present active imperative of audiō (to hear)

The effectiveness of a conductor derives primarily from what is seen but this is just one element of a process which has its outcome in what is actually heard. Our Audite projects seek to focus attention on the relationship between ideas about musical concept (inner hearing), the actual sounds produced and the gestural language which forms the connection between them. We do so on the basis the purpose of music is to provide a narrative in sound and therefore that the success of any interpretation must be predicated on the aural experience, not the visual display.

Conducting is a process primarily involving gesture and consequently people often tend to focus excessively on what is seen as opposed to what is audible. Underlying what is visible is the real essence of conducting, which derives from processes of hearing: there is no escape from the fact that it is these which inform and guide the gestures which impact so strongly on what is actually heard.

That is to say, the gestures of conducting are a mechanism which reconciles information arising from two hearing processes:

  • The process of inner hearing – the creative imagination from which we seek to stimulate or influence sound.
  • The process of simultaneously hearing what is actually being produced.

Inner hearing is the imagination for sound: however brilliantly a composer is able to realise abstract ideas about sound through written notation, a score can never be more than a somewhat crude representation of an imagined sound.

This means that in order to maximise the potential of the written notes in actual performance, someone must consider in profound detail how that representation is to be most effectively realised in practice. Where music is conducted, it follows that this person should be the conductor – failing that, a rather substantial question arises as to what the conductor is actually there for, since any group capable of playing music well is capable of doing so without interference.

The question as to what is actually being produced by the musicians is much more complex than it might appear: it is surprisingly difficult for a conductor to understand what is happening; indeed, for the novice conductor the incoming sound waves constitute a veritable tsunami of information. This in turn overloads the relevant mental processing with the result that the person concerned will likely have significantly less awareness of what is actually happening than an educated observer. This does not mean that the conductor in question is necessarily untalented, it simply clarifies that they are inexperienced.

Fundamentally, the incoming information relates to four key questions:

  • Are there issues relating to the inherent capacity of the musicians to play the music?
  • Does the sound align with the gesture?
  • How does the actual sound compare to the concept?
  • How are matters going to proceed?

The first question is often vastly misunderstood because a conductor with poor technique will cause problems which then prevent the musicians from playing the music to proper effect. Rehearsal time is then devoted – in effect – to teaching the musicians how to ignore the gestures causing the issues. When this proves successful it is considered by some that the rehearsal process was effective when in reality it was a complete waste of time and resources and has resulted in a situation where the musicians are actively ignoring gestures. This has the inevitable consequence that the conductor makes more vigorous gestures to try to assert some kind of influence and so the process degenerates.

If we assume for the moment that there are no significant problems for the musicians, then we mght reasonably conclude that the only means by which any detailed conception can be effectively and efficiently conveyed is through gesture – that is to say, there must be a clear and accurate connection between gesture and outcome. Failing this, how is the conductor going to be able to influence anything much in a live performance?

The second question is therefore a crucial one:

  • If the conductor lacks the capacity to align and calibrate sound and gesture then any performance can be nothing more than either happy accident arising principally from the goodwill of the musicians or the replication of what was done in rehearsal. If, on the other hand, a real connection has been established, then the door is open to a completely open flow of information between the actual sound and the conceptual sound – that is to say, free and open communication between the musicians and the conductor, allowing both to adapt “on the fly” in order to find the most interesting route through the musical landscape.
  • The rehearsal process is similarly different – instead of merely bringing the negative issues introduced by the conductor back towards what we might call the musicians’ “natural default”, it provides an opportunity for both parties to explore the potential of both the music and the partnership, a process of information gathering which provides a basis of confidence from which to explore the music in a live concert situation.

The third question then largely falls by default: if there is no good alignment of sound and intention then most likely the interplay between the concept and the result will be too uncomfortable to be resolved. If there is good alignment, on the other hand, the question is the nature of the interplay between the concept and the actual sound and how things should proceed to allow the composition to achieve a truly expressive performance.

Now – and only now – the final outcomes depend on a combination of the conductor’s understanding of the potential of both the music and musicians, capacity for creative musical thinking and ability to exploit the potential opportunities. The question of how matters proceed where the conductor is able to align concept and outcome is therefore the most signficant one: it is the point where the interplay of musical personality and technical skill creates the possibiity to show real individuality and hence, depending on their own personal preference as to the nature of this interplay, two expert observers might disagree as to which of two conductors is actually the better.

In the case of the inexperienced conductor, however, the alignment of gesture and sound is most likely too poor for anything else to actually matter: if the conductor cannot align sound and intention then a detailed conception cannot be realised. Consequently there is no real possibility that the outcome arises from anything more than the efforts of the musicians to reach the end without overt embarrassment. Athough with very high level players this may not be obvious, in fact this is not an artistic process, merely a pragmatic one.

Of course, every conductor has to endure this learning stage. The problem is that it can only really be passed through if sufficient attention is paid to three areas of development:

  • Understanding the process of preparing a meaningful interpretation, both in terms of the detailed musical issues and the technical questions they raise.
  • Increasing the capacity to understand the implications of incoming audio data.
  • Development of gestural language skills to influence and shape the music accordingly.

It is through ongoing assessment of the relationship between what was heard internally to what is audible in consequence, that the skilled conductor can reconfigure ideas about concept: the information arising from listening re-informs the concept and – asuming the requiste technical skill for implementation – allows decisions to be made as to how to move things forward to create the most rewarding sonic outcomes. If the process works correctly then, instead of pragmatic time-serving until the end, a thrilling process of discovery can be unleashed.

Just as pragmatic time serving is instantly audible, the instigation of real musical discovery is also instantly apparent – and it is as intoxicating for audiences as it is for the protagonists. This is why, in different hands, the same music played by the same musicians can sound so utterly different without any word being said – and because the conductor’s gestural language is assimilated so astonishingly quickly by musicians, the difference is audible from the first sounds made.

With our Audite projects we are seeking to widen understanding of the key difficulties facing those who aspire to attain real professional skill as conductors – and to help those with the determination and ability to achieve success in this field to do so.