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The Ideology of Performer-as-Interpreter

By Keir GoGwilt, editor

“Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world…To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects—this alone is the task of thought…” (247, Minima Moralia)

-Theodor W. Adorno

What relevance does Adorno’s philosophy have for musical performance? The material act of performance might seem at odds with the apparently esoteric and insistently negative character of Adorno’s writing. His critiques of musical fetishism and recording and broadcasting technologies seem outmoded and inflexible in this day and age. The active association of Marxist ideology critique with the aesthetic emergence of a “new music” can easily be seen as an irrelevant distraction for musicians.

SOZIALPHILOSOPH,While Adorno’s philosophy cannot provide a comprehensive framework for the study of musical performance, it is perhaps productive to show the manner in which his treatment of musical meaning and interpretation differs from the current ideology of “performer-as-interpreter.” This ideology organizes a musical economy and a pedagogical system around performance as the ultimate event of meaning-production. I will argue that this ideology in fact mystifies the material practice of performance, and that a close attention to implicit values regarding musical meaning and interpretation must precede changes to the current organization of a repetitive musical economy.

In an interview (, Mitsuko Uchida states that a true musician is one who expresses oneself through music and only through music. The statement resonates with the epistemological framework proposed by the philosopher Alain Badiou. Roughly, the event of truth’s emergence (designated as a truth precisely by its emergent nature) takes place in one of four fields: love, politics, science, or art. The truth is immanent to its specific field of emergence: an artistic truth is artistic and not political; events between fields are incommensurate and mediated by philosophy, which operates as meta-truth.

Badiou stresses that truth emerges as the result of a rupture or break with pre-existing conditions, in whatever field. The question is: to what extent is the rupturing “truth” event still possible in a society in which “revolution” itself has been fetishized/fantasized by the mass media? The Hunger Games trilogy is perhaps the most visible sign of this. On the surface, it seems to critique the mass media’s effect of de-sensitizing us to real violence within the context of a commercialized “game.” Yet the movies/books simultaneously make us spectators to the very same game and its subversion. When the rebellious actions within the “hunger games” turn into real revolution (signaled in the moment the competitors work together to escape the game’s arena), the violence of “revolution” itself becomes enjoyed as a fantasy. The Hunger Games trilogy effectively contains the very revolutionary sentiment it proffers.[1]

We see the same commodification of the revolutionary or evental “truth” in the branding of classical music stars. According to a review by Anthony Tommasini (, a Deutsche Grammophon advertising slogan reads: “The future of classical music has arrived. His name is Lang Lang.” The first sentence announces the impossible arrival of the future. This is the very condition of Badiou’s truth-event: an occurrence in which a “nonexistent” acquires “maximal existence” (Badiou, 2009). The advertising slogan operates on a rhetorical turn: the “future” (a nonexistent because it is not yet) is identified as a person. The slogan performs as a simulacrum of Badiou’s truth-event by having the nonexistent future acquire the maximal existence of “Lang Lang.” Deutsche Grammophon deliberately fetishizes the genius of the individual, mystifying the material work of performance and abstracting the musician’s image in terms of market value.

Yet the common renunciation of this marketing phenomenon is summed up by John von Rhein’s review, “Lang Lang dismisses composers’ intentions” (Chicago Tribune, Rhein resorts to a weak argument about the intentions of the composer, criticizing a lack of “respect for what’s in the score.” Rhein endorses an ideology that superficially resembles Adorno’s critique, but runs counter to his philosophy. This is the ideology of performer-as-interpreter: an ideology that makes moralistic statements about an individual’s “antics” and “choreographic nonsense,” rather than reading specific movements as symptoms of a multi-bodied discourse of performance and musical pedagogy. Such a multi-bodied discourse involves the historicized study of bodies and texts as systems of interacting parts, rather than a critical language focusing on the “fidelity” or “maturity” of the individual interpreter. The ideology of performer-as-interpreter creates false problems and false debates, ultimately serving the same musical economy presenting Lang Lang’s image as “the future.”

In order to show the manner in which Rhein’s stance differs from Adorno’s, one should take a closer look at Adorno’s notion of musical interpretation:

Musical interpretation is the act of execution that holds fast to the similarity to language, as synthesis, while at the same time erases every individual incidence of that similarity…

…the sense of its [music’s] coherence is not of the type that is made by signifying language. The whole is realized against the intentions; it integrates them by means of the negation of each individual, indeterminate intention. Music as a whole rescues the intentions…by readying itself, in the instant in which it crystallizes, to summon the intentionless (115, 116).

Adorno’s formulation of musical meaning involves a complex relationship with verbal signification: musical interpretation relies on a basic similarity to language “as synthesis,” at the same time denying all attempts to localize intentional incidents of meaning-production. Music’s form is its content; its content-as-form is only encountered through the unknowable (and thus un-repeatable) activity of performance or performative reading.

Intentions corresponding to expressive details of Whitelaw’s Mouth or Menuhin’s functional movements (see cannot be identified; similarly, intentional moves on the part of the composer or playwright cannot be meaningfully abstracted. In linguistic terms, Adorno’s “whole…realized against the intentions” is maintained by the continual movement of signifying language, never revealing its other side (the false presence of a particular signified intention) in the constant maintenance of its movement. Bodily technics, of the same movement or function as signifying language (i.e. never revealing its signified intentions), interacts with musical text to “summon the intentionless.”

The current ideology of “performer-as-interpreter” presents a double bind for musical praxis. On the one hand, such a hermeneutic rhetoric often functions to reign in the “personality” of the performer in favor of “what’s in the score.” On the other hand this ideology marks the individuality of the performer via his or her interpretation, relegating the material production of performance to the “merely” technical.

This ideological double bind operates under the guise of a liberal humanism, potentially allowing a multitude of individuals to distinguish themselves in an unavoidably repetitive and competitive profession. The posture of interpretive fidelity mimes a scholarly asceticism, which quickly flips into the very cultish elements of personality-worship that such a posture would critique. This false critique serves to systematically exclude certain populations from an unspecified, yet “proper” intellectual or emotional engagement with the “music itself.”

Such an ideology exhibits a techno-phobic tendency (a perversion of Adorno’s own techno-phobia) that loses the dialectical relationship between musical meaning and verbal signification and abstracts “interpretation” from material execution. This abstraction/reification serves to fetishize the genius of the individual interpreter. The hermeneutic lens works to reinforce a repetitive musical economy built around the individual. Such a musical economy organizes the musical pedagogical system, which continues to revolve around the master-protégé relationship.

The task at hand then is to formulate a technical aesthetics that addresses the individual performing body as symptom or effect of ideologies guiding implicit assumptions about musical meaning and interpretation. This requires the de-valuation of the sublime/revolutionary moment in musical performance. It is the mystification and abstraction of musical interpretation as the gateway to an immanent and evental “truth,” which encourages a musical praxis and pedagogy ultimately geared towards its own commodification. Performance should be seen as incidental to a musical praxis and pedagogy.

This critical revaluation finds its foundation in:

1. A re-assessment of technics as the functional movement of the body as empty signifier, never abstracted as a particular incident of meaning-production, never revealing its signified face. Such a movement may be historicized; the evolution of its patterns may be read in parallel to the socioeconomic conditions guiding its praxis.

2. The conscious movement away from a repetitive musical economy that presents performance as the ultimate event of self-expression or meaning production. This process of revaluation may be guided by efforts to uncover ideologies implicit in the musical pedagogical system.

Works cited:

Adorno, Theodor. Essays on Music. Ed. Richard Leppert. Trans. Susan Gillespie. Berkley: University of California Press, 2002.

Badiou, Alain.  Second Manifesto For Philosophy.  Trans. Louise Burchill.  Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.

[1] See Donald Sutherland’s endorsement of the movie’s revolutionary nature:


About kgogwilt

I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and grew up in New York City. As a violinist I am concerned with re-orienting current notions of technique and interpretation in music performance, drawing from fields such as critical theory and acoustics.

7 comments on “The Ideology of Performer-as-Interpreter

  1. Naomi
    January 8, 2014

    I’m not sure that the dominant ideology “organizes a musical economy and a pedagogical system around performance as the ultimate event of meaning-production.” I think even more prominent is the idea of composition as the ultimate event of meaning-production. The concept of performers as interpreters (rather than, say, creators or engineers) implies that performance is an act of either fidelity or infidelity (“respect” or disrespect, to use Rhein’s words), so the only performance-created meaning is with reference to the score/work. Or do you have something different in mind, when you say that the system organizes around performance?

    • kgogwilt
      January 8, 2014

      In the above quoted statement, I was suggesting that performance (in its current presentation as “interpretation”) provides the visibility of such a fetishized form of meaning-production (even if it nominally or commercially celebrates the “genius” of the composer over the performer).
      In fact, as you point out, the very subordination of performance to composition forms a part of the double bind constituting the ideology of performer-as-interpreter. This was the reaction of Rhein to Lang Lang’s supposed disregard for the “intentions” of the composer. Rhein reveals his own ideological leanings by referencing the supposed “limits of interpretative license.”
      Rhein indeed asserts a false hermeneutics around compositional intent. This mystifies the material work of performance just as effectively as the slogan advertising Lang Lang as “the future.” It is precisely this move that is premised on and reinforces the ideology of “performer-as-interpreter.”

  2. Benjamin Woo
    January 14, 2014

    Keir, I have a couple questions I wonder if you could help answer, to fill in some of the absences (non-Derridean sense) in my understand of the work you are doing. I’m sure many of my questions are wrongly contextualized… but I think you will get a sense:

    1. I can imagine the performer as engineer very clearly and I think it works fabulously. I even wonder about dropping the word ‘performer’ are calling myself a piano engineer. But I have more difficulty believing that an artist can be fully described as an engineer… how would you define what an artist is? (By define, I mean, could you provide some words which, for a reader, create a conception of a person who act to make art.

    2. It seems like there is an imperative to critique/deconstruct ideology which misrepresents technics. Where does this imperative come from? (Is it to counter misunderstand, for the sake of truth?)

    3. One language question. You put many words in quotations.. what exactly does this signify in your writing. Do you see ‘interpreter’, ‘genius’ and ‘truth’ as words which might never again have descriptive value, or are they only misleading is specific ideological contexts?

    Thanks a lot.

  3. rlbaldwin2
    February 14, 2014

    Adorno was held in high regard when I was in music school (1980s). And whether of not he is still “current,” his influence is certainly relevant and undeniable. Good article.

  4. Pingback: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Music Performance? | Soonest Mended

  5. Pingback: Performer-Composer Dialogues in Contemporary Music, or, Writing Music is Hard (Part I) | Soonest Mended

  6. Pingback: It’s what the composer intended: Part II in a series on composer-performer dialogues | Soonest Mended

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This entry was posted on January 6, 2014 by in Keir GoGwilt, Music and tagged , , , , , .
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