Richard Murphy Musicology Colloquium: Ian Copeland, "Sonic Humanitarianism: Music as Aid in Malawi"

Date, time, location

Thursday, November 2, 2023
4:30 pm to 5:30 pm EDT

Bibbins Hall, 223

77 W. College St.
Oberlin, OH 44074

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Ian Copeland will present a Richard Murphy Musicology Colloquium entitled “Sonic Humanitarianism: Music as Aid in Malawi.”

In his talk. Dr. Copeland will address the question, When a humanitarian project utilizes musical strategies, who benefits? The target community in which the musical practices are imagined to reside? Or humanitarians themselves, drawn in by a fusion of service and adventure? This presentation tackles this question through an ethnomusicological analysis of several international aid organizations that operate in the Republic of Malawi. I argue in favor of a repositioning of music’s role in development encounters: rather than presume sound’s normative efficacy, I demonstrate that the affective surplus produced by many musical interventions can lead to interpersonal consequences that are unintended, overlooked, and, from the perspective of project designers, even counterproductive. But by moving beyond a normative indictment, I simultaneously suggest that musical participation can ratify outsiders’ good-intentioned altruism, thereby rendering a parallel efficacy that complicates an easy conflation of “bad (humanitarian) politics” with “bad (humanitarian) music.”

Ian Copland is a Postdoctoral Associate in African Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, and also serves in the Department of Music there. His primary research interests include the musical and interpersonal ramifications of international aid, volun-tourism, and HIV/AIDS activism in the Southern African nation of Malawi; his recent writing can be found in Ethnomusicology Forum (2022) and The Art of Emergency (Oxford, 2020). Ian is an Oberlin graduate, and received a PhD in ethnomusicology from Harvard University. His research has been funded by the Fulbright Program, the Presser Foundation, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and a 21st Century Fellowship from the Society for Ethnomusicology.

About the Colloquium

The Richard Murphy Musicology Colloquium was begun in 1992 by Professor Claudia Macdonald to foster an exchange of ideas on music between colleagues in both the Conservatory and the College. The series was expanded in 1997 to include outside speakers as well, and named in honor of Richard Murphy, who taught music history at Oberlin from 1946 to 1978, and was much revered and beloved by his students. He died in 1993.


Conservatory visitors are asked to enter the complex through either Bibbins Hall’s east entrance (off College Place, across from the Oberlin College Bookstore) or the Conservatory Lounge’s west entrance (off S. Professor St., adjacent to the Conservatory Pond). All other entrances will be closed to the public.

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