Challenging Performance: The Book. 19.2 Ethics 2

19 The Ethics of Musical Performance

19.2 Ethical coda

Almost thirty years ago Philip Bohlman (1993) pointed to some of the ways in which essentializing music—as ‘the music’—evaded questions of politics (i.e. who uses it to achieve what on behalf of whom and at whose expense).[1] Many of those questions have arisen here, where we’ve seen WCM performance ideology used to ensure homogeneity of belief and practice. Even those scholars who have most vigorously challenged beliefs about music’s identity and ontology have not often asked the questions that clearly follow about the ways in which performances of scores are currently constrained. Which simply goes to show how deeply these beliefs are ingrained, surviving in the area of musical taste even when removed from that of discourse. This was the very same self-contradiction that bedevilled Adorno’s attempt to write about performance in the 1950s.

Several recent studies have addressed music and ethics in other ways that touch on those considered here, and it may be helpful to comment on some of these.

Marcel Cobussen and Nanette Nielsen in Music and Ethics (2012) point out that philosophical treatments of the relationship between works and performances have mainly been concerned with ‘the sense of “doing justice”’ and have been hamstrung by being rooted in the work concept, the notion that musical works somehow exist.[2] They argue tellingly that the fact that music is socially situated and contributes to the construction of social identities (as DeNora (2000) so effectively showed) gives it power over us.[3] But we have to remember alongside this point that the performances that help to mould identities, both for performers and listeners, are themselves policed, by our training as well as more immediately by other kinds of gatekeeper. In that situation where are the ethical obligations? In the policing every bit as much as in the performing. And the more ‘faithful’ the performance the more the responsibility lies in the gatekeeping that determines faithfulness. If, as Cobussen & Nielsen argue following Frith, music forces itself on bodies that have no choice but to respond, then those who set the rules for acceptable performance owe the rest of us a powerful justification for the constraints they impose. So if someone is going to tell us how to play the Moonlight sonata we need to know why. And “because the composer said so” is not a good enough reason. Someone would be ethically obliged to convince us, if they wanted to insist we play it as they think the composer wanted it to go, both that they know how that was, which they certainly don’t, and, much more relevantly, that that way is the best way it can possibly go. As we’ve seen now from many angles, it’s not possible to come anywhere near showing that. There is no ’the music’ to which we should be doing justice. What ‘the’ music is depends on what we do with the score.

Jeff R Warren (2014) has considered some of these questions. In relation to ‘proper’ performances:

Views that argue for an unchanging meaning of music are not ethically neutral. Imposing a single meaning is an exercise of power that is closed to negotiation and discussion with others, and thus closed to ethical responsibility. (65)

And in relation to the responsibilities that go with recognising music’s modelling of an Other:

… ethical responsibility is not to music itself, but a responsibility to other people who may be influenced by the trace of my encounter with music. (162)

This is easy to agree: music may cause me to behave differently towards others, and I need to be sure that that behaviour is ethical. Music is not special in this way: the same could be true of going to the cinema, or reading a book, or responding to anything at all that seems to exhibit qualities of other people in such a way that I might react differently to other people after reacting to it.

We contact music, experience the trace of others and leave a trace of ourselves. Music is thus never completely our own. Encounters with music involve traces of others that we must respond to. (164)

Thus as performers we have ethical responsibilities, not to ‘the music itself’,[4] nor to the long-dead composer, but rather to others whom our performances may influence. This is not to say that we are responsible for their consequent actions, but it is an injunction to be careful of what we may cause them to feel. That said, we cannot allow listeners to feel entitled not to be challenged by a performance. That is the situation that currently exists. WCM performance has so completely failed to see itself as a critical artistic practice that audiences do feel entitled to be pleased and reassured when they go to a concert. This explains much of the hostility to modernist music, although it has also to be admitted that modernist composers felt equally entitled to be performed as they wished. HIP briefly challenged normative taste, albeit from a fundamentalist position wishing to replace one norm with another. But essentially the idea that it could be both desirable and ethical for a musical performance to offer a radical challenge to norms and values is otherwise new.

What constraints should there be? I suggest there is only one ethical obligation on musical providers, including performers: not to cause serious harm, not to use music cruelly.[5] Beyond that, it’s hard to see that musical performance requires any constraints of principle, aside from basic economic issues like paying fees and royalties.

One may choose constraints in practice, to give focus to a performance style, for example, or to make decisions easier (see Chapter 6.19 on this): but one’s choices should be one’s own, not another’s or a culture’s unless accepted after free, critical thought.

For what is abundantly clear is that any position that privileges the composer or ‘the music’ leads quickly to an environment in which ‘the music’ is valued more than its performers.[6] And from that follows the very poor treatment of WCM performers which we see all around us, and which we’ve considered most closely in chapters 7 (teaching), 9 (criticism), 13 (agency) and 14 (ill-health).

To put it at its most direct, the Moonlight sonata may be Beethoven’s composition, but it is not his music. It’s ours, in performance and in individuals’ experience of performance, and it exists nowhere else.

Finally under this topic, it’s important to say a little about a value that has figured importantly many times in this book, and that is crucial in the examples that follow here in Part 3, the persuasiveness of a performance. I have presented this repeatedly as the one value that is required of a successful performance, that it persuades the listener of its worth. There can be any number of views as to how it does that. For me, it’s vital that it makes engaging musico-dramatic sense, that’s to say it generates a deeply involving sequence of models of human-like feeling states which I can follow intuitively while also enjoying and admiring the use the performer makes of the details in the score. Others will have different ideals for their experience of music. But we all, I think, wish to be persuaded by performers that the music they make finds something latent in the score, even if (for some of us, especially if) it’s never been found before. Otherwise there’s no point in starting from a score. And indeed, it is not essential to do so. But if one is going to, then doing something with the score that seems to ‘work’ with the syntactical relationships between its notes (to the debatable extent that that can be separated from how they are performed) is what we want. I’ll say more about making music work in Chapter 22.

For now, the issue is about the power of persuasion. Attempts to use music to persuade people to act differently are part of our everyday lives, in video, in advertising, in politics and war, as well as in meditation, religious practice, music therapy, and any number of other activities. Indeed, in a sense it’s what music always intends to do. We don’t need reminding that it can induce us to do things that are not in our best interests. But perhaps that is worth bearing in mind as one advocates an approach to the performance of classical scores that is not constrained by convention or by indications in the score. Because clearly this opens up even more possibilities than are already exploited to use performances of WCM to mis-lead. And so it places more responsibility onto performers to think carefully about what their work may be able to do. That does not seem an unreasonable burden. It’s easy to see how musicians have long been infantilised by having their music-making determined for them by authority figures and institutions. Taking responsibility for it in ethical as well as artistic respects only accepts agency restored to its rightful place.

Continue to Chapter 20: ‘Why and How?’

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[1] Bohlman, Philip V. 1993. Musicology as a Political Act. Journal of Musicology 11/4, 411­–36.

[2] Cobussen, Marcel, and Nielsen, Nanette. 2012. Music and Ethics. Farnham: Ashgate.

[3] DeNora, Tia. 2000. Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Mary Hunter offers a fine survey of the process by which music philosophy arrived at the belief that performance must recreate the imagination of the composer, in Hunter, Mary. 2005. “To Play as if from the Soul of the Composer”: The Idea of the Performer in Early Romantic Aesthetics. Journal of the American Musicological Society 58/2, 357–98.

[5] See for example Cusick, Suzanne G. 2008. “You are in a place that is out of the world…”: Music in the Detention Camps of the “Global War on Terror”. Journal of the Society for American Music 2/1, 1–26.

[6] See also chapter 14 and the important recent book by William Cheng, Loving Music Till It Hurts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), esp. pp. 1–10.

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