Conrad Grebel University College’s Music Professor Kate Kennedy Steiner and long-time adjunct Professor Debra Lacoste join the Digital Analysis of Chant Transmission (DACT), a 7-year partnership project recently granted $2.5 million in funding by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The aim of the project is to collect, analyze, and trace the transmission of plainchant through time and place, beyond Europe and the Middle Ages. 

Plainchant is a form of liturgical music that emerged during medieval times. Traditionally sung a cappella in Latin, plainchant was once a central part of practicing Christianity, sung in group settings to invoke spiritual reflection. Over time, the spread and reformation of religion brought plainchant to various corners of the world, altering the style of the chant to adapt to new regions. Researchers in the DACT project hope to better understand this spread of liturgical expression and how it affected the ways that various communities lived and worshipped over the years. This data sheds light on the movement of people, ideas, and music from medieval Europe to the modern world. 

As part of the project, Steiner will oversee a team of researchers creating a Canadian chant database. Her team will focus on gathering chant-related artifacts such as manuscripts and fragments from across Ontario through to the Maritimes. These manuscripts are ancient records of plainchant in the form of notation accompanied by Latin text, or sometimes translated into modern languages.  

“This data helps us unpack how ideas were transmitted around the world,” said Steiner. She explained how fragments of plainchant artifacts are often separated and displaced, and creating a central database can help to bring them back together. “A fragment sitting in some Canadian’s attic might be the missing piece to a European manuscript, and when we connect the dots, it helps complete a story.”  

Lacoste is the project manager behind DACT, who will manage the communication between the 23 co-investigators, 23 collaborators, and 20 partner organizations involved in the project. She will also continue to oversee the operations of the Cantus Database – one of the longest running online tools for chant research and discovery that has been hosted by the University of Waterloo since 2011. 

“We know that many medieval books were torn apart by booksellers and antique dealers, and many of these fragmented manuscripts made their way around the world,” explained Lacoste. “We hope to find these lost treasures, perhaps virtually reassemble them, and study them to find out what they can tell us about the history and communication of culture.” 

Grebel’s Dean, Troy Osborne, commented on the project, noting that it will “deepen our understanding of how music offers a lens into broader patterns of religion, power, and meaning in pre-modern European society and culture.”  

Steiner noted that her part of the project is currently in an outreach and awareness-building phase. If you or someone you know is in possession of a chant manuscript or fragment that you want investigated, fill out the form on the DACT website or contact Professor Steiner. 

SSHRC is a Canadian federal funding research agency that supports humanities and social science-based research. Their funding program brings together postsecondary institutions across the world to work together on research and knowledge mobilization on various topics in the field. 

Photograph is of a Chant Fragment held in the DRAGEN lab at St. Jerome's University.

By Farhan Saeed