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November 2011

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.