A Conductor’s Adventures in China

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The following is a guest blog post recently published by the University of Utah College of Fine Arts, documenting my recent trip to China to conduct and teach.  Clicking the “Read more” link will redirect to the full article.

I was fortunate to make my second trip to China recently. For this trip, I had been invited to conduct a New Year’s Concert at Wuhan University where recent University of Utah School of Music DMA graduate, Bo Wu has just started a new position as Director of Orchestras. Wuhan University is a major University in China, academically quite similar to the University of Utah. It’s a beautiful campus and a top ten university in China, set on a mountainside between the East Lake and the Yangtze River. It is also in the middle of a bustling metropolis of 10.6 million people.

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Tchaikovsky’s Ghost and Mr. Muir

John_Muir_c1902“Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.” ~ Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

I’m finishing up two incredible weeks, conducting both of Tchaikovsky’s final symphonies with different orchestras. That, along with the other repertoire for those concerts and a myriad of other programs and preparations for what lies ahead, results in a lot of music floating around in my head. It’s rather amazing that musicians can keep it all on track and prevent a musical train wreck. (Lookout! There’s a lost bass player on the tracks ahead!) Best not to think of the possible carnage.

Curious onlookers often ask how conductors learn their music, a process commonly called score study. It’s one of those types of questions where if you ask 10 conductors, you get 10 different answers. There are certainly methods and procedures, but no amount of methodology will help you truly understand the music without using the imagination. Imaginative description is the important link that moves us from form to meaning. Imaginative description is actually a combination of both the rational and creative sides of the mind in order to discover what the composer intended (what is really there), and to be able to describe it both through words and in a musical performance. Put another way, the nuts and bolts of music need to be seen through a lens of possibility. Only then can we have an informed yet creative interpretation.

It may be at first surprising as to who I emulate when studying orchestral scores. It’s not a music theorist, conductor, composer, or musicologist, although I certainly read and learn from my esteemed music colleagues. Actually, my model for score study is not a musician at all, but the 19th century American naturalist, explorer and writer, John Muir. His descriptions of nature, places and people point to spiritual insights and profound realizations. Muir both sees and describes the world in ways I hope replicate in studying music. Here is a sample of Muir’s writing that illustrates the concept:

“Some portions of the wood were almost impenetrable, but in general we found no difficulty in mazing comfortably on over fallen logs and under the spreading boughs, while here and there we came to an opening sufficiently spacious for standpoints, where the trees around their margins might be seen from top to bottom. The winter sunshine streamed through the clustered spires, glinting and breaking into a fine dust of spangles on the spiky leaves and beads of amber gum, and bringing out the reds and grays and yellows of the lichened boles which had been freshened by the late storm; while the tip of every spire looking up through the shadows was dipped in deepest blue. The ground was strewn with burs and needles and fallen trees; and, down in the dells, on the north side of the dome, where strips of aspen are imbedded in the spruces, every breeze sent the ripe leaves flying, some lodging in the spruce boughs, making them bloom again, while the fresh snow beneath looked like a fine painting.”  ~ John Muir

Notice the word, “mazing.” I love this concept of winding and twisting through musical study, turning on motives, dynamics and articulations to reveal deeper insights, new perspectives, and previously hidden questions. “To maze” in music is to journey through a musical score seeing the forest through the trees and the trees through forest. Musical notes are the trees. Entire compositions, the forests.

“Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life,

every fiber thrilling like harp strings.” ~John Muir

Viewed from this perspective, each note can be seen with endless possibilities and eventualities. Musical notes for the musicians are as raindrops were to Muir, again described beautifully in this poignant quote:

“Raindrops blossom brilliantly in the rainbow, and change to flowers in the sod, but snow comes in full flower direct from the dark, frozen sky.”

Muir may be known today for his more universal statements, insights and inspirations. However all of these big picture statements are informed by his unique way of paying attention to the details and then describing them with poetic brilliance. His descriptions of nature inspire us to look deeper ourselves, challenging us to prove Muir’s assertion: “The power of imagination makes us infinite.”

His method also works for music. The power of imagination also reveals Tchaikovsky, in all his potentialities.

Copyright, 2015 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Photo source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Muir#/media/File:John_Muir_c1902.jpg

Barefoot Conducting: Embracing The Silence

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“We must have the patience to allow the sound to emerge”

That was the gist of my last instruction to the orchestra as we finished our dress rehearsal last Thursday.  The evening’s concert was well played by the Utah Philharmonia, and I feel we presented the Brahms 4th Symphony with poise and commitment.  For many of the students, it was their first experience with a big Brahms masterpiece.  Performing his music usually makes an impression.  I sincerely hope the concept of patience will stay with them as well.  It is an important aspect of music that warrants frequent reminders.

We tend to think of music as sound.  When you learn to play an instrument the production of tone is the basis of instruction.  Look at any beginning method book, though, and you will see pages filled with notes AND rests.  The rests are preparing you for other things.  Soon, you learn to articulate, breathe, and count.  All of these things provide an element of space around the notes.  It may be that that space, the silence, gives the music it’s meaning.  It may even be the key to the life of a composition.

This concept of silence in our environment has been a hot topic for everyone from philosophers to sleep scientists.  I am particularly fascinated by an emerging field called acoustic ecology, led by Gordon Hempton and Bernie Krause.  Both are involved in important work, driven by the desire to “hear” what is there, without extraneous (i.e. manmade) noise.  Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence is an interesting quest for a spot of the world without human noise pollution.  Krause’s work in sound ecology centers on a theory of a “biophony,” a sort of natural symphony, that is present in a healthy ecosystem.

Hempton and Krause have found that even with the absence of human-produced sound, a sort of music is found everywhere in nature.  Animals, plants, even rocks are involved in the production or transference of sound. The elements too–water, air, fire, earth–all produce sound.   All combine to create a fascinating pattern of reverberation.  Natural sound structures have both elements of tone and silence, just like music.  This is one reason why I enjoy Krause’s concept of nature’s symphony.

As a conductor, I sometimes find space and silence to be the biggest challenge in assembling and rehearsing a piece of music.  Working with musicians to phrase and to prepare and release the notes is an exercise in attention—awareness of the quiet that is imbedded in the music.   And understanding the composer’s intent of a rest, pause or hold can be very deep indeed.

Brahms wasn’t just wasting ink when he wrote those rests in his music.  (or staccato marks, phrase indications, etc.). They are meticulously notated and quite consistent.  Intent and possibility are written into the score–you just have to know where to look.  In silence we see the potential…if we are patient and allow the sound to emerge.

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin

For more on Gordon Hempton’s work see:

http://soundtracker.com/

http://onesquareinch.org/

For more on Bernie Krause see:

http://www.wildsanctuary.com/

Barefoot Conducting: Negotiating the Terrain

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When I go hiking, I am always aware of the terrain. The very act of walking takes on new meaning.  But while the trip may take some advance planning, the act of hiking rarely requires much extra thought once I start.  I use the instincts of a life on my feet to negotiate the rocks, tree roots and elevation changes.   

But remove the hiking boots and it is a different story altogether.  If you have ever tried walking in nature without shoes, you know what I mean.   Even if you are not a barefoot hiker, you may have experienced this while wading in a creek or lake.  (also afterwards as you gingerly step back towards your shoes).  Every step is a new experience of negotiating the terrain.  Your feet are much more aware of the rocks, sticker bushes and rugged ground, even before you fully step on them.  That’s why you go slow.  Amazingly, the bare foot responds remarkably well to the challenge.

There are many types of terrain for a barefoot musician to consider.  Remember, we are talking from the ground up, so we need to plan ahead a bit. With a little scanning and awareness we can avoid most problems and even have a new sensual and meaningful experience.  In classical music, these elements are written down by the composer, which also makes them a visual element. We must remember, though, that music is essentially a sonic art form.  In the end, we must consider these elements as sound terrain.

Types of musical terrain include:

  • Dynamics (altitude)—the loud and soft of music and the changes in “audible elevation.”
  • Texture (landscape)—the specific combinations of instruments or voice and their relationship to each other.
  • Articulation (terrain changes)—how short or long notes are.  Also how they relate to other notes.
  • Range (vistas)—the sweep of a melody.  Can be relatively smooth (plains) or quite jagged with many leaps (mountains), and everything in between.
  • Harmony (flora and fauna)—the chords underlying the piece and the pace at which they change. Also the regularity with which they occur or surprise us. 
  • Tempo (heart rate)—The speed and variations.  The pulse of the music.
  • Meter and Rhythm (stride)—the “time factor.”  How notes relate in a myriad of ways to each other.  Of utmost importance to the “barefoot conductor.”

These elements make up a topographical, living map for a piece of music.   And like a good field guide, none of these elements have meaning without relation to the others.  The more time you spend with a particular composer or style, the more you will begin to see commonalities, just like hiking many times in the same region.  It’s like knowing the terrain elements in the Grand Canyon, even if you are hiking a different trail.  (Brahms 4 is this week’s Grand Canyon, by the way).

That brings me back to the concept of hiking.  I’ve mentioned, and you may have experienced, that walking barefoot requires us to slow down.  Often when we hike, there is a destination in mind–the top of the mountain, for example.  We motor on through, perhaps missing quite a lot.  But if we slow down, we might see more elements and with deeper meaning.  We might see the forest and the trees.  If we take off our “boots” we may realize that sauntering is more useful that hiking.  I’ve come to resonate with this quote of John Muir:

Hiking – I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.

I’m enjoying my saunter through Brahms 4th Symphony.  The concert is in about 10 days.  Then we will present this particular holy land.  Discoveries are possible every step of the way.

 

Copyright 2012, Robert Baldwin

Barefoot Conducting: An Introduction

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The sensation of warm sand between the toes.  The coolness of grass beneath bare feet.  The pain as a 1-inch thorn pierces my flesh after penetrating the thin sole of a minimalist shoe…  I’ve experienced all of these sensations recently, and like all of life’s events it has provided an interesting tangent upon which to contemplate music.

I conduct orchestras for a living. The amount of time I actually spend conducting is relatively small, however.  Depending on the orchestra, I spend only a few hours each week rehearsing or performing, and even less time bowing to an audience.  Rather, I spend most of my musical time alone, studying orchestral scores and pondering rehearsal strategies.

Conductors begin the process early, as the only ensemble musicians with all of the information in front of them. The conductor’s score contains every player’s part, notated so that they can be read at the same time.  (If I’d get my feet out of the way above, you might be able to see that from the photo).   By contrast, an orchestral player’s sheet music contains only their individual part.  It may have some clues as to what others are doing, called cues, but usually they only see their own notes, rests, articulations, etc.

Like a member of some secret club, the conductor seems to have all of the passwords, secret signs, handshakes and symbolism to relate each part to the whole.  But rather than esoteric knowledge, the score represents the conductor’s responsibility. My task is to increase the awareness of how the parts represent the whole.

But what about all that hair flinging and grunting that conductors are known for? And that stuffy know-it-all attitude as we approach the podium? Here’s a video from one of my conducting heroes:

Seriously though, the arm waving is important.  As part of a language of gesture, it communicates to the other musicians the tempo, pulse, phrasing, dynamics (loud/soft), articulation (length of notes), and other elements of the music.  It helps each part relate to the others. It is an overwhelming task if you stop and think about it.  Besides that, the conductor is charged with presenting a unified interpretation.  The challenge of encouraging 90 musicians to play music together with the same intent is daunting.   If the conductor falls into the trap of telling the musicians that he somehow knows better, or is better, then a classic dysfunctional relationship has emerged—the Classical Dysfunctional Relationship, perhaps.

So, where do my feet figure into all of this?  I’ve been fascinated by the barefoot and minimalist shoe fad.  This has enabled people to experience something taken for granted in a new and holistic way, walking and running.  We’ve learned that the mechanics of the foot is important.  The feel of the ground is important.  The transmission of sensation through the foot to the body may be something we have been missing for generations.  It is important to the entire body, mind and spirit, and experiencing it can affect our lives.

I propose that we think of the conductor and orchestra differently. Too often we think of the conductor as the head of the orchestral body—the mind and brains.  What if we conceive of the conductor as the feet of the ensemble?  Consider a concept of music coming from the ground up, so to speak.  The sensation of the ground, the composer’s score, is translated through the sensations of the conductor to the orchestra, the vital parts of the body, interrelated and interactive.  The orchestral body may experience greater freedom to play and engage in a holistic music making rather than being directed from above.   In my experience, musicians have more meaningful experiences and audiences have more genuine responses when music is produced in this way.

I don’t have plans to conduct an orchestra barefoot, not even with my spiffy new Five Finger shoes.  Rather, my new experiences and study have prodded me to strip this down to the bare essentials.   I plan future entries in this thread that will deal with the nuts and bolts of music, and how we can distill the essence of music by viewing it from this new angle.  It is my hope that it will be applicable to all musicians, not just us silent, arm waving types.

Now, take of your shoes and sit a spell!  The concert is about to begin.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

*Bonus points to those who noticed that Bugs Bunny was not wearing shoes in the video!

The Pit and the Pendulum, Part 2

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I’ll be climbing out of the pit after the last run of Susannah tonight.  It’s been a great experience, and full of potential for the pondering mind.  Inevitability.  Events that lead to something else.  The Grand Finale.  That incessant beat of the clock, metronome, and human heart; counting down to a predestined end.  Is this where we find meaningful rhythm and flow?  Or is it rather a stream into which we we enter, subdivide, and play?   Always present.  Welcoming us to participate.

The problem with the first example, is that it is too clinical, too easy.  In my experience it’s also completely wrong.  The thought that music, creativity, or life itself can be relegated to mere numbers is a popular misconception.  Yes, music is math.  Life is math.  Yes, proportions, ratios and relationships certainly exist.  But as human beings, our lives simply don’t operate this way.  Science is starting to show this is true. Like higher math and physics, musical performance is more about uncertainty, chaos, and constant adjustment.  Live music contains behavior so unpredictable it can appear random, due to great sensitivity and small changes in conditions.

“Our concept of time is an illusion.  There is no clock out there in the world keeping time.” – Dean Radin

For example, we can put a metronome on a professional ensemble and see that there is ebb and flow in the music.  Gunther Schuller wrote an entire book on the subject (The Compleat Conductor) Even in the most exact types of music (a Sousa march, for example) the concept of perfect time is an illusion (listen to a transition to the Trio section and you’ll see what I mean).  While the concept of organized time attracts us, the imperfection may be the element that encourages us to keep listening.

If you are skeptical, try this:  Have a group of people clap on every downbeat in a group of 4 (ONE, two, three four, ONE, two, three, four,  etc.).  Keep it going for awhile and then continue with closed eyes.  A group of trained musicians may be able to keep it going, but you will witness inconsistencies.  Move that to every eight or sixteen counts and you may have a real mess on your hands, even with professionals.   Now have the ensemble open their eyes.  It will instantly get better.  Even more so if a “conductor” leads the group.  A good conductor (i.e. Leader) can even lead the group to clap on an unexpected beat, surprisingly in tandem.

“Our perception of time can change.  Time can slow down; time can speed up…Time is also intimate. It comes from within.”  – Michio Kaku

This points to more than a mere inner clock for performing music.  We use our other “senses” too.  We use our eyes not only to read music, but also to watch the other musicians around us.  We use our ears to evaluate and adjust minute details with surprising accuracy and speed.  We use the sense of space, body, time, and flow, to adjust our performances and invite others to participate.

That said, there is certainly a “window of appropriateness” regarding tempo and rhythm.  Composers give us metronome markings as a guide, even in the most exacting tempo marking.   If Bartok tells us that the pulse should be at 92 beats per minute, is 90 or 94 wrong?  Certainly, 76 or 116 would be outside the composer’s intentions.  But it is the performer, not the composer, who knows the situation for a particular performance.  Perhaps the concert is in a very live hall, where a slightly slower tempo results in better clarity.  Or the opposite, where a slightly peppier beat may keep the music alive in a dry acoustic.   We need to evaluate rhythm and tempo on the basis of this envelope of acceptability.  Too often, we insist on something that is on the page, rather than something that we know to be correct based on our musical training, awareness, and instincts.

Every night of a performance can be different.  (Even more so with a double-cast show).  It’s an interesting exercise for a pit orchestra. Yet incredibly revealing when we allow it to happen.  Those moments are very exciting.  It’s validation that pliability in music is desirable and perfectly right for the situation.  If we perform with flexibility, new revelations can come through night after night. But…you’d better get that rhythm together first!

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

The Pit and the Pendulum, Part 1

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I’ve emerged from the pit thinking about rhythm and tempo.  I’m there all week with the orchestra putting together Carlisle Floyd’s opera, Susannah.  There’s a lot that can go wrong on stage, and even more with this show as it includes live gunshots!  All in all, it was a good first rehearsal.  The only lingering issues are finding a consensus with rhythm and tempo.

Certainly, these are two things that are very important to my craft as a conductor.  Tempo control, metric organization and rhythmic precision are all something that is a great responsibility for all of us–the conductor, singer, and orchestra.  But behind all my admonishments to “watch the stick,” “play the subdivision correctly,” and  “don’t rush (or drag),” there is a deeper truth to the importance of flow and rhythm in the music.

“Time is like a superglue, keeping our story in order as we navigate the world around us”—Maurizio Benazzo

Composers choose the tempos and rhythmic subdivisions of their music with great care, and we must certainly defer to their indications and the style period when determining how music is to be played.  When we do this, we discover that melodies simply work better at certain tempos.  For vocal music, the words are understood better.  For orchestra, the phrases breathe easier.  For the entire package, the drama is energized better.

Rhythm and tempo are indeed two of the critical elements that hold a composition together.  Unfortunately, we musicians often learn these as dry subjects.  We learn to “play correctly.”  Indeed, we must do this if there is any hope of tight ensemble.  Understanding the correct subdivision and how it fits into the whole is tantamount to understanding a piece of music.  That is only the beginning, though.

Few musicians continue the journey into why the music is written as it is.  Why does a pickup note energize the melody?  Why does a rhythm pervade the piece?  Why does the dotted “8th-16th” rhythm feel differently for one piece over another?  This needs to be asked from the first time a musician approaches a piece.  But also, it should be a question to be asked when the music is not going as smoothly as it should.  Us musicians, we get stuck on “notes.”  (Pitches, tone, melodies and the like).  What we forget is that without the rhythm (which in my opinion includes meter and tempo), the music may bear little resemblance to what the composer intended. And the key to understanding (and fixing) is often found there, in the lifeblood of music—TIME.

So this is why I insist on understanding rhythm and also relaying certain information to the orchestra through gestures and sometimes words.  The way a rhythm is played, the pace at which a tempo flows, and the natural stresses of metric organization all lead towards understanding and transmission of the music within the notes.  In turn, this leads to an informed and effective performance of the music. Now, if we could only get that shotgun blast to go off in time…

Copyright 2012, Robert Baldwin