Music and education have lost a most significant caretaker in Australia. Those fortunate to have learnt from the conductor and educator Richard Gill will always remember his tireless passion for music and his unlimited enthusiasm for humanity. Richard was inspired by possibility. An unequivocal love for possibility distinguishes the musician, the educator and the artist. In our passion for possibility, music and education converge. Such passion nourishes and renews humanity when it is carried by a commitment to beauty and truth. “Together with their students, teachers embark on the search for the lost wisdom how to be a human being” writes the philosopher Georg Picht. Gill was such a teacher.

More specifically, Richard Gill was an exemplary custodian of the art of listening. This made him at the same time also an exemplary custodian of musicians. Listening is fundamental to humanity. It is substantially formed by music and it can substantially form listeners. Music contributes most to such formation as it always demands more from the listener and from the musician. For musical listening is not finished by having merely heard. Musical listening reaches out, recognises and validates the other to gain its most profound insight from the perspective that is essentially not its own. True listening always transcends the individual listener through active attention to the other.

In everyday life, listening is seemingly familiar. Yet, as our decreasing ability for genuine dialogue in public life indicates, listening is becoming increasingly difficult and rare. We hear much, but we notice little. We talk, argue and debate, but we rarely listen beyond such talk, argument and debate. Our listening is as noisy as our talk. Some might argue that this development is intended. Amplified stimuli exhaust our attention, deafen our ears and blunt our minds. People who can not listen can be manipulated. They are easily lead.

Against advancing deafness, genuine listening affirms the freedom of human existence and spirit. Genuine listening does not merely process acoustic stimuli. It is not limited to reactive perception but follows creative imagination. It is the responsibility of the autonomous individual. It is a profoundly human activity. Genuine listening intuits and anticipates what is about to be heard. At the same time it retains and questions. It must reflect and confirm that what is heard makes sense. The dual consciousness of listening reflects our temporal existence, our extension within a temporal flux from past to future. Listening is actively finding meaning in the always decaying and renewing flux of reality. Human existence is part of this flux. Some aspects of our being seek to arrest it. An ambitious pursuit of comprehensive knowledge and objectification is driven by our desire to overcome transience – an essentially Faustian endeavour with potentially Faustian consequences. We forget too readily that in the face of a chaotic, mysterious becoming, humanity cannot hold fast and defiantly assert its objectified simplifications. It must learn to listen, its intentional activities bridging the distance between mere hearing and anticipatory, retentive attention. Those who truly listen do not only hear more and better - they will hearken! Through listening we reach beyond the reality of appearances, beyond the many things, the mesmerising events and the exciting happenings that distract our lives. Through listening we reach for the transcendent realm where humanity finds itself and its essence.

In his educational and artistic work with musicians Richard Gill inspired huge numbers of listeners of all backgrounds, abilities and interests over many decades. One Leitmotiv remains dominant: the quest for the best listener. “We are looking for the best listeners,…” Richard Gill would beam into the audience of school children and discovery concert audiences alike. Indeed. We are still looking for the best listeners and we always should be!

Richard Gill showed and argued why listening matters and how it is developed. For one, the listening ear is never finished. The possibilities of listening are endless. Listening requires passion and skill. It requires single minded attention, resilience and compassion – even the failure to hear must renew our attention and our resolve to listen. Listening is learnt. Its traditions are passed on. It requires training and method and it requires leaders and teachers with truthful ears and hearts. Richard Gill exemplified the conservation of listening that is at the heart of our civilisation and of our culture of music and education with which traditionally a Conservatorium is charged. His work establishes leading, timeless ideals for anyone contributing to such a task.

Listening that is always present and close also seems the least noticed and the least understood. Richard Gill had a miraculous gift to show its mysterious importance without unnecessary abstraction but with passionate attention and inspiring imagination. He leaves a silence into which we must listen. His memory compels us towards renewing attention, towards a stronger resolve to listen, towards more purpose in the collective pursuit of music and the thoughtful engagement with education and most importantly towards real hearkening to the truthful possibilities of humanity.

Musicians spend countless hours practicing their instrument. It is an activity which also attracts extended discussion, relentless admonition from teachers and competitive comment from colleagues. It can become a battleground for individual consciousness and create at times ambivalent results. Not everyone who practices gets better. Some fight a heroic battle with frustration. Others pay a high cost automatising their performance in search of certainty and security. Some disable their imagination on the way. To be sure, many get better over time and all agree that without adequate and effective practice no musician will improve. Experienced musicians know that there is a reason for effectiveness and success of practice: the kind of attention that is brought to the task and our ability to work with this attention in the confines of our own perception and imagination.

Some time ago, a young musician wrote to me her observations, which I cite here with her permission: “I was just in the practice room, and found myself playing but not really doing anything - what many call "mindless" practice. So I thought to myself, this is a waste of time. Why am I practicing? How exactly do I want to sound? Presently I remembered my pianist's advice to try singing a phrase before playing it in order to sort out my thoughts and create something tangible to aim for (I later remembered hearing the same advice, in slightly different words and contexts, from half a dozen other teachers, including Donald Weilerstein). As soon as I started singing, it came to me: the importance of having an objective. After all, what is the point in doing anything if you don't know why you're doing it? Sure, you may be able to force yourself to practice for hours on end if you have perennial discipline (which I do not believe I have), but even then, if you do not have any idea as to what it is that you want to get from it, doesn't it make it all pointless? I realized that "singing" before playing, as well as "silent practice" or "practicing without the instrument" is all meant to serve that cause: figuring out your own idea of "perfect" so you can aim towards it and try to get as close as you possibly can to that ideal. That is why no two true musicians play the same - because everyone has a different "perfect." And that is why we all practise (or should) - not to eliminate mistakes, but to set a goal and with every inch of effort that is put into it, try to get closer and closer to that goal. The whole concept of practising, then, became more of a quest than a task (which is how I had looked at it until that moment). I could go on forever trying to quote all the things that I've heard along the road which all started to make sense once I made this discovery, but then I would never finish this already endless email. But not only did this new way of seeing everything affect me inside the practice room; it also changed the way I perform, and even teach. When performing, instead of thinking of what could go wrong, what to remember to do, or what not to miss, one should just envision a "perfect" performance, and, if it has been practiced the right way, it should happen without too much of a problem. Incidentally, this sort of thinking also maximizes concentration and minimizes nervousness, I find. If you're really concentrating hard enough on thinking (or "singing in your head"), there shouldn't really be any effort or time left to worry about what the audience or jury is thinking.”

This report is a real gift. It articulates wonderfully clearly what is at stake when musicians practice. I would like to focus on some pathways in these reflections:

Sing before you play - here and now we have the focus of attention and intention in our important musical activity. In effective practice we use our singing brain to determine the impulses that lead to the corresponding physical activities. Rather than conceiving playing and performance as reactive where we listen and fix our playing after hearing what has happened, practicing-well (eupraxia) challenges and exercises the creative, singing imagination at all times. The performing musician is so truly creative- creating the performance or musical event seemingly from nowhere and entirely through the powers of her imagination. This does not only give purpose to music making, it actually establishes the thinking which can genuinely sustain and transform doing. Practising-well implies that we imaginatively and intentionally conceive the entirety of the temporal idea that is our performance. Even where we practice technical issues, practice is never merely addressing mistakes or solving problems. It constitutes performance or “doing“ and by constituting such doing it creates being and character.

A second pathway of this special communication points to a perennial concern for artists: perfection is a self sufficient, autonomous idea. We are not pursuing mistakes, be it in their absence. This is a most significant message. Corrected mistakes and solved problems may still be mistakes and problems – working with them may leave us essentially reactive to the phenomena perceived. The philosopher Nietzsche recognised this so clearly in his idea of “overcoming” which requires a complete transformation of being and a thorough commitment to affirmative ideas.
Practice cannot progress on the basis of incomplete or rejected realities. It must rather affirm imagination and confirm the translation of our ideas in reality. Perception of a mistake, or the psychological correlates of dissatisfaction and dissonance between imagined and perceived outcome cannot successfully guide the musical performance where it becomes the main driver of playing. The reason is simple: focussing on a problem transforms the mode of thinking from a creative to a reactive consciousness. (Psychology knows this as “ironic process theory”. Try not to imagine a pink elephant for one minute and you know what I mean!)

While mistakes may be starting points for the creative imagination, the artist focuses on affirmative intentionality. He seeks what must be, rather than what is not. Accordingly, the artistic musician leaves behind what is no longer relevant to the actual artistic aim. The musical idea of perfection sheds the otherness of non-being- philosophically this follows Parmenidean principles. The pre-Socratic philosopher’s famous vision of justice and truth divides experience and true conviction in accordance with Being and Non-Being:

“Come now, I will tell thee - and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away - the only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for anything not to be, is the way of conviction, for truth is its companion.. The other, namely, that It is not, and that something must needs not be, - that, I tell thee, is a wholly untrustworthy path. For you cannot know what is not - that is impossible - nor utter it; For it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be”. (Parmenides, Proem- The way of truth)

Parmenides establishes the ontological basis of consciousness (or thought - noeisis) itself. We can- and must not think that what is not, is or we leave the path of truth. Philosophers (and others) commonly attribute the label „idealism“ to this approach, however such a classification tacitly imports dualistic principles of world and subject into our thought. A musician knows that dualism is theoretical and conflicted. More importantly, it remains unsuccessful where it matters, notably in performance. For the artist, it is clear that there is one path and one path only: the affirmation and utterance of truthful imagination which unifies itself in an encompassing conception of being… that which is and must be.

Here, however, we encounter a challenge: Under certain conditions our thought and imagination are unable to exercise their powers. In situations of physical and mental stress, we are inclined to become increasingly reactive. Our awareness narrows and our energy rises towards executing fight or flight responses for one. If such conditions are encouraged in the practice room through frequent frustration or carelessness, our attention will not keep up and our imagination (and with it any authentic intentions) will be progressively sidelined. At this point, simply stopping is the best we can do. Once the reactive energy subsides, the imagination can re-engage and determine what must be the case. We need to maintain the activity of our consciousness in its creative dynamic. Naturally, this process can only really work if it is thoughtfully pursued with every step of repetition. Many believe that the key to musical practice lies in the mere accumulation of repetition. However, in this thinking repetition is not desirable unless it is guided by clear anticipation and presented by the imagination in the first instance. This extends to both musical and physical facts. Even supposed “physical training” receives its effectiveness from anticipating actions clearly in the imagination. Simply doing something again and again does not make it better.

Finally, the important message of this communication is that practicing is a quest, not a task – being a musician is indeed a way of life. Seeing practice as a quest allows us to conceive of music making as an important search for wisdom. This includes interpretative activity on a comprehensive level including embodied knowledge and knowledge of self. And indeed: the activity of musical practice is validated most clearly when it develops insight and wisdom that leads behaviour, skills, attitudes and performance abilities, as it must.

In the end, performance requires a capacity to clearly anticipate reality. In practice, musicians develop this imagination in all its complex, perfect detail. More or less random execution pursuing a vague passion for music or automatic reaction as answers to a yearning for security offer limited options with few creative possibilities and little musical application. Driven performances energised by frustration no matter how dazzlingly lively leave us exhausted or –worse- musically assaulted. The reality for anyone who has drilled music making to automatic levels rapidly diminishes. The results of largely repetitive practice are diminished attention, reduced listening and arid imagination. Performers of this kind are grateful for the lifeline provided by clichés and fashions making their playing as predictable as factory ware. While it might appear stylish, polished and even somewhat impressive it reaches the manicured level of a soap opera. Followers of fashion mostly sense the silence of their imagination, but they also find it difficult to address. In fact, their paradigm of practice does not allow this to be otherwise. We must remember: like a nocturnal animal, the imagination may retreat in conditions of business, urgency and noise. In the silence of the practice room a musician creates conditions of leisure in which the imagination can flourish consistently and authentically. Committing to such an aim changes our approach, our methods and ultimately our being. It enables the musician to find her true voice and become who she is.

Personal and professional circumstances have imposed silence on these writings for some time. Important digression has created fermentation of thought and a test of existence in the meantime. It is time to again face the music. And in this, I would like to start with a return to the beginning. Such a return is integral to philosophical method. Despite its seeming slowness returning to the beginning advances us on the path towards truth. So, the question is initially: Why am I a musician? And since I will consider it as a philosophical question, my argument will not be talking about historical fermentation or personal digressions any further. The subject of this question will appear only through its subject matter.

“Why am I a musician?” is an existential question. It is not answered comprehensively with reference to psychological, cultural or -least of all- professional reasons. Being a musician implies that we adopt music as a way of being and identify with it as a way life. Why is this so? What might justify the thought that the human being is best qualified as a “homo musicus”?

The answer I want to propose is fairly simple: Music articulates and confronts us with the essence of existence, namely, consciousness in its intentionality or directedness and spirit in its freedom. Thus, being a musician is a most authentic form of existence. Such an existence is a performative accomplishment. Freedom and intentionality need to be achieved. Freedom is not readily available on a shelf, nor are we free because we are entitled. We need to work deliberately at freedom of spirit. We must pursue explicitly autonomy of consciousness. The alternative is a mindless pursuit of opportunity generating quiet desperation.

The important point now is that such work takes place as a search for meaning or within a process of interpretation. While there are other forms of activity and endeavour that human beings undertake to make sense and discover meaning, music in its most complex and developed forms seems the most comprehensive in this respect. Making and interpreting music embraces and integrates embodiment, feeling and spirituality, formal and structural thought, social interaction and historical enculturation. It unifies our existence and our faculties in all conceivable dimensions profoundly. It is this interpretative discovery of meaning that gives music its fundamental purpose.

Reflections on the purpose of music may otherwise easily encourage trivial convictions. The thought that music makes us better or improves humanity in general is one of these. While it sounds like a nice idea, a quick look at history should make us hesitate: Reinhard Heydrich, a principal architect of the holocaust, played violin with sensitivity and skill, we are told. His parents were professors for music at the Halle Conservatory in Germany. Many of history’s most abysmal characters - Hitler a case in point - were music lovers and by all reports musical. There were orchestras in the concentration camps who played for the entertainment of privileged guards and officers. Mussolini too played the violin. Music can be used to entertain and ornament all kind, including evil human existence. Music is used to whip up the frenzy of warriors, sideline reflection and advance seduction. Music separates us in tribal isolation and exited confrontation. Yet, music is also used to connect, to calm and to cultivate us. It seems that music is as ambivalent and as multivalent as the human being itself. Especially where music is treated as expedient to our moral or emotional life its ambivalence seems to come to the fore.

Be that as it may, the purpose of music cannot show itself adequately in its supposed moral value. Music has no such value in and for itself. This becomes clear already when we look at its ontology and the implications in relation to our conscious existence. Music exists because of a sustained effort and expert activity of consciousness to make - and listen to it. Music is “intentional”. Music is direction and directedness into the future, a formation of time and a consistent, and ongoing creation of temporal form. Only an ongoing process and life of human consciousness and the complementary listening process leads to the existence of musical form. The temporality and essential transitoriness of music implies that the power and performance of our consciousness is consistently challenged. Music never simply sounds unless there is a forming, meaning-seeking intentionality at work. Music requires consistently active imagination. This is why Hanslick refers to music as a „contemplation of the imagination“

The consequences of these demands are profound, especially if we consider that developments in our technological world seem to suggest that human intentionality is in itself a deterministic process that can be reduced to algorithmic, generative mechanisms. It is one of the essential features of music that it seems to contradict such a technological view of the human being. Music calls for genuine freedom of thought – thought is here understood in the widest sense as freedom of consciousness which encompasses feeling, structural thought, intuition and reflection, memory and anticipation and spontaneity. Music defies objectivity as it crosses the boundaries of “clock-time” and reveals to us the existence and experience of a Bergsonian duree.

To be sure, the denial of objectivity which is inherent in the ontology of music is easily forgotten in contexts where we increasingly commodify music and relate to it in the form of trade-able objects. However, the truth remains that music and all that fascinates us about it, is related to an original requirement for intentionality and ontological openness. The ontological features of music find their direct correlate in what we call ordinarily “freedom and autonomy of thought”. To be experienced as meaningful, music requires our exercise of free and autonomous consciousness. Such listening brings music to life in its authentic being. The alternative is a perception of music that reduces it to a mere acoustic stimulant or ornament reducing our experience of music to the level of expediency.

What, however does it mean to say that music requires interpretation and inspires us to search for meaning? We are used to thinking of musical interpretation as a complex technical process which largely involves performers. Is interpretative activity required from those who perform as well as from those who listen? If music is perceived in its metaphorical, intentional identity in the shared activity of consciousness or listening how does such listening discover meaning?

We can answer this if we look at the phenomenon of interpretation in the context of language initially. According to the thought of the German romantic philosopher Schleiermacher (“Hermeneutik und Kritik”), we need to make an effort to make sense - “misunderstanding occurs as a matter of default”. In the context of the interpretation of text, Schleiermacher refers to two dimensions: a literal or grammatical grasp (the meaning of the words and the sentences) and an intuitive, holistic understanding (Schleiermacher speaks of “divination”) which anticipates the possibility of understanding the literal and grammatical layer of meaning in the first instance. Simply put, we must have a sense, an intuition of meaning, before we can understand the words in their full and detailed meaning. Interpretation in this sense is an artistic activity which does not simply gather the meaning from a given text. Giveness and gathering presuppose that the text is ready and available for such, which is not the case. The text comes to life with the free activity of human consciousness in the realm of intuition just like a musical form. Interpretation and the search for meaning are always creative and open activities. A text or musical form is not subject to dogmatic determination at any time. This understanding of meaning implies a dynamic process generated by infinity and openness.

Schleiermacher’s view of interpretation lends itself easily to music. Apart from the fact it might perhaps give a good explanation why we still bother with the music of the past today, the interaction of an intuitive (“divination“) and a literal approach highlights that all relationship with music is ultimately artistic and essentially open. We are never finished with the mystery of music. We continue to wonder about - and search for its meaning. In listening to music, in composing and performing we pursue our artistic search for meaning – we pursue music as a riddle. If this pursuit is sincere and insistent, we can give essential meaning to our life, a meaning that is lost when we adopt a merely expedient attitude to music that aims at success, entertainment or gratification of instinct.

The psychologist Jordan Petersen reminds us how important such a difference is for our entire focus on life when he says (12 Rules for Life): “Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short term-gain. It’s narrow and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It is immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organised and unified. Meaning emerges from the interplay between the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering. It will make everything matter. It will make everything better.”

It is the search for meaning that sustains the musician in music and centres him as a human being. It distinguishes the musician from a mere performer who we recognise in tendencies for unequivocal pretence, ready solutions and manipulative disregard for truth. Once we understand that music triggers our desire and search for meaning there just seems no convincing alternative to being a musician.

In the past decades Australian Higher Education has undergone a stunning development. For one, the sector has become obese and exploded in size. Inevitably, it has declined intellectually, consolidated and streamlined disciplines and subject matters to conform to a homogeneous culture of analytic knowledge and seemingly critical learning. Left with little more than a mere desire to survive and conform, it has become a trading post of qualifications pedaling impressions and praising opportunity, its life marked by political expediency.

This development has been largely driven by political, social and economic forces. Government imposed reforms and funding levers pin Australian Universities into corners where they say they have little choice. Not surprising, as the spectacular change in the culture of Universities themselves has also starkly reduced their ability to remain creative. Styling themselves as corporate players without comparable competence or compliance at management levels, some disciplines face dynamics that may see their disappearance from credibility within anything truly resembling “higher education”.

We are rightly mourning the loss of biological species, polar ice or indigenous languages from our world at a daily rate. The loss of knowledge, skill and excellence in disciplines that have for centuries determined our culture and identity appears to proceed unnoticed. Worse, it seems to be progressed by those who should know better. If we substitute discipline with mere experience the damage will only become apparent when it has become irreversible. Already now, many students and some of their academics can no longer read musical notation competently and would fail simple aural dictation tests.

I am talking in particular of the fate of musical performance in Higher Education. Since the French Revolution musical performance has been at the centre of cultural definition and development of an enlightened society. Like museums, art galleries and universities themselves, symphony orchestras, chamber music societies and opera companies have defined central parts of spiritual life for citizens of modern societies. Musical performers have played crucial roles in defining collective imagination and identity. In times of existential need they formed spiritual life rafts in which societies saved what was most essential to them. The musical performers of Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany affirmed spiritual identity and humanity on a daily basis against bestial and oppressive regimes. Their interpretative musical performance reminded society of its true values and communicated strength of spirit and freedom where noisy rhetoric had wreaked abysmal havoc. The capacity to confront and transform despair, a prevalent sentiment of modern man, is characteristic of musical performance and interpretation which seeks meaning. It reveals an ongoing, immediate and powerful creativity at the heart of humanity and builds a path towards a free and authentic self. Combined with a persistently replenishing imagination, the interpretation and performance of artistically created music is unsurpassed in developing human abilities on all levels and achieving a transcendence of limitations in all aspects of life. Its benefits for cognitive, emotional, social, spiritual and cultural development continue to be well documented.

Despite characteristics that should in essence privilege musical interpretation and performance as an activity of formation of self (surely, a core aim of education) Higher Education discourages it in any expert sense and depresses community attitudes in turn. Though they be the last to admit, Australian universities are driving excellence in musical interpretation and performance from their Conservatoria. In its place we find a theoretical thought about music and a relentless advance of an inclusive, superficial curriculum that mirrors the scholastic attitudes of the Middle Ages, albeit spiritually entirely adrift. A general, most basic musical practice, or in fact no musical practice at all is invading curricula and disciplinary structures serving the interest in music as psychological, ethnological, anthropological, educational and social-scientific phenomenon and requiring no significant artistic competence or skill. Institutional narratives and ideological agendas actively demolish artistic perspectives to make way for a curiosity fueled by immature imagination and infantile creativity. The more or less spectacular collapses of major music schools in Australia, the decline of musical performance at major Australian Universities, once centres of artistic performance excellence, are not accidental. They signal how far we have advanced in our thoughtlessness and neglect as caretakers of culture.

The ideological euphemisms that accompany this demolition can do little to appease a significant concern: A society that accepts the decline of rigour in the artistic interpretation and performance of music must not wonder why demagogues thrive who violate human interpretative autonomy and rally their charges around “fake news”. As Plato reminds us, when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state will change with them.

The imagination is indeed a perplexing faculty. On the one hand it suggests an intimate and silent realm of possibility; on the other it projects loudly our dreams and hopes, our needs and yearnings, our wishes and wants in public activity. One such activity is musical performance and a more specialised kind of such performance is the performance of so-called “serious-music”. The Violin Concerto by Beethoven will fall into this category for anyone who cares about such a label. However, more intriguing than applying a label of “seriousness” to music is the question what possibilities Beethoven’s work might afford the imagination today.

A recent concert experience provided striking opportunity to reflect on just this question. Here is the setting: A gala performance– garlands of purple flowers framing the stage to provide a setting of perfumed expectancy. The musicians of the orchestra already on stage seem disciplined and alert; dimming lights, concentrated tuning. Conductor and soloist enter to excited and voluptuous applause. Both are major performers of international standing but the contrast could not be more striking: Small statue, grey hair, impish walk- the conductor appears boyish, excited and eager to share the secrets of music. The violinist in yellow mermaid dress enters like a princess, gracing all with her presence. The production is perfect: dress-matching shoes, immaculately styled hair, radiating and gracious smile – a suggestion of eternal youth, of mythical beauty, of a goodness that suggests redemption.

The entrance is electrified by expectation. The performance had already begun months ago with a carefully planned campaign in glossy media where patrons and public were prepared to witness a phenomenon, to hear a superstar otherwise only encountered in film or sport. Those who are here tonight had heard the tale of legendary fame, of a life which transcended ordinary tragedy and extraordinary promise, of an eternally youthful giftedness and of a dedication to others through charity work and the promotion of young artists. Is this merely a musician or is this someone who may respond to our dreams of eternal youth, of combining beauty, truth and compassion, a creature of all-encompassing goodness?

The entrance suggests a magical aura. It hints at a fulfilment of the quest for eternal youth. It hints at relief from the eternal disappointment of transience. It hints at redemption from a daily struggle with goodness and truth in an ordinary, dreary and frustrated life. Here comes a specimen of perfection, invited by the audience’s imagination, by its desires, dreams and disappointments. With the first sounds of her violin, this artist will need to respond to a call of an imagination and of a yearning that reaches beyond Beethoven into the abyss of modern life. How this artist performs in this dimension will define her art!

The orchestra starts the extended tutti with concentrated care. There is attention and control of tempo- a reticence to become assertive and exuberant notwithstanding that the music may call for this. From her first entry with its ascending dominant seventh arpeggio the violinist commands our attention with a sound of striking modality, aided by intense vibrato, lascivious glissandi and seductive contrasts exposing breathtaking colour, beauty and tone. This is a sound-show to spectacular effect and with compelling colour. Unusual rubato, sudden effects with striking seduction in sound, some sharpness in pitch at times cuts into the listener’s attention – no device is spared to tantalise our attention. It becomes increasingly clear why the orchestra was careful: It did not recognise that it was in fact part of a different kind of performance and that this performer could harness the dreams of an audience more powerfully than any music. It is no longer a question of simply performing a work of music and revealing its existence. The yellow-golden violinist has lured all towards a different kind of realm. Here, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto becomes merely an opportunity to incite the fundamental desires and yearnings accumulated in the everyday. There is myth-making at work here.

The performance unfolds with irresistible authority and wilful imagination. It directs the attention of the listener towards the musician on stage and confronts him with a hidden, amplifying consciousness. Did he come to hear Beethoven’s Violin Concerto? This hardly seems relevant for this performance is about the listeners’ hidden dreams, their yearnings and their unfulfilled desires, their everyday frustration and their despair at the ever receding amount of life seeping away through mundane, everyday activity. The soloist brings redemption, a brief sojourn of hope and a promise that dreams can become real, that myth may be true and that youth can be ever-lasting if only we follow our imagination.

At the end of the performance the gratitude of the audience at this celebration of semblance knows no bounds. Here is an artist who knows that ordinary listeners come to concerts not merely to hear the music: they come with a need for catharsis, to gain redemption from their quiet despair. And the imagination must be complete, the needs fulfilled to temporary satisfaction. The mermaid conjured up the mythical and intoxicating forces of redemption with her violin. Where these forces of Beethoven’s imagination? It hardly matters for the forces of the listeners’ imagination and its desires were stronger. They were inflamed and fulfilled. The power of the mermaid closes our consciousness – she does not question it nor does she free us from it. She seduces and satisfies, perhaps, but she leaves behind a greater dependency. Should this be the purpose of music and music making? Should Beethoven’s Violin Concerto become the vehicle of seduction, of narcissistic wish fulfilment? These are academic questions. They are in any case entirely dependent on accepting my description in the first instance. And there is no way one can argue the point against an essentially irresistible imagination. Putting the question will inevitably ricochêt an answer. “Muss es sein?- Es muss sein!” – Beethoven knew this and so did Walt Disney. But Beethoven extracted the answer from our imagination to enhance our freedom and autonomy of consciousness while Disney buried it into our imagination and thus continued to commit us to an enhanced dominance of desire. The latter is no real catharsis - for the mermaid masquerading as a mother of redemption is little more than a beautiful reflection of dreams which ultimately entomb us in the cellars of our own consciousness.

Harmony, tuning and more recently intonation have been traditionally of interest to philosophers and musicians. Plato, who was influenced by the Pythagoreans has much to say on this (Timaeus, Republic and elsewhere). However, it seems that the violinist and pedagogue Carl Flesch was no ally for any Platonist with an interest in purity and perfection of ideas. Writing on the burdensome topic of intonation, Flesch argues that purity in this area was “an impossibility”. “We must, as much as I regret this” writes Flesch, “strip the saintly aura from the concept of ‘purity of intonation’. Purity in the physical sense is an impossibility.” There are many ways in which one can deal with Flesch’s demystifying yet regretful conclusion. His own practical advice for what appear at times worse or better concrete solutions seems staggeringly close to modern life: “The so called purity of intonation is accordingly nothing but a rather fast, skilled improvement of the originally imprecise pitch. In out of tune playing the tone remains during its entire duration as false as it was at the moment of its creation.”

Let’s translate what Flesch is saying into a simpler context where the philosophical impact will become clear. I extract three perplexing points: Firstly, fudging is everywhere and it is the order of the day. Secondly, excellence is found in a better and more sophisticated ability to fudge, not necessarily in a better capacity to hit the right mark in the first instance. Thirdly, those who are out of tune are simply too slow to fudge or perhaps too dull to get caught. Had they been better and quicker at fudging they would have entered the history books as masters of their art.

While overstating potential generalities here on the basis of minimal definitions we might see that there is nevertheless something profoundly attractive and at the same profoundly perplexing about Flesch’s advocacy of fudging. The attractive aspect seems to me a debunking of the attributes “right” and “wrong” with their intimidating moral and intellectual implications. They are replaced by the more comfortable attributes of “slow” and “quick” – relative concepts of action or reaction. This has liberating psychological consequences as it removes the burden of absolute authority and absolute failure and places our attention and responsibilities firmly within a pragmatic realm. Like flies we do our best to be quick. Unlike flies we do not always die if we don’t succeed. In the realm of the practical we can usually forgive mistakes for we know that no-one is perfect. Containing pragmatic issues removes us from harm and protects our conscience from dealing with moral and intellectual complexities which have merely universal relevance and can overwhelm our capacity to act. It enables us to remain engaged in action staying clear of dogma. Action deals with particulars and particulars are imperfect. Hence we must accept imperfection and (happily and wholeheartedly) embrace fudging. All remain friends – at least until the fudging imposes on the interests of the other (often this occurs rather sooner...) or unless we fudge with the lives of others (what applies to musicians and philosophers may not apply to surgeons or airline pilots).

This brings me to the two troubling aspects of Flesch’s identification of fudging. I am afraid that they will lead me to side with the Platonists against Flesch. Firstly, Flesch is not telling us the whole story. For, even if Flesch is right (and one might argue that he is about as right as saying “snow is never really white”- something trivially true on the grounds that universals are not particulars) not all fudging is alike. The point is this: we know that there is fudging of different quality. We know that some fudging corrupts appearances, our music making and our world and we know that some fudging can improve it. We know that there is a subtle difference between fudging and faking. So, how do we know this and how do we know which fudging to employ and in which direction to fudge? I am suggesting that we can (and must) have an idea of perfection to establish the extent, direction and amount of fudging we employ. Furthermore, we must be attentive and practically committed to this ideal before we act in order to judge and fudge-even assuming Flesch is correct, that is.

Secondly, telling only part of a story is itself a kind of fudging. Embracing fudging without further qualification or regret simply ignores that all pragmatic or practical decisions are context dependent – if we wish them to be sensible, that is. They reflect indirectly our attention to the context in which they are made and enacted. Their quality is determined by the clarity of our attention and by our grasp of a given situation. If our grasp is inadequate, our fudging won’t be any good. It is likely to cause damage. This is brought out very clearly in the phenomenon of intonation: Flesch’s fudging really only works if we know clearly what it is we are intending to hear within a given context and fudge to achieve this. In all other musical and non-musical circumstances fudging is similarly constrained. It derives its qualities and importance from conceptual frameworks, from values and from intentions. These are blended in our attention to the subject matter which – pace Flesch- can indeed remain pure, if not perfect. Even if pragmatic reality compels us to fudge (and Flesch is likely right to suggest that all concrete actions contain fudging) our attention and integrity of view transcend any such fudging and must seek to purify our intentions. (In fairness to Flesch I must point out here that he sort of says this when he suggests exercises that calibrate our attention and supposedly improve our capacity to fudge more effectively.)

However, like so many Flesch fudges the fundamental question whether an inherently imperfect reality is just merely that or whether our consciousness of it requires us to commit to ideas of perfection once we accept the excellence of an art and the authority of the ear and mind. The question is: must we assume, recognise, articulate or develop context? The answer is absolutely affirmative. Without articulating concepts, values, purposes and intentions and the role of any required or real fudging we pretend that fudging is in fact the ultimate story. But this cannot be for it would lead a fudgy world to become further fudged. The consequences are devastating to the harmony of all.

Recent opportunity stimulated further reflection about conductors. What do they do? What should they do? How do they do it? How can it be that there are not only vastly different ways of conducting but such perplexingly different ways of leading an ensemble and its performance? Can something be learnt from observing- and from understanding effective conductors outside their musical achievements?

Literally translated, a conductor “leads” (ducere) an ensemble “together” (con-). The more common derivation of the word would refer us to the phenomena of transmission and conductivity. In this understanding a conductor is someone who transmits- and who is transparent. A conductor facilitates. He translates the creativity of musicians or the idea of the music, perhaps. The conductor has a complex task, then. He brings musicians together to play as an ensemble rather than pursue their creative or musical agendas as disparate individuals. He does so by interpreting and translating the idea of music (or the work of music as the case may be). He variously articulates, he persuades and he balances.

If we are firstly thinking of the task of bringing a group of musicians together, it seems there are two ways of accomplishing this. In the first instance we may be tempted to hold the view that a performance poses primarily a logistic, organisational challenge which requires a complex signalling system to ensure that all play together as intended. This seems a modern and timely view. The conductor will be judged by efficiency and effectiveness to achieve clean ensemble. In this paradigm conductors tend to be directors of musical traffic. Musicians respond by waiting for signals before proceeding. Their own initiatives and actions are dependent on receiving “go-aheads” in the first instance from the person on the podium. They must check at all times that they are rightly playing on cue.

There are many (including high-profile) conductors I know who ultimately adhere to this view. They usually identify themselves by insisting that musicians “must follow the beat” or that musicians “must watch” closely and comply with instruction. They look for compliance. My experience is that they receive often little more than superficial compliance. Nevertheless, a conductor of this kind signals possibilities for clean organisation. But he also imposes explicit limitations on individual autonomy, creativity and spontaneity. He suggests that musicians must be primarily responsive as their role is to translate and interpret external signals. This imposes clear limits on individual inspiration and initiative. After all, personal initiative may get in the way of clean functioning.

Before anyone rejects this compliance view of conducting, let me insist that there is some merit in it. Poorly coordinated or random initiative can often lead to chaos and contradiction. This interferes with translation of purpose and distracts all. The chaotic outcomes can eclipse uninspired and irrelevant results disastrously. An ensemble which spends its time sorting through mess and dissonances may be creative in a way but it will be ineffective in articulating such creativity convincingly. Notwithstanding, the compliance view of performance has a clear limit: Why would anyone continue to exercise their autonomous imagination when an acceptable and successful performance is apparently achieved by translating given gestures and signals into sound? Any musician with autonomous creative imagination will simply detach himself and withdraw into his own imagination. The performance result will be less than inspiring – perhaps coherent of sorts but rarely inspiring.

There is another way, however, to look at the conductor which is derived from a different – and I suggest more genuine- interpretation of musical organisation. In the first instance, all meaningful musical performance unfolds in the moment and within an instant. Reacting to signals establishes a succession where simultaneity is required. The compliance paradigm creates lag and delay. It creates stragglers and latecomers. Genuine musical interpretation proceeds with attention to the musical work as an intentional object. The ensemble, then, has a task to achieve synchronicity and common intent. The conductor’s role is here to direct the musicians’ attention towards the intentional object. Such direction promotes attention and listening. It is directly opposed to the distraction which affirms rules of external functioning and compliance.

In this medial conception, the conductor stimulates the autonomous imagination of a group of musicians in such a way that they naturally choose congruent modes of musical initiative, activity and sound. The conductor is no longer directing traffic from outside. Instead he generates a second order awareness of the musical and immanent flow and inspires musicians to join together in listening. Any decision on go-aheads or subtleties of performance here are made primarily by every individual person him- and herself. They do not emanate from a conductor but from the mediated, natural flow of the music itself. The conductor is focussed on the musical unfolding taking place in his imagination. He projects this unfolding to the musicians with the help of his physical gestures. In other words the conductor invites musicians into a consciousness and imagination of the work in question. In this engagement, musicians will make naturally congruent decisions unless they are distracted in some way. Such distraction can take numerous forms. Lack of technical freedom, tiredness and physical discomfort, egocentricity and preoccupation with individual aspects of the music can all contribute to a lack of attention.

Musicians are responsible to see that they remain open and attentive and their distraction stays at a minimum. Their individual technical and musical preparation ultimately has this aim. Liberated from a requirement to determine right and wrong according to rules and signals of traffic, musicians must be free to determine right and wrong autonomously and in accordance with the natural unfolding of music itself. This includes increased responsibility for their own playing and conduct. It also has evident benefits for their own engagement, their autonomous imagination, their creativity and spontaneity. It provides a conducted ensemble with a consciousness of individual, yet collective freedom and one that is firmly rooted in listening. It may also unsettle musicians who are suddenly faced with responsibilities they did not realise they possessed. However, in the long term it achieves two important things: it preserves the authentic qualities of music making and it affirms the autonomous imagination of the artist.
Musicians instinctively reject an approach which seeks to control and streamline expression. This is understandable as the very activity of music making is an exercise of autonomous subjectivity. At the same time, musicians do not always extend their consciousness of responsibility to a comprehensive engagement with a performance. In large ensembles in particular the musician can be quick to defer decision, abdicate responsibility and withdraw to a position of fulfilling functionality. Such withdrawal serves to balance individual frustration with public demands to perform. However, it has potentially devastating consequences for the musician. It accepts and promotes a restricted musical context. It takes attention away from the task. It destroys the genuine and truthful intent of music making. A musician who plays with diminishing awareness and attention will not do well and must ultimately fail his spiritual task. The musical requirements of harmony and form demand a consciousness of the music which is comprehensive even if the individual musician merely performs a part.

It is clear that only conductors who are genuinely and single-mindedly attentive to music itself will understand this choice. It is their desire to imagine and intuit the music in its fullness. This creates an extended consciousness in which all – musicians and listeners- ultimately participate. Regrettably, much contemporary conducting is inattentive here. Rather than attending to the intentional object with heightened energy and single minded concentration, conductors seek to achieve results and create effects, solve problems, promote performance, satisfy audiences and evoke critical acclaim. In other words: they seek opportunity and success. This leads them to ignore music as an intentional object and seek compliance from others in turn. They tend to forget that the consciousness of the musician is to be with his musical, creative imagination at all times and to seek increasing clarity here. Indulging in musical experience and effect is the privilege of the audience – not the purpose of the conductor or the musician.