In the opening section of a book about the politics of performance, Kelly M. Askew describes how she was taken by pleasant surprise when she in the mid-nineties returned to the US after three years of fieldwork in East Africa and discovered that an African saying had infiltrated popular American consciousness: "It takes a village to raise a child" (Askew, 2002, p. xiii). This is probably a befitting beginning of a book focusing upon performances as negotiations of relationships.
I hope that it also could work as a befitting beginning of this little column on the performance of community. If performance is seen as something more than and different from one-way communication of messages, we need to reflect upon how it could be linked to the conflictual collaboration that characterizes the drama of everyday life.
Recently some students and teachers from the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo came to visit the Sandane music therapy education program. A concert was scheduled as closure of a three days program of lectures, workshops and social events. The local Pensioners' Choir, conducted by a music therapist, was invited as special guests. During this concert these pensioners performed health and vitality in a multitude of ways. Not only was their performative singing moving and engaging; as audience they took part in and shaped the event in several other ways too. When one of the students took his fiddle and played in the traditional style of Norwegian folk music, pensioners approaching the age of 90 left their chairs, forgot about their hurting legs, and showed the young students how to dance. When a couple of these students performed a few American tunes, one of the pensioners in the audience spoke out and gave a positive response to the beauty of their voices but also reminded them about the fact that the Norwegian languages may be threatened by the dominance of English language in popular culture. Later, when a group of students performed a vocal improvisation, one of the pensioners addressed their conductor and expressed that they would like to learn how to improvise too! In sum, this performative event could be viewed as negotiations on tradition, identity, and innovation.
A few days later Cochavit Elefant came from Tel Aviv to Sandane, in order to teach and do research here. As an adolescent, she lived in Norway for some years, so she is now in the middle of a fascinating process of retrieving her previous knowledge of Norwegian language and culture. Last Saturday night we found out that one element in this process could be to go to the local "bygdakveld," which is a community gathering with amateur theater combined with social activities such as eating, drinking, and dancing. What we experienced that night was how the politics and social relations of the municipality could be negotiated by means of performance. A major issue of debate in this municipality is the planned construction of "Trivselshagen," a huge center for integration of health services, educational, social, and cultural services in the region. If this center is constructed it will be the first of its kind in Norway (the more pretentious activists claim that it will be the first of its kind since the Epidaurus of Antiquity). As could be expected, some people of our community find these plans highly fascinating, others are deeply troubled, while a large group of people vacillate and don't know what to think of it. What Cochavit and I enjoyed this Saturday night of amateur theater performance was how such conflicts could be enacted in a hilarious and thought-provoking (inter)play. The roles of the play included the main agents of the everyday social and political drama around the construction of this center, and the actors played themselves as well as their real life antagonists and supporters in a confusing and entertaining mixture. The fact that central antagonists and supporters of the project of course also were part of the audience made the situation even more complex and stimulating. During the performance all attendants (except Cochavit I assume) could draw extensively on the intimacies of local knowledge. This enabled the actors and audience to produce a performance together, as enactment of some central conflicts in contemporary Norwegian communities, such as the conflicts between center and periphery and those between liberal and social democratic values. These conflicts reflect and act upon sociocultural processes of differentiation and integration in a late modern society, and the play could probably be viewed as a performance of pleasure, struggle, and solidarity, not only reflecting the local community but also maintaining and developing it.
It is probably not obvious for all readers if and how a theory and practice of performance may be relevant for music therapy. Communication in music therapy is often described as (preferably) authentic and dialogic, while performances may be viewed as less authentic and as one-way communication; that is, merely as transmissions of pre-defined texts, plots, or products. The examples above illuminate that a different and richer conception of performance is possible and could be explored by music therapists. Askew, whom I referred to in the beginning of the column, is one of many social scientists who currently follow Goffman (1959/1990) and Turner (1967, 1986) in exploring human life through the lens of a notion of performance. Askew (2002, p. 291) argues that performance is emergent, interactive, and contingent. Performance, like power, is not just a product that is given; it is also a process subject to the vagaries of history and context and on-the-spot improvisation.
Goffman's (1959/1990) dramaturgical approach to the understanding of everyday life suggests that conventional music therapy may be viewed as backstage performances. In this perspective, therapy may provide the client with the necessary preparation for entering the different settings of everyday public life. Recently, a discourse on community music therapy has emerged, which suggests that also front stage performances may be essential elements of (some) music therapy processes. Music therapy "goes public," so to say. Or, since public performances most likely have a long but somewhat undocumented history in music therapy, it is probably more correct to state that public aspects of music therapy practices may be acknowledged and given a new conceptual frame (Stige, 2003).
If performances are interactive events, the audience's power goes beyond that of evaluating the quality of the performance and the competency of the performers. In return, performers are not reduced to qualified transmitters of predefined structures. The values, choices, and powers of each attendant and group of attendants come into play and interplay. Paraphrasing Berthold Brecht we may then argue that music and art is not only a mirror held up to reality; it may also be a hammer with which to shape it. When working with the empowerment of clients, performance then obviously may be one of the tools we would want to use. Since empowerment is about the relationship between individual and community, this also illuminates how communities may be viewed as works in progress, maintained and developed by performances.
Askew, Kelly M. (2002). Performing the Nation. Swahili Music and Cultural Politics in Tanzania. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Goffman, Erving (1959/1990). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Stige, Brynjulf (2003). Elaborations toward a Notion of Community Music Therapy. Oslo: Unipub.
Turner, Victor W. (1967). The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Turner, Victor W. (1986). The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Pulications.
Stige, Brynjulf (2004). Performance of Community. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved June 11, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=fortnightly-columns/2004-performance-community