‘Don’t look at the trombones – it only encourages them’ was one of the items of advice given by Richard Strauss to young conductors discussed in part four of this series (at least in Itay Talgam’s paraphrase – the original is actually far less piquant: ‘never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue’). In the last post I discussed the way in which, although the model of a composer-conductor directing an orchestra might seem useful as a metaphor for God’s interaction with the world, Strauss’s example enlarged to divine dimensions would generate a disinterested Deity far removed from the God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
Talgam gives a particularly interesting analysis of one maestro who follows Strauss’s dictum, but for a completely different reason from that adduced by the composer of Till Eulenspiegel – Herbert von Karajan. He neither looks at the trombones nor at anyone else: Karajan’s eyes are shut (try counting the number of pictures of him with eyes closed on Google Images) as he conducts the orchestra with rounded gestures which are certainly aesthetically pleasing but which cannot be interpreted as clear instructions. How does the orchestra know when to play?, asks Talgam (Gennadi Rozhdestvensky once posed me the same riddle regarding Valery Gergiev while I was working under him on Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades). The answer is that the players look at each other and take collective responsibility for producing a unified attack – which is precisely Karajan’s aim: his refusal to give an unequivocal beat is a deliberate tactic designed to ensure that the players do not enter into a false sense of reliance on the conductor.
At first sight this seems to provide promising material for theology: the idea of a conductor who withdraws in order to promote the development of the orchestra’s own potential would seem to accord with Christ’s self-effacing leadership based on the renunciation of gestures of power and control (‘it is a wicked orchestra that asks for a sign’, I’m tempted to say). As I remarked in the last instalment, it would appear to correspond to Jesus’s remark to his disciples that ‘it is for your good that I am going away’ (John 16:7) in order that the Beloved Community should develop under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. However, Karajan’s example also has a more troubling side; whereas Christ remains present with the disciples through the Spirit whom he sends, Karajan is absent in terms of genuine contact, his eyes being closed. As Talgam points out, this sends out the message that the only real music going on is that in the maestro’s head: what the players produce (their job being to guess at Karajan’s musical vision) and the audience hears is only a shadow. For this reason there is no genuine relationship, for all the laudable talk about the collective ownership of the performance. The appearance created by Karajan is one of profound spirituality, but for Talgam the result is ultimately somewhat sterile because of the lack of communication between the podium and the orchestra. This kind of Divine Conductor would be a rather inscrutable Deity offering the world a semblence of autonomy but fundamentally unwilling to interact with it except by mind games.
Having myself played under conductors who function through manipulation of this type (please contact me privately if you want me to name names!), I can affirm Talgam’s observation that this kind of inscrutability is extremely unnerving, especially when it is accompanied by explosions of anger or dirty looks at players who fail at the guessing game, making mistakes because of their inability to interpret inherently ambiguous gestures. The pressure under which this leadership style places the performers can actually generate what on the surface seem like impressive results obtained by sheer fear, but the dynamic is clearly an unhealthy one. With a little stretch of the imagination, you might compare the members of the orchestra to worshippers concentrating intensely on appeasing an implacable God of stern countenance, who they fear will strike them dead for displeasing him, although he gives no indication of how exactly this is to be done.
So, having examined some negative models, what does Itay Talgam offer by way of usable counter-examples? Well, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone who has taken more than a surface interest in the art of conducting that he turns for inspiration to Carlos Kleiber (‘so unique, so remarkable, so outstanding that one can only describe him as a phenomenon’, wrote Gunther Schuller in his otherwise fairly merciless deconstruction of the baton-waver’s art The Compleat Conductor). Critical opinion on Kleiber is by no means unanimous – see Norman Lebrecht’s article at http://www.scena.org/columns/lebrecht/040730-NL-kleiber.html for a typically outspoken verdict on a maestro as famous for what and when he did not conduct as for what he did. Yet the video evidence offered by Talgam is compelling, showing a master technician who is so far beyond technique that his direction gives the impression of permanent improvisation. Nobody can accuse this conductor of refusing to make decisions of interpretation, but freedom and dialogue are an integral part of his interpretive process, with his conducting both shaping the orchestra’s music-making and reacting to it in unpredictable, sometimes almost outrageous ways. Like Karajan, he is prepared to allow his orchestral soloists considerable autonomy, but unlike Karajan he is constantly if unobtrusively present, never leaving his musicians to fend for themselves or letting them flounder in guesswork. Transposed theologically, Kleiber’s example would seem to point towards a God in whom transcendence and immanence combine, comfortable enough with himself and sufficiently confident in his passionate vision that he can invite others to participate in it as co-creators without needing to micro-manage them the whole time.
To Talgam’s line-up I would like to add a further model which he doesn’t discuss: the conductor as Attractor. Unbeknown to many music-lovers, one of the acid tests of conducting is how to react when things start to get out of control. Because they sometimes do. This is most apparent in the opera house where, unlike the concert hall, the complex web in which the maestro is entangled has the potential for generating utter chaos, to put it bluntly. Indeed, I would say that this situation, in which the on-stage action is frequently so frenetic that direct contact between the singers and the podium is impossible, is actually a much more revealing model of Divine interaction with a world which is literally hell-bent on going its own way than the relatively controlled context of a symphony concert.
There is one extremely instructive but highly uncomfortable observation-point for the kind of cross-fire that goes on in the opera house. Officially the audience isn’t supposed to know anything about what goes on there, but I know it rather well from first-hand experience: the prompter’s box (a.k.a. ‘the hole’ – le trou du souffleur in French). For the uninitiated, this is a decidedly claustrophobic booth in between the orchestra and the edge of the stage, with just enough space to move your arms if you happen to be the size of a tamarin monkey, equipped with a microscopic monitor on which to watch the movements of the conductor behind you. I got stuck in this box at Opera Bastille as part of my duties in the course of a stimulating but mind-manglingly complex contemporary opera production a few years ago; my responsibilities included yelling out cues and directions to hopelessly lost soloists and chorus (problems compounded for me by the need to hit ‘moving targets’ and to avoid being picked up by French Radio microphones), humming notes and attempting to duplicate the gestures from the podium in miniature. At times it was planned mayhem, at times unplanned, as some less-than-perfectly prepared singers decided that, rather than aiming for fidelity to the score, they would ‘play the percentages’ and improvise every second note on the basis that nobody would notice.
Under such conditions some conductors would have headed for the psychiatrist’s couch, thrown tantrums or tendered their resignation. But not so the maestro in question, the imperturbable James Conlon. I remember his description of the tactic to be adopted in such circumstances, one which he acquired over decades of conducting at opera houses throughout the world – rather than panic in an effort to bring wayward singers to heel immediately when faced by a discrepancy between them and the orchestra, he would calmly keep beating, accelerating or slowing down imperceptibly so as to maintain the general flow and to meet the erring soloist at the ‘next corner’. This proved an extremely successful policy.
I thought of this example recently when reading Archbishop Jozef Zycinski’s remarkable and profound study on Christianity and natural science entitled God and Evolution: Fundamental Questions of Christian Evolutionism, in which the author compares God to the concept in physics of an ‘attractor’ imposing directionality on a non-linear system marked by inherent instability (the opera I mentioned above was a perfect human exemplification of such a scenario!). The attractor draws the evolution of the system towards itself, despite what appears to be randomness and chaos. Zycinski compares Divine action in the world to the ‘role of an attractor, which forces a new direction of development on processes not susceptible to the principles of deterministic interpretation.’ (p. 162) Just as the method of conducting in the face of musical chaos is persuasive rather than interventionist, so God as Cosmic Attractor acts subtly, as Zycinski argues in terms borrowed from the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead:
‘He does not […] explicitly determine the direction of actually occurring processes, but only tries to “attract” them towards His patterns. The rich reality of diverse operations is not, however, strictly determined, and can achieve scenarios of development alternative to those proposed by the Divine Poet of the World.’
Intriguingly, Archbishop Zycinski uses a symphonic metaphor (surely with Balthasar’s image of the ‘world-orchestra’ in the back of his mind) which powerfully expresses a deep insight into the interplay of human and Divine freedom, and with which I will close this series of posts dealing analogically with the One who is both the supreme conductor and composer of the music of creation:
‘The history of the world is not then a recording played from a cosmic compact disk, but the completion of a great symphony in which man can aim at Divine patterns of beauty, but can also keep his authorial rights to cosmic dissonances and discords’ (Jozef Zycinski, God and Evolution, p. 164)