This past June, the ethnomusicologist, mdw professor, and department head Ursula Hemetek became the first woman professor at an arts university to receive the Wittgenstein Award. This “Austrian Nobel Prize” is worth € 1.4 million—and it will be of lasting benefit to the mdw campus. Hemetek, who specialises in minority research, sat down with mdw Magazine to discuss fighting spirit, consistency, and ethnomusicology’s most important tool: listening.
What was your first thought when you learned that you’d won the Wittgenstein Award?
Ursula Hemetek (UH): What a fantastic show of recognition for this field, for such an “exotic subject” as ethnomusicology. That was my initial reaction. Because most people don’t even know what it is. And on top of that, getting recognised for a specialty like minority research—that’s something I hadn’t even dared to dream about. It’s the hands-down best thing that can happen during a researcher’s career.
You head the Department of Folk Music Research and Ethnomusicology. What’s this department really all about?
UH: We deal with music in social contexts and in terms of its significance to the people who produce and/or consume it. “Ethnomusicology” is the internationally accepted general term. But it’s fundamentally about all of the world’s musical styles, of which Austrian folk music is, of course, one. Drawing distinctions between what’s foreign and what belongs to us here is an outdated approach. What we’re about is methodology, field research. Gerlinde Haid and I engaged in years of discussion and ultimately decided to offer two different specialisations, Folk Music Research and Ethnomusicology, simply because their disciplinary traditions and history are so different. The one goes back to figures including Herder and the late phase of 19th-century nationalism, during which lay researchers sought to investigate the “voice of the people”. The other was born out of comparative musicology and a colonialist past where people set out to record music made by “primitive peoples” with phonographs, collecting material to support their evolutionist worldview.
You wrote your dissertation on the music of the Burgenland Croats, you’ve been researching Romani music in Austria since 1988, and you’re also active in awareness work and public communication. Why?
UH: Injustice is something that’s always made me furious. I grew up as a Protestant in a Catholic community. So it was already as a child that I learned what discrimination entails. And then I, the pharmacist’s daughter, married a so-called Tschusch [a derogatory Austrian term for Yugoslavians or Slavs in general]—that was the word for it out in the country where we lived—and experienced up close and personal how my husband, as a “foreigner”, had it in everyday life … like when he, with his accent, went looking for an apartment. So I was frequently someone who had to fight for her position on account of being different. But practice is a good thing, and it eventually led to my adopting a quite literally professional way of dealing with such mechanisms. And when I began researching the Roma, it soon became clear to me that my work couldn’t primarily serve to build my academic profile—that it was also necessary to take up clear social stances if I was going to work with people who experience such discrimination. What I observe from the outside is that since the Roma were recognised as an official ethnicity in 1993, there has at least been a legal framework via which to insist on respect. What’s more, a number of Romani associations have been founded since then, and there’s also now a young generation that’s confidently speaking up. All this is wonderful to see.
What do you think of the hype that Emir Kusturica and Goran Bregović touched off in the 1990s?
UH: Time of the Gypsies was an important film that contributed the “Balkan boom”. But it has little or nothing to do with some Austrian Romani musical styles. Bregović took various Romani musical styles from former Yugoslavia, styles that are tied to certain regions, and used them wonderfully in his film. It was a case of artistically legitimate exaggeration, yes, but I remember that the Roma weren’t so happy with it because it painted a stereotypical picture with which they couldn’t identify. On the other hand, the boom that ensued gave rise to performance opportunities for a lot of musicians.
Isn’t it problematic when “authentic” field recordings become the basis of new, hybrid musical styles?
UH: You mean the fragments of Balkan sounds that get used in club music? Well, I don’t pass judgement; I observe. The important thing is that those who are affected can stand behind it—because this is about their forms of cultural expression. I don’t think it‘s okay when people get exploited, but if it instead contributes to the awareness and popularisation of an ethnicity, I view it as a good thing.
Field research requires a good ability to use the necessary recording technology…
UH: I began doing research in 1978 with magnetic audio tape, and the recorders back then weighed between 15 and 20 kg. I had to carry them over my shoulder and march along—at the weddings that I documented, for example. With the advent of the mini-Nagras and then DAT recorders, recording became easier and less conspicuous. These days, we use flash recorders by Zoom as well as video cameras. We most recently worked with adolescent refugees from Afghanistan, asking them about their musical preferences. And in this particular field research project, mobile phones were essential—because they’d instantly show us on the Internet who their favourite stars were, whom they liked to listen to most, and what it had to do with their lives. That was a new experience.
What kind of experience has it been to work at the mdw over the past 31 years?
UH: Ethnomusicology had to fight for its place, here, at first. The preliminary work on bringing in other musical styles was done by Walter Deutsch and the others who were involved in folk music research. When I arrived at the mdw, with my background in comparative musicology, I was the outsider. The people already working at this department were very practically oriented, and their approach of “applied ethnomusicology”was ultimately good for my development. My interest was in examining “identity-bearing music”. And my work on minorities was always received in a fairly positive way, depending on the rectorate team in office. My direct colleagues, on the other hand, initially responded to my interest in the Roma with prejudices and a lack of understanding. Some of them would say to me: “They steal, you know; you really do need to watch out.” That’s how ill-informed people were back then. My first course on “Minorities” in 1992 was attended by a lot of foreign students, which was likewise viewed sceptically. But that’s since changed: today, our university is proud to have a 46% share of foreign students, which represents great potential—including in terms of ethnomusicology. These students bring with them other musical languages and are sometimes also trained on traditional instruments, which makes them ideal mediators
Have you ever regretted being at an arts university?
UH: No—this institution has provided me with a professional roof over my head, and I’m grateful for that. It’s allowed me to consistently pursue my research for more than 30 years, getting it established and passing my knowledge on to students. All that’s not to be taken for granted. And in terms of the teacher-student ratio: in comparison to the University of Vienna, where I did my habilitation thesis, we really do live on the proverbial island of bliss, here. Thanks to the lower student numbers, I’m able to devote real time to individual students. We’re also not subject to those awful point-based evaluation criteria—though we do evaluate transparently and in conformance with applicable laws. Yet another advantage is the outstanding structure, with the scholarly departments are separate from one another and not forced to compete. Ethnomusicology, music sociology, historical musicology, popular music research, etc. are independent subject areas. But the research specialities as a whole do, of course, always have to fight for their status so as to be more than just “minor subjects” for the students. The Wittgenstein Award provides reinforcement, here.
What do you plan to do with your award money?
UH: I’m planning to establish a centre for ethnomusicological research on minorities. This approach has become established worldwide by now, and it really should be given a home. The University has agreed to provide me with space. It will, in any case, become its own organisational unit devoted exclusively to research and separate from the Department for Folk Music Research and Ethnomusicology, where teaching is also an important focus. We’re still thinking about what to call it. Its sustainability will be ensured by pre- and postdoc positions. And looking towards the outside, I want to collaborate closely with NGOs because enabling research findings to have an impact on society has always been important to me. It’s intended to become a lively international research centre and continue its work beyond the first five financially guaranteed years—and that will entail the acquisition of third-party funding.
Will you still have time for your research?
UH: This is the big question. I teach, I publish, I’m active in university politics; so when will I actually find time for my own research? On the other hand, this kind of dispersed involvement has allowed me to place my field on a solid footing. Our department has grown from three individuals to thirteen, which is nothing to sneeze at—and it’s viewed internationally as one of the most important ethnomusicology departments. We’re also visible in terms of the publications and the work we do to inform the public. That was probably one of the reasons why I was appointed as Secretary General of the ICTM (International Council for Traditional Music) in 2017. But it is indeed a dilemma. I’ve done a lot of research over the past 30 years and have a giant collection of audio documents, and that’s something on which I’m fond of looking back.
In terms of this research centre, though, I view my job as being to tie things together in terms of content, create synergies, and give young researchers a chance. We need to work on further developing theory and methods. And Romani music should be one of the topics covered, because I don’t see much research being done in that. We’ll also definitely be doing something on current political topics—refugees, for example. But otherwise, I don’t want to get all that specific just yet.
A total of five women including yourself have won the Wittgenstein award since 1986. How would you characterise the current situation of women in the academic world?
UH: Back when I did my dissertation, people still said: “There’s no way I’ll ever hire a female assistant.” That’s changed since then, thank goodness. But it is a constant battle. In terms of gender sensitivity, I’ve learned a lot from my younger colleagues—in particular from Marko Kölbl. It begins with language. Experience with discrimination is something I have; I don’t need anyone to teach me about that. But dealing with it and being alert, understanding another person’s position simply by listening to their choice of words—that’s something I learned later on.
What do women working in research need to keep in mind?
UH: Women should be sure to obtain respect for themselves—employing all of those means that a university is legally required to provide them with. In other words, they should put up with nothing and react immediately to any denigrating behaviour that occurs. In this respect, our institution is setting new standards. And in terms of research itself, they shouldn’t allow themselves to be diverted from pursuing a topic. That’s extremely important. They also need to be willing to listen and to learn. And to refrain from running headlong into brick walls, instead seeking out those people who can provide help and support. And then to remain loyal to them in return.
What characteristics do you think contributed to your success as a researcher?
UH: I’m a curious person, and I love listening to other people. I don’t find it tiresome to hear the life stories people tell me; I find it truly interesting. And in any case, I think field research is the most wonderful part of this discipline. What’s definitely helped me is a certain social ability, and that I’m very well organised. I had my children to thank for that. And, fundamentally, it’s been important that I’ve stuck consistently to one topic that’s a priority for me: that of minorities.