About quality in musical performance

- by Håkon Austbø


It is a challenge to establish criteria for quality in art. In music, at least in the performance of existing compositions, there are some apparently objective criteria. They are concerned with a correct rendering of the text, which pre-supposes a certain degree of technical mastery of instrument or voice. This correctness therefore becomes a cherished norm of judgment in the countless music competitions that keep popping up, meant to distinguish outstanding talents by making precisely a quality judgment.

Let us therefore look at the type of criteria that tend to be handled by juries at such competitions. The list may look something like this:


1. The performance renders the notes correctly

2. It follows the tradition

3. It is historically informed with regard to style

4. It shows understanding of the composer’s intentions (insofar as these may be inferred from the score and other sources)

5. It witnesses insight in the structure of the work

6. It is personal and unique


Such a ranking of criteria is relatively simple to handle. In a jury one will easily have a kind of consensus about points 2 and 3, even though opinions might vary on style and tradition, and historically-informed approaches often challenge traditions. It will be harder to agree on points 4 and 5. A judge will have her own opinion and insight on these points, and easily reject performances contrary to these. The most difficult, however, is to measure a performer’s personality and originality; these qualities therefore come last on this list.


On the other side, it is easy to “measure” the correct rendering of the notes, for instance in a pianist’s performance of a Beethoven sonata, by simply counting the wrong notes. Rhythmical mistakes can, to a certain degree, also be proven objectively. To judge whether the candidate follows the dynamic indications of the composer is slightly trickier. This is a matter of interpretation, where points 2, 3 and 4 all play a role. What does tradition say about Beethoven’s frequently uncommon and surprising dynamic indication, like sf, cresc., subito pp, etc.? How does the conception of style influence the interpretation of those? They may even be related to point 5, structural insight, since such dynamic indications often reflect structural aspects of the work. With such an understanding of Beethoven’s dynamics the performance could become quite different, not to say personal (point 6). What if the performance doesn’t conform to the views of the tradition on this matter? The candidate’s points will be lower, even though the literal indications of the score may be respected.


We see then, irrespective of which hierarchy you handle, that the various criteria will influence each other. Therefore the judging in competitions often boils down to an either/or: Either you credit the absence of wrong notes (with string players: intonation flaws), or a personal interpretation. The first approach will easily preponderate, so one is left with winners who lack personality, but who play the right notes. Whether they play these notes with “correct” rhythm or phrasing is a subjective judgment, as we have seen. I have often observed these mechanisms as a jury member and been shocked by the result one ends up with. One reason that personal interpretations have a tendency to be put at the bottom of the list is that some judges with influential positions in musical life easily feel the menace of a strong personality challenging their own conception.


The winners of music competitions will be in a better position to break through, to “have a career”. To succeed, other things, such as networking, are necessary. But if we focus on quality and the problems related to that, we see that musical life tends to mirror the ranking of criteria that dominates in competitions. Here also, the rule is: Different is dangerous. This leads to a musical life marked by correctness, predictability and lack of originality. This is certainly comfortable for the part of audiences who prefers to hear a performance similar to the ones they are used to hear, but I think the majority will be better served when confronted with something they did not hear before. This is certainly a determining factor in the effort to renew the classical music audience, to get young people into the concert halls. They will easily fall away when all they get to hear are uninteresting, predictable performances. How, then, might we reinforce the effort seen today to find new means of communication in order to reach new audience?


Since personality in performance and communication is rather a handicap in today’s music industry, I would propose a radical rearranging of the criteria mentioned above. This may yield a list such as this:

1. The performance is personal and unique 

2. It shows understanding of the composer’s intentions

3. It witnesses insight in the structure of the work

4. It is historically informed with regard to style

5. It renders the notes correctly

6. It follows the tradition


The personal and unique is now placed on top, the correctness almost at the bottom, because a focus on correct notes often has a negative influence on the deployment of personality. Of course, the performer might have intentions that he is unable to convey, so we are concerned here only with intentions truly conveyed in the performance. It should further be obvious that points 1 and 6 easily conflict, since tradition may be an obstacle to creativity.


These ideas have been central to the research project at the Norwegian Academy of Music with the title The reflective musician, which I have been leading since 2013. The aim of the project is to find knowledge leading to genuine, personal interpretations, thereby challenging the conformity and conventionality of performances.


The term ‘quality’ is not mentioned specifically in the project’s aim, but it is considered as a precondition that a personal interpretation is better, thus of higher quality, than a conventional one. This presumption is based on a subjective supposition that will be difficult to prove, but which is nonetheless our starting point. In our opinion, a performance that appears as new, personal, surprising, that questions the accepted norm of interpretation of a certain musical work, has a higher quality than one that conforms with this norm, that confirms the informed listener’s previous image of the work. The purpose of a work of art is to challenge, and herein, hence, lies its quality.


Another prerequisite is that a deeper understanding of the work contributes to the genuinely personal interpretation; that it is even a necessary underpinning for it. This is one of the crucial themes of the project, which we will try to show when presenting the research outcome. We have organised seminars, workshops, etc. with the purpose of finding knowledge about the works, in order to subsequently present a performance resulting from that knowledge.

Which knowledge is involved here varies somewhat between the members of the project committee. One focus has been on analytical insight in the works, another on psychological mechanisms, a third on relations to other arts, etc. We have also investigated aspects of the performance tradition and reacted to this in a critical manner. In each case, the result of the process is incorporated in the performances, and the evaluation of these will be determining whether our project has succeeded. But it is impossible to find empirical proof that one performance is better than another one, since it will always be based on a subjective judgment.


This is obviously the biggest challenge when it comes to judgment of quality in art. The term is very flexible; to say the least, and this plays a role in how the music industry is structured. We often encounter double standards: Some people may claim to value a personal interpretation, whereas, when it comes to it, they prefer one conforming to tradition.


The same music industry is always seeking to sell a product, and when ‘talking up’ this product, terms are used that are appropriate in the given situation. Nobody would try to sell a violinist for his lack of personality. But strong personalities will sell, even if, paradoxically, many of them have been excluded beforehand, often through competitions. For instance, Ivo Pogorelich, who “lost” the Chopin competition in Warsaw in 1980 because he was too individualistic, was propelled by the recording company as a hyperpersonal performer. He was, in fact, extremely talented, but this trademark became such a burden to his artistic integrity that he slowly turned into a caricature of himself. When originality becomes a goal in itself, it loses its value because it loses its rooting in real understanding or creativity, and becomes speculative. Such a mechanism, provoked by the market, turns a valuable criterion into the opposite, and this blurs the picture even more.


In my own artistic work I have always tried to find the core of the works and distil their qualities in the meeting point between this knowledge and my intuition. Unsurprisingly, this has also been my attitude in The reflective musician. It would be pretentious to claim that I always succeeded in this, but I certainly experienced dramatic situations resulting from it. Early in my career, I had given a recital in Amsterdam with my manager present in the hall. The next day, he called me into his office to give me a sermon about my interpretations. My performance of Brahms’ piano pieces op. 118, he said, had been marked by a broad, symphonically rhetorical style, whereas these pieces in reality were “intimate miniatures”. The consequence was that he was obliged to delete my name from his artist list. My own conception of this cycle was, however, that it had precisely symphonic dimensions in that the pieces shared strong common structural features and constituted something quite different from a set of small character pieces. I have kept this opinion to this day, rather strengthened through the years, and it has even been one of the themes in The reflective musician. But this concept clearly clashed with the way this manager was used to hearing these pieces played. The consequences of his judgment for my career were considerable, but the experience also made me reconsider my intentions as an artist. It also clarified the mechanisms of musical life for me.


The question then arises: If my manager wanted to throw me out, it was probably because he considered the performances to be of insufficient quality? Probably so, and here we have to do with a set of values corresponding to the one I mentioned first, where conformity with tradition ranks high. Myself, I tried to live up to the other set of values. Much could be said about the performances, but they were at least a product of my own thinking about the works, and I experienced his rejection therefore as unfair and hurting.


Where, then, does the public place itself in this picture? If a layman is to judge quality, she will have to trust her own criteria, probably conducted by intuition: Did the performance give me anything? Was I moved by it? Did I experience the work as new? These are emotional criteria, which I consciously avoided above, since they are even less objective than the ones I proposed. But if our listener is to believe what is said about a performer in the publicity, she will probably not be much wiser. If it conflicts with what she experienced herself, she can try to solve this by saying things like: “Well, I’m not an expert, I suppose they are right”. The views of the public are easy to manipulate by (mis)using quality criteria. Only a conscious public, confident in its own judgment, will be able to unmask this.


Quality, and how it is judged, is therefore important in music life today. The criteria used are important tools of power for the musical establishment and ought to be challenged. The project The reflective musician wishes to contribute to this.

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