Universiteit Leiden

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Rachel Beckles Willson appointed professor by special appointment: ‘Music is interwoven with the big questions of our time’

Rachel Beckles Willson started her career as a concert pianist but was later captivated by the Middle Eastern stringed instrument called the oud. On 1 December, she was appointed professor by special appointment of 'Intercultural Performing Arts'.

‘My original training was as a concert pianist in the Western classical tradition,’ Beckles Willson explains, ‘but I also studied composition and saxophone. For some time, I performed a lot.’ Though Beckles Willson liked music making, she wanted to expand her knowledge. After periods of study in London, Budapest, and Hanover, she decided to do a PhD in theoretical studies of music, with a specialisation in Hungarian contemporary music. ‘Very soon after that, I got my first academic position at the University of Bristol,’ she recalls. ‘My research area broadened out to the cultural history of music, particularly music and communism.’

Appropriation in music

Subsequently, Beckles Willson focused for some time on the role of music in the occupied territories of Palestine and the Palestinian communities within Israel. ‘I looked at the different ways in which Western classical music is appropriated in different parts of the world and transformed by different cultural traditions,’ she explains. During this research, she discovered the oud. ‘I became very intrigued by this oriental lute and the way it has travelled the world. I studied the way it moved into different communities with different types of uptake and different transformations, while at the same time it led me back into practical music making because I started to learn to play it.’

Performing arts and worldwide problems

This combination of academic research on the one hand and practical music making on the other will also be central in her professorship. In addition to Leiden’s ACPA, Beckles Willson has been appointed at Rotterdam’s conservatory Codarts. ‘At Leiden, my role will be mainly supervising doctoral-level artistic research, so my day-to-day work will depend on who wants to work with me and what they want to work on, but the focus of the professorship will be on intercultural performing arts.’

Beckles Willson would like to focus not only on the intercultural exchange of different art forms but also on their relationship with global problems. ‘The current climate crisis has been triggered by rich white communities. The problem calls for intercultural perspectives and approaches, and music is potentially able to contribute to shifting understanding and transforming inequitable relationships. I’m hoping very much that I'll have the opportunity to work with an intercultural team and develop work that really looks at these very big questions. That may result in some quite technical work that offers a solution, but it may also lead to a creative prototype or model.’

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