Challenging Performance: The Book. 25 Current concerns

25 Speaking of contemporary concerns

I once suggested on Twitter that the reason most cultured people are not interested in Western Classical Music is that its performance usually has nothing to say about current cultural concerns. In response WCM fans, and some practitioners, erupted in tweet-rage. And yet it seemed a reasonable point and evidently true. WCM is perceived as occupying its own world, to whose values you have to subscribe if you want to take part. Concerts do not make any intentional reference to the wider cultural world, and musicians mostly seem to believe that to do so would be to betray ‘the music’ and the composer. WCM has to be the way it is, its followers believe, and if you want to talk about it you must talk about in the terms in which people who are musically knowledgeable understand it.

But let’s try to stand back for a moment and think more clearly. The idea that performance is uninfluenced by the world around it, and instead proceeds with pure objectivity to sound the instructions in a composer’s score, is really not plausible. We’ve seen, throughout this book, performance responding to its context, changing all the while. How it does that, how the context influences the performance, opens up a huge set of questions that research has hardly begun to consider;[1] but, whatever the complexity of the interrelationships, it could hardly be more evident that performance changes not through self-contained laws of its own but because the world around it changes.

Largely this happens without anyone being aware of it. One might think being unaware that it happens is pretty inexcusable, given the wealth of recorded evidence. But being unaware of it as it happens is quite understandable. For the same reasons that contemporary performance seems natural, the ways in which it reflects social and cultural concerns are so thoroughly embedded in practice as to be impossible to notice without a great deal of focused and, to a considerable extent speculative, thought.

Nonetheless, that it must happen also means that it could happen differently. With thought, and especially with experiment, it must be possible for a musical performance to comment (by behaving in relevant ways unexpectedly) on the sorts of concerns with which musical performance interacts, whatever they may be, or whatever a performer is able to make them be. If this doesn’t normally happen it’s probably because no one has realised that it could, rather than because it can’t.

By now you will want examples. I’d like some very much. With texted (perhaps also with titled) music it’s not so hard. The ‘Dido & Belinda’ performance on this website offers a clear and quite extensive example, as aspects of Purcell’s score are performed in non-standard, indeed in transgressive ways in order to discuss (in effect) non-standard, indeed transgressive readings of the text and plot. This is exactly the sort of performance that could well be discussed with interest by a group of cultural commentators from outside the closed (closeted) world of WCM debate.

This is a pertinent test. What disappoints many in WCM is the lack of interest shown in it shown by the sorts of people who discuss culture in the media (see Chapter 9.6). Why does WCM figure so infrequently in media that regularly discuss art and theatre at a sophisticated level? Much of this is the fault of WCM in insisting that you have to know and believe about the music the things that those brought up in WCM ideology ‘know’ and believe about it. These are precisely the beliefs that prevent the kinds of creativity that would allow WCM to comment more explicitly on the kinds of themes on which visual arts and theatre comment. So evidently one essential move is to get over the delusion that being a paid-up member of the music establishment is an essential qualification for having an interesting view of it. But the fault lies also in WCM’s failure to attempt to explore the relationships that performance must have with the world around it, let alone the ways in which those relationships could differ, and its inclination to object to the very idea that it might, as if WCM is somehow outside and above its temporal context. People used to make that claim for compositions, especially those without text (‘absolute music’, as if), but I think we’ve largely got over that delusion now, at any rate in musicology if not quite in the profession as a whole. Yet, so far, few have imagined that the same might apply to performance.

So when we come to think about how music without text might also have something to say, through the way it is performed, about current concerns from beyond the score and its normative performance, it’s reasonable to aim to perform in a way that is of serious interest to cultural commentators with wider spheres of interest and who are not necessarily WCM specialists. It should be clear to them that a performance is making some contribution to a wider debate, even if the exact nature of that contribution is open to discussion. (One hopes it will be, of course.)

How does one do this, without a text to point the listener in a particular direction? Is doing it, though, necessarily any harder than discussing the relevance of a composition to its context? The two are always working together, needless to say, albeit now in non-standard ways. If I play the Moonlight sonata first movement allegro furioso, or ‘Syrinx’ angrily (if you follow the link, select ‘Tempo 2’), or a Bach prelude with the voices variably synchronised, or if I vocalise ‘Ave Maria’ in a voice broken by despair, it’s capable of bringing much to an environment in which what an establishment wishes to pass off as Utopia is arguably a maelstrom of conflict. Context is the point, as ever.

I think WCM performers are perfectly capable of this, of finding interesting ways in which scores can speak of much more, and in much more varied ways, than we imagine they do at the moment. And I think that to do that would make our work of far greater general interest. It’s up to us to explore, experiment, and to offer ways of thinking about issues that matter to people, so that we have something that matters to contribute. Otherwise what are we? Why should anyone outside the WCM loop care about what we do? Why should they pay us to do it?

Continue to Chapter 26: ‘Speaking of others’

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[1] I’m talking here specifically about making performances that comment on current social concerns. But this is just one aspect of the much wider rethinking of WCM as a social practice that has been going on for the past few years. For an outstanding survey, with important suggestions for a better interaction between artistic and social purpose, as well a welcome emphasis on musicians as makers, see Gaunt, Helena, Celia Duffy, Ana Coric, Isabel R. González Delgado, Linda Messas, Oleksandr Pryimenko, and Henrik Sveidahl. 2021. Musicians as “Makers in Society”: A Conceptual Foundation for Contemporary Professional Higher Music Education. Frontiers in Psychology 12

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