Challenging Performance: The Book. 12.1 Policing

12 Policing and self-policing

12.1 Policing

The model of the classical music profession in 7.1 gives a sense of how oppressed a performer is by many different factors and actors from within and around the music business. Teachers, examiners, adjudicators, fixers, concert planners, managers, record companies (A&R, producers, advertising), music journalists, critics, broadcasters, bloggers, musicologists, and—just as crucially—co-performers: all these are in effect policing musicians’ performances to ensure conformity with norms. These, then, are the performance police. Note that, aside from readers of music journalism and musicology, the model in 7.1 didn’t make space for audiences, which of course constitute one of the largest factors of all. Performers, rightly or wrongly, feel that audience expectations and responses need constant awareness and attention. Possibly performers are too anxious about audiences. True, the enclosed nature of the culture means concert-goers know what they like and aren’t inclined to welcome difference; but it is also possible that, suitably prepared, a fair number would be willing to consider a wider range of performance approaches. And it’s certainly possible that a wider range would attract a wider variety of concert goers. But that’s not where we are. As things stand, WCM ideology and norms of musical and professional behaviour constitute a considerable weight of oppression, forcing musicians to play and sing scores (within a tiny space for acceptable difference) in whatever is currently the correct way.

Chapters 4 to 11 have looked in more detail at some of the factors that oppress performers and performance. We’ll add some of the business pressures in Chapters 15 to 17. And we’ll look at the ill effects of all this on musicians in Chapters 13 and 14. Underneath it all is the claim (for many the belief) that the composer is the source of everything that is good about WCM and that therefore the performer’s job is perfectly to represent them. But the composer, as we shall see in Chapter 17, functions also as a front for the business advantages of a profession in which performers do as they are told with the least possible paid rehearsal. The police, mostly (but not all) unwittingly, enforce this business model with the simplest possible message: do what we say if you want work. Residual love of music does the rest.

I’m sorry if this seems cynical. But it’s not unfair. This is what happens. If you sing or play differently, you will not work.

And that is why WCM can be reasonably understood as a police state. Follow the rules and all is well. Perform the values of the state as persuasively as you can; more persuasively (if you want the best work) than your contemporaries, who are competing with you to do the same.

Interestingly, and unlike a typical police state, most of those who work as gatekeepers would have worthwhile jobs in similar roles in a much freer musical society. We’d still need people to teach, and examine, and promote artists, and manage workloads, and comment on different performances, and make good recordings: it’s simply that the criteria would be far more open to, and supportive of, difference and creativity, making much more space for individualities that are claimed at the moment but not actually allowed in any substantial degree. A change of belief and behaviour, in other words, would be enough to change the State from one that is fundamentally oppressive into one that is fundamentally permissive. Put like that, perhaps, the challenge sounds ideologically considerable. But at least the structure could remain substantially in place and the economics undamaged (as I’ll argue in Chapter 17). We just need to think differently about what’s good.

One can hear the howls of outrage. For like all police states, the limits placed on freedom are justified by presenting the State as Utopia, a society already so perfect that none must be permitted to alter any of its practices, lest its perfection be compromised. So let’s look from the other end of the telescope at WCM as Utopia and see it, for a moment, at its best.

Continue to 12.2 ‘Seeking Utopia’

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