III. An Artgrument for a Broader View of Music Performance
In Beyond the Score musicologist Nicholas Cook outlines the various shortcomings our society has inherited in terms of how we appraise and study music. This is evidenced not only by the way(s) in which we currently study and document music, but more importantly in the ways we don’t. Likely the most exciting ‘new’ way of evaluating musical performance is the study of musician’s bodies and how their physical movements both influence and are influenced by the ‘music’. In the ninth chapter of the book, The Signifying Body, Cook takes this a step further and presents the idea that studying physicality not only enhances musical signification, it is sometimes integral toward musics communicative ability. In this sense, when we evaluate music through a narrow lens based on sound alone we potentially miss important, meaningful, and essential ideas. To demonstrate his point, Cook dives into a case study of a particularly bad sounding performance of Foxy Lady by Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970.
In this performance, 18 days before his untimely death, Jimi Hendrix has many strange gesticulations, a wardrobe malfunction, and finally a climactic ending reminiscent of a lifeless ragdoll. Cook describes his immediate reaction to the video (here) as a response to racial discomfort, “The headline act of the Isle of Wight Festival was a black artist playing for six hundred thousand white fans, the black artist who made his reputation with two white sidemen, in short, Hendrix the white man’s black man.” Hendrix’s embodiment of a ragdoll alludes to racial disparity, slavery, and lynching. In this sense, the need for broader concepts of music is clear. By studying Hendrix’s body as a part of the musical signification it becomes impossible to ignore the racial politics, subjugation, and prejudice Hendrix dealt with, and many others continue to endure today. When the performance is only appraised through sound, or as a particularly poor live performance of Foxy Lady, this important information is easily overlooked.
Beyond this idea of studying body and physical movement as part of musical signification, Cook extends performance even further. Hendrix was not only an embodiment of the performance at the Isle of Wight, he embodied the cultural performance of racism. I wonder if the fact that this embodiment was largely ignored led to his death? I also wonder if we were even a little better at understanding the emotional weight of this type of performance, and recognized significance of music existing outside of sound-would we continue to have such intense division and misunderstanding? In this sense, I think it is no accident that we have a nearly impossible time arguing for the importance of art in modern society. Art solely as a form of entertainment does not need a broad sense of signification. But by unwrapping a few layers, it becomes easier to see why, say, embodying a character like Carmen could be problematic with today’s concepts of feminism, and harassment. Additionally, this perspective on music performance could unlock countless latent ethical issues within performing arts.
All of this is to say, that when we narrow concepts of musical performance we are limiting its ability to communicate. I’m sure I am not alone in feeling that humans have not devised a single definition of art that feels 100% adequate, but I think we can all agree that art has a profound ability to communicate and connect disparate people, ideas, and cultures. In this current political climate of cultural division, I want to push myself and encourage others to broaden their ideas of what constitutes music, and allow it to communicate on deeper levels. In my experience, this is a genuine way to connect with more people, and build meaningful relationships across what are often arbitrary divides.