What is Zen conducting?

I seem to have a habit of referring to some conductors as Zen masters, and a friend recently asked what the hell I mean by this.

First, though a disclaimer- I would never begin to claim any particular philosophical experitise or deep understanding of the true tenants of Zen Buddhism. Any real practitioner will surely recognize that this discussion is just a Westerner’s crude usage of Zen as a reference point for discussion, and nothing more.

I tend to think there are two kinds of good conductors, generator/inspirers and Zen masters. The generator/inspirers include people like Bernstein, Gergiev and Rattle. The generator/inspirer uses his/her technique to generate the passion, the excitement, the drive the direction of the performance. They create the performance

Actually, I don’t think there is any such thing as a true, complete Zen master condcutor. In the near Zen master category, I would put Karajan, Celibidache (when he was old), Mravrinsky, Klemperer, Furtwangler and Stokowksi. The Zen master tends to use her/his technique to generate sound. They create the music

This is not to say that Zen conducting does not address questions of articulation, rhythmic drive and ensemble, or that generator/inspirer conducting ignores the importance of color and blend at all. However, I feel that the two approaches stem from a fundamentally different concept of the actual act of conducting. (Of course, I can’t know what the goals of the above named conductors were or are, I just know what I perceive when I watch them).

Think of generator/inspirer conducting as the art of motion– for each musical idea or event in the score, the conductor creates a movement that expresses the character of the event to the orchestra. Musical intent is translated into motion. Motion becomes performance.

Now think of Zen conducting as the art of space. Each musical idea or event becomes manifest primarily in the nature of the space in which the conductor moves. Musical intent is translated into space. Space becomes music.

Almost all good conductors (including all but one of the ones listed above) actually balance these two approaches. For the generator/inspirer a lack of meaningful space would cause them to flail about recklessly in way that would get a hideous sound from the orchestra, and for the zen conductor, an inattention to gesture could lead to the destruction of the space they have created.

 It is a musical truism that the size and character of a motion will correspond to the size and character of the sound it produces. A string player who begins a bow stroke with a heavy attack, an explosive motion and a large arm motion will bet a corresponding heavy, explosive and powerful sound. While the parallels between these motions and those of conductor should be obvious to anyone (and I’m always imploring young conductors to think about the motion of the bow when conducting strings) the parallel is less obvious, but even more important when conducting brass or singers. When it is only the motion of air we’re talking about, as opposed the motion of the body, the need for conceptualization becomes more important.

The loudest sound in an orchestra performance is often a fortissimo brass entrance. How might the conductor’s motion relate to act of brass playing here in a way analogous to the string stroke I mentioned above? The brass players aren’t really moving their bodies that much when they play-they’re breathing and they’re thinking. Most brass players will tell you that in addition to conditioning, airflow, embouchure, the real power in that moment comes from concept. Likewise, the conductor must have concept.

In string playing, there are three basic factors that affect the quality and quantity of sound you hear- bow speed, bow weight and contact point. Bow speed is the easiest to grasp for everyone- we can all recognize a whole bow when we see one. However, the other two factors are much more powerful in how they affect the sound. It is obvious a how a conductor can indicate for the strings to use more or less bow, but not obvious how he/she can indicate a heavier bow or a contact point closer to the bridge or more over the fingerboard. Here again, concept is the key.

One can move more quickly or slowly between beats, or show a heavier or lighter articulation, make larger or smaller gestures, make rounder or more direct motions between beats, and all of these will have a tangible affect on the sound the orchestra makes. On the other hand, if you can actually make the sound itself visible in your space, and let changes in your gestures be the outgrowth of the tactile sense of moving in different stuff, I think your control of the sound becomes much more vivid and powerful. The true Zen master conductor is one whose concept of the sound is unmistakably alive and perceptible to every member of the orchestra at every moment in the performance, and one who never allows a gesture to destroy the coherency of their conductor’s space.
In fact, if we say that Zen conducting is about space rather than motion, it might be easy to infer that the most powerful Zen conducting would use as little motion as possible, but this is an oversimplification. Remember, the size and character of motion ought to relate as exactly to the size and character of the sound. Instead, Zen conducting tends to invlove less motion for two reasons. First, the risk of any motion disrupting or destroying the meaning of the space is so great that it makes to sense to clutter up that space with any gestures that arent’ absolutely needed. Secondly, as it is the tactile response one’s motion through an ever changing space that shows sound, the conductor must learn to listen with his/her hands. Again, if one gets too busy, there is no room in your awareness for feeling and responding to the changes in the energy of your conducting space.


The conductor makes sound by making space
The conductor makes space by allowing the space to exist
The conductor allows space to exist by responding to the existence of the space

The space exists because you are aware of it


c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

1 comment on “What is Zen conducting?”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    Of course, the famous Lenny dance, when Bernstein would just drop his arms and groove is a form of Zen conducting, although I would suggest that he’s radiating rhythm more than sound at those moments.

    Also, the Gergiev twitch is certainly a way of making a very live connection from his nervous system to that of the orchestra, but I still feel that the emphasis there is on motion rather than space. Of course, he may conceptualize this totally differently


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *