August 2014

About the dilemma that affects performers (as well as lawyers and priests)

August 14, 2014 16:10

In a previous blog ‘What to think of authenticity?’ I started with a metaphor: the stage as an infinite universe of possibilities. This realm is however haunted by a dilemma, which can be called in short ‘authenticity versus communication’. Our task as a performer is twofold: on the one hand we are expected to internalize the composer’s message and on the other hand we should communicate this message to an audience. However in the act of communication the message gets distorted, its authenticity is lost. We cannot preserve authenticity and communicate simultaneously.

The twofold task of the performer turns him/her into a mediator, not unlike the lawyer and the priest. In the courtroom the lawyer acts as a mediator between the legal text and the jury. In church the priest stands between the biblical text and the congregation. In fact, similarities between law and music have been studied in the context of hermeneutics (the science of text interpretation) and parallels between music and religion have become more pronounced since the beginning of the nineteenth century when the composer – Beethoven is often bombarded as the main culprit – achieved a godlike status, when compositions started to inhabit an eternal realm of their own, when musical texts became something like holy bibles… and the analogies continue.

The dilemma of authenticity versus communication has firm roots within (catholic) religion. For a start, the biblical episode ‘Moses and Aaron’ from the Book of Exodus can be seen as a representation of this dilemma. Moses can be seen as the mediator who stays close to the authenticity of God’s message while Aaron possesses the eloquence to communicate – and thus adapt – this message to the people. Neither of the two manage to perform both tasks of a mediator. (By the way, Schönberg wrote an opera with the same title – that is to say: ‘Moses und Aron’. Some say he left out one letter because he was superstitious of the number thirteen, others say he did it because the number twelve reflected the dodecaphonic technique underlying the composition.)

In the 1960s the dilemma became almost tangible. After the Second Vatican Council the congregation not only could hear the priest speak in the vernacular, the priest now also turned his back away from the congregation in order to face them. Reluctantly some distortion of the original divine message was allowed in favour of communication. Ironically enough perhaps, in the same decade the first pioneers of the historical performance movement chose to emphasize authenticity.

As is typical for dilemmas: you may discuss about them as much as you want, they are not going to disappear. It might be possible though to reformulate this dilemma and reduce the scope of it so that it does not affect every single performer – which in fact it doesn’t: Why otherwise would there still be performances and how could anyone possibly enjoy them?

Much can be solved by having a reasonable idea of what a mediator in fact does. My own definition of a mediator would be someone who simultaneously stands at the end of one communication process and at the beginning of another. In the first process the sender is the composer who communicates by means of a score to the performer. The performer then turns from being a receiver to being a sender who communicates with an audience.

The dilemma’s definition of a mediator is somewhat different. The in reality two separated communication processes are melted together into one communication process which came to represent a hierarchy of authorities. As Nicolas Cook writes in his ‘Music: A Very Short Introduction’ we often assume “that the key personnel in musical culture are the composers who generate what might be termed the core product; that performers are in essence no more than middlemen, apart from those exceptional interpreters who acquire a kind of honorary composer’s status; and that listeners are consumers, playing an essentially passive role in the cultural process that, in economic terms, they underpin.” (p. 17) (

When handling the latter definition of a mediator, the following two facts related to communication become problematic for authenticity: First, the fabric of the language by which means the performer communicates differs from the fabric of the composer’s message (and from the fabric through which that message is communicated to the performer). This type of distortion of the composer’s ‘original intentions’ has already been heavily discussed, so let’s immediately move on to the second problematic fact: Successful communication usually happens only when the sender understands the conditions of the receiver. This necessitates the performer to interpret the audience as well, and not only the composition. It is this interpretation of the audience which cannot coexist with the composer’s message without distorting this message.

But what if a mediator were to be defined as someone who participates in two communication processes and not one? Then it is not the composer’s message which gets distorted, but the performer’s interpretation of what that message might be. The conflict then lies very much within the performer’s own consciousness: he/she initially had a feeling of how he/she understood the music and this initial understanding undergoes a change because of the necessity to have to communicate it.

So it would appear if you are very keen on preserving your own understanding of the music and you want to communicate this to an audience, you run into trouble: your interpretation of the audience will come into conflict with your understanding of the music. The amount of performers to whom the dilemma would apply, has thus shrunk from simply all performers to this one category.

But we can shrink the dilemma even more, for ‘communication’ is in fact an umbrella term which can comprise different types of communication. It is only in the case we consider the performance as a dialogue between performer and audience that an interpretation of the audience becomes unavoidable. It is however also possible to exclude the audience from your consciousness. (Admittedly that will work better in some performance situations than in others, e.g. an opera singer and an orchestra player might be more easily capable of ignoring the audience than a recitalist. The words of Waltraud Meier illustrate this very well: You could say that the simple decision of appearing on stage is already an act of communication. From that moment on one doesn’t have to do any other effort to let that act of communication unfold of it’s own accord.

We can thus conclude that the dilemma only applies in the following case: if you cannot accept that your own understanding of the music gets distorted and if you simultaneously consider a dialogue with the audience the only acceptable way to communicate. If, on the other hand, you do not mind distorting your initial understanding of the music or you do not feel compelled to play with your audience in mind, there is no problem at all. Well then, which performer are you?

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