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Rachel Beckles Willson Receives the Frances Densmore Prize

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

The Frances Densmore Prize is awarded annually by the American Musical Instrument Society for the most distinguished article-length work in English which best furthers the Society’s mission. The 2021 award committee considered papers published in the year 2019.

The 2021 Densmore Prize goes to Rachel Beckles Willson for the article "Orientation through Instruments: The ʿūd, the Palestinian Home, and Kamīlyā Jubrān" in the world of music (new series), vol. 8, no. 1, 2019.

This article is a compelling and sophisticated account of the role played by the ‘ūd in constructing and complicating notions of home. The author provides a richly nuanced consideration, from multiple perspectives, of this most iconic of Arab instruments, demonstrating how it becomes an ‘orientation device’ both for herself and others in relation to conceptions of place and space, and how these become infused – or not – with notions of home.

Drawing on sources as diverse as 1001 Nights, the film Telling Strings and performances by Kamīlyā Jubrān, and using a wide range of ethnographic and autoethnographic approaches, Beckles Willson’s paper comprises a detailed and empathetic account of the life of the ʿūd in those Palestinian contexts with which she is engaged. The paper serves as an outstanding example of scholarship that examines musical instruments as they shape, inform, and reflect the personal, social, and cultural contexts in which they are found.

The committee believes that this sort of ground-breaking thinking and analysis made this article stand out within a strong field of candidates, exemplifying as it does a significant and crucial paradigm shift in organological studies. Beckles Willson’s article challenges organologists to ask new questions about instruments that enable us to recognize new relations around instruments and their alignments with traditional perspectives and understandings. This article gives us a clear model of inclusivity applied to organology that can pave the way for future studies to do the same.”

Bio: Pianist, oud player, composer, writer, producer and educational entrepreneur, Rachel Beckles Willson’s work spans an array of activities that are difficult to categorise. As a pianist she has worked with leading figures in contemporary music from György Kurtág to Jane Manning and Apartment House. As a Professor of Music (Royal Holloway and SOAS, University of London), her books cover subjects ranging from Cold War Hungary to historical and contemporary Palestine (Ligeti, Kurtág and Hungarian Music during the Cold War (Cambridge 2007) and Orientalism and Musical Mission (Cambridge 2013).

Her oud playing has led her into collaborations in world music performance, to research the global journeys of ouds (, and to found an online platform for world music education ( As part of an activist project with young asylum-seekers she co-produced a CD of original songs ( Her compositional work is currently focused on experimental forms of audio-visual story-telling, while she is simultaneously completing a book on the oud for Interlink Books.

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