Performance and Context

  • Tutor: Dr Catherine Laws
  • Level: C/4 (1st year students), I/5 (2nd year students), H/6 (3rd year students)

Aims and content

This project will explore the relationship between what we do in musical performance and the contexts in which performance takes place.

We will examine the function and contexts of performance from a range of historical and contemporary perspectives. This will include the development of the Western concert tradition and its associated rituals, examining how and why particular modes of performance behaviour have arisen. We will also address the relationship between the emergence of the concert tradition and the idea of the autonomous work of music.

Of what musical and cultural use are concert rituals today, whether for composers, performers or audiences? Are they restrictive or liberating? How can we respond creatively to the specifics of context? What role does context play in the mediation of musical meaning, and how can musicians select and/or create performance material that engages with the specifics of space, place and audience?

The project will then look beyond this tradition, examining performance outside the concert hall. How do composers and performers devise and develop work for other sites and spaces, and for different forms of encounter with the public? And what is the impact of new media on modes of performance and relationship to the public? We will examine examples of musical performance developed for other kinds of arts venues (theatres, galleries, museums, libraries, etc), for other community settings, for networked performance, and for the outside environment. For comparative purposes, we will draw on perspectives from other disciplines, using studies in the anthropology of performance and examining selected examples of site-specific art and devised theatre.

The project will comprise practical workshops (focusing on students’ own performance and compositional practices), lectures, seminars (including analysis of recorded materials), and tutorials.


  1. contribution to a joint/group seminar of 15-20 minutes, presented in class and subsequently written up for submission (20%);
  2. an essay (5000 words) on an agreed topic OR (by negotiation) a performance or combination of composition and performance. If the practical option is agreed, the work should be accompanied by documentation analysing the ways in which the practical process is a relevant form of research; how it has addressed questions raised in the project. (80%)

Reading and listening

In project sessions we will examine the work of the following musicians, artists and theatre makers, amongst others:  Bobby Baker, Janet Cardiff, Forced Entertainment, Christina Kubisch, Graeme Miller, Alvin Lucier, Meredith Monk, Cornelia Parker, Punchdrunk, Hildegard Westerkamp.

Key texts:

  • Auslander, Paul. Liveness. London: Routledge, 1999.
  • Berger, John.  Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1990.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  • Carlson, Marvin. Performance: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Carlyle, Angus, ed. Autumn Leaves. Paris: Double Entendre, 2007.
  • Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Rebel Press, 1992.
  • Dunsby, Jonathan. Performing Music: Shared Concerns. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
  • Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
  • Hamilton,Andy. ‘Adorno and the Autonomy of Art’ (2009).
  • Huxley, Mike and Noel Witts. The Twentieth Century Performance Reader. London: Routledge, 2002.
  • Kaye, Nick. Site Specific Art: Performance, Place and Documentation. London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Paddison, Max. 'Music as ideal: the aesthetics of autonomy', in Jim Samson, ed., The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-century Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 318-342.
  • Said, Edward W. ‘Performance as an Extreme Occasion’ in Musical Elaborations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 1-34.
  • Said, Edward W. and Daniel Barenboim. Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society. London: Vintage Press, 2004.
  • Small, Christopher. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.
  • Taruskin, Richard, Text and Act. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Turner, Victor. The Anthropology of Performance. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1986.

Learning outcomes

All students, on completion of the module, should have:

  • participated in workshops exploring the relationship between performances and the contexts in which they take place;
  • developed an awareness of the role of space and place in the composition, performance and/or reception of music;
  • demonstrated familiarity with relevant musicological and performance theory;
  • developed the ability to apply theory to selected examples of practice;
  • gained the skills to reflect critically on the issue of context in their own musical practice.

1st years, in their independent work, should demonstrate Learning Outcomes A1-7, 8 & 10.

2nd years, in their independent work, should demonstrate Learning Outcomes B1-7, 8 & 10.

3rd years, in their independent work, should demonstrate Learning Outcomes C1-7, 8 & 10.