Politics of performance: poetry & song

As my new research project starts to take shape, I’m beginning to focus increasingly on questions of performing poetry, and the (political) implications of different performance scenarios and contexts. As I’ve built up my network of collaborations with professional singers and pianists, and gained more and more insight into what goes on ‘behind the scenes’,  I’ve begun to question more and more what happens in terms of performance preparation – of a poem, of the poem+music (song), of the ‘staging’ of that song – and the effects that different modes of preparation have on the overall performance (which I shan’t call the ‘end result’, as performance remains an iterative process). I was delighted to read a recent blog entry by tenor Julian Forbes on poetry & song
exploring precisely these questions (from the perspective of the singer), and to be able to point towards some of my research in this context (including work with SongArt group, especially during the ‘Inside Performance‘ study day in 2011).

Fuelling my developing thoughts and ideas about performance have also been two recent events – both of which seem, on the surface, to be unrelated to my research into French poetry and music, but which have sparked off interesting avenues of approach.

The first of these was having the opportunity to perform with Commotio at their CD launch concert of the choral music of composer Francis Pott in early February. We sang excerpts from Pott’s new Mass in 8 parts, to very familiar Greek and Latin texts of the Kyrie and the Sanctus, alongside motets in English, including one called ‘Lament’ (words by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson). Although we’d recorded the disc over 3 days in July 2011, and we’d rehearsed each of the pieces on numerous occasions, it was only during the performance that evening that the words of ‘Lament’ suddenly struck me as important, poignant, and so utterly relevant to Francis’s music – in the sense that there is a clear ‘intertwinedness’ between poem and music. It seems obvious to say it now, but the fact that I had ignored it, or been unconcious of it for so long until it emerged in the process of performance, was revealing. It was perhaps especially interesting, then, that Prof. John Sloboda was also in the audience, and I was able to chat with him briefly afterwards about his recent research into understanding audiences.

The second event was a presentation-performance on performance by Prof. Tim Etchells (of Forced Entertainment, and of the University of Sheffield’s English department) at an event debating the value of ‘value’ in the arts held here at the University of Sheffield. What Tim offered was essentially an insight into the process of collaboration with other performers in order to develop a new work. During his talk, it dawned on me that so much of what goes into (preparing) a performance is talking and discussing, but that these discussions are framed by the (pensive, reflective) silences essential to all performance preparation (whether acting, singing or playing). This process of chatting and waiting seems, on the surface, to be so unproductive, and yet it is what forms the work of art… (this also makes me think of Patrick McGuinness‘ lovely poem ‘The Shape of Nothing Happening’).

These ideas are helping me re-shape my thoughts about song performance – to stop me from just asking the simple questions, or at least to push me beyond the obvious prescriptive questions such as ‘who should perform this text/song?’, ‘what is the status of the poem / song in terms of aesthetic hierarchy, and therefore how should it be performed?’. These questions, of themselves, suggest that there is a right or wrong kind of performer, a greatness or an insignificance to certain poems or songs, that the author/composer might have ‘prescribed’ who should speak/sing their text, that there are gender and class implications… But increasingly, I’m beginning, instead, to look at different approaches, taking my cue, for example, from Jacques Rancière’s analysis of the ‘aesthetic regime of art’ in which he explores the inherent political dimension of artistic prinicples and rules and their effect on the experience of art.

I don’t have all the answers yet, but I’ll be exploring these issues in my paper as part of the Research Seminar series in the School of Music at the University of Sheffield on Monday 5 March 2012 called ‘The Politics of Performance: Baudelaire, Debussy, Charpentier’. My focus will be on the different kind of performers and performance scenarios that seem to be set up by Baudelaire, Debussy and Charpentier – and how little attention is paid to this today (whether by performers or scholars). Is Baudelaire elitist or populist? Is Debussy exclusively high-brow because of the demands he makes of his singers and audiences? Does Charpentier put his socialist agenda before his aesthetic one? I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into these questions, and to teasing out possible answers to them.

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