6 Further WCM delusions

6.17 Works


From seeing composers as gods, and scores as their sacred texts instructing humanity in how to make ideal music, it follows very easily that their texts are the written representation of their immortal Works (capital W). And thus we arrive finally at the one master delusion, the delusion to rule them all, that musical Works exist.

The appeal of a notion of Works is powerful partly because so many performances of so many scores are powerful. And so if I am overwhelmed, as usual, by a performance of Mahler 9, or Tristan, or (please…, insert your ideal example) how can I not feel that an artwork has been created, and—because the experience is overwhelming every time—that it’s been created by the composer, sounded by fine musicians on His behalf? Art has been made, there’s no question about that. But it’s been made as a process in time by performers using a score rich in potential to afford great experiences. The composer, the performers, the performance style, the listeners and their previous exposure to these kinds of events, the environment, the context, and so on, are all contributing. The first four are all contributing to a very large extent. And it really is only the particular view developed by nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophical and legal thought and practice that’s led to a situation in which the first (the composer) is seen as the only one that really matters. It’s a product of romanticism and capitalism acting together, the genius and the employer, realising that they will both be better off if they can use the culture’s worship of genius to concentrate in their own hands whatever rewards the culture can be persuaded to offer, distributing as little as possible to the partners in the process.[1] The Work works very well for capitalism, concentrating into one concept everything that the culture worships about the product and that in turn ensures its stability and confers on them—the composer and the employer (the publisher, the record company)—the rights to it. Those who argue for an ontology of Works are simply doing their bidding.

Can we come up with an analogy to test the ways in which music exists or happens? The element of play suggests football. Both happen over time. Performers of both are interacting, the fans are appreciating their expertise and the aesthetics of the game. Football is more like jazz than classical in that moves practised in rehearsal are selected to suit the context of improvised play. Individuals can shine but mainly it’s a team effort. Football—let’s do this thought experiment—could be composed like a piece and notated, learned, rehearsed, and performed. The performances could be more or less persuasive and engaging, and thrilling etc. Styles of play could change over time, though possibly less varied in football than in music because there may be more ways of getting one note to follow another than physics allows for getting a ball from one place to another (although the two may be related),[2] due to different kinds of motion, real and quasi-real.

One could push the analogy too far, but it goes a long way, and more than far enough to allow us to ask of both in the same way, ‘is there a work?’. People who want to earn money from the labour of composing, or from the labour of those who compose, will say ‘yes’, because then they have something to go on charging for. But that doesn’t mean there is. Set aside the need, forced on us by capitalism, to have something to sell. Then the answer will depend on one’s ‘need’ for reassurance. Clearly there’s nothing there, just plans and memories of performances of a particular game. For some, the idea that the plan is a work will have useful psychological effects. Others can manage very well without that. As with payment, it’s a question of need, in this case personal rather than institutional. But one can well imagine an institution, such as FIFA with its endless corruption scandals, doing very nicely out of rights based on the insistence that there is a work in each case. It’s about money, not about play. In both cases what actually exists are instructions and performances. And it’s the performances that people go to see. That’s the football, and that’s the music. They’re made as they happen, and that happening and the experience of it is overwhelmingly the most important aspect of them.

A conventional move would be to argue that what remains common to every playing of the notation constitutes the Work, perhaps together with some aspects of its aesthetic effect, maybe even of its meaning, whatever one means by that, or that its workness embraces all possible playings. But what happens when a team of players choose to move the ball by a different route to the next goal, say passing to player Q rather than player P who then passes to N rather than M? Or perhaps even the final score might change? The standard WCM-ideological response would be to claim that the game played was no longer the Work, and that the changes in play must therefore be disallowed. But what’s actually happened is that a perfectly satisfactory game of soccer has been played, with an entirely legitimate and, no doubt, exciting outcome, perhaps more exciting for being unexpected. The only casualty on the field is the notion of the work, which turns out to be quite irrelevant to the matter of what makes good football. It’s nothing but a regulation to prevent difference, maintained by those whom difference unnerves.

It may be helpful to visualize what really happens when scores and performances are made. In an earlier study (Leech-Wilkinson 2012) I represented this as a multi-stage process, split apart by the gap that separates composer from all those (and the context) involved in performing their scores.

Here the composer imagines a sounding performance, a little at a time, usually contributing to a larger plan. He—I use ‘he’ lest we forget the overwhelming preference the ideology has given to male composers until very recently—he imagines it in the performance style he knows. And he notates whatever current notational practice allows him to notate of whatever he thinks performers contemporary with him will be able to use to make something close to what he imagined. It’s nothing like an adequate representation of what he heard in his mind, but it’s a practical substitute given all the constraints. Then comes the gap. The gap separates the composer completing the score from the performer picking it up and doing what seems to them to be their best to turn whatever they think it implies (via their own period performance style) into sounds with which they are familiar. When composer and performer are contemporaries, most of all when they can work together, what was imagined and what is experienced by the listener may be similar. But the longer that gap the more different they must be. Now where is the Work? What we typically mean by a Work (a score, the sequence of sounds habitually made from it, their usual character and effect, their meaning if you think that those effects constitute meanings, perhaps (some have argued) all the effects and meanings that have ever been and might ever be made from that score, the conception, the ideals it represents, and so on) is at best an artefact, an imaginary by-product of the process we’ve just mapped. It’s something we feel ought to exist, even though it really doesn’t. Partly we want it, as I’ve said, because of the power of performances of the score. But in fact, the transmission of ideas along that line mapped above is so tenuous, with so many interruptions—not just the gap itself but all the reinterpretations that happen after it—that it’s quite unrealistic to suppose that anything as complex and rich as the Work we like to imagine has passed along it. That’s not what’s happened. Rather, the idea that there is a work, and of what it’s like, is gradually constructed in the minds of people near the end of the line, and it constantly changes between them all and over time. Where it is, or what it’s like, even at a specific moment and place, is impossible pin down.

But that is not to downplay the very concrete notion of a Work that is used for buying and selling musical activity as a product, that’s to say for the commodification of music-making. Max Padison has shown how, following Marx, it’s possible to see object-ifying music as a form of commodity fetishism, mistaking labour for its product (Padison 1993, 124). And that is essentially what we see here. The labour of musicians making music, starting from a composer’s score, becomes fetishized as a commodity, a Work, which is ascribed not to them but to the composer and is then sold by others (those who claim to own rights to the composer’s work and/or the performance made by the musicians) for their own benefit, while the musicians are minimally rewarded. This sense of Work is as clear as legal language can allow, for this sense makes money.

Yet how can the Work possibly bear the weight of the cultural, legal and financial systems that rest upon it? There’s not a lot we can do about the legal and financial burden. It will take much longer to get that onto a sensible basis. But we can certainly do something about the cultural view we take of works. Given how little is there, and that for performers and listeners the constraints imposed by a belief in Works are so disadvantageous, limiting options, enforcing conformity, preventing insight through the exploration of difference, we can and sensibly should accept that in effect there are no works in the grand sense. Previously I suggested speaking of ‘pieces’ rather than works, retaining ‘composition’ for the composer’s side of the gap. It still seems to me that this is an appropriately modest word in English for the very fragmentary and variable nature of whatever there might be in common between performances of the same score over time. A piece is a bit of something, but of what (in the case of a piece of music) we can never really know. Nor do we need to, given that what we can produce as performers from a piece, that’s to say from a score, a performance style, skill and imagination, is already, and so often, so overwhelmingly wonderful.

So we should remove the notion of a Work. (I suggest we stop using the word entirely. I banned it from classes many years ago, and successive generations of music students seem to have managed very well without it.) We can recognise composition as an activity involving making plans and imagining performances and notating instructions. And we can use the notion of a ‘piece’ for the reduced sense that performances will be of a set of moves reduced to notation provided by a composer but not contained in or restricted to it. Notation is not lossless compression: it’s very lossy indeed. And performance is not distortion: performance makes music.


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[1] On capitalism and the ideology of creativity see Toynbee, Jason. 2018. The Labour that Dare Not Speak its Name: Musical Creativity, Labour Process and the Materials of Music. In Clarke, Eric F., and Mark Doffman. 2018. Distributed Creativity: Collaboration and Improvisation in Contemnporary Music (New York: Oxford University Press), 37–51.

[2] Todd, Neil P.M. 1995. The Kinematics of Musical Expression. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 97, 1940–9. Todd, Neil P.M. and Christopher S. Lee. 2015. The Sensory-Motor Theory of Rhythm and Beat Induction 20 Years On: A New Synthesis and Future Perspectives. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 26 August 2015.

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