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Conducting for a New Era

Conducting for a New Era

Edwin Roxburgh
With a foreword by Andrew Davis
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 230
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  • Book Info
    Conducting for a New Era
    Book Description:

    Conducting for a New Era fills in a lacuna by offering guidance and practical advise for conducting twentieth-century and contemporary repertoire. The book begins with a look at the development of the art of conducting during the first half of the twentieth century. Distinctions are made between conductors who pursued populist careers and those who established the foundations for the new art form of the twenty-first century. The book goes on to discuss the technical resources required to negotiate the rhythmic complexity of so much music composed since 1950. Beginning with the rhythmic revolution created by Stravinsky in Le Sacre du Printemps (in which conducting unequal units within single bars was introduced), ten different categories of music are featured in an analysis of the technical and aesthetic characteristics involved. The substance of interviews with distinguished soloists, orchestral musicians, conductors and composers is examined in assessing the changing role of the conductor in the twenty-first century. In a final section the technique and artistry of the progressive repertoire is discussed through detailed analysis of specific scores. Conducting for a New Era will be of interest not only to advanced students of conducting, in particular conducting of contemporary music, but also to the music enthusiast who might wish to know 'how it is done'. The book includes a DVD with conducting examples. EDWIN ROXBURGH is a composer, conductor and oboist and visiting tutor and researcher at the BCU Birmingham Conservatoire. Recordings of his music are on NMC, Naxos, Warehouse, Oboe Classics and Metier labels, and his music is published by United Music Publishers, Ricordi and Maecenas. As a conductor he has premiered a vast number of works, originally with the Twentieth Century Ensemble of London, which he founded, and later with several of the principle orchestras of the UK.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-377-5
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-vii)
  3. List of music examples
    (pp. viii-ix)
  4. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xi)
    Andrew Davis

    I have in my library a very small number of books on conductors and conducting. Some of the earliest thoughts on the subject are to be found in Berlioz’sMemoirs, which share with Leopold Stokowsky’s autobiography a certain amount of highly entertaining imaginative fiction mixed in with the facts. From Sir Henry Wood’s slim volume I remember advice on the importance of of labelling carefully one’s three rehearsals suits (three-piece of course!) so as not to get them mixed up! Others offer valuable insights into the psychology of the relationship between conductor and orchestra.

    Of the works that are concerned...

  6. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xii-xiv)
    Edwin Roxburgh
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    In the twenty-first century the world of classical music has evolved into one of great diversity. Technology has opened the doors of cultural experience on a scale which could not have been envisaged in previous centuries. The facility to listen to music of our own choice at any time of day or night is a great asset, but it cannot take the place of live performances. Transferring the spirit of the concert hall or opera house to a recording studio is an art in itself, as far as it is possible to achieve a comparable representation of a live performance....

  8. PART ONE Fundamental principles of technique

    • Fundamental principles of technique
      (pp. 11-12)

      As the first Director of the Royal College of Music, Sir George Grove's motto for the institution was ‘A player may be perfect in technique, and yet have neither soul nor intelligence.’¹ To appreciate the strength of that statement we have to define ‘technique’. Essentially it is the mechanical aspect of an art form as distinct from its expressive characteristics. No matter what the art form, the interrelationship between technique and expression, each serving the other, is an absolute principle, regardless of the manner in which the substance is executed. We would not expect a violinist to play a Mozart...

    • The music stand
      (pp. 13-13)

      The position and height of the music stand will vary according to the height of individual conductors. While it is important to try to memorise scores this is rarely achieved (even with conductors who have photographic memories) in the kind of works which are analysed in Part Three. The conventional flat 90° angle of the stand encourages many conductors to sustain a ‘head-down’ position when looking at the score. In my experience as an orchestral instrumentalist this always gives the impression of detachment from the orchestra. With complex works it can leave the performers unaware of the characterisation of their...

    • Stance
      (pp. 14-14)

      A ‘stand-at-ease’ position for the legs is modified by the right foot being slightly in front of the left, balancing on the heels rather than the toes. (As with all other aspects of technique, a left-handed person will interpret instructions in mirror-fashion.) This provides a central axis movement from left to right in focusing directions on various sections of the orchestra. It would be a dull conductor who makes this into a self-conscious rule, which we are all guilty of breaking by occasional digression from the basic stance. But awareness of the importance of an authoritative demeanour should always inform...

    • Eye-contact
      (pp. 15-16)

      The eyes play a very important role in the conducting vocabulary. In Part Two there are numerous observations from various performers who discuss this important issue. All conducting gestures should be focused in the central global space in front of the body and eyes of the conductor. Hands and eyes are then aligned for every single gesture (DVD track 1). If the beating is performed with bent, retracted elbows, the beats will be focused at the side of the body separate from the eyes. This divided focus is unhelpful and unclear. The position of the arms is, therefore, vital to...

    • Beating time units
      (pp. 17-18)

      Having established the basic position for the arms at the outset of a piece or section, the manner of the beat, especially in so much modern music, is more complex than it might seem. It is a fallacy to imagine that the action of the movement from one beat to the next (the action, not the pulse) sustains an even speed. Taking a metronome mark of ♩ = 40 and repeating several downbeats with an even movement it will be discovered that the action looks like pasting or painting a wall! There is no pulse definition. The action needed for...

    • Beating gestures
      (pp. 19-21)

      Referring to the beating diagrams in Figure 1 we can now discuss the manner of beating gestures. First, it is important to establish that the expression ‘preparatory upbeat’ is to be abandoned. The constant fluctuations of tempi in a work such asLe Marteau sans maître(especially no. 4) cannot accommodate any kind ofpreparatorybeat at any point. Tempo has to be established by the arc of displacement between one beat and the next. A preparation is required at the commencement of a piece or section, but not a beat. Such a preparatory gesture requires only the lifting of...

    • Irregular pulses
      (pp. 22-43)

      Le Sacre du printempsis undoubtedly the work which opened a new era in pulse structure. When it was first performed in 1913, composers were already adopting irrational time units in some of their works: e.g. Tchaikovsky’s 5/4 movement in his Symphony no. 5, Holst in ‘Mars’ fromThe Planets Suite. Important as these innovations were, the rapid tempo of Stravinsky’s ‘Danse sacrale’ created a new dimension in pulse for music that was conducted. There was nothing new in the principle of irregular units being used in music. The rhythmic structure of Latin syllables in medieval plainchant sometimes fell into...

    • Independence of hands
      (pp. 44-51)

      So far the issues of technique and pulse have been discussed only in relation to the right hand. (Left-handed conductors will make the appropriate mirror interpretation.) It would be dogmatic to prescribe technical procedures for the left hand. Of all characteristics in conducting, this is an element which should relate entirely to the body language and character of individual conductors.

      There are many good conductors who mirror-beat most of the time. Their performances in standard repertoire prove that this can be a positive approach. This cannot be said of the requirements for the music central to this book, especially those...

    • Aleatoric scores
      (pp. 52-66)

      TheOxford English Dictionarydefines ‘aleatory’ as ‘dependent on the throw of a dice, dependent on uncertain contingencies’. John Cage explains the concept of ‘chance’ in hisMusic for Pianoas ‘operations channelled within certain limits (which are established in relation to relative difficulty of performance) – derived from theI-Chingare employed to determine the number of sounds per page’.⁶ The process is to use a pencil on transparent pieces of paper, applying the result to a master – page, tossing a coin to determine clefs, usingI-Chingpossibilities to determine categories of notes and keys, then applying all...

    • Extended instrumental techniques
      (pp. 67-80)

      The term ‘extended instrumental techniques’ applies to works which involve what were once unorthodox forms of sound production and articulation on various instruments. For woodwind this includes over-blown harmonics, flutter-tonguing, slap-tongue, quarter-tone production, glissandi, alternative fingerings for varying tone colours and multiphonics on all instruments. There are also specific characteristics for individual instruments which will be discussed. For brass these extended elements include slap-tongue, flutter-tonguing, quarter-tone valve or slide positions, speaking into the tube and sometimes playing at the same time and multiphonics. The strings were more exploited than wind instruments in extended characteristics by composers in the nineteenth century....

    • Electronics with orchestra/ensemble
      (pp. 81-81)

      From 1950 electronic music developed on its own path with the complex and time-consuming process of analogue technology. In 1956 the first real masterpiece arrived in the form of Stockhausen’sGesang der Jünglinge. With the composition of hisMixturin 1964 the path was established for the development of works which combined electronics with orchestral instruments in performance. Stockhausen explains: ‘In this way it becomes possible to obtain in conjunction with the use of instruments a differentiated composition of timbres such I had hitherto only been able to achieve in the realm of electronic music.’ This is the point in...

    • Orchestra/ensemble with tape or multi-channel computer-processed sound
      (pp. 82-87)

      In works which involve prerecorded sound to be played concurrently with live orchestral instruments or voices, the conductor has to identify the sounds on the tape in the course of rehearsal and performance. Some scores provide basic graphics which symbolise the tape part while others simply identify numbered cues for each tape entry. In either case it is imperative that the prerecorded tape be learned thoroughly by the conductor. Only with this preparation can the co-ordination of prerecorded tape and live instruments be achieved. This process is represented in several scores by Jonathan Harvey. HisInner Light 1demonstrates a...

    • Click-track involvement
      (pp. 88-94)

      In scores which combine continuous prerecorded tape with live instruments, a click-track is often required to sustain the vertical cohesion between the two elements. This is usually an integral specification for the conductor, who will need to practise the pulse requirements with the tape before rehearsing as part of the score preparation. Beating time to a click-track which sustains the same pulse and time-signature throughout does not require comment. When tempi and irregular pulse are variable the conductor’s role becomes quite challenging and complex. Such a work is Tristan Murail’s Désintégrations (‘pour bande synthétisée et 17 instruments’). Because the complete...

    • Orchestra/ensemble with live electronics
      (pp. 95-102)

      The repertoire in which instruments or voices are electronically treated in live performance are mostly of a solo or small ensemble nature. Jonathan Harvey’sFrom Silencefor soprano, six instruments and live electronics has the voice treated with a harmoniser, which transposes the vocal production to several parallel intervals. Cristóbal Halffter’sPlanto por las victimas de la violenciauses live electronic transformations of several instruments. It is a process less used in the symphony orchestra because any instrument which is treated requires the use of a microphone. Any other instrument close to the one being treated will also be picked...

    • Works involving voices
      (pp. 103-110)

      Most of the repertoire of choral music composed since 1950 does not call for the use of conducting techniques relating to this book. It is much more difficult for singers to pitch notes in a chromatically based work than it is for an instrumentalist, whose displacement of fingers automatically produces correct pitches. Most composers demonstrate an awareness of this in avoiding complex pulses and variable time-units. However, there are some vocal works which do require exceptional rehearsal procedures which do not fall within the normal specialist field of choral conductors. Irrational note-groups and their subdivisions within a unit exact tremendous...

  9. PART TWO Other voices

    • Other voices
      (pp. 113-113)

      So far, the broad principles of conducting the music being considered have constituted the recommendations of one musician – the author. He will readily admit that the techniques he recommends are by no means the only workable guide. There are so many issues related to successful conducting which cannot be explained, especially in relation to the character and personality of individual conductors. The most important criteria come from those who actually play or sing the music, whose performing is either inspired or frustrated by a conductor. For this reason I consider it of vital importance to address their views in...

    • Technique
      (pp. 114-119)

      The methodology proposed in Part One underlines basic principles rather than rules. Boulez’s caveat confronts the issue directly: ‘To imitate the gestures of other conductors is completely useless, since it’s a question of length of arm, suppleness of hands, technique with or without a baton, of physiognomy even.’¹ During their professional lives instrumentalists are directed by a vast number of different conductors, all of whom are distinctive in their techniques and artistry. Their preferences and requirements can be the substance of heated debate in the band room, both positive and negative. But there is considerable agreement on the qualities which...

    • Metronome marks
      (pp. 120-121)

      In a letter to Councillor Von Mosel Beethoven explains that he has ‘often thought of giving up these senseless terms,Allegro, Andante, Adagio, Presto, and for this Maelzel’s Metronome offers the best opportunity’.³ The fact that Beethoven gave two differing metronome marks for his Symphony no. 7 leaves us with some uncertainty about the actual tempi he had in mind. But there is enough evidence in Beethoven’s letters to indicate the spirit intended in spite of the Italian terminology he finally used. Lionel Friend considers that Beethoven believed his tempo markings when he wrote them, while a performance could have...

    • Preparation of scores for premières and rehearsals
      (pp. 122-127)

      In learning a new score in preparation for a première a well-developed aural perception is the most important ingredient for a conductor. In the author’s experience, both as instrumentalist and composer there are more inadequate performances of premières than of any other category of composition, usually because the conductor’s aural perception is so limited that the actual sounds of the score have not been digested, resulting in his/her simply beating time. It took Rachmaninov ten years to discover that his Symphony no. 1 was not a failure, but the victim of a badly performed première. The conductor’s ear has an...

    • Vocal issues
      (pp. 128-133)

      The vocal soloist in this repertoire has the most forbidding task of all musicians. With no tonic to relate to and rhythmic complexity to secure, there is little to hold on to except the conductor’s direction. Jane Manning’s vast repertoire, with hundreds of premières in her catalogue of performances, makes her a supreme authority on the subject. While she is complimentary about certain conductors she is also critical of those who show no understanding of the specific concerns of a vocal soloist. She stresses that ‘The most important issue is breathing. If a conductor has not absorbed the substance and...

    • Electronics
      (pp. 134-136)

      When Giuseppe di Giugno’s pioneering work in electronics opened the pathway to interactive techniques, he was sympathetic to the limitations of many conductors who had no training in electronics. ‘Synthesizers should be made for musicians, not [ for] the people that make them’ was one of his goals – and good news for conductors who can take advantage of his innovations. But this does not reduce the number of issues which he/she must deal with in rehearsal and performance. While conductors do not need to be involved in the technology related to works deploying live instruments and computers, their awareness...

    • Practical issues
      (pp. 137-138)

      While readers will be fully aware of the practical issues related to a conductor’s responsibilities there are some matters in the percussion arena which require special attention. The variety and number of instruments deployed in various scores is a constant challenge to the players, who often have to go well beyond the call of duty to fulfil their role. David Hockings explains these issues. He recounts an experience in which the conductor had no concern for the special needs of the section. The work was Boulez’sRituel, but the conductor was not the composer. After spending a great deal of...

    • Academic aspects
      (pp. 139-140)

      Techniques for training and conducting a youth or college orchestra are covered in Christopher Adey’s excellent bookOrchestral Performance.⁶ Some of the interviewees already quoted in Part Two of this book contribute further considerations.

      Colleges and conservatoires occasionally invite a distinguished professional conductor to rehearse and conduct a concert with the students. Some achieve excellent performances, providing a valuable and memorable experience for the young performers. Others fail to engage with an orchestra, resulting in a tense and inadequate performance. From observations, my own conclusion is that a lack of teaching experience usually accounts for this failure, no matter how...

    • Programming contemporary music
      (pp. 141-144)

      In creating a programme which features new music, initially we have the issue of diversity in style to consider. As in other eras there is also the wide range of quality from disastrous music to masterpieces to put into the equation. On both points we have the subjective element of personal preferences involved. Nonetheless, there are enough objective criteria to assert in the matter of judging what constitutes an accomplished work of art. When sitting on adjudication panels I am always interested to identify jury members who have a reasoned approach to judgement in balancing the subjective with the objective...

  10. PART THREE Case studies

    • Pierre Boulez, Le Marteau sans maître
      (pp. 147-178)

      The amount of authoritative literature available on this work, including Boulez’s own writings, makes it unnecessary to enter into further detailed discussion about its historical significance and structural organisation. But where appropriate to issues of conducting, such matters will be referred to. Score references relate to the 1957 Universal Edition.

      In the journey which he made from the strict serialism and the ‘automatism’¹ ofStructure I(1951) toLe Marteau sans maître(1954), Boulez made a giant leap of inventive perception. The composer himself describes the earlier work as a purely technical exploration of musical language ‘to bring everything into...

    • Karlheinz Stockhausen, Zeitmaße
      (pp. 179-190)

      In the twenty-first century we are able to view the individual evolution of each composer who came through the Darmstadt experience as an historical record. While they all travelled the gauntlet of integral serialism they are by no means the product of a ‘school’ of composition. Each of them developed an entirely distinctive vocabulary and style which retained only the shadows of Darmstadt. When we consider the output of such strongly established composers and many others, the diversity of substance in their work is vast. Darmstadt was an important breeding ground for all of them, but subsequently they trod their...

    • Olivier Messiaen, Couleurs de la cité céleste
      (pp. 191-201)

      Of all Messiaen’s works,Couleurs de la cité célesteis the most challenging to conduct. Once mastered, the techniques involved can be usefully applied to all of the composer’s works. It is difficult to think of a piece that is more punctuated by silences. The numerous sections are very much in block formation, each one being quite short but very contrasting in tempo and character, but introduced in quick succession. To gain an overall view of the structure of the work, Robert Sherlaw Johnson’s book on Messiaen is invaluable.¹⁹ His Table IX (on p. 180) shows how these block formations...

    • Harrison Birtwistle, Silbury Air
      (pp. 202-209)

      Issues of pulse have inevitably been prominent in a book relating to music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It has also been stressed that subjective artistry should never be absent from any technical mechanism required for interpretation and performance. Nonetheless, there is a further dimension to analyse in relation to pulse itself. In Part One the music of several composers illustrates varying applications of metric modulation. An extreme experiment with this feature is made by Harrison Birtwistle in what could be described as a pulse piece. HisSilburyAir makes very exacting, but very exciting demands on a conductor....

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 210-210)

    In Part Three I have concentrated on ensemble rather than orchestral works. The reason for this is that the kind of works analysed are more extreme in their technical demands than those in the orchestral repertoire. Even the orchestral works of Boulez are less complex than his ensemble compositions. The revisions which he made in the scoring ofPli selon pliare indicative of the general perception of composers in recognising the time restraints of rehearsal schedules for orchestral works. Complexity in itself is not a virtue, but it can be the route to a good idea. Consequently, there is...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 211-212)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 213-216)
  14. Index
    (pp. 217-220)
  15. Contents of the DVD
    (pp. 221-222)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 223-223)