Acceptance Speech – Rome, 25.11.2022 (Video + Text)

USA

Philip V. Bohlman

2022 Balzan Prize for Ethnomusicology

For his seminal contribution to ethnomusicology and music research more broadly, and for his work on music and European nationalism, music, race, and the colonial encounter; globalization; the interstices between music and religion; Jewish music in modernity; and the historically informed performance of Jewish urban musics.



Ethnomusicology is a field that is fundamentally dedicated to understanding societies and cultures through encounter with the sonic and aesthetic practices in the lives of humans throughout the world. It is a field concerned with engaging the individual and the collective alike, above all their interaction and the local and global diversity it makes possible. The work I have accomplished over many years has only been possible because of the individuals, communities, and collectives I have encountered as an ethnomusicologist whose field has consistently been international. The extreme honor and profound humility I feel as the recipient of the International Balzan Prize in Ethnomusicology are all the greater because I was able to listen to and hear the vox populi, the voices of the people, the collective song that yields moral and ethical action. It is with the deepest gratitude that I accept the Balzan Prize.

Although many think that ethnomusicology is a relatively new field, made possible through the implementation of modern technologies that record, preserve, and disseminate sound, the aesthetic and philosophical foundations of the field stretch to the earliest attempts to understand human societies and the natural and sacred worlds of which they are parts. The narrative and musica genres ethnomusicologists study (for example, the epic) are among the oldest oral and literary forms, the transmission of which depends on the power of song to engender common belief systems and political unity. The earliest philosophical and theoretical works on music and the complex of aesthetic practices from which it is inseparable, such as the ca. third-century CE Nāṭyaśāstra, circulated globally for centuries and continue to influence the understanding and practice of the arts across South and Southeast Asia in the twenty-first century. It is hardly surprising that ethnomusicology would become one of the first fields dedicated to the truly global pursuit of knowledge.

Crucial to the global pursuit of knowledge, moreover, is the search for how knowledge, through music and sound practices, shapes ways of being-in-the world, the ontologies whereby individuals and collectives shape the everyday, and seek the transcendent. For the past half-century, ethnomusicologists have employed ethnography to set a more sweeping ontological turn in music studies in motion, exploring new sites of encounter opened by media studies in popular music, and mobilizing critical sets of inquiry into the political. The historical longue durée of ethnomusicology today joins in counterpoint with the history of the present. The political crises of the twenty-first century – the plight of refugees seeking to cross national borders, the agency of music in giving voice to peoples of color or difference, the challenges of and to musical heritage, the struggle for sovereignty against violence – increasingly occupy the global borderlands to which ethnomusicologists take critical practices of ethnography. Such borderlands, too, become precarious as the global climate crisis intensifies, and they require music scholars to develop new approaches to encountering the ontologies of music in the Anthropocene, not least by listening into the sound worlds of non-humans.

I particularly welcome the International Balzan Prize in Ethnomusicology because it allows me to make a critical contribution to the ontological turn that draws the interdisciplinary collective of students and scholars inspired by the modern field of ethnomusicology to the sonic borderlands in the global history of the present. By focusing on sonic borderlands, this new Balzan collective will create new disciplinary connections and enhance particularly the conversations that have traditionally taken place across borders. Young scholars with roots in the social sciences will find encouragement to deepen ethnographic study, especially along the borders crossed by migrants and refugees. Music historians and philosophers will have opportunities to explore and realign aesthetic borders. By drawing together the numerous disciplinees that contribute to ethnomusicological thought, the Balzan Prize can strengthen the collaborative potential of a much larger field of scientific inquiry. Critical to the role of such scientific inquiry, moreover, is that it can also become public-facing and that its programs and publications can enrich and engage the broadest possible collective.

Throughout this acceptance speech I have emphasized the presence and role of the collective, of the field of ethnomusicology, as well as of the publics it reaches. I do so not only to provide a concise intellectual history of the field, but also to express my indebtedness to the many from whom I have learned. My coming-of-age as an ethnomusicologist was possible because of remarkable teachers: Bruno Nettl at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Amnon Shiloah in Jerusalem; Carl Dahlhaus and Otto Holzapfel in Berlin and Freiburg im Breisgau; and many more. I learned early on that my fieldwork could and should take me to those who labored – farmers and workers – and soon thereafter it would take me to those who suffered – to the immigrants and refugees who fled Europe from the Shoa, and to those who were unable to do so. I have found it critical to enter the spaces of encounter unsettled by colonialism, racism, and genocide. Even under such difficult circumstances, those with whom I conducted fieldwork became my teachers. The same must be said about my students, who are the most critical and caring of all my teachers. Just why I was able to hold remarkably diverse and international visiting professorships – in the United States, Germany, Israel, Austria, Italy, Croatia – I don’t really know, but surely this was the reason the collective of students from whom I learn has increased immeasurably.

Please permit me to conclude these remarks accepting the International Balzan Prize in Ethnomusicology by expressing my appreciation again to the Balzan Foundation and to the remarkable collective who have made my work and career possible. I am deeply honored that the Balzan Prize now opens an important new chapter in our common encounters in ethnomusicology.

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