Interview with Uri Smilansky

An interview with Dr. Uri Smilansky January 2020 by Project Coordinator, Claire Selby.

Today we welcome Uri Smilansky who is going to talk about his role in the MALMECC project.

What attracted you to this project?

“I believe that in order to understand a cultural system, we have to look at it in the round. While it is entirely understandable that people latch onto the little bit (of culture) that they enjoy most or specialise in studying, at some point there comes a time when, if we don’t look outside our ‘own box’, we are very likely not only to miss out on what’s going on around us, but not even to be able to understand its appeal fully – so I was very pleased to be able to join a project that shared this viewpoint.”


Excellent to hear! What do you think is original about the project’s approach to medieval European culture and what kind of original thoughts can we extract from it at the end?

“I think MALMECC goes beyond most projects in terms of the degree of cooperation between various research techniques and interests. While it has music in the title, it is less geared towards a specific view of music’s place in the world or having to channel everything through discussions of music. The broader disciplinary scope of the project means it is more able to bring together what are really independent, wide-ranging interdisciplinary examinations.”


Uri, I know that you have your own specialism within the project, so I thought it might be interesting to hear which aspects of courtly culture in medieval times you find most interesting and why that might be.

“Well, I have been working on French music for more years than I care to remember by this point – music throughout the 14th and 15th centuries – so I was naturally attracted to that aspect of the project. A while ago, I also worked on a project collating a new edition of the works of Guillaume de Machaut, which involved transcribing, translating and looking at manuscripts with very close attention to the words and notes, which on the one hand was fascinating and I enjoyed it very much, but on the other hand raised a lot of questions that I was able to follow up on at the time. Questions such as: What would you do with these notes afterwards? How would they be understood? Would they be listened to? Are they (the scripts and scores) just objects to look at rather than to listen to?  How widely were these materials distributed? How did they sit alongside other non-musical aspects of culture in the wider social context? That’s where this project comes in. It allows me to look at similar material, but from an entirely different starting point. I hope I can bring my previous knowledge of manuscripts and experience of analysing cultural materials to the process of re-examination in a wider context now.”


What would you like to achieve through the work of this project?

Within the project, my main goal is perhaps best described as disciplinary. In conversation with musicologists, I’d like to encourage the trend away from ‘pure’ musical interests and musical abstractions. Instead, I try to show how deep the need is to examine musical materials also when they are not being used for music making, as material presence, as well as to improve our models of engaging with music’s mediation through performance. When working with non-musicologists – researchers in literature, poetry, art history and architecture – I want to encourage them to connect with the idea of performance of sounds and music, even without having specialist training in music. Researchers perceive a lack of training in music as a barrier and it is often the case that when you mention medieval music, they say, “Oh, I don’t know anything about that. Let’s look at something else!” so I’d like to help break down those barriers.

It has always been the case that music is not just for specialists. I’d like to work on expanding the understanding of music as a social topic within the context of other aspects of culture. Analysing music by itself makes little sense and one should try to understand everything from architecture to fashion in order to be able to find a starting point for analysing the notes. If we start by analysing the notes on the page and only then move to thinking about who listened to them and what their preconceived notions and mental attitudes towards listening were, there is a risk that we base our initial analysis on our own knowledge and attitudes, rather than trying to understand what the music meant to its listeners at the time.  That’s why a project that considers music in its wider context is very important to me.

The trick, of course, is to try and talk to both audiences at the same time.”


That is fascinating! We look forward very much to hearing more and learning about its conclusions as the project progresses. Thank you very much for your time today. We are grateful to Uri Smilansky of the MALMECC project for those thought-provoking insights.


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