Challenging Performance: The Book. 19.1 Ethics 1

19 The Ethics of Musical Performance

19.1 Ethical recapitulation

In Chapter 11 above we looked at obligations to the dead and particularly, in 11.3, at ethical obligations to composers, alive and dead. The gist of the argument there was that we have social obligations of courtesy to living composers which may transfer for a while after their deaths to their close family and loved ones. But that apart from those, we have none to composers who are dead. Our obligations, rather, are to the living. This chapter is concerned more with ethical relationships among performers and listeners as they make music, and between them and employers, promoters and critics.

It’s been axiomatic throughout that music is made not only by performers (certainly not only by composers) but also by listeners, whose minds make music from sounds as they listen. We’ve seen in every chapter how the making of music by listeners (including performers) is affected by their beliefs about what music (and performances of particular scores) should be like. Ethical questions loom large in that process. We’ve seen (especially in Chapters 7, 9 and 13­–14) how beliefs about what’s proper can mould and damage musicians and limit what’s offered to listeners. If those beliefs are groundless, as Parts 1 and 2 of this book have argued, then—and perhaps in any case, given the damage they do—there is a strong moral case for abandoning them. Part 3 argues that, once we do that, a great many new possibilities for making music starting from scores (‘western classical music’) become available to us.

An ethics of classical music needs a consistent vision that guides the training of musicians, their employment, critique of their work, and also—interwoven with these issues of behaviour—an understanding of the empathy that performances of WCM model, foster and enhance, all considered together with a view of options for performance. Some of those questions of modelling were set out in Chapter 12.2.

These chapters provide us with bases for considering what an ethical practice of WCM might involve. And so I suggest we accept here, as a foundation, that we have no obligations to dead composers to reproduce their wishes indefinitely. (If you don’t accept that then you probably gave up reading many chapters ago.) And in that case we stop forcing young musicians (because they are forced) to learn to perform scores in one, narrowly circumscribed, widely-approved manner. We—even those of us who in an ideal world would still prefer to hear what the composer imagined—do this also because we now admit that we cannot know what composers expected until the dawn of recording. And because we recognise, from the wide differences in musical practice documented by recordings, that there have already been many different yet highly successful approaches to making music from the same scores, and therefore there are likely to be many more waiting to be found. Opening teaching to more creative music-making leads in turn to more varied careers and a more diverse musical culture, speaking to larger and more diverse audiences.

At the same time, music gains the ability to model a much greater variety of Others. We’ve already seen something of the ways in which music does this by modelling the dynamics (loosely, the shapes) of feeling states. It’s tempting to say that in this sense we have an ethical relationship with music; but I find that that misses the rather crucial point that, while it may be like a person with whom we form a relationship, and thereby teach us things about forming and maintaining relationships, music is not a person.[1] It is at best virtual, which means that we can use it as a test-bed for seeking and testing limits without doing harm to anyone. And this is another respect in which creating new performances from old scores can be productive and helpful, a respect in which ignoring indications from the composer may allow us, ethically as well as practically, to learn much about how relationships can change, or be radically other, and still be profoundly satisfying.

When we perform in this way, I think we should be able to expect, for all the same reasons outlined above, that employers, promoters, critics, and all kinds of gatekeepers will show a related understanding of what we’re doing and why. This involves a large part of the music business, which has been used to ruling on what is acceptable according to the old assumptions, rethinking its premisses. That’s a tall order and it won’t happen quickly. But it will happen gradually once musicians insist on making new kinds of performances, regardless of the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the stalls, where those who feel entitled to rule on musical performance are mainly to be found. An ethical approach to others is, after all, most threatening to the very class that currently funds and oversees most WCM. They regard it as their music. That has to change if it’s to have any role in the future.[2]

Continue to Chapter 19.2 ‘Ethical coda’

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[1] Here I agree with Jeff Warren’s criticism (Warren 2014, 159–60) of Naomi Cumming’s (2000, 284) claim that music’s person-like qualities give it some of the same rights and demands that a human being has. Warren quotes Levinas (1981, 41) calling this a ‘misleading anthropomorphism or animism’. Warren, Jeff R. 2014. Music and Ethical Responsibility Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cumming, Naomi. 2000. The Sonic Self: Musical Subjectivity and Signification (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). Levinas, Emmanuel. 1981. Otherwise than Being (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press).

[2] Bull (2019, 192) writes: ‘Against the discourse in policy and music education practice that classical music education just needs more investment in order to open up this cultural practice to everyone, I am arguing that classical music has stronger links with the middle class than just the economic — that the practices themselves are associated with key traits of bourgeois identity. This does not mean that this music cannot be reclaimed or resignified, but that both the practices and the aesthetic of classical music have to change if classed, raced, and gendered hierarchies are not to be reproduced alongside musical ones. This requires a loosening of musical boundaries in order to open up the social boundaries.’

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