the relational connections between database, I started to conceive that entire website as a habitat, a complete environment for the vihuela. I wanted it to be something that included all its dimensions: the instrument, its music, and all the people involved in this habitat, from manufacturers to consumers, from artists to artisans. This is the fundamental principle. This can be applied to any other self-contained area of research.

Now that you have shared this incredible resource, putting all the sources and documentary information about the vihuela together and making it  accesible, what could you add to motivate the early music studies from projects like yours?

That’s a difficult question. In my own case, I have many projects still to do, arising from the database. Everywhere you turn you discover new questions that need answers. Making this material available to others might have several different ramifications. Firstly, it might reduce the tendency to keep reinventing the wheel. If there is an accessible, reliable source of basic information, then not so much effort needs to be spent making basic knowledge available. A great part of what is written about the vihuela simply repeats what is already known, instead of searching further. The database will stimulate further research, that it absolutely certain. It will do it by itself and it does not need me to specify future lines of research that will define themselves as time goes on.

What broader impact on the way we write music history do you think might result from having material like this available on the internet?

I planned this database from the beginning in conjunction with writing a book about the vihuela. Not only would the database make it more concise, but it would also permit a new relationship between the author and the reader. Further reflection on this point has lead me to re-conceive the way we write history, or that we might start to write history in the digital age.

Customarily, the process of writing history involves a historian communicating with a reader. The historian gathers information, digests the information, interprets it, and writes an historical account. In this process, the historian usually retains privileged access to some or all of the source material whereas the reader does not. The reader must accept what the historian has written, or dismiss the writing as not believable. In contrast to this, making all the source material available to the reader —the case with the Vihuela Database— gives the reader the same access privileges as the historian. In effect, it democratises the access to the historical source material. More than that however, it triangulates a formerly linear process, and permits two-way traffic along a pathway that formerly went only in one direction, from the historian to the reader.

We live in an increasingly literate world, with much higher levels of education than ever before. Furthermore, the internet has functioned as a common denominator to democratise many areas by providing access to information and repositories that were once only accessible to a privileged few. In this context, it is only natural that there should be changes in certain kinds of human dynamics such as the relationship between historians and their readers. By giving equal access to historical documents to both historians and readers permits a triangulation between the historian, the document and the reader, that allows them to communicate in either direction along any of the three axes, and to enter into dialogue with one another to debate any aspect of their content. This is essentially the new vision of the discipline history that is facilitated by databases such as the Vihuela Database. In this way, databases of this kind can result in profound changes in the intellectual life of our society.