Challenging Performance: The Book. 6.16 Composers are gods

6 Further WCM delusions

6.16 Composers are gods

Some good news here for composers, or it would be but for the awkward detail that you have to be dead; but give it time, and you too may become an authority beyond question. Perhaps I exaggerate a little. But we’ve seen plenty of respects already in which the great composers are beyond criticism. If we have a problem with their scores, we know it’s we who need to adjust our thinking to make sense of theirs. One gets a hint of this from a tweet, again by the cellist, commentator and teacher Steven Isserlis:

Musicians pondering hard-to-explain markings in a piece of music should perhaps bear in mind Sherlock Holmes’ maxim: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” It does work…[1]

And so interpreting the score is comparable to interpreting a sacred religious text: one is searching for the true meaning of the true word. As Lisa McCormick puts it,

… the pantheon of musical genius is now thought to be populated only by master composers. (McCormick 2015, 125)

The pantheistic metaphor is apt, in that musical heaven is obviously populated by many composer gods, even if we all have our own idea of who is Zeus.

We’ll look at the pervasiveness of religious thinking in WCM ideology in Chapter 30, in part 4. In brief, the composer is as a god, the critic is a prophet (judging how the word of god is to be applied), the performer a priest, and listeners the humble and obedient congregation. I’ll argue there that, as in Christianity (which inevitably is the main source for WCM thought about composers), we affirm our love of our musical gods by performing their wishes, obeying their instructions, revering their works, in return for which they love us and look after us, rewarding us (as I said in introducing this chapter) ‘when, and only when we achieve these aims most faithfully, with intense experiences of deep quasi-spiritual feeling.’

A similar analogy is offered by notion of the composer-hero (Scott Burnham’s classic analysis of Beethoven reception a key critical text here),[2] evoked in Georgina Born’s much-quoted comment that:

the composer-hero stands over the interpreter, conductor or instrumentalist, interpreter over listener, just as the work ideal authorises and supervises the score, which supervises performance, which supervises reception.[3]

Another model might be that of architect, builder and client, where the composer is architect, the performer the builder who carries out the plans, no more and no less, and the listener is the client.

I find all these inappropriate. The composer is not a god, but (as I argue in the next section) a musician on a par with the performer; both are creative, though only the performer is essential. So one needs a model in which they can cooperate at best. Hence the architect/builder/client model fails. The performer is very much more creative than the builder;[4] though if we arranged our building habits differently the builder could (and to be fair sometimes does) play a much more creative part, again without an architect. Normally when this happens (the volume builders) the results are highly economical and aesthetically dire. But they needn’t be. We could train them differently. There is much to learn, I suggest, from taking literally Cook’s script model for the musical text,[5] taking it back from Performance Studies into the theatre rehearsal studio, bearing in mind how much more original and how much more varied are productions of play texts than musical scores. Here the composer/author hardly figures in decisions about how to play, what to mean. We’ll look at this in Chapter 18.2.

Taking a different route, Emily Payne (2016, 2018), drawing on Ingold and Hallam (2007),[6] has argued (with support from Cook, who closes his 2018 book on Music as Creative Practice with her case) that performers are better understood as craftspeople: ‘I characterise musical performance within a framework of craft, summarised by Richard Sennett as ‘the skill of making things well’.’ (Payne 2018, 108) This view is inflected by attending to the element of improvisation in real time interaction among performers and between performers, texts, instruments, technique, and performance norms, or in Payne’s words, ‘the constant attention and response entailed by engaging with the surrounding environment.’ (ibid.) Much about the interest shown here in performers’ creative exploration of their materials, working with new scores, is welcome. Naturally, there is much more of this creativity to be seen in an analysis of musicians interacting in the preparation of new scores, for they throw up interesting new problems to solve in ways that, in the preparation of canonical scores for performance, are generally confined to matters of coordinating detail. But to take these examples and to speak in terms of improvising solutions only serves to disguise the narrowness of the space within which that happens and the faithfulness of the improvisation to institutional norms. ‘Musicians’ capacities are developed through improvisation, not in an extraordinarily innovative or revelatory sense, but through the exercise of proactive yet practical engagement with the world around them’ (Payne 2018, 118) where the musical world around them is defined and bounded by norms. The danger with this model is that to celebrate the performer as craftsperson may be taken, by less subtle thinkers than Payne, as another reason to constrain them within a world in which innovation is more technical than artistic, and in which finding solutions that enable the better performance of norms and the composer’s intentions is admired as the height of professional achievement. In this respect it is as dangerous as other beliefs examined here, if not more so in the high status it gives to skilled normativity at the same time as placing process above outcome and keeping performers in their place as craftspeople, not artists, manufacturing beautifully turned objects conforming to a model bequeathed by tradition, selected by the employer. It is a move that inadvertently could, in the wrong hands, elevate the oppression of performers by deepening admiration for their achievement as intensely skilled tradespeople—a metaphor we shall see wielded when we read the critics in chapter 9.

By following this link you can read Emily Payne’s very interesting response to what I wrote above. It’s especially helpful in emphasising that her argument should not be taken in the way I feared it might be. While naturally one wouldn’t wish to restrict interpretation to the author’s intentions… if anyone tries this on, please send them here!

In sum, by treating composers as if they were gods we treat ourselves as devoted worshippers whose purpose is to maintain the sanctity of tradition and reconfirm its values. I think classical music can do more than that, but only if we refuse to continue to accept these roles.

Continue to 6.17 ‘Works’

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[1] @StevenIsserlis tweeted at 5:58 pm on Fri, Sep 21, 2018. If I seem to be using Steven Isserlis as a source for several of these beliefs it’s only because he so often and sincerely repeats them. It’s the underlying belief-system I’m questioning here, not the integrity or conviction of any practising musician, listener or follower.

[2] Burnham, Scott. 1995. Beethoven Hero. (Princeton University Press.)

[3] Born, Georgina. 2005. On Musical Mediation. C20th Music 2(1), 26.

[4] Liszt [1926], 265–6: ‘The virtuoso is not a mason; who, taking blocks of stone and with a square, level and trowel in hand, (a conscientious and exact proceeding), constructs the poem which the architect has already designed upon the paper. He is not a passive instrument, reproducing the thoughts and feelings of others whilst adding nothing of his own. He is not a reader, more or less expert, delivering a text; without marginal notes or glossary, and requiring no interlinear commentary.’

[5] Cook, Nicholas. 2001. Between Process and Product: Music and/as Performance. Music Theory Online 7 (2).

[6] Payne, Emily. 2016. Creativity Beyond Innovation: Musical Performance and Craft. Musicae Scientiae 20(3), 325–344. Payne, Emily. 2018. The Craft of Musical Performance: Skilled Practice in Collaboration. cultural geographies 25(1), 107–22. Ingold, Tim and Elizabeth Hallam. 2007. Creativity and Cultural Improvisation: an Introduction. In E. Hallam and T. Ingold eds., Creativity and Cultural Improvisation (Oxford: Berg), 1–24. Cook, Nicholas. 2018. Music as Creative Practice (New York: Oxford University Press).

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