Challenging Performance: The Book. 22.4 Social action

22 Making music work

22.4 Music as social action

Before we look in a much more practical way (in the next section) at assessing non-normative performance, it’s important to remember that how music works, and (using the word in a different but not unrelated sense) the work that music does, are not just aesthetic issues, nor only a matter of how one feels internally as one performs and listens. Musical performance is also a social praxis. In performance one seeks to accomplish many things as well as moving and engaging listeners; and these include creating benefits of various kinds, practical, social, financial, psychological, health-related, even in a broad sense political. Performance is skilful, transactional, intentional, occasional (in the sense of occasion-related), as well as being more obviously communicative. How a performance fulfils some of these needs and possibilities accounts for some of the sense that it works more or less well.[1]

How music is used in these ways matters very much. Often it is for good. But sometimes not. Part of the trouble that this book exposes and aims to counter is precisely the way in which certain musical practices oppress performers in order the more to reassure certain groups of already very privileged listeners and also to minimise costs for employers. Constraining performers’ creative freedom works for them, just as it pays the bills for critics and others who police it.

So when we think and talk about music working, and use that notion as a measure of the success of a performance, it’s important to be conscious of the extent to which, and the ways in which, music may be working for us in these other dimensions, over and above its sheer dynamic power and beauty. Is it improving lives, and whose, and at what cost?

When one takes this wider view it becomes even clearer how important it is to allow performers the freedom to make music in as many ways as are able to generate whatever we agree are good ends. Performance can do much more than it does now, and in many more ways.

Continue to Chapter 22.5 ‘Assessing non-standard performances’

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[1] As further reading see Regelski, Thomas A. 2016. Music, music education, and institutional ideology: A praxial philosophy of music sociality. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 15 (2): 10–45. (Also discussed in Chapter 7.3.)

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