Rachel Beckles Willson

I was born in London and find myself returning to London regularly, even after long periods of study and research elsewhere (Berlin, Budapest, Los Angeles, New York). Most of my work – as a performer, writer and composer – currently focuses on the oud.

In an earlier life I was a concert pianist, following training at the Royal Academy of Music, London and the Liszt Academy, Budapest, where I was a student of Ferenc Rados and Gyorgy Kurtág. I also studied composition and saxophone, and performed widely in Europe as soloist and in ensembles, broadcasting regularly for Hungarian radio with a specialism in new music.

I discovered the oud while doing research into music in Palestine, and have subsequently transformed my music-making. I studied oud with Necati Celik in Istanbul, and became a regular student at Labyrinth Musical Seminars in Crete, 2010-2015. While there I worked on makam composition with Ross Daly along with singing, improvising and performing with many celebrated teachers (Christos Barbas, Ahmed Erdogdular, Omer Erdogdular, Harris Lambrakis, Yurdal Tokcan, Evgenios Voulgaris). While participating in the Arab Music Retreat, Massachusetts I also worked with Ali Jihad Racy, Simon Shaheen and Charbel Rohana.

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During these years of discovery I played regularly with London-based ensembles Nihavent and Suzidil, as well as distinguished musicians in Arab, Persian and Ottoman traditions (Ahmad AlSalhi, Nilufar Habibian, Stavroula Constanti). I have also led several concert enterprises combining my interests in research, composition, performance and literature.

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Currently I am Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, where I teach courses on Intercultural Performance, Music and Orientalism, and Ensemble Performance among others, and supervise doctoral research on topics from the Hungarian folk revival to Kuwaiti song. As a scholar, I have published numerous articles and books, including Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West (2013), and Ligeti, Kurtag, and Hungarian Music during the Cold War (2007).


I am working primarily on three interconnected projects:

Sing no Sad Songs for Me
A 45-minute composition for voice, oud, yayli tanbur, double bass and tabla. It is made up of 8 movements, including three songs setting poetry by Christina Rossetti. I used an idiom based on Ottoman makam, while drawing on my experience in contemporary European music. In collaboration with Ciro Montanari, Kostas Tsarouchis and Evgenios Voulgaris I am preparing for a series of performances from mid-2018 onwards.

Passing Feathers
‘Passing Feathers’ is the working title of a book in progress. The oud is at the heart of it, featuring in several European and Arab contexts.

Oudmigrations is a website curating research about the journeys of ouds, their histories, and the stories attached to their makers, players, and owners. Drawing from this project, I am writing a further book, with the working title The migrating oud.

Future projects include a composition for voice, oudrubab and percussion, and a series of music educational workshops in Siracusa, Sicily.

Please contact me by clicking here.


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