Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Damocles Illusion?

I want to start this post by refreshing your memory of the story of Damocles.
Damocles was a servant of the great tyrant king Dionysius the 2nd. When Damocles stated that Dionysius must surely be truly blessed to be king and in possesion of great wealth and power, Dionysius offered to trade places with Damocles. Damocles accepted with great excitement.
Before Damocles was allowed to sit on the throne, Dionysius then had a great sword fitted to hang directly above it, suspended by only a single horse-hair. It didn't take long before Damocles started to fear the sword. Realising that there was more to being king than he had suspected, he soon begged to return to his old place as a servant.

Damocles' sword. Not pictured: Damocles' broom.

There are several interesting points to be made from this story.
Focusing on Damocles, we should infer that we are foolish if we think that it is easy to govern, or to hold any kind of position of power in general. What a "servant" might percieve differs from the complex reality; there are depths and considerations to any decision the King makes, and there is both a weight on the shoulders of the king because his actions have great consequences, and most importantly there is the constant threat of being "killed" i.e. replaced (as symbolised by the sword). Importantly, the string by which the sword hangs is brittle and can snap at any moment.

If we turn the focus on Dionysius, the story opens up in a different way, and the sword takes on a new meaning. The sword now serves to remind us of the responsability of anyone in a fortunate position to constantly give his absolute best. The sword is now not a threat, but rather a symbol of obligation and privilege.

Both aspects of Damocles' sword relate to our work.

About 12 years ago, I was in a bit of a Damoclesian state myself (Sorry, I couldn't resist the opportunity to invent a word). From my position in the orchestra, I observed the 'kings' (conductors, duh...try to keep up, dummy) and thought that I could do their job just as well or better with little effort, and that anyone in their position was extremely fortunate.

Iznogood says: "I want to be Calif in stead of the Calif!"
Dear reader. If you don't know this comicbook antihero,
do yourself a favor and grab one of the books and read it.
It's brilliant fun!

After actively pursuing the 'throne', I realised that

  1. Although I might be talented and generally considered a smart guy, the job is still about as difficult as anything you can imagine, and even if you spend days or months studying your score, there are so many things surrounding the business that are out of your control, that you often wonder why you don't just say "f*ck it" and look for something more rational to do with your time. Also, what I percieved to be strenghts in relation to the job I imagined, might in fact not be strengths in relation to the actual job, and therefore there is a good chance that the areas at which I excel actually propel me in a direction I do not wish to go. And what does it matter that I can conduct 7/8ths with one hand and 5/16ths with the other, if I can't communicate anything of artistic value? What if I'm good at one thing but suck at the other?
  2. Being a professional conductor is not all rainbows and lollipops. It's grueling, gutwrenching, isolating work, accompagnied by a constant threat of failure and a constant evaluation of both your persona and your skills from *anyone* you encounter professionally. And when I say *anyone* I mean *everyone*. If you catch a lucky break, be prepared to enter a bloody battlefield and work like a maniac with a good chance of dissapearing into complete obscurity when your agent no longer sees you as a good investment, and another good chance of ending up a complete asshole. If you manage to get by without the glamour of the best orchestras and the international agency-controlled circuit, be prepared to do any kind of work without scrutiny, to betray your ideals and ignore the basic demands of the actual music to no end. "This very complicated 8 part chorus needs at least 10 hours rehearsal to even sound remotely decent? Fuck it, we'll do it in ½ an hour, who cares?" - "What are we playing this week? A Brahms symphony? Then, why do we even rehearse, we've done that som many times before!" - "The score asks for two harps? Fuck it, here's a keyboard, you figure it out!" - "The 2nd clarinet couldn't make it to the concert? Who cares, I'm sure his part is not that important anyway" etc. etc.

Carlos Kleiber - arguably the best conductor who ever lived.
Also...incredibly miserable and isolated. Go figure...

Later, it also struck me, that being 'king' is in reality not always synonymous with being in power, and that's where I felt the need to write some of this down. The 'throne' I longed for, was so different from the 'throne' I got, that the Sword of Damocles' became an illusion.
Let's not forget, that the Sword is something personal. It only presents a danger to you, if it threatens that which you desire, if it belongs to the realm of your desire so to speak. 
You see, I have no desire to conduct, if conducting equates to fixing mistakes, sorting out practical issues ("Why is there no microphone? Yesterday you promised me a microphone"), dealing with absent musicians ("The concert master will be there for the concert, don't worry!"), instructing musicians on how to play something that they would have easily played with a minimum of preparation ("Maestro, I can't play this run in your tempo without practising. You must have the wrong tempo"), repeating the status quo, telling people to do their job, pretending to be an asshole when I'm really a mellow guy etc.
For me, there's is no value in any of that.
My only desire is to be a musician. It's really that simple.
But alas, I am not (yet) good enough at putting that in front of everything else, and I get so lost in the jungle of bullshit sometimes. (Bullshit in this context being anything that is detrimental to the needs of the actual score). That in effect makes me a worse conductor (maybe because I'm kind of a introvert guy when I solve problems, although I'm actually very good at it), lessening my chances at getting the good gigs etc. etc.
It's a downward spiral, and one that I tend to feel stuck in.

The good gigs are the gigs where you actually get to display your musicianship, your artistic core.
The orchestra is familiar with the music, they follow you and trust in you, they are prepared and so are you. There is tension, a sense of purpose, a desire to push your personal boundaries and brilliant pieces of music, set in their intended context and with the intended number of musicians. There is time to rehearse, there is a uniformity of physical circumstances, there is progress and there is promise. There was ample time to prepare, and you maybe even had a say in the program, or one was presented to you that was sympathetic to your style of interpretation or your artistic abilities.

95% of the time, this is not my reality...

So the throne that I ascend with the types of gigs I mostly do, has no suspended sword dangling over it, because I rarely have any actual power in the realm that my sword belongs to (music). I don't know if this makes any sense, but there it is.

This will bring me to the second aspect of the Sword.
I recently attended a concert with an orchestra in deep trouble. For several reasons they were completely unable to convince me that they deserved to be there, that they deserved to cash their paycheck every month. They were uninspired and unprepared. They didn't respond to an audience that genuinely loved them and even loudly displayed that affection, that I was angered and bewildered, frustrated and saddened by what should have been a fun evening.
To put it in context, there was no awareness of the sword, which - and this is where I shake my head - had only a few years earlier come painfully close to cutting off their lifesupport and eradicating the orchestra in one fell swoop.

This can mean a couple of things:
  1. They are so confused by the circumstances, that they have become blind to the sword.
  2. They do in fact not hold a position of any significant value 
  3. They are lazy and complacent.
I'm going to say mostly "1" with maybe a tiny bit of "3".
There is no doubt that they do hold a position of immense value. So what's the deal?
Why could this bunch of highly skilled and wonderful people not produce? Why had they apparently given up?
They are confused because of the programming and planning and characteristics of their work, as it has been gradually become completely transformed by extraneous circumstances. In case you are wondering, I'm referring to political agendas, the constant pampering to "a new audience", desperately trying anything to get attention etc. etc. - all the hoops we jump through in order to appear valuable to people who have never experienced us as such. I've been a part of that a hundred times over, but I'm really starting to fear that it is a huge mistake.
If you do something, not because you genuinely value it, but because you feel you should, you are being both dishonest and uninteresting. Not a good recipe for artistic expression.

"Hey, let's take this large group of people, who through years
of training with painstaking diligence have becomes specialists
in something extremely rare and complicated...
and let's have them do something completely different!" about we don't do that?!

I think the musicians want to give their best, and they absolutely have the potential to do something wonderful, but their circumstances simply don't allow it. Instead of being kings in their own right - and aware of the sword - they are rather like jesters, trying to appease another 'king', and so they have no real power, no sword...and their existance is no long justified! That's the catch! If what you are producing isn't precious or precious to you, then it doesn't matter that you are in a position to potentially produce something precious. By not paying attention to, and producing with GREAT care, that which is precious to your art, why should you be allowed to continue?


By trying to be everything to everyone, you are becoming nothing to noone.

Give the orchestra musicians their Damocles' sword back.
Let them cultivate that which is truly precious.
Put them back on their proper throne and they will grow an awareness of the Sword, and then they will deliver better results and a more valuable artistic output. It's a positive spiral.

- Jesper


Beata Sievi said...

Thank you for your analysys, I am not a musician but I feel that what you say applies to many artistic activities and desires. Beata Sievi, Switzerland

Jesper Nordin said...

Thank you Beata. Could you explain further? What is your profession?

Jill McHale said...

"Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius."
No truer words have ever been spoken :) You certainly have a gift.

Tracey said...

Woah.. great perspective! This is wonderful to know, thanks for sharing Jesper! ;)

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