Vocalist, actress, and ethnomusicology PhD student, Julia finds new ways to integrate academic and performance research. An opera singer, actress, and vocalist in avant-garde and new music contexts in New York City, Julia now researches traditional song from Slovácko—a region in southeastern Moravia, Czech Republic at the base of the Carpathian Mountains—through a combination of ethnography, archival research, structural analysis, and the physical embodiment of song.

Research Description

My research examines traditional music from Slovácko, a region in southeastern Moravia, as a human resource intimately linked with the ecological conditions. My great-grandfather, Dr. Vladimír Úlehla, was a biologist and amateur folklorist who wrote a book called Živá Píseň (Living Song) about the music of Strážnice, a small town in Slovácko. He believed that songs were living organisms that evolved from specific environmental conditions, and he sought to discover how the songs evolved over time and what characteristics were directly traceable to features of the landscape. This traditional music still lives and reverberates throughout the alluvial flatlands of Slovácko, but its contexts and functions have continued to evolve, as have its musical characteristics. That it remains so remarkably vibrant in the global media-laden environment of the 21st century raises a number of questions: is it possible to trace the effects of institutional attempts to ‘preserve’ this music? Has the ‘canon’ of songs changed since the 19th century when the systematic collecting of songs began? Have the musical styles been influenced by the fact that more musicians read music and attend conservatories? How does a greater degree of outside influence manifest in musical style and performance practice? How do people make music in today’s circumstances, and why do they do it? Through fieldwork that includes interviews and audio/visual recordings, musical analysis, and review of existing scholarship I will attempt to answer these questions and chronicle the living song organisms of Slovácko.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

As a Public Scholar, I believe it is important for me to think critically and creatively about ways to cross-fertilize academic and community life so that the insights of each domain can enrich the other. I search for ways that scholarship can permeate society more deeply, and arise in situations it might not usually enter. I hope to apply tools and methodologies derived from my performance background to the investigation of the cultural characteristics of a society. I want to experiment with contexts, methods of communication, and presenting my work in living, vital ways. For example, when I perform, I bring ethnographic details, musical analysis, and traditional folk stories into what would otherwise be a strictly musical performance. When I give talks about my performance research in academic colloquia, I play with the boundaries of speech and song in transmitting information and meaning to the audience. I have also been participating in an international dialogue around my performance research and the mutually influencing relationship between folk music/traditions and contemporary life, with journalists and musicologists in the Czech Republic.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

The Public Scholars Initiative gives doctoral students a chance to take action. One is not simply following an academic formula, but in some ways has more at stake, because s/he has organically assembled a research project from the inside out, from his/her own vision of what needs to be investigated and contributed. It allows students to utilize and develop their strengths and expertise—facets of their previous education and experience that may not always find a way into scholarship. All of this contributes to fashioning not only a more engaging, wide-ranging, and creative PhD experience, but hopefully an equally engaging and dynamic career trajectory as well.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

I have always hoped to find a way to integrate performance research with academic research. In some ways, support from the PSI legitimizes forms of knowledge that do not often find their way into the academic program. In my case, this knowledge is in the form of embodied and performative research. Through the PSI, I am able to strengthen academic knowledge and research abilities, as well as performance research. In addition to possibly forging a career in separate academic and performance realms, each with its own models, epistemologies, career possibilities, and audiences, I imagine a third possibility in which these areas of expertise deepen and reinforce one another, perhaps allowing me to participate in and contribute to cultural revitalization, survival, and evolution, public policy, public discourse, and curating.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

My project has a performance component that brings my research to local, national, and international communities that it would not likely encounter through academic channels alone. In the coming months, I will be working with the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation and the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society (who produce the Vancouver International Jazz Festival) to deliver a series of workshops around Dálava. Dálava is a musical ensemble that I created with guitarist Aram Bajakian, and it functions as the performance side of my research. It explores the relationship between song materials and their environment by transplanting old folk melodies from Slovácko into new physical/social/cultural situations. In December I will record a new Dálava album with local musicians from Vancouver’s creative music community, and in 2016 I plan to do a third album in Moravia with traditional folk musicians. These two records along with the first album made in New York City, will accompany my dissertation as a data set in which the effects and influences of each environment may be compared, as well as the public response arising from various culture areas. Lectures, workshops, and performances will accompany each sound recording.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

Although I derive great personal satisfaction from my research project, I have the sense that the inquiry I am making may be relevant to many people looking to understand the place from where they come. In the words of Jerzy Grotowski, “"Tu es le fils de quelqu'un"—you are someone’s son or daughter, you come from somewhere, and you are connected to generations who have come before you. As an artist and performer, I am interested in reestablishing links that have been disrupted through migration, diaspora, disappearing traditions, and loss of cultural memory, and in grappling with the realities and disjunctures of the places in which we live and whence we come. Certainly it may bring increased awareness to Moravian folk traditions, give them new contexts in which to live and grow, and situate them for cross-cultural musical and ethnographic comparison. However, I hope there is also something else, something that considers more generally how traditional cultural resources such as song can function and find vital meaning in the often hybrid and heterogeneous conditions of contemporary life that many people inherit at birth and negotiate daily. 

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I have been a performer for about 15 years. I have worked as an opera singer, as an actress, and more recently with ritual and folk music traditions. I was motivated to return to graduate school because certain questions arose from my performance experiences that I could not answer, and I felt that academic study could provide a framework for me to understand and explore these questions.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

I came here to work with Michael Tenzer in the Ethnomusicology Division of the School of Music. Also, my husband and I are both musicians and we have young children, and Vancouver is a place where both of those aspects of life can flourish.


When I perform, I bring ethnographic details, musical analysis, and traditional folk stories into what would otherwise be a strictly musical performance. When I give talks about my performance research in academic colloquia, I play with the boundaries of speech and song in transmitting information and meaning to the audience.