Expressive Gesture, Part 2: Developing the Imagination

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Second in a series that starts here

conductor imagination cartoon

Our conducting gestures are only ever as expressive as the musical thoughts that generate them. So the place to start in refining and developing our gestures is to work on what is inside our heads. Which sounds a rather abstract thing to do, so here are some specific activities that will service that aim.

  1. Listen to music. Listen promiscuously, listen deeply. Other people’s expressiveness feeds our own
  2. Find different modes of listening. Each of the following will make you grow in different ways:
    • Sit very still, and relinquish your emotional state to the flow, without resistance or analysis
    • Stand up and dance, as a child would before they learned self-consciousness or the rules of dance. Let the music move your body where it will. (If you can’t remember how to do this, go and watch children at outdoor gigs; you can learn a lot about how to listen.)
    • Listen interrogatively, asking at each moment what effect the composer intends to create. And the performer - do they have the same agenda, or are they playing/singing at cross-purposes?
    • Listen descriptively, metaphorically, narratively. If this music were a movie, where is it set? If it were a poem, what would it be about? If you had to serve it for dinner, what would you cook?
  3. As you prepare the music you will conduct, devise metaphors and imagery you might use to describe the effects you are after. Which sections are swashbuckling, and which seep like evening mist? Is that key change a sunrise or a hand-brake turn?

    Some musicians are - quite reasonably - wary about talking/writing about music. They worry about language being reductive (the music means much more than this) and about talking too much in rehearsal. I am not suggesting your metaphors stand in place of music, though - rather that they serve as triggers to evoke wider-ranging imagery in your and your ensemble’s imaginations.

    Indeed, at a deeper level, I am suggesting that by generating a wider and more varied set of imaginative associations as you prepare the music, much of this will find its way into your gestures naturally and leave you less to do with words. But you need the words to crystallise the thoughts during preparation

  4. Read some music theory. A lot of musicians are a bit leery of music theory, not least because of the aforementioned general mistrust of language’s inadequacy in the face of musical expression. But also because they associate music theory with the grind of working out chord labels and what-have-you when they’re still slow at it. It is true that our happiest memories as musicians aren’t usually of the Friday morning harmony exercises of our youth.

    But out the other side of this drill is a rather wonderful literature written by people who care about music, about how it fits together beyond the dots. Just as if you persist through learning your scales and arpeggios in childhood, you get to lose entire afternoons in adulthood with Beethoven and Chopin, Heinrich Schenker, Leonard Meyer, Edward Cone, even Deryck Cooke in his idiosyncratic way, have all helped me hear music in new ways, and thus make music in ways I would otherwise not have envisaged. Be bold, read widely, and feel free to argue back at the books where you think they’re wrong.

  5. Read other stuff. Novels, biographies, history, philosophy, psychology - stuff that makes you think thoughts and feel emotions that you don’t normally think and feel. Books that make you think critically, that make you follow intricate arguments, that force you to suspend disbelief, that evoke pictures in your head. Replenish your fund of metaphors regularly; build whole extra wings onto your private mental mansion.

Musical meaning is a funny thing. It is not entirely subjective - there are clearly shared patterns of feeling and expression within musical cultures, which is what makes performing and listening to music a satisfying communicative experience. But the meanings are multiple, layered, free-floating, not fixed. We have scope to take a phrase in this direction or that, which is what makes it a creative experience too.

What we call musicality is the capacity to map musical syntax onto our shared imaginative landscape in ways that evoke lived experience in other dimensions (and/or the vicariously-lived experience of other art forms). Expanding the horizons of the internal landscape that music evokes in ourselves is thus the foundation for conveying it more expressively to others.

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