An inter­view with

Mireille Helffer

Pos­i­tion & Affil­i­ation: Hon­or­if­ic Dir­ect­or of Research, French Nation­al Centre for Sci­entif­ic Research (CNRS); former head of the depart­ment of Eth­nomusico­logy at Nan­terre Uni­ver­sity and Char­gée de mis­sion in the Guimet Museum of Asi­an Art, Paris
Date: June 3, 2019 in Par­is, France
Inter­viewed by: Anna Sehnalova

Cite this archive

Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies. (2021, Decem­ber 2). An inter­view with Mireille Helf­fer. Retrieved 27 Feb­ru­ary 2024, from
“An inter­view with Mireille Helf­fer.” Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies, 2 Dec. 2021,
Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies. 2021. An inter­view with Mireille Helf­fer. [online], Avail­able at: [Accessed 27 Feb­ru­ary 2024]
Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies. “An inter­view with Mireille Helf­fer.” 2021, Decem­ber 2.

Dis­claim­er: The views and opin­ions expressed in this inter­view are those of the inter­viewee and do not neces­sar­ily rep­res­ent the offi­cial pos­i­tion of the Oral His­tory of Tibetan Stud­ies project.


Additional info

Mireille Helf­fer, née le 6 jan­vi­er 1928, dir­ec­teur de recher­che hon­o­raire au CNRS, char­gée de mis­sion au Musée nation­al des Arts Asi­atiques-Guimet, membre de l’UMR 9957 (Labor­atoire d’ethnomusicologie) qu’elle a dirigée de 1986 à 1990, a con­tribué à la mise en place de l’enseignement de l’ethnomusicologie à l’Université de Par­is X‑Nanterre où elle a ensei­gné jusqu’en 1992. Spé­cial­iste des musiques him­alay­ennes, elle a effec­tué de nom­breuses mis­sions de ter­rain au Népal, au Ladakh, et parmi les com­mun­autés tibé­taines réfu­giées en Inde. Ses pub­lic­a­tions ont touché à des domaines aus­si divers que les castes de musi­ciens au Népal, le chant épique tibé­tain (objet de sa thèse de doc­tor­at, pub­liée en 1977), le réper­toire litur­gique des mon­astères du bouddhisme tibé­tain, les nota­tions musicales tibé­taines, les instru­ments de la musique tibé­taine. Elle se con­sacre aujourd’hui à l’étude des tra­di­tions musicales du mon­astère rny­ing-ma-pa de Zhe-chen au Népal.

Fre­quent vis­its to numer­ous Tibetan mon­as­ter­ies, both in India (Ladakh, Himach­al Pra­desh, Karnataka) and in Nepal, allow one to carry out a study of field­work prac­tices cov­er­ing two dec­ades. After a peri­od of ‘across the board’ col­lec­tion involving writ­ten mater­i­al (music­al scores and ritu­al writ­ings) and sound (ten or so hours of record­ing) ; enabling a com­par­at­ive study of the domain, the need was felt for a more in depth study of a par­tic­u­lar aspect. Thus in this way, a closer involve­ment with a mon­as­tery of the rny­ing-ma-pa tra­di­tion, Zhe-chen in Bod­nath, Nepal came about. Here, the author stayed sev­er­al weeks a year when the end of the year ritu­al cel­eb­ra­tions took place. Straight­for­ward col­lec­tion of mater­i­al dur­ing short stays was replaced by attent­ive listen­ing and a genu­ine involve­ment in com­plex rituals of which it became pos­sible to grasp the struc­ture and dis­tinct­ive music­al fea­tures ; increased inform­al­ity with the monks, the song mas­ter and the mon­ast­ic author­it­ies allowed for fruit­ful exchanges, some examples of which are cited here.

Copy­right © 2021 CREM-CNRS

Corpus : Helffer, Folk music from Nepal and India

The 1966–69 field trip, whose pho­to­graph­ic and manu­script archives are depos­ited at the Centre d’Et­udes Him­alay­ennes, UPR299, CNRS

Corpus : Helffer, Tibetan music: Epic of King Ge-Sar

Record­ings con­cern­ing the epic of King Ge-sar, recor­ded or col­lec­ted by Mireille Helffer

Photo taken in Par­is, 1961 // In the centre: the sing­er of Gesar, Blo bzang bstan ‘dzin (Helf­fer­’s main inform­ant) // © I. Mar­tin du Gard

Corpus : Helffer, The religious music of Tibetan Buddhism (Tibet-Nepal-India-Ladakh)

Unpub­lished record­ings made by Mireille Helf­fer and records on Tibetan Buddhist music depos­ited by Mireille Helffer.

Corpus: Helffer, Published recordings

Record­ings edited by Mireille Helf­fer or with her participation