Professor of Music
031 Memorial Hall (office location)
Postal address: Music Building / Harvard University / Cambridge, MA 02138
In 1980, an extraordinary performance of south Indian classical (Karnatak) music forever changed the life of Richard Wolf, erstwhile electric guitarist and student of Renaissance lute and classical guitar. In 1982 this experience led him to devote a year of music and Tamil language study in south India. After returning to Oberlin College the following year, he completed the last few courses toward a bachelor's degree in Mathematics (1984) and then devoted himself to ethnomusicological study.
Following fourteen months of further study in India, Wolf began his graduate work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; there he completed a Master of Music thesis exploring social-cultural as well as technical components of Karnatak "style" (bani) (1989). For his PhD dissertation, supported by the American Institute of Indian Studies and a Fulbright-Hays grant, Wolf conducted fieldwork for two years on the music and ritual of one of the tribal minority populations of the Nilgiri Hills, the Kotas (1997).
In November 1996, the final draft of Wolf's PhD thesis was still in the mail when he boarded a plane with his wife to commence two-and-a-half years of new field research. This work in north India and Pakistan centered on drumming, “recitation,” and music in public Islamic contexts. Wolf returned from south Asia to take up a position at Harvard in 1999 and has remained there ever since.
Wolf's thematic interests include emotional complexity in ceremonial contexts, the constitutive properties of musical action in rituals, the poetics of non-verbal activities, the musical qualities of languages and the analytic potentials of particular languages for the study of music. Wolf speaks Tamil and draws from his study of several other languages, including Urdu and Persian/Tajiki, in his research and writings.
Several publications address issues of music and Islam in south Asia including “The poetics of Sufi practice: Drumming, dancing, and complex agency at Madho Lal Husain (and beyond),” (American Ethnologist 2006). His most recent monograph, The Voice in the Drum (2014), uses the form of a novel to present analytical and cultural insights regarding rhythm, vocality, and drumming across south Asia. Wolf's interest in sociomusical processes that transcend the borders of South Asia is reflected in the edited volume, Theorizing the Local: Music, Practice, and Experience in South Asia and Beyond (Oxford University Press, New York, 2009). His broader engagement with issues of indigeneity has taken the form of a volume co-edited with anthropologist Frank Heidemann, The Bison and the Horn: Indigeneity, Performance, and the State of India, which appears as a special issue of Asian Ethnology (2014). He is currently co-editing Thought and Play in Musical Rhythm: Asian, African, and Euro-American Perspectives. Richard K Wolf is also General Editor of Ethnomusicology Translations, an online journal of significant ethnomusicological articles translated into English and published by the Society for Ethnomusicology: http://www.ethnomusicology.org/?Pub_EthnoTrans.
Wolf has been the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, including The Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, two American Institute of Indian Studies Research Grants, a Fulbright South and Central Asia Regional Research Grant, a year-long residency at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and funding from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Institute of Pakistan Studies. Wolf's first book, The Black Cow's Footprint: Time, Space, and Music in the Lives of the Kotas of South India (Permanent Black, 2005 and University of Illinois Press, 2006), earned the Edward Cameron Dimock, Jr. Prize in the Humanities from the American Institute of Indian Studies.
In the summer of 2009, Wolf was Professeur Invité at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and Gastprofessur für ethnologische Nilgiriforschung at the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Munich.
During his recent sabbatical (2012-13), Wolf conducted research on the relationship between singing and performing on various lute types in Tajikistan. While based in the capital city of Dushanbe, his work also took him to the southeast part of the country, where he worked closely with musicians who speak Wakhi (an Eastern Iranian language), and to Pakistan, where Wakhis speaking a different dialect maintain their own musical traditions. He is in the process of helping a Wakhi poet-musician to publish his corpus of poetry for Wakhis who live in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Xinjiang China.
In addition to teaching and writing about music, Wolf performs professionally on the south Indian vina (lute) and is a disciple of the renowned performer, Ranganayaki Rajagopalan.