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Universität Basel

"The Night Side of Music"

Prof. Hanna Walsdorf has received an SNSF Advanced Grant in August with a financial contribution of around 2.151 Mio Swiss Francs. We have asked her to tell us about her new project and share her experiences from the application phase.

Hanna Walsdorf, Fachbereich Musikwissenschaft

Could you please briefly describe your research project and its main goals?

My project “The Night Side of Music” (NightMuse) is concerned with musical behaviour after sunset in the early modern era, c.1500–1800. The idea came to me when I read the research findings of historian Roger Ekirch, who in 2001 published his findings on segmented sleep in Western pre-industrial societies: In the days when there was little or no street lighting in cities and when artificial light was not yet widely affordable for either private homes or public buildings, people slept in two shifts, with an intervening phase of wakefulness, starting around midnight, of about one to three hours. Not only has modern sleep research supported his insights about ‘first’ and ‘second sleep’, but Ekirch has also proven, with an overwhelming amount of source evidence, that this phase of nocturnal wakefulness was used for various activities, including modes of religious behaviour and cultural occupation.

Historical documentation of musical activities in both religious and secular contexts convincingly confirms that musicking after sunset did indeed not only consist of evening music (before the first sleep), but also of night music in the true sense of the word (after the first sleep). Seen in this light, both musical behaviour and repertoires need to be re-evaluated. Even though the contemporary designations of musics for the evening and musics for the (middle of the) night became merged in post-1800 research literature, it is clear that the nominal distinction between evening and night musics pre-1800 was in fact very deliberate.

Working on the basis of a broad range of materials, this observation will be systematically researched and analysed in significant case studies grouped into three sub-projects: 1) Religious Musicking at Night; 2) Secular Musicking at Night; 3) Addressing the Night in Theatrical Music.

The primary objective of the project is to establish time of day/night as a category of musicological analysis (as opposed to prevalent categories such as individuals/milieus, works/genres, places/spaces, transfers/migrations, etc.). The second objective is to confirm the assumption that the choice of times for musicking was significantly dependent on sleeping patterns and on the availability of artificial light, which varied in urban and rural areas. The project’s third and final objective is to clarify the mythological provenance of the nocturnal figures acting in 16th- to 18th-century stage productions, to determine the musics and sounds originally associated with them in both theatre and popular beliefs, and to reassess their effect and meaning against the background of the recently discovered ubiquitous nocturnal wakefulness.

What was your main motivation to apply for the SNSF Advanced Grant call?

From the very beginning, the project idea encompassed the three sub-projects of religious, secular, and theatrical music-making. It was therefore obvious to me that I would need a team of PhD students and Postdocs in order to be able to deal with this range of topics in a sound and comprehensive manner. Ultimately, I was keen to compete for the SNSF Advanced Grants and see if my idea could keep up with those of the other applicants.

How important is the SNSF Advanced Grant as part of the Transitional Measure Calls for you and your research, compared to a standard SNSF research project?

The SNSF Advanced Grant will hopefully boost both my research and my career. I expect that the project will attract a great deal of attention in musicology and beyond, since the topic of night, sleep and music appears to be one that everyone can relate to. Strategically, NightMuse is an ideal platform from which to continue thinking and to generate sustainability in the research profile of musicology in Basel. It will help me to further establish myself as an internationally renowned researcher, and hopefully contribute to reinforcing Basel as a research location. My ultimate wish would be that an international and interdisciplinary network will emerge from the project. This could, for example, take the form of a working group that operates on a continuing basis and further develops the research perspectives of NightMuse in various directions. The first steps in this regard have already been taken and are evident in the existence and composition of the NightMuse Advisory Board.

A standard SNSF research project would not have given me the opportunity to assemble such a large team and to work on such a multi-layered and extensive topic.

What was the main challenge when you had to present and explain your project in the SNSF Advanced Grant evaluation panel, which usually does not include specialists in your field and is quite broad regarding its expertise?

The biggest challenge was the time constraint: My 10-minute presentation was followed by 15 minutes of Q&A with the three referees of my proposal, all of whom were from other disciplines. However, I had already anticipated the latter aspect in the proposal text and had written it not primarily for musicologists, but with humanities scholars or cultural historians in mind. I prepared very thoroughly for the interview and had answers to a variety of possible questions ready. Fortunately, I was therefore able to respond well to the questions that were actually asked.

What are your recommendations to research colleagues, who might think about applying to the next SNSF Advanced Grant call?

First of all, you should be enthusiastic about your own project idea and, like a scriptwriter in an advertising agency, think about how you can inspire others, especially those outside your field, to support it. Do not be afraid to contact colleagues who have already successfully applied for ERC or SNSF Advanced Grants and find out about their experiences. Try to do this at an early stage of the application process.

The best advice that I got for the interview was from an ERC interview tutorial: Know your audience. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Keep the time. Practice, practice, practice.

Thank you very much for this interview. We wish you all the best and much success with your project NightMuse.

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