Interdisciplinarity as harmony and polyphony 

Apr 22, 2024 | Fellows, Interdisciplinarity, Transformations (Issue 12)

Interdisciplinarity as harmony and polyphony
Professor Valentina Sandu-Dediu, Rector of New Europe College Bucharest, Institute of Advanced Study

My first contact with the environment of an institute of advanced study was as a fellow of New Europe College (NEC) in Bucharest in 1996-1997. That academic year had profound implications on my mindset as a musicologist and teacher. The models I admired here, the perspective of scientific research that involves communication, confrontation and the verification of ideas by debating them with peers from fields that are sometimes very different from your own, and therefore the need to make yourself understood in an interdisciplinary milieu are some of my personal gains. Many NEC alumni can summon them. Having become Rector of the Institute in 2014, I have tried to continue this style of dialogue imprinted by the founder of the NEC, Andrei Pleșu, with deference and politeness towards the interlocutor, but also with necessary touches of spontaneity and humour. For profound and innovative research must be presented in an attractive way, so that the essence of the dialogue between researchers remains the same: a musicologist should not find political theory dry, and an economist should be able to discover new perspectives by observing the project of a visual artist.

I extended this fellowship experience at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in 2000, and I am now resuming it at IAS Durham: the months I have spent in these places are among the happiest of my academic career. I say this primarily in gratitude for the respite offered to reflect on my own research in an exceptional environment. Before long, I’ll be nostalgic when I remember the sound of Durham Cathedral’s bells!

As well as multiple encounters with fellow musicologists at Durham University, the IAS experience taught me something new: the British culture of colleges – Hatfield, in my case – and formal dining. Here too, but especially among the community of fellows this semester at Cosin’s Hall, many doors of dialogue have opened with scholars from whom there is always something to learn. New ideas and impulses for future collaborations have sprung up around seminars and conferences but also in the most unconventional of moments, be it a trip to Whitby or an evening of wine and cheese between colleagues turned friends. Last but not least, the quintessentially interdisciplinary project Understanding Offence: delimiting the (un)sayable gave those involved perspectives from very different areas, from legal and socio-political to artistic implications. With our own definitions from each other’s fields, we began to think in harmony and not just polyphonically about the meanings and ambiguities of the concept of offence.

Perhaps this would be a good (musical) definition of interdisciplinarity: bringing together polyphonic lines in harmony or turning invention into a chorale. As a musicologist, I learned that interdisciplinarity is essential: you cannot analyse a score, you cannot construct the narrative of a history of music without using methodological tools from other disciplines. If I were to give concrete examples, I often look at the concepts that historians, anthropologists, philosophers, literary critics or art historians work with. There is, however, manifestly interdisciplinary musicological research investigating the bridges between music and mathematics, physics, computer science, medicine, etc. The possibilities are immense and seductive.

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