Challenging Performance: The Book. 10 Normativities

10 Normativities

To behave normatively is to behave in ways that a community thinks good and to which its members adhere, and thus to signal one’s faithful membership of that community and to feel at home within it. It sustains what in 9.6 we saw Bourdieu calling a ‘mutual admiration society’.

We do not have to look far in any direction to find musical performance norms being strictly enforced. In many cultures musical behaviours tend towards the normative, faithfulness being required in return for musical work. But in few traditions is this more the case than in WCM, despite the fact that audiences are drawn typically from segments of society that enjoy wide-ranging freedoms themselves in most aspects of their personal and, to a greater extent in the west than in many places, their public lives. Christopher Small (1998) treated this at length, arguing that classical music reassures us that ‘This is who we are’ (43, 134). If he is right then, as we saw in Chapters 7 and 9, we have a lot to concern us. For classical music practice is policed with a narrowness and ruthlessness that hardly sits easily with our self-image as a tolerant society, welcoming of new forms of artistic creativity. Nowhere is this clearer than in the language of performance criticism, as we saw in Chapter 9. There we find ideas about normative musical behaviour expressed using images borrowed from a certain kind of normative thought—decades out of date in terms of social acceptability—in the domains of gender and sexuality, class and race. To behave non-normatively as a classical musician is to risk being labelled deviant (NB not queer, never positively different), a member of an out-group, the deviance measured against a now anachronistic judgement of what is acceptable and normal.

A key aspect of normative behaviour is that it has become internalised, usually to the extent that it is no longer recognised as a defined, stylised practice but is simply taken as natural: it has become ‘naturalised’. And so here we are dealing with the fourth of Juniper Hill’s four mechanisms for enforcing conformity (chapter 7.4), the internalisation of norms as values.

We saw in chapter 7.1 (modelled there in a circular diagram) how the thinking of adults in all areas of the CM business is broadly consistent not just because of the interrelations shown by the model but also, more powerfully, by the fact that so many of those working within the business as gatekeepers are there because they learned to care about WCM through childhood training as performers. Absorbing beliefs about composers, works and performer obligations from such a young age gives a strength and consistency to their adult behaviour that it could otherwise not have. ‘Ideology’ is thus not too strong a word for the set of values underpinning the conviction with which members of the WCM business believe.

Max Padison (1993, 53) gives a particularly pertinent definition of ‘ideology’:

vested socio-cultural interests masquerading as objective or disinterested attitudes, or claiming to be in accord with ‘natural laws’ or ‘common sense’. … a lived system of values which are largely unconscious, which forms our sense of identity, and in relation to which we are normally unable to take a critical and self-reflective position. Ideology understood in this way thus serves to legitimize as natural, universal and unchanging something which is .. cultural and historical in origin, and thus subject to change.[1]

In a culture like WCM, defined by a shared ideology, everyone has a vested interest in insisting that its values are natural (cf. chapter 6.5). To suppose that they are not is to exclude one from the protection offered by membership of the group. In a business in which work is mainly given to those one knows and whose musical values one shares, not to subscribe to the ideology is not to work.

To demonstrate one’s adherence to the ideology in a variety of modes allows one to accumulate, in Bourdieu’s terms, cultural capital. An example would be the privately educated and thus well-connected undergraduate who is able to use their contacts to get occasional work deputising for a music critic, using the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to promote normative values stylishly and effectively, which leads to more commissions from a variety of music publications, then to a staff post, and from there perhaps to the editorship of a magazine, to presenting radio and then TV programmes on classical music, their authority potentially enhanced by authorship of books on music for a general readership, leading to membership of editorial boards, music panels and prize committees, maybe to the directorship of a concert series or festival which brings them into regular contact with leading musicians and gatekeepers from around the world, and from there to seen as a ‘natural’ for the post of manager of a major opera house. Somewhere near the end of their career there will be a national honour for services to music (tout court). Their cultural capital accrues through increasing in every role the power of the ideology. For the individual, a disposition to conform, to promote, to make contacts, to be useful and effective, develops into a habitus in which all these serve the simultaneous promotion of the ideology and the self, legitimating and reproducing the values of the musical state throughout the culture that they exemplify, and serving as a useful template for the young hopefuls who follow them, the most ably conformist of whom they may encourage and promote. One could think of this life as embodying, spreading and reproducing normativity, a perfect example of ‘this is who we are’.

How easily, then, an establishment Utopia maps onto a musical one. The perfection and persuasiveness of current performances at the highest level merges with the effectiveness of leading gatekeepers who seem to be responsible for the smooth working of the whole system from which such performances seem effortlessly(!) to emerge. Follow the rules and all will be well in the best of all possible musical worlds. (Just don’t mention the sacrifices, the pressures, or the doubts.)[2]

Common to these ideals—of superlative performance and leadership as shining examples of the ideology functioning in perfect harmony—are notions of mastery. The master composer, the servant- (but for the public also the master-)performer, the mastering gatekeepers. Even now, most are men. Which is not to say that women don’t also love the composer and seek to promote His works in entirely conventional ways; but the notions of mastery and strength that are so well promoted in WCM training and criticism still assume and ensure that men remain dominant in positions of power. Women as aspiring professionals are still led to accept a degree of patriarchy in WCM training that has consequences for willingness to be subservient to male performers and gatekeepers, to accept behaviour from teachers and conductors, for example, that would be rejected in life outside the profession. The extent to which men feel entitled in WCM can only be increased by belief in the dead but godlike male composer. Patriarchy is built into this culture, and with it a host of linguistic practices that place women in subservient and undesirable positions.

As well as quoting similar material in chapter 9.2 above, I’ve written a separate article on the language of performance criticism, finding it riddled with metaphors of effeminacy and deviance used to label anything a (typically male) critic finds threatening in even the smallest adjustment to normative expressivity. It’s not just misogyny that’s referenced in these metaphors (coy, fussy, prim, mannered, preening, narcissistic, leering, mincing, etc.) but also homophobia. As I argued there,

This tendency to turn repeatedly to metaphors evocative of homophobia bears out Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s claim that the homo/heterosexual distinction is a structural issue, the source for many other kinds of enforced binaries. In our case it is the binary between proper and deviant performance, where almost nothing is proper and almost everything deviant, but where the specialist population is so thoroughly indoctrinated in normative thinking that it is hard to imagine what a deviant performance might be like…

Normative performance values … have a basis in a discourse of binaries … in which one term is dominant through having moral superiority, being more correct or higher-status than the other, always the term which is more associated with masculinity (capitalized here): Score/interpretation, Composer/performer, Structure/expression, Technique/expression, Composition/improvisation, Instrumental/vocal, Modernist/romantic, Structural/rhetorical performance and, fundamentally, as highlighted by Suzanne Cusick (1994, n. 19), The Music/an interpretation, a distinction dependent in turn on the ‘master’ distinction Work/performance.[3]

WCM culture, in other words, provides a comfortable home for various kinds of structural prejudice, reflecting the values of the sorts of people (in terms of gender and class) who in the 19th and 20th centuries shaped, and who still predominantly enforce, its ideology.

For class is another key normativity in WCM. Cost makes WCM a middle-class activity to begin with. As a child you don’t get lessons or an instrument unless your parents have money and a sense that these things are part of ‘who we are’ or wish to be. Exclusive education (of which British ‘public’ (actually private) schools are the most extreme and divisive examples) has provided fertile ground for indoctrination in homophobia and racism coupled with a powerful sense of class superiority and entitlement. Top-ranking, well-funded universities, with their many opportunities to perform and direct, enable people brought up to be comfortable in charge of others to gain experience running their own groups. It all adds up to easily accepting the thought and behaviour of past eras as self-evidently appropriate for work with WCM.

Guy Rohrbaugh, in a summary of the virtues of normative behaviour by WC musicians, says (quite rightly) that,

Participants in our musical practices are the kind of people who take scores and score-compliance seriously, who accord composers a measure of respect and recognize them as authoritative. They are disposed to take such circumstances as the fact of the notes in the score, the acts of the composer, or the sound of a model performance as reasons to act in certain ways—to play just those notes, to do as told, to emulate what is heard. (Rohrbaugh 2020, 89)

‘We think there is some further point’, he says, ‘in being this sort of person.’ It’s a ‘final good.’[4] And there you have it. Complacency, entitlement, cultural capital, perfect satisfaction. Normativity for WCM.

Continue to Chapter 11 ‘Obligations to the dead’

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[1] Padison, Max. 1993. Adorno’s Aesthetics of Music. Cambridge University Press.

[2] Robert Fink’s discussion of Abreu and ‘El Sistema’ tells a comparable story. Fink, Robert. 2016. Resurrection Symphony: El Sistema as Ideology in Venezuela and Los Angeles. Action, Criticism & Theory for Music Education 15:1, 33–57, esp. 41–2.

[3] Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2020. Moral Judgement in Response to Performances of Western Classical Music. In Remixing Music Studies: Essays in Honour of Nicholas Cook, edited by Ananay Aguilar, Eric Clarke, Ross Cole and Matthew Pritchard (Routledge), 91–111. The references within the quotation are to: Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. [1990]/2008. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press. Cusick, Suzanne G. 1994. Gender and the Cultural Work of a Classical Music Performance. Repercussions 3:1, 77–110.

[4] Rohrbaugh, Guy. 2020. Why Play the Notes? Indirect Aesthetic Normativity in Performance. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 98:1, 78-91. DOI: 10.1080/00048402.2019.1600563

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