Challenging Performance: The Book. 6.14 The performer should be inaudible

6 Further WCM delusions

6.14 The performer should be inaudible

Caring about the composer’s intentions is admirable in its courtesy, its concern that his imagination continues to be heard long after his death.[1] We’ll look at this in Chapter 11. But there’s a much less admirable view that is strongly promoted alongside it and that we need to consider now; and this is, in Cook’s summary, that ‘the performer’s highest ambition should be self-effacement’ (Cook 2013, 15). A crude form of this is often heard in criticism of young musicians. As one of my participants in an online questionnaire recalls being told by a juror, ‘Great composers do not need your input to improve their music.’ We are there, in other words, for the great composers to speak through us: as far as possible our selves should disappear.

Lying behind this fantasy is the far-reaching extent to which norms are shared throughout WCM culture: performance style is so standardised that it creates a habitus within which no one hears the performance style as a style: it is simply taken for granted as the way music sounds. It becomes transparent. This is what Proust was celebrating when he imagined that ‘the playing of a great musician is so transparent, so replete with its content, that one does not notice it oneself, or only like a window that allows us to gaze upon a masterpiece’.[2] It’s a lovely idea, and a lovely feeling for the listener as much as for the performer, that they are all in direct communion with the composer, as the performer dissolves from the space between. But it’s a delusion. There is always performance style shaping the way that notes are sounded and follow one another so as to create something that feels meaningful and that seems to convey a message direct from another mind. The performer and her performance culture, with all that that does to shape musical experience, is always there, and not just there but is always the proximate source of the very meaning that one attributes to the composer.

The unfortunate consequence of this degree of style-deafness is that when a performer does something original listeners suddenly notice that they’re there and the illusion is broken. For this it’s the performer who is blamed, for being there at all; not the listener for failing to notice that the performance has been making the music all along. How deluded can we be? What’s particularly shocking is the character of the criticism that is often heaped on performers for being noticed. As we shall see later (Chapter 9), when we look in uncomfortable detail at the language of critics, the performer is accused of drawing attention to themselves, of narcissism, when what has actually happened is that the critic has failed to hear what’s really going on, which one might think was a music critic’s first duty.

And so, as we shall see, performers are expected to be inaudible (that’s how absurd it is), to disappear like a well-trained servant who knows their place, to provide everything their master needs and yet to do it as if they were not there at all. Or is it more like ventriloquism in which the ventriloquist makes the audience believe that the dummy is speaking? Although the pleasure comes from the pretence as much as the content, we do need to remember that it’s a performance we’re hearing, not a plausible illusion.

Continue to 6.15 ‘Composers are alive and listening’

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[1] I use he/his throughout, when discussing composers, and she/her when discussing performers, to remind us of the difficulties still faced by women in WCM because of the patriarchal notion of the godlike composer.

[2] Adorno 2006, 119, who called it ‘the real paradox of reproduction’. My thanks here to Mine Dogantan-Dack. See also Bruce Haynes’s section on the transparent performer in Haynes, Bruce. 2007. The End of Early Music: A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Oxford University Press), 93–6.

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