Challenging Performance: The Book. 27 Rights

27 Finally: The right to be different

In one sense we are all much more alike than we suppose. We share a common ancestor who lived much more recently than most realise (only a few thousand years ago); though that’s not to say that our DNA is identical. But except when parents, children, or siblings, we are all cousins. Nonetheless, we have a strong inherited tendency (because of its benefits for survival in subsistence communities) to band together in groups that conform in culture, appearance, and behaviour and exclude others. WCM does this all too well, hoping to protect itself in what it experiences as a relatively hostile (or at any rate indifferent) environment: its culture is highly constrained and conformist, fearing that any difference from normative behaviour may have deleterious consequences for cultural survival. And yet everywhere where WCM finds the funding and social attitudes conducive to its flourishing there is more than enough economic and social safety, comfort and resource to sustain much more diverse practices without any threat to a flourishing artistic and commercial practice. On the contrary, as I’ve argued throughout this book, more diverse musicking would make it a great deal safer, for many more people would become engaged in it.

The bedrock of modern thought about diversity and individuality is the UN Charter on Human Rights. In 2013 the UN Human Rights Council received the report of its Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed: ‘The right to freedom of artistic expression and creativity’, which includes (in paragraph 85) ‘the right of all persons to freely experience and contribute to artistic expressions and creations, through individual or joint practice, to have access to and enjoy the arts, and to disseminate their expressions and creations’.

Is WCM as currently policed even compatible with this right? No. Clearly it is not. But it should be. There’s no excuse for such a high-profile, high-status embodiment of Western cultural values not to be in conformity with its (now) foundational statement of ethical and political values. And no need either. Performers have the right to make more varied music starting from these scores. Gatekeepers have an obligation not to obstruct the exercise of that right.

I’d like to end this book with the words of Christopher Small, because so much of its case was made by him in 1998 in a Postlude which one suspects few stayed to read; or if they did they passed over it as too radical to be discussed.

Nevertheless, we are free, as performers and listeners also, to use these works of music in any way we like. There is nothing in the rule book that tells us that the score is a sacred text that must not be altered in any way or that it must be performed in a way that approximates as nearly as possible to the way it was performed in the composer’s time. Or if such a rule does exist, it was invented in the twentieth century by composers and musicologists as part of the contest for control of the musical texture, which we have seen has been a feature of the western concert tradition since the seventeenth century at least. We who wish to play those works are under no obligation to obey it. Performance is for performers and for listeners, not for composers and certainly not for their works and not musicologists either. The performer’s obligation, in other words, is not to the composer (who is quite likely dead anyway and can make no protest) or to the work but to his own enjoyment and to that of his or her listeners, if there be any. The performer has the right to make any changes he or she feels like making in the work and to interpret the written or printed score any way he or she chooses. The listeners (who may, of course, include other performers as well as composers and musicologists) have the right to reject those changes, but that does not affect the performer’s right to make them.[1]

Small (1998, 220) acknowledges that he’s ‘a white, middle-class male academic on a comfortable pension’ and thus to an extent in league with the power-holders he identifies. And so am I. But he says that he’s losing sympathy with the power struggles, ‘violence and egotism’ that so much classical music plays out. I too. And I hope, if you’ve come this far with me, you too. So let’s do something about it.

Finally: THANK YOU. Thank you for reading, thank you for being willing to think about these questions, and thanks in advance for introducing your friends, teachers, students to this book: please do! We can help them make a better musical world.

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[1] Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. 1st ed. (Middletown CT: Wesleyan), 217.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Prof. Leech-Wilkinson,

    I’m an orchestral conductor and pianist from Argentina. I also hold teaching positions at the Universidad Nacional de las Artes in Buenos Aires and am currently working on a research proposal – with an artistic research approach – for my doctoral degree. Both in my work as a teacher and as a researcher I have made extensive use of your publications. I have found your ideas inspiring and try to actively contribute to changing my own and my students’ performance practices and attitudes. I feel in debt to you, Nicholas Cook, Mine Dogantan-Dack and other researchers for being capable of expressing and advancing liberating views on musical performance. I hope to be able to contribute my own work on this webpage when – and if – I get the scholarship I need to complete my postgraduate studies.

    Thank you very much for all the effort put in this book and for the generosity of making it a free access publication.

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