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Performing Civility takes its place among a burgeoning collection of ethnographically grounded studies of Western classical music institutions. Other examples would include Henry Kingsbury's ethnography of an American music conservatoire, Music, Talent and Performance (Philadelphia, 1988), Georgina Born's assessment of Boulez's IRCAM in Rationalizing Culture (Berkeley, 1995), and Claudio E. Benzecry's investigation of opera fanatics at the Colón Opera House in Buenos Aires, The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession (Chicago, 2011). This is distinguished company, and Lisa McCormick's volume, which focuses on 'International Competitions in Classical Music', is a worthy addition. These ethnographic approaches to Western classical music and its practice seem to antagonize a small number of musicologists, who continue to argue for the primacy of the musical text and decry sociological or anthropological approaches that fail to put the musical sounds and structures at the centre of the methodology. McCormick's work would certainly irk them further, since it contains no textual analysis. But the rest of us can enjoy a compelling and insightful volume that illuminates a hitherto unexplored part of the classical music landscape.
The 'civility' of the title is not meant to suggest (of course) that such competitions provide opportunities for genteel exchanges between participants. Indeed, behaviours of performers, jurors, and audience members appear on occasion to be less than rarefied. Rather, McCormick draws on Jeffrey Alexander (The Civil Sphere (Oxford, 2006)) to define civility as 'the cultural codes, integrative patterns and institutional procedures that characterize a community based on universalistic solidarity' (p. 5). It is the rule-bound nature of music competitions, the regulations that pertain to them, and the various organizations that sustain them (notably the World Federation of International Music Competitions [WFIMC]) that McCormick sees as providing an analogy with civil institutions elsewhere and the aspiration to 'transparency, fairness and openness [that] are championed in the civil sphere' (p. 6). But music and civility are uncomfortable bedfellows. They are 'fundamentally incommensurable social spheres' (p. 6) which are 'ultimately irreconcilable' (p. 81). One may be forgiven for wondering why they are therefore juxtaposed. McCormick argues that it is the boundaries between them that she seeks to examine, to provide greater insights into the competitions that are her main focus (p. 6). For this reader, however, the relationship between music competitions and civility is perhaps less illuminating than some of the other issues considered along the way, such as gender politics, the projection of national and self identities, the construction of prestige economies, or the function of ritualizing practices. But no matter. The richness of the ethnography, and the insights and interpretations that are drawn from it, make the book an absorbing read.
In part this is because, although competitions are widespread, they provoke significant disenchantment. They are plagued by controversy and rumours of corruption. They require investment of time and resources by performers who know that they have only a slim chance of winning. And there is very little evidence that competition success translates into a glittering career in the world beyond. As McCormick puts it, 'to say that competitions are an unloved institution in the classical music world would be putting it mildly' (p. 166), and much of her analysis is concerned with trying to explain why this is so. After setting out in chapter 1 the historical background to modern competitions, we begin to get a flavour of the national identity politics that they sometimes engender. The Soviet domination of the inaugural 1937 Ysaÿe Competition led to dark mutterings of state complicity (a historical resonance that modern athletes would surely enjoy). Several cycles of the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition were similarly infused with tensions arising from the competition between Russian and Polish pianists, for understandable historical reasons. The politicizing of such competitions is of course evident elsewhere, particularly in relation to the Eurovision Song Contest, which consistently reinforces the point [End Page 322] that music competitions are never 'just' music competitions.