Challenging Performance: The Book. 6.1 Naturalised beliefs

6 Further WCM delusions

6.1 Introduction: naturalised beliefs

WCM is a powerful culture. Some of that power comes from the social and financial resources of those who run its institutions, who overlap to a considerable extent with the wealthiest (culturally and financially) of those who consume it. But much of it is a product of the uniformity and extent of the belief system that provides WCM’s ideology. (On ideology and naturalised belief see also Chapter 10.) At the heart of that ideology is the figure of the great composer, the direct equivalent of a deity in a pantheistic religion. Composers, like gods, have superhuman powers and so appear as the ultimate authorities in a complex system of beliefs. I say ‘appear as’ because, as we look more closely at these beliefs through this chapter, we shall see increasingly clearly that they rest not on divine but on institutional needs, and that composers’ deification benefits only the system itself. As in religion, we worship the composers, we obey their laws, we strive to enact their wishes; and in return they reward us (when, and only when we achieve these aims most faithfully) with intense experiences of deep quasi-spiritual feeling. We’ll look at this analogy in more detail, from the perspectives of the psychology of caring and religion, towards the end of the book. What we need to do now is to examine some of these beliefs more closely, looking at what they achieve and asking how necessary they are.

As in most religions, WCM is hedged about by rules of behaviour, generally expressed in the directives Must, Should and Ought (Not), which seek to control what performers do with composers’ scores. These exist only because in typical WCM today there have to be specialist performers mediating between the (usually dead) composer and the consumer. Historically, it’s the composers and listeners who came last to the party. Music in some cultures still works very well as a performance practice only, with everyone involved in any way involved as a performer. Composers in the West emerged first to provide materials with which everyone else could more regularly worship God, with listeners emerging only as the rich began to employ composers to celebrate themselves and the values of their culture. But whether aiming to please the most powerful in heaven or on earth, music is always a practice constrained by rules, rules that define what performers will do in order to avoid anarchy. During the 20th century we finally began to explore the artistic possibilities of musical anarchy, but without much impact on the everyday practice of classical music.

In what follows it’s not my purpose to suggest that WCM needs no rules. Perhaps we need not think of them as rules, but one can easily see from the richness and diversity of musical cultures across the globe that selecting certain ways of working musically together provides useful languages within which, or at least around which, imaginative musicians can generate the kinds of effects in us for which we value music so highly: bonding, sharing, synchronising, exciting, calming, in each case functioning more effectively together with others. Having some broadly agreed ways to do this is itself part of this process of enhancing social cohesion. In the West, though, we find ourselves in a more complex situation. On the one hand we want music to do all these things outstandingly well; on the other we believe in freedom of expression, and have cultivated music as an art in which composers are encouraged, even required to be constantly innovating, displaying their creativity as a sign of a healthy imaginative culture. At the same time, though, in order to elevate the composer so high, performers have been confined to the servants’ quarters, paid (not well) to cater to the composer’s every whim. As with any society in which a majority serves a minority, the willingness of the majority to put up with their low status and lack of opportunity depends crucially on their believing that there is something ideal about the arrangement. Composer-worship is the principal driver of performers’ willingness to subordinate their own creative freedom to enhance composers’. As always in these kinds of political systems, the beliefs that sustain hierarchies are delusory, and have to be enforced as well as inculcated; and there is also a tendency for them to proliferate simply in order to reassure the system that it is safe from challenge. WCM is one of the most hierarchical musical systems, and therefore produces more of these constraining beliefs than most, and many more than it needs in order to do the affective work for which we value it. Many of its underlying beliefs are thus unnecessary, prohibiting behaviours that no one would find problematic if they’d not been brought up to believe they should, and limiting the possible experiences that performances of scores could generate.

The depth of these beliefs within WCM culture, and thus within classical musicians, owes (ironically) much to the development of democracy, as a result of which beliefs that were once enforced from above become internalised in individuals and enforced from within. As Anna Bull has observed,

Within an emerging democratic class society, there was a shift in the ‘very concept of power’ from coercion to hegemony (which Eagleton aligns with Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, p. 107), so that ‘political power must implant itself in subjectivity itself’ (p. 115); within this changing society people’s consent to the new social order could then be ensured. … According to Eagleton, the new bourgeois subject internalises structures of power as structures of feeling (p. 78). But these structures of feeling are experienced by the subject as ‘something I just happen to feel’ (Eagleton 1988, 333). They are not experienced as a political power acting on oneself, but one feels as though they are coming from the depths of one’s own soul in responding to the beauty of the universal aesthetic: the point where ‘subjective and universal coalesce’. (Bull 2014, 33–4)[1]

Part of this process for WCM involved the definition of musical principles in 19th-century criticism. Lydia Goehr (1992) has shown how E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776–1802) was a key figure in sanctifying the musical Work; Richard Taruskin (2018) has pointed to the importance of Franz Brendel (1811–68) in valorising compositional technique.[2] And so on. These beliefs go back into the early Romantic period at least, and relate to much wider trends in white western thought. This isn’t the place to explore that history. Suffice it to say that they go deep in our (white) culture as well as in ourselves. But that is not to say that they are beyond challenge, or that there are no benefits in modifying them now. We can see from this context, though, how far they have been naturalised, have come to feel natural to us. As Kingsbury put it,

The essence of music as a cultural system is both that it is not an a priori phenomenon of the natural world and also that it is experienced as though it were, as though nothing could be more concrete, natural, or phenomenal.[3]

Resisting naturalised beliefs about music may seem unnatural at first. But that’s not to say that it will not bring benefits when we can take a wider view of what could be musical. But first we have to clear some space to allow it. So let’s begin this selection of unnecessary, often false beliefs with some satellites and gradually spiral inwards towards the master delusion whose gravity sucks everything else towards it: the musical Work.

Continue to 6.2 ‘You need to know about music to appreciate it’

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[1] Bull, Anna. 2014. The Musical Body: How Gender and Class Are Reproduced Among Young People Playing Classical Music in England (PhD thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London). Eagleton, Terry. 1988. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Poetics Today 9 (2): 327–38.

[2] Goehr, Lydia. 1992. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press). Taruskin, Richard. 2018. Liszt’s Problems, Bartók’s Problems, My Problems. Keynote paper at the 46th Baltic Musicological Conference, Vilnius, 23–26 October 2018 (unpublished).

[3] Kingsbury, Henry. 1998. Music, Talent, and Performance: a Conservatory Cultural System (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 181.

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