Modular politics and coordination online, Soviet Moscow’s First Symphonic Ensemble, Sacred Harp Singing, Gershwin, The Baton, Wands, and Alister Crowley.
Permanently moved is a personal podcast 301 seconds in length, written and recorded by @thejaymo
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Conductors and Coordination
I’ve been suffering from hay-fever all week. Enduring my yearly bout of sinus headaches and eye fatigue. It’s just now developing into the chesty cough that will hang around for a while. The beginning of the end.
Anyways. I’ve been thinking about the problem of governance and mass coordination online. Modular politics, Swarm governance, and consensus architectures are all being explored across domains. The challenge of coordination is fast becoming a component of multiple projects I’m involved with.
So my mind turned to the figure of the conductor in an orchestra. And the influence of conducting on me.
In another, younger life, I was a concert grade flautist. I played the piccolo in youth orchestras and have even sung mass in St Marks in Venice several times. I still think of myself as a musician in my sensibilities and attitude towards things.
What then is the political relationship between a conductor and the orchestra?
The Soviets of course thought that conductors were bosses. It was counter revolutionary to have a single figure guiding the collective orchestra. So in 1922 Moscow’s First Symphonic Ensemble began work without one.
The president of the State Academy of Fine Arts said at the time.
A “revolutionary step in music” showing the power of collectivism. But from the outset they experienced problems. Resulting in a kind of hidden leadership. The first violinist would set the tempo and indicate section dynamics with a nod of the head.
As the experiment progressed, the orchestra got worse and musically disintegrated. Within 6 years the experiment was abandoned. A coordinator was required to fully harness the collective.
The power relationship of course does change if you are an amateur ensemble or a professional one.
In the later, contractually speaking the conductor is usually also the musical director and literally the boss. In an amateur orchestra or church choir (for example) the conductor has a different relationship with the participants.
In the West, conducting emerges from multi-voice church singing. Which requires someone with the means and wherewithal to keep a steady pulse or beat.
This doesn’t have to be a figure with political power. In the Sacred Harp singing tradition from the American south the role is shared across participants. Choir members take turns to ‘lead’ the choir from the centre square.
Going further back, ethnomusicologists suggest that it was the role of the person with the loudest drum. As is the case with the Kendag player in Gamelan Orchestras of Indonesia for example. They control both the dynamics and the tempo of the ensemble.
I was also thinking about the tools, technologies and techniques of conducting. The first thing that springs to mind for many of course is the baton.
With small ensembles a baton is usually not necessary. With vocalists one is hardly ever used at all. Subtle hand, arm and finger gestures are a more embodied way of connecting text, sound and performer.
In Big Band Jazz, a baton is sometimes used. But it really depends on the style and whether that conductor is also the band leader.
Gershwin for example, would cue from behind his piano. Set up to face the orchestra with his back to the audience.
So despite being the first thing that comes to mind. A baton is only usually seen with large orchestras or in opera.
Here it is a tool used to enable players to see the intention of the conductor. often from peculiar angles or at some distance.
A baton indicates intent without any ambiguity.
When I was learning to conduct at university. Despite saying earlier that choral conductors don’t use a baton, I was introduced to both choral and musical direction in the same lesson with one.
Being handed a baton is to feel that you have been handed an object of power.
But you quickly discover that conducting has very little to do with having power over the players themselves.
The first thing you learn is to quote: find the sound on the stick.
In Book 4 of Liber Aba, Alister Crowley says the following about wands. “Will is the wand in your hand by which the Great Work is accomplished”. And that for “will to be a thing, is to admit that you are not that thing”
With or without a wand A conductor isn’t the best name for the role in my experience. It is not the same as a train conductor blows their whistle, or an aircraft marshal signalling to a pilot.
Channeller might be better. Finding the sound on the stick results in the realisation that you are not in control of the music. It is not yours, you are instead a conduit for it. Electrical conductors are so named as electrons pass through them.
A conductor is a social mechanism or foci for the ensemble. It is quite the humbling experience.
As coordination becomes a more central concern and an online governance and important topic. I’m going to advocate for conduits of coordination rather than mechanisms of control.
The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the audio due to time constraints.