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Jean-Jacques Nattiez

SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research

SSHRC Gold Meda Winner Jean-Jacques Nattiez   "The semiological approach that I propose is applicable to any type of music, any culture and any moment in history. If we erect epistemological and institutional barriers between the historical, anthropological, psychological and aesthetic aspects of music, we weaken the scope of its study. I do not think it is possible to adequately explain a musical work or production if we limit ourselves to solely one of these aspects."

Jean-Jacques Nattiez, the 2009 winner of the SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research, is a world authority on musicology, or, more specifically, the semiology of music. Born in 1945 near the site of France’s famous Amiens Cathedral, Nattiez was an insatiably curious child who grew up in a family with a keen interest in literature and music. In 1972, he accepted a professorship in the faculty of music at the Université de Montréal, where he has taught ever since.

Throughout his career as a researcher, he has received numerous awards and honours. For Nattiez, winning the SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research confirms the fact that musicology is now recognized as having a rightful place among the humanities and social sciences. “This is what I have wanted all my life,” he says.

The multidisciplinary approach advocated by Nattiez has made him a leading thinker, writer and researcher in the field of musicology. Very few musicologists combine a knowledge of the history of music with musical analysis and ethnomusicology in their scientific work. He also pays close attention to the psychology and aesthetics of music.

This pioneer in the semiology of music believes it is necessary to investigate many routes in order to properly understand a particular type of music. “Musical structures and the historical context remain important, but you also have to consider the cultural aspect that is revealed by anthropology, as well as the cognitive aspect that psychology seeks to explore. My goal is, and has always been, to construct a general musicology—that is, a set of methods making it possible to analyze and interpret all types of musical works and productions,” he explains.

He started adopting this approach soon after he came to Canada, when he studied the throat games of Inuit women. Supported by the SSHRC, Nattiez and his team were able to produce the first LP of a type of music that has become one of the leading symbols of Inuit culture today. In 1979, they received the Grand Prix international du disque from the Académie Charles-Cros for their groundbreaking work. Thanks to this recording, reissued numerous times since its 1976 release, the world finally discovered a Canadian cultural treasure that until then had been virtually unknown.

Still fuelled by the same passion, Nattiez has continued exploring the world of music—or, perhaps more accurately, the music of the world. For close to 40 years, he has studied traditional European classical music (Richard Wagner) and contemporary music (Pierre Boulez), as well as the music of Japan’s Ainu people and the Baganda people of Uganda.

Through his research and insights, he has laid the foundations for the semiology of music. By giving musicology rigorous and innovative tools for analysis and interpretation, he has played a key role in the development of knowledge in this field. As a critic, lecturer and guest professor, he has helped spread this knowledge around the world.

A model of intellectual discipline for all who have studied with him, Nattiez never hesitates to help others advance in their careers. For example, whenever he can, he facilitates the publication of the best studies he has read during the year. A genuine source of inspiration for the younger generation, this music devotee has also helped composers deepen their creative potential.

A prolific author, Nattiez has never suffered from writer’s block. A “summary” bibliography of some 20 pages is hardly long enough to list his most important writings and works. Among these is the five-volume encyclopedia he edited, Musiques, which appeared simultaneously in Italian and French. All indications suggest that his eloquence is not about to run dry any time soon.

“Over the next five years, I’m going to complete what I have begun,” he says. On his desk are a treatise on general musicology (to appear in 2010), a critical study of musicology, a collection of his various contributions to musical analysis (some of them unpublished), an essay on the delicate issue of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, and a summary study of Inuit music.

Nattiez has very quickly gained recognition in the field of musicology in Canada and abroad. He is the recipient of numerous honours, including the Koizumi-Fumio Prize (Japan, 1998)—the world’s only award for ethnomusicology. He has been a member of the Order of Canada since 1990 and a chevalier of the Ordre national du Québec since 2001. In 2009 he received the medal of the Académie des lettres du Québec. He has been awarded nearly all the honours possible in Canada, including the Molson, Killam and Léon-Gérin prizes. A number of countries, including Italy, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, have recognized his contribution to science. His most important works have been translated into English, Italian, Japanese, Romanian and, recently, Portuguese. This again is evidence of his international reputation.

Nattiez’s extraordinary career has included a commission from Ricordi, the Milan-based publisher, to create a lavish exhibition entitled That’s Opera! The exhibit was presented in Brussels, Belgium, in 2008-09 and will become a permanent museum of opera in Milan, opening in 2010. We can only imagine the enthusiasm with which this commission was accepted by Nattiez, who in his early youth once listened to radio rebroadcasts from the Bayreuth Festival.

The SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research is the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s highest research honour. It is awarded to an individual whose leadership, dedication and originality of thought have significantly advanced understanding in his or her field of research, enriched Canadian society, and contributed to the country's cultural and intellectual life.