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WHAT ARE YOU FOR?

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Anthony Sayer Anthony Sayer | 10:52 UK time, Saturday, 11 April 2009

.......a question asked of every conductor by every school party to visit us - invariably given some waffly sort of answer. I've never heard a conductor able define his role - not Karajan, not Rattle - which might partly explain the hedge of edginess that grows around conductors. I mean, if they don't know what they're doing, how are we expected to? We didn't have one last week......conductor, that is. And it was lots of fun. Sacking the conductor so that the leader can do a self-drive job won't work with a full size orchestra; but prune us down to a chamber band, give us an inspirational leader like Liz, and it all works fine. We switch into a different mode. Some things are much easier - things like hearing and playing! Which is just as well, because in a small group everything you do is in the spotlight. There's no hiding.

This is not the first time I've burdensomely blogged at you about this, and it won't be the last. It's at the heart of practical music making. There's a mystery wriggling under this stone. But, a health warning: for any single explanation of things, there'll be plenty who will angrily disagree. When arguments don't go away, it's usually because we aren't asking the right questions, we're probably making the wrong assumptions, and we don't want to be shown up wrong.....and certainly not by the likes of you.......


Apart from marvelling at the mysteries under this stone every time I go to work, my mind was fired up last week because of something I read in A Mind of its Own by Cordelia Fine. She's given me a paradigm shift, and I'm not going to the doctor to get it fixed. First, just so that you know where I'm coming from: if you think that we stare at the conductor's stick, and then just do it, and it's all wonderfully together and musical, then you are mistaken. If you're a conductor who thinks that's how it all happens....... For sure though, a large orchestra without a conductor is a rudderless ship. Cordelia Fine's book is not about music; it's about the mind, and how it's never what you think it is - and it's a very challenging book for those of us who like to think that we're in control of what we're doing. In a chapter called 'The secretive brain' she looks at the processes that lead up to even just the simplest actions. They (folk in white coats) seem to have proved that the simplest action - like lifting a finger to tap on the table, or to play a note, or moving my right wrist to start a note - is initiated a fraction of a second before I have any knowledge or perception of what's going on. It's happening before I know anything about it! That's my paradigm shift - discovering that. Our body 'knows' it before we do. Now, in fast music, a fraction of second relayed across a hundred or so players is a significant amount of time. If you're a bird in a flock of many thousands wheeling synchronously in the sky, a fraction of a second's mistake and you're probably dead - taking a few of your closest flying partners with you. If you had stopped to examine what you're doing, then your species wouldn't still be here to argue about it. If a player starts thinking about what he's doing, he'll disrupt that 'pre-knowing' bit, which all takes up valuable time, and so he'll be wrong, and so he'll clash with players near him, and I can assure you that's not a nice feeling.

Quite often, and more often noticeable in rehearsals, something akin to this happens in the orchestra. Suddenly - when the conductor is talking, only a few are listening (or would be if they could hear him), others are chatting about this or that, and some are finishing reading an interesting paragraph in their magazine - suddenly the conductor makes half a gesture, and lo, the whole orchestra does something absolutely together, perfectly balanced and satisfyingly musical. You get a lot of this with a self drive leader. Liz only gave a handful of conventional 'beats' in the whole concert; there was never any question of anyone beating time. And yet we played more together, and more musically than can normally be achieved. (No, we're not actually absolutely perfect all the time.) She did less explaining than most conductors seem to need. And that leads to an interesting example of all this (whatever 'this' is): quite often, when something isn't working, the conductor and the affected players start trying to analyse what's wrong, and how to fix it. We're all under pressure to get the music right, and so, urgently in the precious rehearsal time, we start trying to 'fix' how we're going to make it nice and right and safe - we switch to a rational and analytical mode - which immediately makes the music stiff and clunky and awfully unmusical. The wrong mode. Everyone gets irritated, bored with the conductor's talking, and the conductor wishes he hadn't said anything (except those who just love the sound of their own voice) - the point seems to have been missed - the wrong question got asked. Maybe we should just read magazines during rehearsals, and everything'll be fine.

There was a Karajan documentary on BBC4 recently. He was being quizzed about this sort of thing and he didn't want to be forced to define, or to be pinned down, so he became irritable (which is what conductors do) - so he said that the players have to "just play.....just play". He also used the flock of birds comparison. Radio 3's 'Music Matters' last week was a long interview with Simon Rattle, talking about his life with the Berlin Phil: the conductor can lead but not control, the players will play like a string quartet, which takes time and can't be quickly 'explained', he wants unalloyed passion, his need is to tell stories.... He said many other challenging things: British orchestras are not good at this sort of thing, nobody knows what a symphony orchestra will be in the 21st century, players fool themselves if they think they can stay in ivory towers, Berlin has the biggest Turkish community outside Turkey - engagement, engagement, engagement. He hasn't changed. His time with us ('78 to '80) was all too short: neither we nor the BBC were ready for him......how good it would be to see him back.......with a supply of magazines for us to read while he prattles on.

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