Student podcasts showcase the heritage of the Montreux Jazz Festival

New student-led podcasts from an SHS course offer a window into the rich history of the Montreux Jazz Festival, contributing to EPFL’s broader efforts to conserve and share the memory of this storied event.

As a semester project for the course Heritage and Digitization: Montreux Jazz Memories, students have recently published a set of new podcasts in the online gallery Montreux Jazz Memories. Using the platform, Montreux Jazz Memories gathers oral testimony and visual artifacts from the vast network of volunteers, technical staff, organizers, and fans who come together each year for the Montreux Jazz Festival. This showcase of festival life was launched in 2018 as part of the Montreux Jazz Digital Project, which preserves roughly 5,000 concert recordings that have been made at Montreux since 1967 (a collection that is listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register). The project is supported by the Claude Nobs Foundation as well as EPFL’s Cultural and Heritage Innovation Center (CHC).

The CHC director, Alain Dufaux, explains that the first iteration of this center was created in 2010 to digitize the Montreux recordings and to make them available for research and teaching. Most of the recordings have now been digitized, and this process has brought collaboration with numerous Swiss and foreign universities as well as private start-ups and NGOs. Thus “the Montreux Jazz Festival archives have really become a research resource and a platform for innovation.” The creation of Montreux Jazz Memories by the sociologist Alexandre Camus added a further layer of “living memory” by exposing the experience of the “tens of thousands of people who participate in the event to make it happen,” in the words of Camus.

In 2019, Camus and Dufaux helped launch a course focused on Montreux Jazz Memories in collaboration with the anthropologist and sinologist Florence Graezer Bideau, who leads the Heritage, Culture and City research group in the College of Humanities. This interdisciplinary teaching team pooled their expertise to devise a unique pedagogical concept that guides students through the process of heritage valorization in its theoretical, technical, and social dimensions. Graezer Bideau explains that the mission of this course “is to approach the question of heritage from the bottom-up.” She notes that this strategy is aligned with recent efforts in the field of critical heritage studies to highlight the experience of cultural actors whose activity is hidden from the public eye.

Students were able to explore these complex themes over the course of two semesters as part of the year-long curriculum in Social and Human Sciences offered at EPFL as part of all master’s programs. In the fall semester, experts and practitioners gave a series of lectures to introduce students to the heritage of the Montreux Jazz Festival as well as broader issues in social media, public history, and digital humanities. Students used this insight to study past projects to commemorate collaborative heritage in other domains. They then began to prepare their podcasts by coding interviews that had already been recorded for Montreux Jazz Memories. The spring semester was wholly dedicated to the production of new podcasts around a series of key themes. Students worked in groups to gather relevant segments from past interviews and also to conduct two new interviews with festival collaborators. The first interview was part of a structured heritage workshop with support from the instructors and the second was done in a more autonomous format. In this course, students “learned-by-doing” – they gained hands-on experience in core scholarly practices in the social and human sciences including textual coding, interviewing, and narrative construction. They also honed their skills in audio story-telling with support from Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS), notably from Camille Dupon-Lahitte of Le Labo at RTS.

The students had to adhere to high standards of methodological rigor in their interviews in order to ensure that this material can be re-used by future project groups to make thematic podcasts, as they continue to build out the corpus of Montreux Jazz Memories. This corpus already includes roughly 150 interviews and will grow with each year of the course.

This year’s batch of podcasts offer the public an inside view of the Montreux Jazz Festival by channeling the voices of drivers, nurses, administrators, technicians, cooks, and security guards, among others. They each describe their distinctive relationships with the music, with other collaborators, and with festival leaders, including the legendary founder Claude Nobs. Staff testimonials emphasize that Nobs had a unique ability to bring people together and to rally partners to his cause. Listening to the voices that make up the Montreux Jazz Festival from the backstage allows an immersive understanding of the making of a piece of heritage that plays an important role in cultural life around Lake Geneva.