Book Trailer: The Voice In the Drum by Richard K. Wolf from Masha Vlasova on Vimeo.

Colloquium: Richard Wolf—The Voice in the Drum, Creative Non-Fiction, and Ethnomusicology

Wednesday, September 24, 2014 at 4:15pm
CFA Hall


Many kinds of acts we recognize as performative mediate and help constitute religious experiences all over the world.  This presentation by Richard K. Wolf, Professor of Music and South Asian Studies at Harvard University—based on fieldwork done in India and Pakistan over a 28-month period in late 1996 and on shorter visits extending into the late 2000s—concerns the experiences of drummers, dancers, and other participants at a Sufi shrine in Lahore, Pakistan. This talk is adapted from his forthcoming book, The Voice in the Drum: Music, Language, and Emotion in Islamicate South Asia, a hybrid piece of creative and analytic writing in the form of a novel. Religious communities all over the world transmit both moral lessons and the emotional tones of their faith through storytelling.  In both kinds of storytelling, the listener may face challenges regarding the status of what they hear as being “real.”  We all know that deep truths can be couched in forms that are not literally true.  While it may be a stretch to claim that a story printed on a page is a performance, any written distillation of an event’s complexity, like an exciting performance, has the potential to stimulate the reader’s imagination. It may have an aesthetic effect—an indeterminate emotional message—as well as a logocentric one.

The Voice in the Drum is set in the decades following the Partition of India in 1947. Its larger story focuses on the family of Sunni raja Ahmed Ali Khan, the ruler of a minor principality outside Lucknow, North India.  Ahmed Ali revels in the glories of 19th century Avadh.  He regales his family with rose-tinted stories of Shiahs and Sunnis, Hindus and Muslims, joining together in grand royal processions and other affairs of cultural and artistic merit.  His son Muharram Ali, second son of Ahmad Ali’s fourth wife, a Shiah, is a keen observer of human behavior, deeply interested in music, and a romantic torchbearer of his father’s liberal ideology.  A journalist, Muharram Ali scours the subcontinent in pursuit of a musical obsession related to his own biography. Rather like his father, he holds naive hopes that the aesthetic force of music may help dissolve religious and political barriers.  The book’s plot charts the breakdown of this naiveté.

Mr. Wolf has been conducting ethnomusicological research on the musical traditions of South Asia for more than thirty years. His books and articles consider musical and social issues of language, emotion, poetics, time, space, and religious experience. He has been the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, The American Council of Learned Societies, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and The Social Science Research Council, and multiple fellowships from The American Institute of Indian Studies, The American Institute of Pakistan Studies, and the Fulbright Scholar Program.  In addition to being a published scholar, Mr. Wolf is also an internationally recognized performer on the vīṇā, a stringed instrument used in South Indian classical music. In recent years, his field investigations have expanded from South Asia to Central and West Asia.  He was a Fulbright scholar in Tajikistan for the 2012-2013 academic year and is continuing that research in the late summer months of 2014 and 2015.

Mr. Wolf is the General Editor of the series Ethnomusicology Translations for the Society for Ethnomusicology. His first book, The Black Cow's Footprint: Time, Space, and Music in the Lives of the Kotas of South India (Permanent Black, 2005 and University of Illinois Press, 2006), received the Edward Cameron Dimock, Jr. Prize in the Humanities.  His second single authored book, The Voice in the Drum: Music, Language and Emotion in Islamicate South Asia (University of Illinois Press, October 2014), is a hybrid ethnomusicological study written in the form of a novel. He has edited the book Theorizing the Local: Music, Practice, and Experience in South Asia and Beyond (Oxford, 2009) and is co-editing a volume on the cross cultural study of rhythm and a volume entitled The Bison and the Horn: Indigeneity, Performance and the State of India, which is due to come out as a special issue of Asian Ethnology later this year.

Mr. Wolf is the recipient of a Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which is allowing him to continue collaborations with the anthropologist Frank Heidemann at the University of Munich over the next three or four summers.  Professor Wolf and Professor Heidemann conducted fieldwork together in the Nilgiri Hills of South India, and in addition to co-editing the volume on indigeneity, they are in the process of organizing a new project provisionally entitled “Sound and Sight Across the Disciplines.”

Part of the 38th annual Navaratri Festival.