Melissa Bilal named to new Promise Chair in Armenian Music, Arts, and Culture at UCLA

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Endowed chair affirms The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music’s commitment to engage cultural communities in Los Angeles and across the globe

Melissa Bilal, a leading scholar of Armenians in Turkey and director of UCLA’s Armenian Music Program, has been appointed the inaugural holder of The Promise Chair in Armenian Music, Arts, and Culture at UCLA. Bilal is renowned for her work on the history of Armenian music.

The endowed chair, made possible by a gift to The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, will support scholarly research, undergraduate and graduate courses in Armenian music, and academic conferences on Armenian music and performing arts.

“We are grateful for this investment in our ongoing work to deepen understanding of Armenian culture, which will further UCLA’s position as a leader in Armenian studies,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “One of our core responsibilities as an academic institution is to foster a sense of global citizenship and cultural understanding, and expanding our faculty and scholarship in this area is one way we are bringing that commitment to life.”

Melissa Bilal (far right) introduces an event at the 2023 Day of Armenian Music in Lani Hall

With a legacy of scholarship on Armenia and its diaspora that dates back more than 50 years, UCLA has established itself as one of the largest and most vibrant centers for Armenian studies outside of Armenia. The new Promise Chair, housed in The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, joins two other endowed chairs at UCLA devoted to the study of Armenia and Armenians. The Narekatsi Chair of Armenian Studies, the oldest endowed chair at UCLA, established in 1969, anchors the program in Armenian language and culture. The Armenian Educational Foundation endowed a chair in the history department in 1987, which in 2011 was renamed the Richard Hovannisian Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History.

“UCLA has long been a leading place for Armenian studies, and it is also a great place for collaboration with other artists and scholars,” Bilal said. “The establishment of this chair will allow us to further expand our offerings for undergraduate and graduate students.”

Bilal holds a doctorate in ethnomusicology from the University of Chicago and advanced degrees from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. She has been a visiting scholar of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and held a Mellon postdoctoral teaching fellowship at Columbia University.

Over the past two-and-a-half years, she has served as associate director, and then director, of the Armenian Music Program in the School of Music, the only academic program outside Armenia dedicated to the study and performance of Armenian music. The program offers robust artistic programming through public concerts, community outreach, undergraduate courses on Armenian music and dance, fellowships for students, and support for the VEM Ensemble, founded and directed by violin professor Movses Pogossian and dedicated to Armenian classical music performance.

Under Bilal’s tenure, the program extended its VEM fellowship to enable more students and alumni to study Armenian folk singing as well as traditional Armenian instruments. The program has also embarked on several new research projects, including one exploring the archive of prominent music scholar and song collector Bedros Alahaidoyan. The program’s upcoming four-CD set, “Serenade With a Dandelion,” will be celebrated with a public concert scheduled for March 4.

Bilal’s activities as chair will also intersect with The Promise Armenian Institute at UCLA which was founded in 2019 with a gift from the estate of philanthropist and entrepreneur Kirk Kerkorian. The institute coordinates interdisciplinary research and public programs and serves as a hub for world-class scholarship and teaching, supporting faculty and researchers in fields ranging from the arts and sciences to public health and medicine.

Dr. Eric Esrailian, co-chair of UCLA’s Second Century Council and a UCLA faculty member, was key to the establishment of The Promise Institute. He believes the chair at the School of Music will strengthen UCLA’s position as a premier site for Armenian cultural studies worldwide. “In her new role, Melissa Bilal will facilitate a close partnership with The Promise Armenian Institute at UCLA to foster collaboration across campus, extend the broadest reach and promote the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship and activities that only the nation’s top public university can achieve,” he said.

UCLA and the School of Music are committed to enhancing both local and global impact, and this new chair is a big part of advancing that mission, said Eileen Strempel, inaugural dean of the School of Music. Los Angeles is home to more diasporic communities than virtually any other city in America — with a particularly robust Armenian community — and UCLA’s broader purpose is driven by a responsibility to create a just and prosperous future for both its immediate and extended global communities.

“Having the resources to support the ongoing research of distinguished scholars like Melissa helps our school do its part to fulfill that promise.” Strempel said. “As performers, creators and educators, we operate at the nexus of practice and scholarship most vibrantly when we proactively engage the diverse musical traditions within our city of exceptionally rich cultural diversity.”

Bilal’s scholarly research focuses on Armenian music and experiences in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her most recent book manuscript, “Feminism in Armenian: An Interpretive Anthology,” co-authored with MIT historian Lerna Ekmekcioglu, focuses on 12 Armenian feminist writers born in the Ottoman Empire and active in Constantinople/Istanbul and its post–Armenian Genocide diasporas from the 1860s through the 1960s.

“I’m looking forward to bringing scholars and artists together to discuss the enduring legacy of Armenian musicians in global music history and the significance of diverse repertoires and styles of Armenian music in our lives today,” said Bilal.