Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
A musical “work” is the axiomatic unit of measurement in Western concert music. Like a book, play or painting, a musical work is conceived of as a clearly defined entity with hard edges and a fixed identity. This sense of concreteness stems from the assumption that the music a composer writes is the same thing that performers play, audiences hear and musicologists study. Thus, only that music which is written down (and has the appearance of “art”) is given the status of a work. The history of Western music is paved with these presumably self-contained artifacts, and its periodization relies on their firm borders.
While it would be a mistake to abandon “work” as a taxonomic category, its implied immutability, reliance on written notation, and dominance in conventional hierarchies of music have generated much criticism. British musicologist Michael Talbot brought focus to these objections at a symposium entitled “Musical Work: Reality or Invention?“ (University of Liverpool, 1998). Among other things, participants argued that a musical work is a historically and culturally conditioned construct of relatively recent lineage. Ethnomusicologists and popular music scholars noted that musical works provide only one possible way of understanding music-cultures, and have little analogy in global contexts. Avant-garde and improvisational musicians disputed the fixity implicit in the concept, showing how spontaneous input exists within the fuzzy edges of their music. Technologists pointed out that computers offer new and evolving ways of encoding and producing music that bypass the written page. What these challenges propose is that work is not only a limited concept, but also undeserving of the legitimacy it is typically given vis-á-vis other types of music.
Still, it is possible to retrieve the idea of work and apply it to all music—not just pieces in the classical mold. Such an approach requires looking at the term from the opposite direction, wherein fixity is replaced with action and stability with fluidity. Instead of seeing work as a final product, we can understand it as effort exerted toward a result.
Viewing work as a tightly constructed end product obscures the activeness of music. Musical performance is labor-intensive. Whether scripted or unscripted, premeditated or unplanned, music unfolds in real-time. Musicians actively perform it, listeners actively receive it, and the participation of both parties actively shapes the musical outcome. If there happens to be sheet music, it is a blueprint rather than a culmination of the composer’s vision. In order to become music, the notes must be decoded by musicians, who bring their own experiences to bear, and interpreted by listeners, who bring their experiences to bear as well. The composer sets the musical process in motion, but the music itself is recreated each time it is performed.
Scholars are becoming increasingly aware of music’s global diversity, the artistic value of popular forms, and new avenues of musical thought and practice. These realities, along with an aversion to ethnocentrism, have contributed to growing dissatisfaction with “work” as a high and reliable measurement of music. Its implied changelessness and reliance on written notation make it obsolete in many instances. But if we take work to mean an activity involving efforts and outcomes, then all music is work.
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