The Conductor--A More Appropriate Role

We all know the scene. 

The conductor, by the mere lifting of a finger, the raising of an eyebrow or the wild flinging of his arms brings forth the immense sound of the orchestra. He dances, he cajoles, he beguiles, he erupts. And after all is finished, sweaty, tired yet elated, he turns to the audience and bows with pleasure and satisfaction over his performance.

Yet, what did he actually do?

The orchestra has done the playing, has created the sound. The composer has written the music and, therefore, the organization of the performance. The conductor has directed the musicians during the performance. 

Do they need to be directed, to be led?

The great pianist/composer Franz Liszt, an occasional conductor, thought that “the real task of the conductor, in my opinion, consists in making himself ostensibly quasi-useless.” This is the opinion expressed in Lost Secrets of Master Musicians, a point of view supported by evidence implicit in the nature of music that demonstrates a conductor’s presence in performance is unnecessary.

Do choreographers direct the corps de ballet onstage during a performance? Do theatrical directors cue actors from a podium in the middle of the stage for all the audience to see? Do coaches instruct athletes from the field or place themselves in the middle of a tennis court to play the game through the action of the athletes?

In the same way a director of theater prepares the actors for performance, so the conductor may serve a legitimate function in directing the efforts of musicians preparing for a concert, helping them achieve an overall vision. 

But, unlike the theater director, why do conductors never leave the stage?

Since a conductor’s purpose is to organize the efforts of the players, the fact that the conductor feels compelled to remain onstage during the performance suggests that the players have not been adequately prepared.

This, it turns out, is true. They have not been prepared for the performance because that is not the conductor’s goal. His actual purpose is to make himself not “quasi-useless” as Liszt would hope, but to make himself indispensable and essential to the proceedings. 

How does he accomplish this? 

By a subversion of musical values, while proclaiming a sanctified adherence to his self-asserted role as an exemplar and dispenser of profound musical insight. The conductor’s “art,” his artifice, is his imposition of so-called “conducting technique” onto a structure that has no need of it. 

Music should be led, if indeed that is even a coherent conception, not by a conductor as the mediator of action, but by the music itself and the unfiltered interaction of the people who actually play the music. The score is the rule maker, the mediator, not the conductor. 

It is generally assumed it is necessary that a musician’s every action be continually controlled by a conductor. The conductor “plays” the orchestra. The musicians supposedly willingly allow themselves to be his puppets, to become his avatars. 

Is this level of control necessary? Are musicians truly not capable of playing without a conductor? Or is this a tradition, begun as an expediency to organize the efforts of a group of players, that has become a reality because musicians have been conditioned to accept this unusual arrangement, to as they put it, “play under a maestro, a master?” 

It is time to initiate the era of the anticonductor. 

Unlike the conductor, the anticonductor would prepare an orchestra to play in concert without a leader. He dispenses with the misdirection of “conducting technique,” which by its interference with direct musical interaction between the performers mechanizes performances. The anticonductor utilizes musical understanding as an organizing principle, realizing that playing together requires that musicians think together. 

To coordinate the interaction of individual ensemble performers, players must either think together (phrase together), which presupposes that the players possess musical sophistication and technical skill (for top-level musicians, this is a given) or they must follow a leader; they must be led. Both engender very different psychological and musical states. The former promotes cooperation, creativity and energy. The latter breeds fear and a mechanical response from performers, eventually decaying to animosity towards the “leader,” masked by boredom and apathy. This circumstance cheats the audience from a truly engaged musical experience by the performers.

Is there a “directing technique” that actors must obey in live performance? Do they need the permission of the director before they may speak their lines?

In fact, the actors lead each other through the interaction dictated by the script. Similarly, a musical score forms the basis of the musicians’ interaction. Like actors, musicians are capable of “speaking” to one another on stage without the oversight and control of a mediator.

The score displays an intertwined set of relationships, which if properly understood, provides its own direction, interplay, phrasing and creative freedom, making the slavish obedience to the beating of beats by a conductor a childish and amateurish contrivance. Far from being the creator of musical values, the need for the presence of a conductor in orchestral performance represents the most banal level of musical competence.

It is time that professional musicians freed themselves and music from this illegitimate dependence. The time of the anticonductor has arrived.

David Jacobson