About Laurence Picken

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Laurence Picken was one of the most original academic minds of the 20th century. In a career lasting more than 70 years, he achieved excellence in both biology and musicology.

In 1928 he won a scholarship to study at Trinity College, Cambridge. His PhD, in 1935, was in zoology, and in 1944 he became a Fellow at Jesus College. Between 1946 and 1966 he was assistant director of research in zoology at the university. From 1944 he also started to research in traditional Chinese music, and his many publications show his broad ethnomusicological interests

Born in Nottingham, from humble beginnings at Waverley Road secondary school, Birmingham, he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1928 and gained a double first in natural sciences. He undertook a PhD researching into the urine production mechanism of invertebrates. European postings followed, including the Geneva School of Chemistry, where he carried out groundbreaking research into the biophysics of long-chain polymers.

During the second world war he found himself officer-in-charge of a blood transfusion unit, where he refined the methods for filtration and drying of plasma. The work was considered so important that in 1944 he joined Joseph Needham's scientific mission to China, an episode that laid the foundations for Picken's later great scholarship on ancient Oriental music.

Picken was a fine keyboard player, and the music of JS Bach, combining structure with emotion, had a great hold over him. Unsurprisingly then, his first musical paper identified a previously unknown Bach fugue. His reputation as a musicologist grew, and his love and deep understanding of Oriental culture led him to contribute articles on Chinese and Japanese music to Grove's Dictionary and the New Oxford History of Music. In recognition of the breadth of Picken's research, he was allowed to do that rare thing in academia and change faculties, from zoology to oriental studies in 1966.

Between 1966 and 1976 he was assistant director at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Cambridge University. Many considered him a giant of ethnomusicology, although he intensely disliked the term, considering it patronising to other cultures. Whether Bach or Japanese classical gagaku, to him it was simply musicology, because, as he wrote in Musica Asiatica, which he co-edited from 1977 to 1984: "The musics of Asia and Europe constitute a single, historical continuum."

He was elected to a high number of academic positions, amongst them are: Fellow of the British Academy (1973) and Docteur Honoris Causa of the Université de Paris X, Nanterre (1988). His papers and his library can be found at the Cambridge University Library and also the Library of Congress in United State. His collections of musical instrument are currently housed at Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.

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