Although the Internet is indispensable to any university’s functioning, its role in circulating academic discourse is still uncertain, with books and articles remaining the preferred media for sharing new research. Andrew Shenton, a musicologist at the School of Music as well as director of the Sacred Music program at the School of Theology, is one of a growing number of scholars looking to redefine the Internet’s relation to academe. In 2006 he founded the Boston University Messiaen Project (BUMP), a Web-based resource for the study of 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen.
Shenton calls his project a “cross-disciplinary event dedicated to scholarly discussion and performance of Messiaen’s music and to related cultural, historical, and theological issues.” BUMP is an Open Access forum, meaning that its materials—including biographies, discographies, program notes, photos, downloadable scholarly articles, and even streaming audio clips—are entirely digital, publicly accessible, and free. Anyone can contribute to the site, but before being posted all scholarly information is peer reviewed to ensure a level of academic quality comparable to that found in refereed print journals.
Open Access can reach a wider audience than traditional academic presses do, and is particularly useful for generating interest in topics that have received limited scholarly attention. The first biography of Messiaen was not published until 2006—14 years after the composer’s death—and little material on him exists at present. His music is difficult to classify, as it employs complex rhythmic structures but is generally tonal, unlike much avant-garde music of the 20th century. It also differs thematically from that of his contemporaries. As an ardent Catholic, Messiaen often referenced the life of Christ in his work. He also looked to the natural world for inspiration and frequently transcribed birdsong into his compositions.
Addressing the various influences on Messiaen’s work requires collaboration among scholars of diverse backgrounds, including musicology, theology, and even zoology. BUMP enables active dialogue within an interdisciplinary community of academics, performers, and music enthusiasts who share an interest in the composer—and the electronic format allows conversation to happen at a much faster pace than would be the case with traditional print publications. Such Open Access media projects promise to make humanities research more collaborative and accessible in the years ahead.