Challenging Performance: The Book. 22.5 Assessing

22 Making music work

22.5 Assessing non-standard performances

In Chapters 7.3, on exam boards, and 7.8, on competitions, we looked at problems with the evaluation of WCM performance: in a sense much of chapters 7 and 9 was about just that. Seeing all the problems that come from assessment and evaluation of the mainstream one might be tempted to think that evaluating transgressive, non-normative performances would be even more fraught. But because we are setting aside so many of the yardsticks by which performance is measured for correctness, in fact the opposite is the case. Assessment becomes very much simpler.

While ultimately, once people expect creative performance of WCM scores (if that happy day ever comes), performers can simply advertise a performance of a canonical score, walk on stage and perform, at the moment it seems sensible to let an audience know that what they are going to hear is not going to be what they expect. One can, and probably should, do that in the advertising of the concert, if only to avoid noisy walk-outs by outraged patrons interrupting the performance. An option I’ve used is slightly to alter the title of a well-known composition: hence ‘Dido & Belinda’, which tells everyone that something slightly different is to be expected. Arguably this flies in the face of my case that these are legitimate performances of the score. But I think that the concession to expectation is a useful one until this legitimacy is generally accepted. Alternatively performers can speak to the audience, taking the opportunity to explain something of what they will be doing and why (see also chapter 6.11). All this seems helpful and courteous to people who’ve paid to come to something that may not be what they thought they’d be getting. Just as importantly, it gives everyone the best chance of having the performance experienced and evaluated for what it aims to be, while (as ever) leaving open the option for listeners to experience it quite differently.

What of more formal critical responses to transgressive performance? How are they to be made? I suggest that in the much more varied performance culture envisaged here, evaluation of performance need be no harder than it has always been: performances are made to engage, to stimulate, to excite, to fascinate, to challenge, to move, as ever. That is what music is for. How persuasively they do that is the measure of their success. One of the many beauties of setting aside the pseudo-historical and dubiously philosophical moralising that characterises WCM assessment and criticism at the moment is that one’s response can focus more fully—as fully as possible, given all the personal, social and cultural factors that will always be in play—on the simple question of how and how much a performance engages one’s mind and senses in whatever ways one likes music to engage them. It’s nobody’s job to try to limit that. If evaluation becomes more personal, what of it?

If our responses are allowed to be our own then so are our judgements that follow from them. This may well make collective agreement harder. Good! [1]

But for all the reasons I’ve set out in this chapter—to do with prioritising one’s response to musical dynamics at the expense of ideology, as far as one can—it seems far more likely to me that evaluation will remain relatively simple. When we remove questions such as ‘are they using the right edition?’, ‘are they following every mark in the score?’, ‘are they using the right period style?’, ‘are they sounding the composer’s intentions?’, ‘are they doing what I told them?’, what remains is a focus on what really counts: am I moved, am I gripped by this performance, do I care more than anything right now about the sounds this performer makes next?

Or, if not, then ‘what else can these notes do?’ is the most exciting and constructive question one can possibly ask.

Continue to Chapter 23 ‘Examples of non-normative performances’

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[1] Lisa McCormick (2009, 7–8), writing about competitions, explains how multiple are the constituencies that need to be satisfied at the moment. And yet the performer is somehow expected to please them all. Once we accept that music is supposed to engage us personally, that we don’t need all to agree, the whole business of assessment and criticism looks quite different, potentially much more humane. If that makes competition judging more complicated, so it should. The problem lies in the notion of competition, not in the approach to thinking about value. (McCormick: ‘In a setting that closely resembles the recital ritual, the performer is challenged to demonstrate that they are the embodiment of the performance community’s ideals by enacting a multi-layered performance that simultaneously displays different meanings to a fragmented audience. Each segment of this audience – judges, critics, peers, musical public – is differently engaged and differently positioned to interpret competitors’ performances. It is perhaps for this reason that it is not unusual for segments of the audience to disagree about which performer is most deserving of first place.’)

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