Sunday, November 18, 2012

Strange days - on perception and ambitions

I'm 37. I left my job as a professional orchestra musician some nine years ago. One of the main reasons for giving up a seemingly perfect job, was that I rarely felt I was spending 'artistic energy'. I wasn't 'spending my emotions' when performing. There was always too many seemingly irrelevant obstacles or circumstances, and all I ever wanted, was to be in that extreme and amazing state of performing in which you focus only on emotion, and not on technique, logistics or anything else.
I was certain that I would much sooner find this in conducting. How little did I know...

Now I occasionally get to conduct assignments in which I have great responsabilities; I'm at the front of big orchestras or expensive productions, conducting music of great beauty or length or complexity. It's amazing.
And yet, too often I'm struggling with that same feeling...

For the production I'm conducting at the moment, I can never really relax, and I can rarely focus on 'music'.
There are several reasons for this:

1) It's a strangely complicated score. Not that the musical elements of the score in themselves are extreme, but I'm constantly spending a large chunk of my total 'bandwidth' checking the ever-changing meters, coordinating repeated bars (of which there are many that have to be timed with action on stage) and giving cues to singers...
The way this specific composer writes, the traditional sense of periodicity is often blurred, so I can't always tell just by instinct where we are in a phrase or a succession of phrases. The structure is more repetitive, and relates to a Stravinskyan use of recurring and shifting cells and constructing tension by longterm juxtaposition of mutually syncopated elements. Coupled with drones and a harmonic treatment that favors repetition over development, and a rather symbolic use of barlines within which the traditional hierarchy of beats does not apply, performing it sometimes feels similar to reading sentences that have no punctuations. All of this is not necessarily bad or problematic, but it makes it harder to perform, simply because you think more than you play.
Spending bandwidth on 'logistic' elements is an absolutely normal and necessary part of conduting, but in the end, you really want to keep that amount of bandwidth as low as possible. This is what mastery is all about, this is what makes the 'maestro'.
As I keep repeating to singers and musicians: Ideally, I want to not have to give a single cue.
Ideally, I don't want to count, decipher, calculate or otherwise intellectualise anything during a performance.
I want to initiate tempo, pulsate, paint phrases and structures and guide the volumes of sound and emotion. In other words, make music.

This is an automated feeder. It is not a conductor, even if it does look a bit like Lorin Maazel.

2) [ the last minute before posting, I decided to delete this paragraph - for now. It quickly became very focused on a specific individual, and just a bit too personal, and I'm not sure that's in the interest of anyone at the moment.]

3) The printed material is a stupid catalogue of misprints and sloppiness. There are basically no dynamics in the score or parts, and there are a thousand mistakes as well as missing articulations, expressions and otherwise fundamental elements. I imagine not a single hour has been spent on proofreading or editing before we recieved the material.
Now, when you create an opera, there is a natural editing process going on during the rehearsals. You cut some text, some music, repeat some bars, change the turn of a phrase etc. This is done in a running exchange between director, conductor, composer and librettist. No opera has ever been created in which this didn't happen.
But, before we even get to that delightful process of trimming the fat, you have to assume that the composer and publisher sort out most mistakes before handing over their material. Especially in a time in music history, where rehearsal time is such a rare commodity.
I'm baffled and angry, having to spend precious hours of orchestra rehearsal time writing dynamics in the parts, or guessing whether the strings have to play pizzicato or arco. Is it my job to remove chords from an oboe part, or telling the clarinettist what to do when he's asked to play a note that is below the range of the instrument?
No. It is not. But I have to deal with it.

4) Unfortunately, the ensemble appears to have severe internal issues at the moment. I say this with some sadness, for it's a group that I have worked with a lot and that I have always enjoyed visiting. All the musicians are highly skillled players in their own right, but they now seem to have a ton of issues within the group that they for the moment are not able to sort out. Honestly, If this didn't affect their performance, it wouldn't bother me; I firmly believe that anyone is entitled to disagreement. But, when standard musical operations, such as playing a semi-complicated rhythm together, become impossible simply because of some ongoing animosity, it becomes my problem.
If you can't abandon your ego and mentally and emotionally 'reach out' to another musician, how can you even think to play in a chamber ensemble? If you can't talk to the person sitting next to you, how can you hope to solve the hundreds of mini-problems that arise during music making? You can't.
In my experience, what often happens in dysfunctional groups is this: many musical problems that players should solve themselves - or between themselves - they suddenly look to the conductor to solve, and thus we become tools in some mock-up psychology excersize of mediation and conflict resolution. Something for which I have neither the qualifications nor inclinations.
Dear musician, I am very sorry. I can't magically show you how to play a triplet together with your colleagues, if you are not willing to pay attention to what the other musicians are doing. It's just not possible.
Yes, by conducting in a certain way, I can enable the two of you to play together, or I can encourage a certain rhythmical flavor, but it all begins with you.
Yes, I will happily beat the drum all day so you can march in unison, but I will not lift your foot for you.
So, is it my job to solve a group's internal problem for them? No. It is not. But I have to deal with it.

In addition to all this, there are all the normal circumstances that might serve as a distraction: audience presence and reactions, performance excitement, random bloopers (that anyone can make of course), physical limitations, shortcomings in the music or text etc. etc.

My former teacher Giancarlo Andretta said this many times: "It is not our fault, but it becomes our problem" and yet again I can only agree with him: As a conductor, a large part of the job is simply dealing with other peoples mistakes (as if dealing with my own shortcomings wasn't enough to keep me busy!), and when those around us don't prepare with the same diligence as we do, or when they even expect us to do their work for them, it becomes a major issue.
All this might sound arrogant, but please don't misunderstand: It's not about me claiming to be infallible, for I am as much to blame as anyone else. Perhaps I need to force myself to shift my focus, to relinquish my control with some of those other annoying elements, and then let the chips fall where they may.
After all, you cannot say to have been courageous, if you've never been in any real danger.
Also, it's not a lament of the fact that other people make mistakes, it's a lament of the fact that, for the moment, I am being percieved more as a problemsolver than as a musician. This is not the way I want it to be. This is not what I intended.

What I feel I'm struggling with, is very little bandwidth reserved for purely artistic - or expressive - energy.
I have already spent many years trying to learn how to conduct, and have calmly worked my way from assignment to assignment with the same constant goal. And yet all too often, I go home with a sinking feeling of having spent my energy on anything but that which it should be all about: emotions.

I haven't slept well in the last three weeks, and I have the weirdest dreams. Our performance last night was probably the first ever performance in my career as a professional musician, in which I felt completely numb and detached from my surroundings. It was a very unsettling feeling, and it worries me greatly. I don't ever want to experience that feeling again. Earlier in the day, I felt like I might have caught a bug, but mentally I felt worthless and hopeless, and I believe it was simply because external circumstances would not allow me to do that which I wanted the most: to make music.

Instead...for yet another evening, I was just a conductor.

- J

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ok this is a first for me:

The piece is called (.. .. ....) and is by danish composer Simon Løffler. I'm preparing it for a concert next week with the Athelas ensemble (

I regularly see bars or sections repeated in new music, and Simon's pieces have a lot of these, but this one sets the record I think:

If you could magically create your dream conductor, but he/she could only posess one quality, he/she should preferably be...