Digital Humanities in Songs and Baudelaire

The Baudelaire Song Project

Cultural Mechanics of The Baudelaire Song Project

In the quiet of October 2018, I was listening to a podcast, Cultural Mechanics. Shout out to James O’Sullivan for coming up with such a cool name for a podcast on digital culture and arts. That’s how I came across The Baudelaire Song Project.

When I was younger and winning multiple creative writing competitions, I remember quoting this one line over and over again. I read it in a spy-thriller novel. I was enamored by those lines – as an angsty teenager. (Cue Spring Awakening soundtrack in the background.)

Stomp stomp mama.

L’ y a la beaute on trouve la morte.

Where one finds beauty, there is death.

– Hopefully, maybe Charles Baudelaire

I truly remember them to have been Charles Baudelaire’s lines. I say maybe because when I look up this quote that is etched in my writing so much, I couldn’t find it

Les Fleurs du mal Librivox Audiobook

Life of Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire(1821-1867) was a French poet, and a literary art critic.

Living in France then, being what it is, meant that Baudelaire witnessed two revolutions in his lifetime. Slowly working his way to a debt, he traveled around writer circles and in 1857 he published his first collection of poetry.

The collection of a hundred poems was considered scandalous since they ranged from vampires to lesbians. Six poems in particular were deemed offensive and he was on trial for them. This, more than anything, gave way for his popularity.

In 1961, he re-published Les Fleurs du mal without those 6 poems, but with 30 new poems.

A defining feature of his poems are the settings in which they take place. There is a definite musicality to them. 


The Flawed Bell

It is bitter and sweet on winter nights 
To listen by the fire that smokes and palpitates, 
To distant souvenirs that rise up slowly 
At the sound of the chimes that sing in the fog.

Happy is the bell which in spite of age
Is vigilant and healthy, and with lusty throat
Faithfully sounds its religious call,
Like an old soldier watching from his tent!

I, my soul is flawed, and when, a prey to ennui,
She wishes to fill the cold night air with her songs,
It often happens that her weakened voice

Resembles the death rattle of a wounded man, 
Forgotten beneath a heap of dead, by a lake of blood, 
Who dies without moving, striving desperately.

— Charles Baudelaire, William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

There are patterns where Baudelaire’s poetry has been used over time in Rock, Rap, and Death Metal in French, English, Russian, German, Norwegian, Spanish, Polish, Korean, and Hebrew.

This shows that Baudelaire is still being read and consumed, even today in the 21st Century. Here are some of the more popular examples of Baudelaire poetry inspiration and realization in song form.

I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s, I think, but I could be wrong. Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can’t see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song. And you can see it in this movie Godard shot called Sympathy for the Devil [originally titled One Plus One,] which is very fortuitous, because Godard wanted to do a film of us in the studio. 

 – Mick Jagger, Mick Jagger remembers, Rollingstone Magazine


Oh! You want to know why I hate you today. It will undoubtedly be less easy for you to understand than it will be for me to explain, for you are, I believe, the most beautiful example of feminine impermeability one could ever encounter.

– Charles Baudelaire, “The Eyes of The Poor“, 1869

You want to know why I hate you? Well, I’ll try and explain
You remember that day in Paris, when we wandered through the rain

– The Cure in “How Beautiful You Are”


The Angel who gives punishment equal to his love
Beats the anathema with his giant fists;
But the damned one still answers: I shall not!”

— Charles Baudelaire, Translated by William Aggeler, “The Rebel” The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

To your son I will return his strength and his colors 
And will be for this frail athlete of life 
Oil that strengthens the muscles of wrestlers.
In you I will fall, ambrosial plant, 
precious grain thrown by the eternal Sower, so 
that our love will be born poetry 
that will spring to God like a rare flower!

Charles Baudelaire, The Soul of Wine

Why Baudelaire?

Baudelaire’s Self portrait:  Dessin par Charles Baudelaire.
Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Baudelaire’s poetry connects with an audience. In North Carolina State University’s David H. Henard and Christian L. Rossetti study,  “All You Need is Love? Communication Insights from Pop Music’s Number-One Hits” the most common themes in pop music ranged from loss to aspiration. These themes aligned almost perfectly with Charles Baudelaire’s work.

The Baudelaire Song project

Baudelaire’s Journal will make BuJo-ers jealous. Image courtesy: LADILETTANTELLE

The Baudelaire Song Project is creating a dataset that brings together different types of music to poetry, as an art form.

Patterns are most commonly and easily noticed in music, for obvious reasons., and finding a sync in the sound of words seems very very cool. Poetry, by nature, is already very musical.

Here’s another example for analysis and visualization of poetry that I will pursue in another blog post: Amaranth Borsuk’s The Upright Script: Words in Space and on the Page 

The Tech Side of Things

The digital method of The Baudelaire Project is helping Prof. Helen Abbott and Dr. Caroline Ardrey use a wider range of parameters for their literary analysis. Overall they are concerned with the following:

  1. Meter/prosody
  2. Form/structure
  3. Sound properties/repetition
  4. Semantics/word-painting
  5. Live performance options.
  6. The electronic version reach of the text
  7. Audio files of the songs
  8. Database of song setting
  9. Creating .csv datasets

Digital Tools used

  • Excel
  • OperaVox: Detailed analysis of singing voices
  • Audacity: Open source software for multi-track audio editing and recording for various layers of labeling, annotating, and tagging.
  • Sonic Visualizer: Musicologists, archivists, signal-processing researchers can study a music file, not just listen to it.

Cultural Impact


Baudelaire’s Self Portrait:  Dessin par Charles Baudelaire.
Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Students have implemented Baudelaire poetry to music – including classical and death metal via a workshop Songs without Borders.

A Series Of Unfortunate Events Play GIF by NETFLIX - Find & Share on GIPHY
No, not this poetry. But thank you Klaus. GIF courtesy: Giphy

These kids set the poetry to music to create original pieces.

What?

The Baudelaire Song Project consists of:

  1. Research all song settings of Charles Baudelaire’s 200+ poems. 
  2. Building a dataset with these song settings.
    • Archive research for each song setting.
    • Tagging poems with Music using XML markup.
  3. Cross- analyzing and visualizing songs for rich and comparative data.
  4. Collaboration between various music and literary components.
Image courtesy: The Baudelaire Song Project

Why?

  • To research all song settings ever.
  • Build a timeline of song settings
  • Facilitate computer-assisted analysis of poetry to song examples.
  • Determine the most often used poetry.
  • Explore the ways in which musicians address the challenges of translating literature into music.
  • Understand the Digital Humanities nature of sound and text interaction.
  • Use data to map reception to Baudelaire across time and even geographically.

How?

  1. Start with Page 1 of Fleurs du Mal.
  2. Identify the poems with the largest possible number of song settings.
  3.  Insert into the database.
  4. Test the data on the database.
  5. Test on Sonic Visualizer.
  6. Test on Audacity.
  7. Verify and Validate.

Where?

  • Digital Humanities Institute, University of Sheffield (UK)
  • University of Birmingham (UK)
  • University Toulouse – Jean Jaurès (France)

Who?

Milestones

  • Setting up the database
  • Recognizing Baudelaire’s prose poetry to require a different set of methodology.
  • Diversifying into other styles, artists, new song settings etc.

Further Reading

Professor Helen Abbott, Department of Modern Languages  – Baudelaire in Song, 1880-1930 published by Oxford University Press

Learn more

Twitter | Facebook | Website | Email

The Baudelaire Song Project is unique and pioneering. It is not delimiting about what music and poetry can do together.on the other hand, it showcases what could be achieved as a result of the amalgamation of technology, music, and literature.

Top Hat Art By GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Baudelaire taking a bow. GIF courtesy: Giphy

Have you read Baudelaire? Is there a place for technology in music and poetry? Does anyone out there know if Baudelaire ever said anything along the lines of “Where there is beauty, one finds death”?!

The Baudelaire Song Project

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