An interview with
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
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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.
- 0:00 Intro
- 6:58 Could you say something a little bit about your family background and early education? Where did you grow up?
- 8:34 Why did you decide to study Sanskrit or Oriental studies?
- 9:22 How do you remember the studies?
- 10:34 Which texts did you read?
- 11:57 Did you learn something else apart from the language or apart from reading?
- 12:56 You mentioned that you also studied other disciplines, musicology and aesthetics. How do you remember these?
- 14:41 You also mentioned studying aesthetics. How did you study?
- 15:33 Were there some other important teachers for you?
- 16:37 Can you say a bit about how the studies at the university were organized?
- 17:37 Why did you decide to write your thesis about Gesar?
- 20:11 What happened after your PhD?
- 23:23 How do you remember your first fieldwork in Asia?
- 27:34 For how long did you stay?
- 28:56 How did you choose the field site for your first fieldwork?
- 29:55 Could you say a bit about your second fieldwork in Zhe chen?
- 32:54 How do you remember Ladakh when you did your fieldwork there?
- 38:41 Where was your next fieldwork after Ladakh?
- 40:54 Did you work with people coming from the different monasteries?
- 41:52 How do you remember Zhe chen monastery back then?
- 43:23 In the three places you were, in Pokhara, Zhe chen, and Bal yul, was it strange for a foreigner to be there?
- 45:41 Did you know the house of Gene Smith?
- 46:54 In Paris, you were employed as a researcher?
- 47:55 You put together or help to put together a degree in musicology?
- 49:18 Why do you consider music an important aspect of culture or Tibetan culture?
- 49:49 When you were doing your PhD, were you the only person working on Tibetan music?
- 51:05 You took part in the first IATS meeting. How do you remember it and meeting David Snellgrove?
- 52:25 Could you say something about how you remember Alexander MacDonald?
- 54:58 How did you put together the book on musical instruments that you wrote?
- 56:28 What Western music do you like?
- 56:57 Personally, when you look back at your career now, what has it given to you? How has it changed your life?
- 57:44 Would there be something that was most fascinating for you while working on music?
- 1:00:32 As we are conducting this project for future generations students and researchers, would you have a message for them?
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.
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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
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