Political Ontologies of Music: Rethinking the Relationship between Music and Politics in the Twenty-First Century (ONTOMUSIC)

Research Project, 1 April 2021 – 31 March 2024
European Union’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme / Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions

Dr Luis Velasco-Pufleau
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow, University of Bern / McGill University

Project description

ONTOMUSIC provides an innovative and interdisciplinary theoretical framework to analyse the political and ethical dimensions of contemporary art music in the twenty-first century. It explores the relationship between composers’ ethical concerns, political thought and ontological assumptions about music. These ontological assumptions are defined as personal or collective assertions about the nature and means of music and sound, which reveal our beliefs on what music is as well as what music can do or accomplish. ONTOMUSIC argues that integrating composers’ ontological assumptions about music into the exploration of their political or ethical commitments makes possible the study of a broader range of living composers and their views about ethical issues such as social justice, human rights and the environment.

How do composers make their ethical concerns audible through their compositional and performance practices? Which concepts, discourses and imaginaries do they mobilise when talking about the relationships between music, ethics and politics? How can music create new ways of making sense of the common world?

ONTOMUSIC examines composers’ ontological assumptions about music and sound in relation to four key approaches to music, ethics and politics:
1. The politics of musical material: compositional techniques, musical gestures and political metaphors
2. Sound activism: musical practices and environmental concerns
3. Music and political identities: cosmopolitanism and political engagements with the past
4. Ecological approaches: sound, music technology and the politics of musical interactions

This research project is rooted in an interdisciplinary approach to music and performance practices, which seeks to bridge historical musicology, ethnomusicology, music theory and philosophy. ONTOMUSIC aims to advance our understanding of how composers engage critically with the major ethical and political challenges facing our societies.

Project objectives

The three main research objectives are: 1) to understand how composers’ ontological assumptions about sound shape the political possibilities of their music within a specific symbolic and social order; 2) to examine how composers have embedded their ethical concerns in specific compositional processes, performance settings and musical works; 3) to produce new sources and record first-hand views from composers, in particular women composers, where they develop their ontological assumptions connected to their ethical and political concerns.

Participant composers

– Raven Chacon (United States, b. 1977)
– Anthony Davis (United States, b. 1951)
– Marisol Jiménez (Mexico, b. 1978)
– Andile Khumalo (South Africa, b. 1978)
– Fabien Lévy (France, b. 1968)
– Philippe Manoury (France, b. 1952)
– Hilda Paredes (Mexico/UK, b. 1957)
– Katharina Rosenberger (Switzerland, b. 1971)
– Georgia Spiropoulos (Greece, b. 1965)
– Hildegard Westerkamp (Germany/Canada, b. 1946)


Host institution: Institute of Musicology and Walter Benjamin Kolleg, University of Bern
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Britta Sweers

Partner institution: Schulich School of Music, McGill University
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Robert Hasegawa

Scientific collaborations

Chaire de recherche du Canada en musique et politique / Faculté de musique, Université de Montréal
Chairholder: Prof. Dr. Marie-Hélène Benoit-Otis

Ircam (Unité mixte de recherche Sciences et technologies de la musique et du son)
Équipe Analyse des pratiques musicales

Swiss Young Academy
Interdisciplinary research project The Future of Human Rights

International Musicological Society
IMS Study Group Music and Violence

Research Activities

Lecture series “Poetics and Politics of Twenty-First Century Music”

Online lecture series with guest composers organised by the University of Bern (Institute of Musicology and Walter Benjamin Kolleg), McGill University (Schulich School of Music) and Université de Montréal (Canada Research Chair in Music and Politics).
Participation is free of charge and accessible worldwide, please register here: https://bit.ly/3EGMfyP

XLIII MEMORIAM VIVERE: Music and memory as resistance / Marisol Jiménez
7 October 2021, 10:00 am (Montreal time, UTC-04:00)

– Black lives in the operas of Anthony Davis / Anthony Davis
28 October 2021, 2:00 pm (Montreal time, UTC-04:00)

– Chroniques responsables, chroniques déchantées / Fabien Lévy
11 November 2021, 10:00 am (Montreal time, UTC-04:00)

EROR (The Pianist): L’œuvre comme laboratoire / Georgia Spiropoulos
25 November 2021, 10:00 am (Montreal time, UTC-04:00)

– Musical dramaturgy: A political vision in the musical discourse / Hilda Paredes
9 December 2021, 10:00 am (Montreal time, UTC-04:00)

– The current situation of the African composer / Andile Khumalo
13 January 2022, 10:00 am (Montreal time, UTC-04:00)

– What gets amplified / Raven Chacon
27 January 2022, 10:00 am (Montreal time, UTC-04:00)

– La création musicale savante peut-elle parler de notre monde ? / Philippe Manoury
24 February 2022, 10:00 am (Montreal time, UTC-04:00)

– Compositions that listen / Hildegard Westerkamp
17 March 2022, 2:00 pm (Montreal time, UTC-04:00)

International research seminar “Poetics and Politics of Twenty-First Century Music”

2021–2022, McGill University / Université de Montréal
“Poetics and Politics of Twenty-First Century Music” / “Poétiques et politiques de la musique du XXIe siècle
Organisers: Marie-Hélène Benoit-Otis (UdeM), Robert Hasegawa (McGill), Luis Velasco-Pufleau (UBern/McGill/UdeM)

International conferences and workshops

Individual paper: “Did you say ‘music’? Exploring the relationship between narratives on musicology and ontological assumptions of music”
International conference Narrating musicology. Reviewing the history/histories of musicology
University of Bern, 5–8 September 2021

Individual paper: “‘Only fear grew inside my body’: Ethics, femicide and compositional strategies in Hilda Paredes’ La tierra de la miel
Music and Philosophy Study Group (MPSG), Royal Musical Association
MPSG Panel: Sounding Out Musical Ethics, 6 October 2021, 12:00–2:00 pm (London time, online)

International workshop Collapsing Sounds: Listening to War, Nature and the Anthropocene
University of Bern – Walter Benjamin Kolleg, 18-19 March 2022

Outreach and Communication Activities

Freemuse Workshop “The Use of Legitimate Tools for Illegitimate Restrictions of Artistic Expression”
Speaker: Jasmina Lazović, Freemuse Programme Coordinator – Global Monitoring
University of Bern, 9 December 2021
Organised in collaboration with the Walter Benjamin Kolleg and Freemuse

Interdisciplinary event The Future of Human Rights – Human Rights of the Future
University of Bern, 10 December 2021
Organised by the Swiss Young Academy, in collaboration with the Walter Benjamin Kolleg

Research Outputs

Review article “Music, Noise and Conflict: Sociotechnical Imaginaries, Acoustic Agency, and Ontological Assumptions about Sound”, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, vol. 146, no 2, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1017/rma.2021.18.


ONTOMUSIC has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 101027828.

Additional support for research, outreach and communication activities has been provided by the following: Schulich School of Music (McGill University), Chaire de recherche du Canada en musique et politique (Université de Montréal), Institute of Musicology and Walter Benjamin Kolleg (Universität Bern), Ircam, Swiss Young Academy.

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