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

  • Musical Personae
  • Philip Auslander (bio)

Although traditional musicology has undergone a "performative turn" in recent years, musicologists still tend to privilege text over performance. The micro-sociology of Erving Goffman offers a framework for a comprehensive overview of how musicians use aspects of musical performance as the means of constructing and communicating their musical personae.

Traditional musicology, often characterized as worshipful of the musical work and disdainful of performance, has been undergoing a "performative turn" in recent years, a development well-documented by Nicholas Cook in "Between Process and Product: Music and/as Performance" (2001). As someone committed to finding ways of discussing musicians as performers, whose primary discipline is performance studies, I am cheered by this development and grateful to Cook both for his careful mapping of disputed territory and his advocacy for the "music as performance" approach.1 Nevertheless, there are aspects of his analysis I find troubling—I will use a discussion of those aspects as a platform from which to suggest an alternate approach.

Fundamental to Cook's formulation of the question of the relationship between musical works and musical performance is what he calls "the basic grammar of performance": the fact that the verb to perform demands a direct object. "You perform something," Cook emphasizes, "you give a performance 'of' something" (2001:par. 2; emphasis in original). For Cook, the direct object of musical performance, the thing performed, is a musical work; the relationship between work and performance, product and process, thus becomes the central point around which his discussion revolves. After entertaining critical objections to the reverence for textual authority engrained in musicology, Cook offers his own reasoned objections to some of them. He points out, for example, that countering musicology's traditional privileging of the musical work by privileging performance over text simply reverses the polarity of the argument without challenging its basic terms.

Ultimately, Cook arrives at a proposition: "to understand music as performance is to see it as an irreducibly social phenomenon [...]" (2001:par. 14). To this end, he suggests that we call pieces of music scripts rather than works or texts:

whereas to think of a Mozart quartet as a text is to construe it as a half-sonic, half-ideal object reproduced in performance, to think of it as a script is to see it as choreographing a series of real-time, social interactions between players: a series of mutual acts of listening and communal gestures that enact a particular vision of society.

(2001:par. 15)

Cook goes on to suggest that musical works are not delimited textual objects but open-ended fields of written and performed instantiations. He concludes that such a view ultimately makes it impossible to sustain a clear distinction between work and performance: "process and product, then, are [End Page 100] not so much alternative options as complementary strands of the twisted braid we call performance" (2001 par. 20).

Although I find much to admire in Cook's approach, I am not persuaded that his renaming of the work as a script really makes much difference. Cook's description of the musical script as choreographing a set of social interactions maintains the idea that the musical work provides the design that underlies and thus determines the performance.2 In describing a musical work as a set of parameters for a social interaction among musicians, rather than an ideal object to be reproduced through performance, Cook goes against the grain of the musicological tradition. But his positing of the musical work as that which is performed ultimately leads to a privileging of the work, now renamed as a script, which remains consonant with that tradition.

Another problem that arises when the question is framed in terms of work and performance, process and product, is that the important relationships are between abstractions rather than human beings. The concept of performance thus becomes curiously disembodied and participants are deprived of agency. In Cook's description of the Mozart quartet, for example, the script is the grammatical subject that choreographs the players' social behavior. As a result, both the composer's agency as the one who created the script, and the performers' agency as those who embody it...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 100-119
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.