Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Reconsidering the Performance Paradigm

A few days ago I read the Op-Ed in the NYTimes by Alexander McCall Smith titled And the Band Played Badly. The Op-Ed is about a group in Scotland called the Really Terrible Orchestra, a group composed of amateur musicians -- what Mr. Smith calls "the rankest of amateurs". To give a sense of the article, this is first line:

Why should real musicians -- the ones who actually play their instruments -- have all the fun?

And this is the ending:

After all, we are the Really Terrible Orchestra, and we shall go on and on. Amateurs arise -- make a noise.

The article is breezy and self-mocking, but it touches on a lot of very serious points that I've been concerned with for the many years I have been involved with no-audition community bands as well my time spent dancing and singing in groups that are decidedly off-the-grid in terms of what our culture defines as performance entertainment (aka "the music industry", which is a decidedly oxymoronic term). I enjoyed the piece for what it was, but I kept thinking that Mr. Smith didn't go far enough. He describes the delight of performing with a group that isn't quite top-calibre (more like one that is reaching up to achieve bottom calibre), and he captures that well. But he never questions the validity of the notion of top-calibre in the first place, in terms of performance and entertainment and music.

Mr. Smith lays down all the evidence that there are huge problems with the simple dichotomy of "good professional musician" vs. "bad amateur musician" as if there were no other considerations in evaluating performance, and he even mocks the critics who seem married to this paradigm as the only judgment criteria (although to be honest, one senses that the critics themselves are taking it all lightly as well, as I think they should). He notes that his group sells CDs, receives standing ovations, and is generally well-received But then he doesn't quite take what I would consider the next logical step in explaining this surprising phenomenon.

So what does it mean that the group is well-received? Is it all a joke, with the audience laughing along? Is it a silly fad, an ironic gloss on orchestral performance? I don't think so, not really and not at the core. I think Mr. Smith gets to the heart of things when he writes this:

...Our first concert was packed, and not just with friends and relations. People were intrigued by the sheer honesty of the orchestra's name and came to see who we were. They were delighted...we never claimed to be anything other than what we are.

Expectation and performance context and simple human interaction is absolutely key. You cannot divorce the rituals of a serious orchestral concert -- the dressing up on the part of the orchestra and many of the patrons, the often sumptuous halls, the format of the program, the reputations of the soloists -- from the music itself, as if the music existed in some pure form. And in that context, oh boy is technique and intonation and skill the thing. You paid a good deal of money from everything from your parking to your clothing to your tickets, and you want your expected value. If you plopped the Really Terrible Orchestra onto the stage, they would indeed be a really terrible orchestra.

But there are other contexts and other expectations where what this orchestra is doing -- displaying their love and delight for the music and for performing it -- is, dare I say it, art at its finest. The performance should no more be compared to a concert of the New York Philharmonic than to a ballroom dance competition. Consciously or not, people get that. The context of the group's name alone allows them to.

I had to think about the issue of performance expectation when I sang shapenote with Norumbega Harmony in Boston. We often would find ourselves "performing" as part of one church service or another, and I grew to despise these events. Because there we were, standing in front of a congregation (in an uncharacteristic semi-circle formation, no less), just as if we were the church choir. And therefore the expectation of what we would sound like (or feel like or move like) was "church choir" -- which has its own set of ideals. But we were definitely not a church choir, in that sense. We were loud and the purpose of our singing was not served by dynamic contrast or even well-practiced and crisp entrances and so instead of seeming like a good shapenote group (which we were -- I've sung with and heard enough groups to know that Norumbega was wonderfully skilled) we seemed like a bad choir. Probably every bit as much as a good choir would strike me as a really bad shapenote group, at least in their church singing guise. This issue could sometimes be resolved if the minister or the service itself established the context of who we were and what the tradition was, but that was quite rare in those Norumbega circumstances.

But even some shapenote singers I know have said things along the lines of "it doesn't matter if you sing badly", which is absolutely not the case, not at all. It matters a lot. What doesn't matter is if you sing well by a different set of expectations than traditional shapenote concerns itself with.

This is not quite the same situation as the Really Terrible Orchestra, but it all gets at the same point -- which is that there are other ways of expressing and appreciating and using music than our culture usually acknowledges.
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