How to tell a story – conducting indulgences, lesson 1

I think if I ever teach a seminar or college in course, the first month of classes will involve gesture based emotions and story telling.  While a wealth of music throughout the centuries has been written for its serious academic and formulaic properties, owing nothing to external influences, all music has the potential to be affective to any individual.  I think this is one of the defining elements of what separates the perception of “music” and “noise”.  For more about that, please see my essay “Towards a Definition of Music”.  In either case, there exists an abundance of repertoire that does draw from external references: poetry, literature, paintings, personal relationships, personal crises, other composers, events in history, mythology, cultures and heritage, to name several.  These influences may be trivial, subtle, over-the-top, profoundly hidden ala the Hemingway iceberg, or blatantly professed in a superficial manner.  Even more profoundly invigorating is the notion that a composer’s intentions may align separately from the performer’s perception which may strike a different resonance in that of the listener.  This is what makes great music “great”.  I think this applies to all of the arts.

In any case, as a conductor, the ultimate responsibility of music performance lies in that of ensemble preparation, guiding interpretation, and communicating with performers and the audience.  The interpretation of a work offers the most flexibility for personal touch.  Certainly there are schools of thought that dictate the amount of liberty a conductor has in this endeavor; while we currently exist in a fairly restricted environment for conductor interpretation, there have been periods of extreme flexibility (which I believe we will be entering again in the next 15-20 years).  In any case, it is the conductor’s duty to navigate the ensemble and listener through any given work, creating points of contrast through carefully chosen phrasing, sensitivity to musical color and texture, and moderation of pacing in regards to tempo choices, etc.  What these strict elements of musical terminology essentially mean for the non listener can be summarized as being told a story.

That’s what music essentially is – well, a bulk majority of it – it’s a journey from start to finish.  Through lyrics, through motivic ideas, and so forth, the listener is presented with a fleeting thought that is in turn explored and considered.  The aggregate of these thoughts and musings comprises the work as a whole.  A great composer takes care that every note, every episode, every idea, fits intricately within a larger framework.  As a conductor, the ability to make these formal structures seem visceral in the shape of a story provides the foundation for which music is listened to.  Without this direction, the conductor is not a visionary.  He is nothing more than a traffic cop.

On a personal note of enlightenment, I am working on Beethoven 9 next week with the CSU Symphony Orchestra.  The way I’ve been approaching Beethoven 9 has been from a very technical perspective, with critical eyes towards harmonic progressions, key areas, formal structures, orchestration, motivic development, and theme areas.  What I had forgotten in my month of preparation, only to be realized about 3:00 this morning when I couldn’t sleep, was that I have to tell a story.  That it’s okay if I miss a cue (at least one of secondary importance) at the expense of truly communicating with my ensemble to collaborate a story for an audience.  The german augmented sixth chord before the recaptiulation of the first movement is not nearly as important as the tension of sound, pushing forth to the angered motive breaking out of its shell to release its wrath of frustration.

Lesson one for conducting, know the correlations between the written note and its ability to inspire stories through sound.  Tell a story.