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Living the Work: Meditations on a Lark

From: The Journal of Aesthetic Education
Volume 45, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 89-106 | 10.1353/jae.2011.0001

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:


Imagine that a performer is confronted with the following decision. After working on a piece for several weeks—practicing, analyzing, listening to various recordings, perhaps reading a bit about it—a performer comes to a crossroads. It seems to him that changing a few crucial interrelated passages can generate two very different performative interpretations. One makes the piece sound animated, lively, and interesting; the other makes the piece sound repetitive, flat, and perhaps even boring. While the performer can understand why one would think that the piece ought to be performed in the manner that makes it sound lively and thinks that the score supports such an interpretation, the more he works on the piece, the more he believes that the score also supports the interpretation that makes the piece sound flat and boring. Call the first performative interpretation lively and the second flat. The lively performative interpretation is closer to what he hears on most recordings, and it is how he understood the piece before he studied it. While no recording perfectly matches his lively interpretation—so his performative interpretation would be original—all of the performances share its lively spirit. That is, none of them presents the piece as flat.

He thinks this is not surprising since, even now as he performs the piece, he thinks it seems better when performed as if it is lively. He thinks the piece comes off worse when he performs it flat. He knows that people won’t like the flat performance, brilliant though it may be technically, and even if it is seen by some as musically insightful. But the more he plays it, the more he thinks that performing it flat is at least equally legitimized by the score and the various elements of the work’s generative context he takes, uncontroversially, to be relevant to the work’s identity. The root of what holds him back from giving the flat interpretation in public is a nagging suspicion that it is his obligation, insofar as he agrees to perform a work, to make the work sound as good as it can sound. That is, it seems that he is under a “blanket obligation to place the work in the best light possible.”1 He even thinks that he might, in the act of performance, reveal his “faith in the work’s value” and call on the audience to share that value.2 I suspect that these sentiments affirming the life in music will be familiar to those who have had lessons of any kind, or listened to performers talk about what they do. If the flat interpretation calls that value into question while the lively one does not, then it would make little sense to choose flat interpretation over lively interpretation. I would like to argue that what follows from this line of reasoning is a denial of the modern performer’s critical judgment. On this view, performers are encouraged, perhaps required, in performance to allow no difference between themselves and the work they perform. Their voice is to be one with the work’s.

In what follows, I suggest that this is an inadequate conception of a performer’s obligations. I argue that the form of identification between performer and work commonly propounded by music teachers, philosophers, musicologists, and performers alike is illuminated by what I take to be an exemplary metaphor deployed by Daniel Barenboim and Roger Scruton: the life in music. The problems with requiring a performer to identify with and affirm a work are made vivid by careful consideration of the requirements of “living the work,” in Barenboim’s words, or understanding the “life in tones,” in Scruton’s. I argue that this call for identification and affirmation ultimately denies the performer any critical capacity in his encounter with the work and amounts to either a denial of the facts of modernity or a desire to step behind them.

Meditations on a Lark

I would like to start with an actual example. In the summer of 2004, David Hays, a violinist friend of mine, sent me a few CDs of his recent performances to listen and respond to. One CD contained a live recording of...

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