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. Britta Sweers

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


IRCAM (Unité mixte de recherche Sciences et technologies de la musique et du son), Paris
Équipe Analyse des pratiques musicales
From 15 September to 15 October 2021

Scientific collaborations

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

Swiss Young Academy
Interdisciplinary research project The Future of Human Rights

International Musicological Society
IMS Study Group Music and Violence

PRISM Laboratory / CNRS, Aix-Marseille University, Ministry of Culture (France)
Prof. Christine Esclapez

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 was free of charge and accessible worldwide

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)

International conference “Exploring Gender-Based Violence and Femicide in 20th and 21st Century Music Theatre”

University of Bern, Institut für Musikwissenschaft, 6-7 March 2024
Conference convenors: Lena van der Hoven and Luis Velasco-Pufleau
Since Catherine Clément’s seminal work on the intertwining of opera plots and violence against women (Clément 1988), a growing number of musicologists have critically engaged with the representation of sexual violence against women in canonical operas and their stagings (Cormier 2020), and questioned the persistence of rape culture in new productions (Cusick et al. 2018; Harper-Scott 2009). This scholarship has successfully examined rape as a “violent performative of systemic, gendered power” (Cusick et al. 2018, 217). Building on this scholarship, this two-day conference aims to broaden the perspective and specifically examine not only rape of women in opera, but also femicides and sexual violence against men and non-binary people, under the theme of gendered violence in music theatre in the 20th and 21st centuries. Particularly in light of the recent increased awareness of gender-based violence against women through phenomena such as the #MeToo movement and the COVID-19 pandemic, we want to explore if and how these events have influenced the commissioning of new music theatre productions on the themes of rape, femicide and gender-based violence, or the staging of opera and music theatre repertoire from the 20th century. Assuming that the #MeToo movement and the COVID-19 pandemic have increased public awareness and sensitivity to the issue, the conference aims to explore whether there has been an increase in funding strategies for commissioning music theatre or staging music theatre productions on these themes. The conference will also discuss whether and how new compositions and new stagings of 20th century repertoire reflect current discourses on power and gender-based violence (also against men) and refuse to re-stage problematic power relations. In addition, the conference aims to broaden the previously exclusive perspective of the Global North to include discussions of productions from the Global South and their social significance.

Individual papers at international conferences

“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

“‘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

“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

“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

“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

“Sonic Agencies, Hybrid Improvised Sounds and the Politics of Collective Memory in the Work of Marisol Jiménez”
International conference Music Discourses after 1970
Hochschule der Künste Bern, 23 March 2023

“Conflits armés contemporains, systèmes de notation et écologie documentale : penser à travers low intensity conflicts de Franck Leibovici”
International conference SICM 2023 – Le conflit dans la création musicale contemporaine : Violences, idéologies, territoires, hybridations
Sorbonne University, Paris, 13 April 2023

“Sounding Out Absent Bodies: Ghost Harmonies, Resonances and Remembering in Marisol Jiménez’s XLIII Memoriam Vivere
International conference The Aesthetics of Absence in Music of the Twenty-First Century
University of Oslo / Uppsala University, Oslo, 25-26 May 2023

Outreach and Communication Activities

Individual talk at the MA seminar Écrire 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

Mad Song improvisation sets at the Night of Improvisation
International conference Music Discourses after 1970
Hochschule der Künste Bern, 23 March 2023
Marisol Jiménez (feedback machines, live electronics)
Benoît Gisler (guitar, live electronics)
Luis Velasco-Pufleau (guitar, live electronics)

with Franziska Baumann (voice), Maria Sappho (piano), Carl Bergstroem-Nielsen (melodica/gadgets/voice), Raphaël Sudan (piano) and Roman Stolyar (piano)

Research Outputs


Velasco-Pufleau, Luis, “Listening is Action: A Soundwalk with Hildegard Westerkamp”, Performance Philosophy, vol. 8, no 1, 2023, pp. 86-100, https://doi.org/10.21476/PP.2023.81430.

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
2023, 31 minutes. Open Access repository link: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7679234
Narrator: Hildegard Westerkamp. Original idea, field recordings and composition: Luis Velasco-Pufleau.
Music: Hildegard Westerkamp. Mix: Christophe Rault. Lead voice: Chanda VanderHart. Diffusion: Babelfish asbl.

Land Acknowledgement: Listening is Action was recorded in the city of Vancouver, which is situated on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. We acknowledge the inherent rights and jurisdiction that these Nations hold to their territories.
Festivals selections:
La Semaine du Son / De week van de Klank (Brussels, Belgium), 4 February 2023
Finalist, SONOHR Radio & Podcast festival (Bern, Switzerland), 24-25 February 2023


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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