"The truth is that having this other aspect of my life as a student allows me to appreciate my musical activities a lot more."
September 16th, 2011

Julian Lynch Musician & Ethnomusicologist

Julian Lynch is one of our favorite people making music right now, and a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Between moments deep in the books, Julian was gracious enough to talk to us about how he came to study one of the coolest disciplines in academia and about how being a full-time student affects his life and music.

Does school always win out when balancing the demands of your own music? The two seem, at least superficially, so mutually reinforcing.

I actually started working on my next record a few weeks ago. I spent a lot of time with it, and accomplished a great deal, but at a certain point I had to stop myself to get back to work. I’ve been concentrating on school pretty much nonstop for the past two weeks, and that is likely to continue throughout the semester. Whereas I probably could have finished 75 percent of my record by now, with my other obligations, I don’t think it will be completed for many months.

When it comes to daily activities, school consumes most of my time and has to take priority. Even though I feel like a lot of people I speak with assume the opposite, I think that the two are fairly mutually exclusive. I guess in the greater picture of what I do with my life, the two may be complementary in a general sense, but only in rare instances. I know this might sound like a frustrating or unfortunate thing, since making music means a lot to me. The truth is that having this other aspect of my life as a student allows me to appreciate my musical activities a lot more. I’m also much more focused on recording when it comes to music. So that also rules out the possibility of making a career out of playing, which I don’t mind. I made a decision long ago, probably around the age of 18 or so, that I did not want to attempt a career in performing.

Did that decision mark the point when you switched from studying music to cultural anthropology? 

When I first got to college, I was sort of provisionally planning on studying music. I took a few courses and realized it wasn’t for me. I actually took an anthropology course around the same time, and I didn’t feel particularly passionate about that either. I was in limbo for a bit before taking a couple more classes in anthropology and social sciences, at which point I got a better understanding of the extent of the field and the possibilities within it. By the end of undergrad, I had more of a desire to write about art, literature, and music. I tried my best to do so within the context of my anthropology courses, but I was pretty young and stupid then, and all of my attempts were unsuccessful by my own standards. I had strong feelings towards certain things intellectually, but I didn’t know how to focus them and I also lacked patience and discipline (and experience), so I ended up frustrating myself most of the time.

Was it a revelatory moment when you first heard non-Western music, or something that snowballed into a larger passion?

My inclination toward the discipline had nothing to do with an interest or appreciation of any “non-western music” necessarily, which is not to say that I wasn’t listening and enjoying any music at the time that would have fallen into that category. But I never felt the desire to concentrate specifically on music outside of the West, and I still don’t really feel the need to qualify my studies as being focused on the “non-West,” nor do I think of ethnomusicology as being a discipline that limits itself in such a way. The more entrenched I become within it, the more I lament the fact that the field’s early history has given people the impression that musics of the “non-West” might represent its sole concern. Geographically, I have tended to focus on South Asia and the South Asian diaspora, but I don’t think of that as being exclusive or uncomplicated.

When did you realize you wanted to get a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology? 

I was interested in pursuing a degree having to do, generally, with “issues in music.” I was completely uninterested in studying music in a formal sense, or the “music itself” or musical analysis or whatever, but rather social activities occurring around sites of musical production and consumption. Given that, and the fact that my background as an undergrad was in anthropology, ethnomusicology just really fit the bill. It wasn’t a light bulb moment or anything, but rather as I learned more about the discipline I realized that it could provide enough flexibility for me to do what I want.

Which is what?

I want to teach and do research.

Did you make any sort of calculation that the costs, both monetary and time-wise, would equal out with the opportunities granted once you graduate?

I’m like anyone else in that I necessarily have to consider my financial situation when I make big life or career decisions. If my primary goal had been to make money, obviously I wouldn’t have decided to go into academia, but I also wouldn’t have gone down this path without some measure of confidence in my funding situation for the future, and a career plan when I finish. Lining up funding is a year-to-year concern of any graduate student.

Can you tell me about any other difficult, or calculating, choices you’ve had to make to get where you are? I know you worked at Smithsonian Folkways at one point—arguably one of the coolest places to work ever. Leaving there must have been tough.

Working at Folkways was amazing for sure, but I knew it was time for me to move on and pursue a degree. Leaving the East Coast was also difficult, since it initiated a three-year period in which me and my girlfriend did not live in the same place. My family is in New Jersey too. As for school-recording conflicts, I guess I never lamented that too much, since for whatever reason I’m the kind of person who never gets around to recording music unless I have other obligations. I guess the more I have on my plate, the more I’m able to accomplish.