Performance as an Extreme Occasion

Edward Said, in his 1989 article “Performance as an Extreme Occasion,” writes that the execution of a music work as rendered by today’s musicians represents the kind of technical mastery that transcends affection and catapults the performance into an extreme public occasion. He begins by mentioning the works of literary and artistic critics who have explored the performance of such arts as painting and writing. He points out the similarities between this type of performance and that of musicians, but makes the important distinction that (especially today) musicians are less likely to be performing pieces they themselves have composed.

Said goes on to identify the extreme state in which a musician must work himself when performing at concerts, as opposed to “performances” that occur privately. In fact, in today’s world, the musical performer is often so largely superior in skill to the listener that the extremity of the performance is much more pronounced because of the effect it has on its listeners.

He explores the idea of how music is transcribed today as being almost an art form and highlights the difference between transcription for public use (of former times) and the elaborate forms of transcription (as done by Liszt and Gould) which allow the piece to take on a new identity. He describes Liszt’s transcriptions as “an art of sustained and extended quotation, and later of quotation prolonged elaborately into what Liszt was to call a concert paraphrase or fantasia” (Said, 6). Such forms of execution embody a method that showcases the extreme talent of the performer not just in technical but interpretative prowess, and this Said describes as the extreme “occasion” that performance becomes for the musician.

The extreme nature of the performances to which Said alludes comes also from the fact that performers have the added pressure of desiring to sell tickets. This is true not just of concert performers, but of popular musicians who must show off “specialized and eccentric skills.”

Said goes on to describe the performance of such musicians as staked on “the performer’s interpretive and histrionic personality fenced in by his or her obligatory muteness, upon the audience’s receptivity, subordination, and paying patience” (Said, 11). Furthermore, changes in the social methods of performance and the social strata to which performers belong have also contributed to the extreme occasion of performance.

The essay by Said was interesting in the way he compares music with other art forms, but underscores the ability of the performer to be divorced from the composer in this medium. It points out to me the two distinct forms of excellence that musicians can attain. They can become masters at composing as well as masters of performing or executing works composed by themselves or others.

What also was interesting about the particular ideas Said puts forth are his views on transcription as being an art in its own right. The development of transcription from a method of facilitating the amateur or chamber pianist to is elaborately interpretive state demonstrates the part that any art form takes to grow into maturity. It also shows how such ideas a plagiarism can be blurred in the music field, and musical quotes and paraphrases can grow up, become embellished and go on to be their own masterpieces.

What Said calls “the basically illiterate mass market appetite” struck an interesting note for me, as it highlighted the fact that persons who listened to music in the past were probably more appreciative of it precisely because they were familiar with the technical aspects of the music. They perhaps listened as musicians listen—keenly and sympathetically.

The role of recordings, radio and television in reducing music appreciation is therefore something I find ironic, because even though it has increased the exposure of the masses to music, it has reduced the need for them to understand how to play it. Therefore, this increases the effect of performance as an extreme occasion as it needs to happen less frequently and is therefore more dramatic when it does.


Said, Edward. “Performance as an Extreme Occasion.” Title of Book. City of Publication: Name of Publisher, Year of Publication.

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