Earlier this year at the Orpheus Institute I gave a talk in which, in the light of evidence from early recordings, the classical music business was presented as a policed utopia in which happiness and security depend on obedience to the imagined composer’s wishes. The possibility of undermining the State was considered, with some preliminary suggestions made as to how that might be achieved.

It may be useful, as a next step, to reframe the argument in terms of performance norms and normativity, allowing a closer inspection of the politics of musical performance. Who has power, how is it exercised? Who is performing whom? How does embodiment (the normalisation of training, constricting yet enabling, essential for real-time performance yet encoding social values) interact with control, both personal and institutional? And how is performance valued? The legal position of performers in relation to composers offers a telling insight. The relationship with music performance anxiety will be touched on.


Having established that there is a very real problem that needs addressing we can take a closer look at ways of weakening this hegemony. Given that musicians and audiences are impressed mainly by persuasive musical performances, it seems essential, if one hopes to achieve genuine change, to approach this as a practical project, with theory and history in support, rather than vice versa. And therefore the rest of the talk will focus on techniques for expanding our imaginative relationship with scores. Together with two pianists approaching the task from opposite directions, I offer some basic tools for generating experimental readings, with the aim of widening students’ awareness of the possibilities for musically plausible soundings of the notes on (as well as notes not on) the page. Examples will be sought from docARTES pianists Anna Scott (Recordings Informed Performance: alternatives that we know have happened) and Bobby Mitchell (exercises towards alternative readings whose historicity we shall never know).

Preparing to escape Utopia

Proceedings text

Starting from The Dreadful Implications of Early Recordings?, a lecture I gave at the Orpheus Institute earlier this year [1], I want to work with some musicians to try and take that a bit further. In that talk, I argued that in the light of evidence from early recordings, we can think of the classical music business as a kind of “policed utopia”, in which happiness and security depend on obedience to the imagined composer’s wishes. I went on to consider the possibility of undermining that police state, and made some preliminary suggestions as to how that may be achieved. The next step is to reframe that argument, which I will do now.


The main arguments that I made on the basis of early recordings, were that, thanks to them, we now know that performance style changes massively over time. And, as the way the notes are played changes, so the character of the music made with scores changes, and so our view of the composer changes. It’s also clear, when one listens to the huge differences between early recordings and modern practice, that much more expressive meaningful work is being done by the performer than we realized. And therefore, less has been done by the composer. It is not actually clear, I think, how much meaning is inherent in scores. It remains to be seen, but it is certainly a lot less than we thought.


And so I also argued that we cannot go on talking about pieces as if they were works. There are no pieces with fixed and clear identities, nothing that could constitute a work. Nor can we go on talking about composers as if we knew their works, because it’s perfectly clear from the hugely different sounds and meanings they produce, that we don’t and can’t.


I also asked about our obligations to composers, suggesting that, for living composers, it is a matter of courtesy that we try to realize their intentions. Composers are strange creatures who are imagining art in a medium in which they are themselves not able to communicate, at least not to the extent that professional performers can communicate. It’s a strange phenomenon, this separation of both things.


What we need to do, as performers, is to take advantage of the presence for living composers. Since they are here, and since they have interesting ideas, we need to try and find out what they have in mind, and to make that sound. When we do that, we produce all sorts of sounds they didn’t imagine. On the whole, most composers are happy with that: they find it interesting to hear what performers do with their scores, things they hadn’t anticipated. Yet, when we think about performing dead composers, the idea that we might do something they hadn’t anticipated, or that they might actually be interested if we did, seems really quite shocking.

What then are our obligations to dead composers? What I argued is that we don’t have any. History is interesting but it’s not regulative, because the dead can’t be harmed. I won’t go further into this whole philosophy of our obligations towards the dead, now. When it comes down to ethics, the fundamental question is: who is harmed? The answer is: nobody. Is the listener then harmed, when they hear a different reading of a text? If they are, then what kind of terrible things are being done to listeners, audiences, when they go to the theater to see Shakespeare? Do they feel damaged by seeing Henry IV part 1, in a new light, as depicted above? No, it’s quite the opposite: they go because they know they are going to experience this text in a new way. That is the point of theater: to produce the text differently, so that it has the opportunity to tell us something about ourselves, something about our situation.


Was Webster harmed when his The White Devil of 1612 was produced, directed as indicated below? Was the audience harmed? Are we bothered that it’s not respecting the staging conventions of 1612? Remember: William Byrd was still alive when this play was first produced. Why don’t we perform Byrd like this? Or, why don’t we perform Byrd like this? Why is it all right for words, but appalling for music? We think words would need more historical authenticity - apparently not. For opera, of course, we are used to this on stage. But in the pit, it’s unthinkable. For classical music, the very idea of changing a score’s meaning is scandalous.

Bear with me on the next example: imagine if the opening of Beethoven’s fifth sounded tentative, simply pretending to be heroic, while, actually, as the third phrase might suggest, it is running for its life before being shot:

Now, wouldn’t that be a concert worth going to? But you can just imagine the reaction: “Outrageous!” people would say, “a travesty!” But why are we so horrified at giving classical music the same license we give to classical theater? It is really not so hard to make scores mean different things. Recordings showed us that.


If musical performance isn’t this creative, or this relevant, then what prevents it? Recordings show us that scores can sound this different, if we let them. So let’s rephrase the question: who prevents it? Who has the power to decide and to enforce? I argued in my last paper for the Orpheus Institute that we treat classical music as a kind of utopia: a perfect society which it would be unforgivable to disrupt. We believe that this utopia has a single rule on which the happiness of everyone depends: that we follow the composer’s wishes. We’ve seen from recordings that we don’t know what they were. They seem to change over time. And, anyway, the composer is dead, and beyond having any wishes. I do think that’s relevant.


What the musical state is actually forcing us to do, from its hiding place behind the imaginary composer, is to follow the rules of its own current practice. The rules are indoctrinated by teachers who seem to be our friends. Indeed they believe in the rules, because they themselves have grown up believing that current performance norms are ‘natural’. Now, ‘natural’ is an incredibly dangerous concept. This is Bourdieu’s “habitus” or Judith Butler’s “normativity”, misleading us into believing that ‘normal’ behavior is naturally correct. So, instead of performing the composer, or performing ourselves, we perform the state. When we play and sing, we willingly but slavishly sound the values of the musical state.


Norms are of course oppressive, which is why students, learning to behave within them, become aware of gradually increasing fear. Fear of making a mistake, fear of playing out of style, fear of non-conforming. With fear come stress, anxiety, and performance-related illness. The pressures on performers are terrifying, which makes it easy for last years’ B-movie Grand piano to imagine a pianist on stage turning the page to see this:

This movie has a silly plot but it’s horribly close to the daily truth of being a public musician, constantly in the critic’s sights.

Now, for a little diversion into intellectual property law. It gives composers economic and moral rights, which include the right not to have their work subjected to ‘derogatory’ treatment. What is derogatory treatment is a matter for lawyers to argue about in court, but we could easily see a composer sue a performer if he didn’t like the way his notes were played. In France, this applies perpetually. Berlioz’ or Rameau’s or Machaut’s descendants could sue performers today. (Machaut’s descendants would probably have a very good case.)  This is allowed because the law sees performers as servants reproducing works just the way musicologists see them, just the way that performance teachers over generations have allowed themselves to be persuaded to see them, just the way the system sees them. We’ve seen that this is not what happens in music: recordings show us that. But the law enshrines normative assumptions among judges and lawmakers. In fact, everybody who’s ever written about the composer-performer relationship in normative terms has conspired in this.


To see how deeply this damages us, we need to remember that musical performance is only possible through embodiment. Performers make music through their bodies. The more perfectly they make music, the more deeply and fully performances become part of their bodies. In every sense, the way we make music concerns who we are, what we believe, the way we think, the way we feel, how we move, how we function. To control all these aspects of us, through controlling our musicianship, is oppression of the most far-reaching kind. When we allow our musical institutions, personified in teachers, critics, agents and the rest, to rule what we are allowed to do as musicians, we allow them to control our whole selves. This is why it matters so much to know whether these controls are necessary. Is there a reasonable artistic basis for this much control? Does the state deserve its power, or has it simply acquired it in Darwinian fashion as a way of keeping itself in place, passing on its meanings?


What I’m suggesting, is that performance could be far more creative and varied, and no one would suffer. Many people would be unhappy at first, but they would be the ones enforcing norms on everyone else, and any revolution has to face those kinds of people. But musical practice that was both creative and persuasive – because that’s what’s required for every successful performance: that it be persuasive – in fact, that is all that is required. A musical practice that was both creative and persuasive would bring great rewards, even economic rewards.


Teachers and critics would find their jobs a little harder, but not less interesting: they would actually have to think. Musicians who are freer from fear, encouraged to think and perform more imaginatively, could be much happier, provided the new freedom in itself not be too terrifying. But then it wouldn’t be, if the state was less oppressive, and more responsive to greater creativity. I think that we can help with that, by offering techniques to make experimentation easier. Given proper recognition of how much they contribute anyway, performers could have their creativity protected under law and rewarded, just like composers. Composers might have to share, but they should have been doing that for a long time.


If we carry on as we are, we will let classical music die. Because it always sounds the same, people stop listening. Why go to a concert, if you know what it’s going to be like? The only reason to go would be to be comforted, and fewer and fewer people are prepared to pay concert ticket prices just to be comforted: it’s not enough. But classical music needs to live. We can find new ways to perform these same notes, or even other notes if we prefer them – I don’t think we need to narrow what constitutes the piece. And we can make something, like all things that are alive, that changes. That is the key: music has to be allowed to change.


How are we going to do this? Two rules to get started: one, we listen to really old recordings to see how styles have worked differently in the past; secondly, we can experiment wildly ourselves, looking for new ways of making scores work. In my last talk I proposed a radical performance project which had nine aims:


  1. To test how much of a piece's character is encoded in the notes
  2. To challenge the infantilizing authority of performance teaching
  3. To offer students a technique for expanding their imaginative relationship with scores
  4. To test the possibilities for and consequences of freeing classical performance from its self-imposed framework of moral obligations
  5. To follow the logic of the process of performance style change in order to see where else it might go
  6. To explore the extent to which the notions ‘musical’ and ‘unmusical’ are ideologically grounded
  7. To give performers due credit for the huge contribution they make to the creation of music, and correspondingly to reduce the role of composer to approximate that of playwright
  8. To enrich our concert life by introducing the notion of production into performance of scores, with commercial benefits for artists, promoters, record companies, and attracting new audiences
  9. To open up new possibilities for thought about the relationship between music and the individual

Of those nine, the third is the one I would like us to focus on today: to offer students a technique for expanding their imaginative relationship with scores. So we are looking for techniques that musicians can use to help them discover new ways of getting from one note to the next, essentially. New principles of melodic, harmonic continuity. New relationships between notes. We are working towards new performance styles, but at the same time as working towards them, we are resisting them because we don’t want to make new norms. It’s the norms that are the problem. They become institutionalized and then we’re sunk. Or, if we do start to tend towards new norms, at least we recognize them for what they are, and we train students constantly to challenge them instead of to obey them. There is one conservatory in London, which is at the moment considering introducing into its marking criteria for performances the notion of risk taking. If there was going to be any norm, having risk taking as a positive factor in a conservatoire would be a pretty good one.


Anna Scott has provided some examples of the first of the options I’ve outlined: listening really carefully to how people played a hundred years ago and what we can learn from that, what we can use in order to experience scores in different kinds of ways. Anna has looked at early recorded Brahms playing. Her work begins from recreating, as a pianist herself, the recordings from a circle of pianists around Brahms in the last years of his life. Mostly pupils of Clara Schumann. Some have played, as far as we can tell, more like her; some not like her at all, in fact,  rather more like Brahms: rather wildly. But what this work enables us to do is to understand Brahms in a completely different way. To understand that our picture of Brahms – as a heavy, classical, regular musician, requiring a very round sound, long lines, firmly pressing into the keys, a very controlled Brahms – is completely at odds with both the recorded and documentary evidence. We have actually turned Brahms into something quite unlike the kind of musician he was towards the end of his life.

Through embodiment, the process by which her body learns to make music in this way, Anna is in a much better position to understand the underlying principles that were operating in performance style a hundred years ago, very different from our own.


Let’s first hear a performance by Stefan Vladar, a sort of reverent performance, Brahms as a god who pianists worship, as if every note is sacred:

Let’s listen now to one of Clara Schumann’s pupils, someone who was close to Brahms. This isn’t just another late nineteenth century pianist. This is the person to whom Brahms first played this score, privately. And whom he allowed to give one of the first performances. So there is a reasonable chance that this is not wildly misrepresenting the way it was in that rather wonderful moment.

Extract of Ilona Eibenschütz performing Brahms’ op. 119/2 in e minor, 1952.



This is not our Brahms. It is a completely different one, incompatible with our Brahms. Something’s happened: it’s much more fantastic. A number of things are going on: first of all, by our standards, there is an extreme dislocation between the hands. Secondly, there’s a great deal of what we would call ‘rushing’. She accelerates through phrase ends. This is not a structural performance – that was invented later. The moments of greatest articulation come at key expressive moments within a phrase; the end of the phrase is hurried through. There’s quite a lot of concatenation going on, actually excising beats which get in the way when the performance is getting excited. There is overlapping of the voices, sometimes by a beat or more, so that a voice in one hand can come in much earlier than it is notated.


All of these things are totally forbidden now. If you did any one of these things, you would fail your exam and would never get work. At the end of the nineteenth century, they did all of them because these were simply part of normal performance style. That is a measure of how much  has changed, and, in that sense, also a measure of how much will change in the future, and of how different things could be, now, if they were allowed to be. What we just heard are techniques that were required then of an expressive, persuasive performance. So, we know that they could work: they did work for them, they could work for us.

What this is teaching us, is that there are many possible different musicalities. This one just happens to have a whole load of historical evidence behind it, so that, if you believe passionately that the composers’ intentions still matter, then here they are. We are not doing it at the moment though: we are disgracefully, shockingly, unforgivably misrepresenting Brahms in the way that we conceive him at the moment. If you, like me, think the composers’ wishes are neither here nor there, then you can also see that the fact that scores like this can be made persuasive in so many different ways opens up enormously exciting possibilities, once we allow ourselves to expose ourselves to them. Dangerous, but so exciting.

That is what follows, I think, from the work that Anna has been doing, and similarly from what Sigurd Slåttebrekk had also done on Grieg [2]. I will now invite Bobby Mitchell, accompanied by Eugene Feygelson from King’s College London, to come and explore a different approach. Bobby and Eugene will offer us some practical techniques for thinking about scores in slightly different ways. Practical techniques for developing a different relationship with changing our expectations, our sense of what might be possible; not directly using historical models, but a rather more contemporary approach we might say.

[Bobby Mitchell:]

The following performances are live attempts to demonstrate the approach to learning to use tempo modification that I learned from harpsichord Robert Hill at the Musikhochschule Freiburg between 2011 and 2013.  These exercises apply to solo practice as well as to ensemble playing, as is the case here. Violinist Eugene Feygelson and I use the initial bars of the second movement of Richard Strauss' Violin Sonata (entitled Improvisation) as the textual source over which we super-impose different models of tempo modification.


The four categories used in the exercise are described by the German words ruhig, anziehend, treibend, and schleppend. These modes of playing are cycled through systematically and super-imposed over the score.

Stage 1

Ruhig for 1 beat, anziehend for 1 beat, etc. [RA...]




In order to save time, the intermediary steps of finishing the process within the constraints of the 1-beat unit were not performed. The following examples are the next steps in the systematic process but using a 2-beat unit:

Movie still from Grand Piano (2013), dir. Eugenio Mira.

Stage 2

Ruhig for 1 beat, anziehend for 1 beat, anziehend for 1 beat, ruhig for 1 beat, etc. [RAAR...]



Anziehend for 1 beat, ruhig for 1 beat, ruhig for 1 beat, anziehend for 1 beat, etc. [ARRA...].



Ruhig for 2 beats, anziehend for 2 beats, treibend for 2 beats, schleppend for 2 beats [RATS...].



Anziehend for 2 beats, ifor 2 beats, schleppend for 2 beats, ruhig for 2 beats [ATSR...].



Treibend for 2 beats, schleppend for 2 beats, ruhig for 2 beats, anziehend for 2 beats [TSRA...].



Schleppend for 2 beats, ruhig for 2 beats, anziehend for 2 beats, treibend for 2 beats [SRAT...].



A mixture of all of these four versions performed 'at the same time'.



Extract of Stefan Vladar performing Brahms’ op. 119/2 in e minor, 2003.

Extract of a performance by Anna Scott of Brahms’ op. 119/2 in e minor, 2014.



This is not a literal copy. Anna is using as a starting point what Eibenschütz did. She has literally learned, through her body, to make these expressive gestures to make pieces work like this. Every time she encounters the scores, applying these approaches to meaning-making, she is producing a slightly different result. It’s an interesting indication, that, by rethinking some of the ways in which we make musical continuities, we would be able to open all sorts of new possibilities with other scores. This is what Anna does: she goes on to play a number of scores that nobody recorded in the early days.


Extract of a performance by Anna Scott of Brahms’ op. 119/1 in b minor, 2014.



Anziehend for 1 beat, ruhig for 1 beat, etc. [AR...]



Both of these initial two versions performed 'at the same time'.




Extract from the trailer of Grand Piano.

A mixture of these two versions performed 'at the same time'.




Daniel Leech-Wilkinson studied at the Royal College of Music, King's College London and Clare College, Cambridge, becoming first a medievalist and then, since c. 2000, specialising in the implications of early recordings, especially in relation to music psychology and ontology. He led a project on 'Expressivity in Schubert Song Performance' within the AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (CHARM, 2004-09), followed by 'Shaping Music in Performance' within the AHRC Research Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice (2009-2014). Books include The Modern Invention of Medieval Music (Cambridge, 2002), The Changing Sound of Music (CHARM, 2009) and, with Helen Prior, Music and Shape (OUP, forthcoming)


Daniel Leech-Wilkinson

(London, U.K.) with Bobby Mitchell, Eugene Feygelson and Anna Scott