Challenging Performance: The Book. 22.1 Music working

22 Making Music Work

22.1 What makes a performance work?

In Chapter 7.5, on ‘conservatoire and conformity’, I made a distinction between a performance that ‘works’ and a performance that is ‘correct’. Correct performances, at professional level, always work because the performer’s job is to ensure that they do; but performances that work need not always be correct. I’ve said a lot in earlier chapters about what’s thought to be correct. But what do we mean when we say that a performance ‘works’?

[If in doubt about the meaning of ‘work’ here see this note on terminology]

In 7.5 I spoke about a performance that ‘works dynamically’. What I was referring to was the way in which a sequence of musical sounds feels well-formed. Conventionally we credit this to the composer. But, as we’ve seen here again and again, performers are more directly responsible for sounding a score convincingly. So performers are adjusting all the parameters that their instrument allows them to adjust (note lengths always, loudness for many instruments (not harpsichords), pitch for some (singers) more than others (brass)). And they adjust these parameters in order to group notes coherently and engagingly—giving emphasis, forming phrases—so that the performance generates in listeners a sequence of well-formed feeling shapes. Often this is described as ‘shaping’ or simply being ‘musical’. These adjustments to what would otherwise be a mechanically literal sounding of the notation in the score involve the ‘dynamics’ of sound, dynamics not in the simple sense of loudnesses (piano, forte) but in the more multifaceted sense of changing quantities—speeds, densities, directions, energy—that lead us to perceive music as in motion, alive. (More about this in the next section.)

A performance that works dynamically is one in which this sequence of changing shapes engages us as performers and listeners through its feeling good as we listen. (More about this in Chapter 12.2 on musical Utopia.) The performer moves from note to note in a way that carries us along, occupies our attention, fills us with desire to hear what happens next.

Whether a performance works, in this sense, is partly to do with familiarity, with our being used to a particular approach to performing scores: it’s not so deeply rooted in human psychology that everyone will feel it regardless of their experience or their frame of mind. But it is rarely dependent on performing particular notes (and no others) or (except when belief intervenes) on performing notes in a particular way. A performance can change notes in a score, or use a non-normative performance style, and still make a performance that works (feels) brilliantly.

Mary Hunter, analysing performers’ rehearsal talk, has shown how the notion of ‘working’ in performer discourse is ‘often inextricably tied to the feel of playing’; ‘the “working” locution … almost always occurs in close conjunction with a description of how a particular choice feels, physically or emotionally, to the performer.’[1]

To say that a performance works, then, is to say that it feels good to make and to hear.[2] Feeling, not thinking. That the shaping of sounds feels good matters much more than whether that shaping outlines a particular formal scheme, or reproduces a particular historical practice or a particular composer intention, unless one is determined for reasons of principle that it must not. It takes a particular intensity of prejudice against a performer or performance approach to override one’s musical response to well-shaped music-making; although that intensity is very widespread, as chapter 9 (among others) showed.

So we can (and must) separate ‘working’ from being ‘correct’. Thus Ji Liu’s Moonlight sonata performance, with movement tempi exchanged, works very well while also being very incorrect.[3]

A performance, however radical (perhaps especially if it’s radical) must work. A wonderful historical illustration of this is provided by Harry Plunket Greene’s 1934 recording of Schubert’s ‘Der Leiermann’. None of the words is original, most note values in the vocal line have been changed, the singer can no longer sing. It’s still, I think, a very wonderful performance in which what works is not just the sequence of dynamic shapes but encompasses the associations brought by this elderly voice to the text and the notes Schubert wrote. Nothing about that relationship, either, is ‘correct’, for here the person being sung about becomes also the singer.

Continue to 22.2 ‘Musical dynamics and musical shape’

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[1] Hunter, Mary. (Forthcoming). Classical Performer-Talk: Obligation, Affordance and Strategic Vagueness. I am most grateful to Professor Hunter for sharing her typescript with me.

[2] A related and very interesting perspective from theatre studies is offered by Roesner, David. 2021. Making Sense of Performance. A New Approach to Performance Analysis. ACT – Zeitschrift für Musik und Performance 10, esp. pp. 26–7.

[3] Cf the discussions of it in chapters 1 and 5 above and 23 below. It works ‘remarkably well as a storm’ (chapter 5); and ‘the piece still works as a sound sequence with melodic and harmonic coherence and dynamic shape’ (chapter 1).

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