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)
– 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)

– Que peut la musique savante dire du 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)

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 workshop “Collapsing Sounds: Listening to Violence and Nature in the Anthropocene”

University of Bern – Walter Benjamin Kolleg, 18-19 March 2022
Convenors: Luis Velasco-Pufleau and Nikita Hock (University of Bern)

Sound plays a role not just in the direct experiences of violence, but also in the way human societies see their relationship to it and build their collective memory of it. From the natural sounds experienced in trench warfare to the aural traces of industrial pollution, mass extinction, and climate change, sound and violence are intimately connected to the built and natural environments in which they unfold. How do humans and more-than-humans listen and resonate in these environments? What shifts take place as sonic environments change? How do humans record, modify and archive sonic remains of nature and violence? The workshop at the University of Bern explores these perspectives by integrating recent developments in sound studies with ecological anthropology. It includes a wider ecological perspective that ranges from audible human-nature interactions in the past to the future challenges of the Anthropocene. 

– Martin Daughtry (New York University)
– Michael Guida (University of Sussex)
– Patricia Jäggi (Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts)
– Natalie Kirschstein (Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts)
– Ana María Ochoa Gautier (Tulane University)
– Britta Sweers (University of Bern)

Research seminar “Music and Politics in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries”

McGill University, Schulich School of Music
Fall 2022, MUHL 682 Seminar in Musicology, “Music and Politics in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries: From Antifascism to Contemporary Struggles for Social Justice”
Course lecturer: Luis Velasco-Pufleau (McGill)

Individual papers at international conferences

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, 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

Individual paper: “Exploring Trauma and Recovery through Listening Experiences of Survivors of the Bataclan Terrorist Attack in Paris: On the (Co-)Construction of Knowledge and Ethical Responsibility of Bearing Witness in Music Research”
International conference Music/Sound Through the Lens of Trauma: Methodology, Theory and History
Utrecht University, 8 July 2022

Individual paper: “Sounds, Echoes and Silences in Listening Experiences of Survivors of the Bataclan Terrorist Attack in Paris”
21st Quinquennial IMS Congress
IMS Music and Violence Study Group Session
Athens, 23 August 2022

Individual paper: “Music and Human Rights: Exploring New Relationships between Music and Politics in the Twenty-First Century”
2022 AMS-SEM-SMT Joint Annual Meeting
Session Borderlands and Acoustemologies in Contact
New Orleans, 13 November 2022

Outreach and Communication Activities

Individual talk at the MA seminar Ecrire l’histoire: entre mémoire et oubli, Prof. Christine Esclapez
Aix-Marseille Université, 12 November 2021
Master Acoustique et Musicologie, parcours Musicologie et Création

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
Panel discussion “Human rights and artistic freedom”
University of Bern, 10 December 2021
Organised by the Swiss Young Academy, in collaboration with the Walter Benjamin Kolleg

Individual talk at the Séminaire de laboratoire Musique et politique, Prof. Marie-Hélène Benoit-Otis
Université de Montréal, 5 April 2022

Individual talk at the MA seminar Sociology of Music, Prof. Anna Lisa Tota
University of Rome III, 5 May 2022

Presentation at the Nacht der Forschung
“Music as collective memory of contemporary struggles for social justice”
University of Bern, 10 September 2022

Research Outputs

Velasco-Pufleau, Luis, “La musique est-elle une arme de propagande comme les autres ? Réflexions sur l’écriture d’un texte d’opinion critique en contexte de guerre”, Revue musicale OICRM, vol. 9, no 1, 2022, pp. 181-193, https://doi.org/10.7202/1090521ar.

Review article:
Velasco-Pufleau, Luis, “Music, Noise and Conflict: Sociotechnical Imaginaries, Acoustic Agency, and Ontological Assumptions about Sound”, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, vol. 146, no 2, 2021, pp. 501-508, https://doi.org/10.1017/rma.2021.18.

Opinion piece:
Velasco-Pufleau, Luis, “Cartographies of Meaning: Can musicians stand for Ukraine without participating in propaganda?”, VAN Magazine, 23 June 2022, https://van-magazine.com/mag/ukraine-propaganda-music.
French version: “Musique et solidarité avec l’Ukraine : Comment les musiciens peuvent-ils s’opposer à la guerre sans devenir un instrument des dispositifs de propagande ?”, Music, Sound and Conflict, 23 June 2022, https://msc.hypotheses.org/4044.

Sound work:
Listening is Action: A Soundwalk with Hildegard Westerkamp
A sound documentary by Luis Velasco-Pufleau
2022, 30:53 minutes
Narrator: Hildegard Westerkamp. Original idea, field recordings and composition: Luis Velasco-Pufleau. Music: Hildegard Westerkamp. Postproduction: Christophe Rault. Credits voice: Rachel Gordy. Diffusion: Babelfish asbl.


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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