Challenging Performance: The Book. 30.1 Sounding the right

30.1 Sounding the right


This talk—which contains references to sexual violence, homophobia and racism—was given first in an earlier version at a seminar on Musical Interpretation: tradition and experimentation, at Luleå University of Technology, Piteå School of Music, 9-10 December 2020; and in the current version in a seminar on REFUSE/NIKS: Classical Music Performance Norms—Resist or Obey? at Leiden University’s Academy of Creative and Performing Arts (ACPA) on 7 June 2021. A video of the talk is available here (30′).


We live in a time of prohibitions. Those surrounding the Covid pandemic are reasonable. But most are not about protecting lives but rather about protecting power. In states right around the world prohibitions protect dictatorships, vested interests, and a vindictive hatred of groups other than those in power. In my own country we have a government that forbids the teaching of anti-capitalism or critical race theory in schools. And it’s easy to see what they have to fear from both of those. Even in musicology we now see protectionist attempts to invalidate the study of non-western musical cultures. Schenkergate has exposed the extent of white fragility among music theorists, whom we’ve seen seeking to excuse Schenker in exactly the same terms as white people seek to excuse themselves and their ancestors for occupation, exploitation and slavery. We’re now a very long way from a point where the west is ready to think seriously about reparations for the cruelty of our predecessors, cruelty from which we still benefit so much and by which black people are still so much disadvantaged. There’s still a widespread sense among westerners that we deserve all our advantages, thanks to the ingenuity of our ancestors and ourselves.

People are beginning to ask what kind of work western classical music has done, and does now, to perpetuate a view of western culture as superior, deserving special protection and universal dissemination. And it’s not hard to see how comfortably all kinds of protectionism for western political and social values align with a view of WCM as unchanging, needing and deserving to be preserved and practised perfectly, in conformity with the values and practices of the past, for ever. That was especially obvious in the recent Beethoven year. Perhaps we can be thankful to Covid for cutting short the Beethoven festivities, but even by March 2020 I think we heard more than enough about Beethoven’s exceptionalism. Beethoven, we’re supposed to agree, is for all time, his music unchanging, ever relevant, to be performed faithfully, for ever. Struggle, triumph, innovation, determination, self-promotion, entrepreneurialism, these are the values that unite Beethoven and western capitalism.

In the UK it’s been revealing to see right-wing politicians attacking Covid legislation on the grounds of freedom, the freedom to put business before health, the freedom not to protect people from the virus. The rest of us need to think about this, about freedom as a value, because clearly we do need freedoms, particularly the freedom not to be tied to the past, while at the same time refusing the freedom to ruin the present and the future. We need the freedom to change where change improves many people’s lives; and that’s going to apply to music too. The kind of freedom that the right demands is the freedom not to care about others. And that combines naturally—and I use that word carefully—it combines naturally with a determination to preserve past practices unchanged. For both are naturally selected behaviours. In the subsistence societies in which humans evolved, to follow past practices that worked, and to be suspicious of people from outside one’s group, are valuable survival tactics, although in a modern society we no longer need either. And I think this perhaps helps to explain the visceral fury with which the right protects itself: its hatred of the other and its conservatism are felt at a deeper level, because they’re naturally selected for, than the humane, rational values of the left. But we can afford humane, rational values now, because for most devotees of western classical music it’s no longer a struggle to survive. And therefore afford them we must. There is no room to use this argument to excuse exclusion and prejudice. Nonetheless we see this same visceral passion in arguments within classical music culture. The defenders of the classical status quo are just as furious, when confronted by music that’s different, as are their political equivalents. We’ll see some examples in a moment when we look at performance critics.

Perhaps you’re concerned at how easily I’m bringing classical music into discussion of right-wing thought and behaviour. Don’t we all find classical music the most beautiful and life-enhancing expression of our best feelings and values, made uniquely powerful by the very imprecision with which it maps onto everyday life, allowing music to speak to each of us differently but deeply precisely because we can’t say exactly what it represents other than shaped feeling? Has not the west been astonishingly successful at developing this expressive power in subtlety and at length?

Well; maybe. But it’s no distance from thinking of western classical music as uniquely powerful to thinking of it as something that needs to be universally practised, to making it part of the imperial project to spread western culture throughout the world. And indeed that’s just what happened, and still happens. The UK’s Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music still sells its examination system throughout Her Britannic Majesty’s commonwealth of nations in order to ensure consistency of classical performance across the globe. Competitors from north, south, east and west are still required to perform standard readings of standard repertoire if they want to succeed in competitions and in auditions. Even the idea that a pianist from Shanghai might legitimately have a very different take on the Moonlight sonata than a pianist from Stockholm is still inconceivable. If that’s not imperial thinking I don’t know what is.

The extent of fascistic thinking in western classical music culture becomes clear as soon as one looks closely at its teaching and policing. I’ve written about this in Challenging Performance, especially chapters 7 and 9. Teaching indoctrinates reproduction, faithfulness and obedience to an imaginary past, while critical and managerial policing discourages innovation in professional practice. I think it’s reasonable to say that, together with classical ballet, western classical performance is one of the world’s most strictly and viciously policed activities outside prison. You believe and you obey or you are excluded from the profession.

I want to look at this and its political associations more closely by focusing on a review in a recent issue of Gramophone magazine. I’ve written about the language of Gramophone reviews in an article in the Nicholas Cook Festschrift, and also in chapter 9.2 of my book. Today’s example I’ve mentioned briefly Chapter 9.2 and in a podcast but I haven’t discussed it in detail until now.

“If DG thought it had the eccentricity market locked up with Ivo Pogorelich, it hadn’t reckoned with the interpretative graffiti that Ugorski would unleash in Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The first time I heard it, I felt dirty all over.”
Gramophone, Awards issue 2018, 128

Although I have to provide a bibliographical reference as a guarantee of probity, and you can easily find out who he is, I’m not naming the author of this review. Let’s call him X. And I would encourage you not to try to identify him: this isn’t about X the individual, or about the magazine. It’s about the culture of criticism within which this kind of writing seems appropriate, amusing and entirely normative.

If you Google “I felt dirty all over” you’ll find almost all the instances are from the victims of sexual assault and rape. I don’t know where the critic picked up his image, but it’s hard to believe that he was unaware of these associations. Why did he think it was appropriate?

I should admit that I have been guilty of something similar. In a 2002 book on the modern performance of medieval music (p. 135) I said of a particular approach favoured in the 1970s and 80s, and loathed by a group of critics including myself, that ‘We felt medieval music was being raped, and we wanted justice for it’. There I seem to have seen “the music” as a person, assaulted by performers, as if there was a treatment that “the music” deserved and should be able to expect, and that these performers were violating norms of behaviour by violating “the music”. X’s sense is that he is being raped. The music is him.

What does all this tell us about our responses to non-normative musical performance? Why might Beethoven, or in my case medieval song, played differently, lead us to an image of sexual violence? For medieval song of course we know next to nothing about how it might ideally be, and so the image is ridiculous and the example thoroughly ill-chosen. In X’s case, with Beethoven, it’s easier to follow; and what we see there may well have applied in my case too. When he listens to Beethoven, to a performance that’s familiar to him, that he feels sounds Beethoven, he allows that music to enter him and occupy his body and mind, he becomes those sounds; the music he hears, which he imagines coming from Beethoven’s soul, is him, X, his body, his sexuality; the Beethoven he hears is his partner in a consensual, loving relationship; sounded by pianists he likes, it is his lover; he listens, he feels, and cannot and would not wish to prevent it. We feel great music, wonderfully played, so deeply and fully that the most powerful metaphor we can think of seems appropriate, even though of course it is not. And so a performance that makes this music into a stranger, somebody we don’t love but who nevertheless occupies us, forcing us to listen on their terms, is very likely to be experienced as deeply unwelcome. Sexual violence, of course, is on another level entirely, and should not have been invoked, even in this very intimate context where felt experience is at stake.

That said, I don’t argue that we shouldn’t feel music deeply, or that this intensity of identification between listener and music is wrong. On the contrary, to be wholly occupied by music can be wonderful when it happens. There are good reasons, from research in music psychology, to think that we do experience music as another person and experience listening to it as forming a relationship with them, understanding them, even being them; indeed it’s one of the most powerful and important things that music does. I’ll return to this at the end. But I do think that when it comes to the experience of art, including performance art, there is a third partner whose view deserves respect and an attempt at sympathy. It’s not a dialogue, composer and listener. What we experience depends on the performer; and it’s the performer with whom we have the real relationship. The composer’s presence is only imagined. And it is exactly here that classical music ideology has gone so violently wrong. It’s the erasure of the performer, the pretence that they must disappear and be a transparent medium, that is so damaging, damaging to the performer first of all, and to everyone who tries to understand music; for this erasure of the performer grossly misrepresents the nature of what’s happening. And as a result we find critics like X and Leech-Wilkinson claiming that a performer who finds other music in one of these scores is violating the composer and us, violating them by being there at all, breaking into our mental home and assaulting us with their music.

It’s this claim, it seems to me, that is so wrong. For if we want to understand what classical music is and does the first thing we have to accept is that the performer decides what is the music, its nature and its identity. Our role is to listen, to try to understand, to learn something if we can, to learn what it is that the performer finds in this score, to enrich ourselves by experiencing that with them. This first and foremost must involve accepting the other’s difference from ourselves. To force a partner to behave as one would wish is, if not rape at least coercive control. We should not be trying to do that to performers by telling them how they may and may not sound a score. And we need to think, now, about why coercive control sits so easily within western classical culture. We’ve already seen exactly that in the way it’s taught and examined and managed.

To continue with X on Ugorski:

“His monkey tricks render Var 18 unrecognisable, such as in the long accelerando in the ‘A’ section’s second half that has nothing to do whatsoever with Beethoven.“
Gramophone, Awards issue 2018, 128

Remember what we are actually talking about here: someone who plays Beethoven faster or slower or with more rubato than X likes. Let’s listen to a bit of Ugorski’s variation 18.  [Or use]

Why the scorn, the sense of being made a fool of, of being insulted? Why does it matter so much that there should be no significant difference between this performance and anyone else’s? On the one hand, as I’ve just suggested, it is a fear of difference, of being taken over by this Diabelli variation rather than the one we were expecting to feel in our musical embrace. But that attitude is also the product of a musical culture so rigidly policed, so treated as an issue of moral behaviour, that to transgress, to misbehave, even slightly, is to cause the deepest outrage. And that’s where the problem lies. Not in experiencing music as a lover but in training everyone within its cultural orbit to believe that only one kind of lover is acceptable, the one the musical state chooses. Music becomes in that case barely more than a sex doll, a standard model supplied by the state, which you will enjoy; for your preferring a different kind of loving would mark you out as failing to qualify for membership of this culture. (You’ll note that my analogy applies mainly to men here, and indeed most critics being male is part of the problem.)

When a little tempo variation can cause such outrage you can easily see how mad this moralising control over performance has become, forcing the performer to be so normal that we don’t notice they are there, as if, in music, the performer could ever not be there. This is delusional. So why do we allow this kind of control? Whom does it serve? Why shouldn’t this piece, which has been recorded over and over, be played differently? Why shouldn’t a pianist have something individual and different to say about it? And why shouldn’t they perform that on a Deutsche Grammophon disc? How have we got ourselves into a situation where tempo variation is rape? And how do we get ourselves out of it?

A final quote from this review, now commenting on Ugorski’s Für Elise:

“his mincing, droopy and impossibly vulgar reading of Für Elise makes Liberace look like Artur Schnabel by comparison.”
Gramophone, Awards issue 2018, 128

As you may know, Liberace was an American pianist and showman famous for his glittery clothes and piano. His sexuality was argued over in the popular press and then famously in court. So when X says that Ugorski makes Liberace look like Artur Schnabel, everyone’s model of German musical rectitude, we understand that he’s labelling Ugorski as camp, more camp than the most camp pianist you can imagine.

And here’s what is meant by ‘mincing’.

affectedly dainty, elegant, or mannered. In later (usually derogatory) use often associated with an effeminate or effete manner or behaviour in a man, esp. a homosexual man.
Oxford English Dictionary, ‘mincing, adj.’

Mincing and droopy can both be dog-whistle terms for gay.

Analysing Gramophone’s metaphorical writing more widely I’ve found effeminacy used regularly as an accusation, just as often in the last few years as in earlier times. So this review fits comfortably into a culture in which homophobic analogy seems to be acceptable. Which is presumably why neither the writer nor the editors at Gramophone thought these images inappropriate.

Let’s listen to a bit of this Für Elise. And to be as fair as possible to the reviewer I’ll play the passage with the most rubato. (The end of B section, return of A.) [Or use]

I think that gives you a useful sense of how beautifully a performer can play and still be accused of what the culture views as perversion.

We can see in this review, and any number of others, how performance norms are associated with ultra-conservative notions of ‘normal’ personal behaviour, and how the notion of ‘normal’ becomes, in this culture, a marker of prejudice against the other. Prejudice, in this respect, is endemic to western classical music today. It is part of its ideological fabric.

We can confirm this by looking at the ways in which thinking about classical performance can also be racist. I’m not thinking here just of the absence of black and brown musicians, the lack of serious effort to make training available and welcoming to them, and lack of interest in diversity of any sort. That’s consistent with what we’ve already seen. Diversity is a threat to the identity that this music is thought to possess. And so it’s no surprise to find race invoked in performance criticism as a cause of unwelcome interpretation. There’s a section on this in my online book, which there isn’t time to include here. But what it shows is how East Asian pianists are liable to have their race highlighted in criticism in ways that western performers are not, in phrases like those quoted in the book. (Incidentally, none of those is by X.) The only way to succeed, as a non-white performer, is to be musically whiter than white, perfectly and persuasively normative, to make the norm ever more moving and thereby to confirm that the culture’s values are the ideal ones.

By requiring performers to stick to normal performances, western classical music makes dislike of the other structural. So my case, unfortunately, is that western classical canonical performance culture (not the performance itself, but the culture within which that is taught, promoted, and enforced) is inherently discriminatory; and by being so it damages everyone who works within it by forcing them to behave in accordance with its prejudiced view of norms. Considering how much we love this music, how deeply it moves us, this is a pretty tragic situation. But it’s one from which escape, artistically persuasive escape, is perfectly possible. And how we escape it, and the musical, social, cultural and commercial benefits that could follow, is exactly what my book is about.

The final point I want to make here, though, is a different one, because I’d like to put this in the context of the current drift towards populism and also the situation created by Covid.

Currently the right is in the political ascendant. That means government by the ruthless for the ruthless. And you can see how easily that value-system is compatible with classical music culture. It’s hardly coincidence that most of its funding and its audiences come from conservative sections of society. The right’s unsympathetic performance in business and in government is always wrapped up in a veneer of authority that people find reassuring. And the same is true of classical music. It may be tough on performers, but if you do what you’re told you’ll have a chance to succeed. To change is to be wrong, perverted, disrespectful, unfaithful to the greatness of the past. These attitudes are taken for granted in western classical music, assumed to be natural, necessary: as if there could be no good music without obedience to tradition. Classical music performs the right in culture, and in the most beautiful and engaging ways, beautifying obeying orders that benefit mainly those who already have power. For an artistic practice, could anything be more dangerous?

I’d worry that classical music was going to be used within the emerging police state, simply because it offers such a clear model for fascism in beautiful artistic disguise. (Think how much Boris Johnson would like this culture if only he understood it.) But actually, nobody cares. The very fact that there is so little financial support at the moment (in my country, for freelance musicians, no support at all) shows, thank heaven, that governments don’t see the political work it does.

Hence this notorious ad that appeared a little while ago from the UK government:

Note how carefully designed that ad is. The Fat in Fatima, her physique, her race, all telling her she hasn’t a hope of succeeding in ballet. It’s truly loathsome. But better for a right-wing government to think classical ballet is useless than to realise that it offers the very model of the society they desire.

For some musicians, especially young professionals who are best-placed to develop and perform new approaches to these scores, but who have had no work for the last year, it may already be too late. But for those who can hang on in there Covid does give us a chance to ask what would make persevering, not retraining for IT, worth it. It would be worth it if afterwards we could make a much more welcoming, tolerant and creative musical culture; one in which the point of a performance was to allow the listener to experience an other, to empathise with them, to be understanding of them; in fact, a culture in which the point of making music was to exercise and to spread tolerance and mutual understanding. To make this switch from obedience to exploring difference may be our last chance to find an audience and funding for an artform that the public and donors are now finding, during this long year of Covid, that they can manage quite well without.

At any rate, we could try genuine freedom of musical expression as a last, best hope for the survival of these scores in performance. And also because it’s the right thing, the humane thing, to do.

Challenging Performance: Classical Music Performance Norms and How to Escape Them

by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson
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