The journey towards becoming acquainted with unknown music is always long and is always multifaceted. It is not only a process of learning to understand the layers of meaning within a work, it also encompasses the act of assimilating the music into a performer’s repertoire, the actual process by which performers personally engage with the music they perform and then communicate that engagement with audiences.
The process must always begin with the fundamental question of whether the music is worth the journey. This question is particularly apposite in the case of music by women, for which the answer (in the negative) was assumed and therefore not discussed for so many decades. And even now, when the question is recognized to be one worthy of serious scholarly investigation, there appears to be some difficulty in understanding how to proceed. How do we embark on the process of listening to the possibilities of response that the music offers?
This kind of exploration is a process that needs to be undertaken for all music, not just for unknown repertoire. But in engaging with unknown music, the process becomes explicit and thus affords us the possibility of capturing new chains of response that can then be applied to other areas. The notion of a constant quest for meaning within music, a constant re-examination of what it may offer, is crucial at a time when the relevance of classical music as a whole genre is being questioned on a fundamental level.
The essential question is thus: how do we find within a performance opportunity a context that allows the music to speak on its own terms? Much of my own performance work with unknown repertoire has been a process of discovering this type of context. There are of course a great many factors, historical, social and creative, that can impart understanding and that can help us to see the music for what it is. But how can we impart these contexts to audiences without overtly educating, channelling their responses in limited directions, or invoking assumptions that we are actually trying to deconstruct? How do we invite audiences to participate in an ongoing chain of response?
Because there is still a prevailing view that music is an art in which gender cannot be an explicit message, there is often a parallel feeling that gender issues should not inform programming choices. In part this is underpinned by an unconscious assumption that to do so is to prove the accuracy of gender polarity theory, in part by a belief that the provocative nature of gender as an explicit motivation does not allow audiences to engage with the music on a personal level. But as has been said so often before, why is the masculine experience a universal one, but the feminine is only for women? Again, it is a matter of performance context. If gender is one of the factors governing ‘differencing the canon’ as Griselda Pollock’s 1972 book puts it, if it is one component of both the performers’ and the audience’s relationship with composer and music, it can result in a deeply personal response. Because our response to music is part of a creative chain, the performers’ own engagements with gender aspects of self-biography within the music are an essential link. To me as a performer, gendered experience is often a crucial element of my musical engagement with repertoire, and to stifle this recognition would be to skew the relationships between composer, performer, audience and music in a way that can only hinder a truly personal response – both mine and that of my audience.