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date: 21 February 2020

Performancelocked

  • Jonathan Dunsby

Extract

Music-making is a virtually universal human activity. At its most fundamental, it is a form of private biological necessity (in that, for example, individual survival is assisted by being sung to as a baby by a birth mother). At its most elevated, musical performance is public property; it played a pivotal role in some of the earliest traces of elaborate Western art, with the story of Orpheus, a pre-Homeric hero (thus now of at least some 3000 years' standing), possessing the legendary ability to tame wild animals and resist the Sirens by singing and by playing the lyre. Across the ages and throughout world civilizations it is the actual, direct, live experience of music that seems to have been integral to the human culture carried forward from its apparent European origins some 40,000 years ago to the modern world (Mithen, 1996, pp.159–63).

It can be argued that, in this modern world, music performed is perhaps the most widely disseminated kind of public property. In the 1980s and 90s – and for all that the following may prove to be forgotten names from mass entertainment – Queen, Madonna and, later, the Spice Girls were truly global cultural phenomena, and what they were all doing was performing music for other people. In the field of classical or art music, a similar effect has been known for centuries, from Blondel in the 12th to Paganini in the 19th and, we might conjecture, Casals and Segovia in the 20th. Musical performance, then, seems to have a double aspect in human culture, in that it is both endemic, more or less evenly spread throughout the species and its history since prehistoric times, yet also value-bearing. Just as ‘fixed’ works of art are held to range from the ephemeral (lost in history and never intended to be kept) to the preservable (deliberately saved artefacts, curiosities, social objects) to the canonical (enduring works of ‘genius’), so musical performance can range from something ordinary to a level that becomes a gold standard – although we shall encounter, with the example of Inuit throat games (which in early ethnomusicology would have been called ‘primitive’ music) the challenge of what may well amount to ephemeral genius....

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