Philosophical discussion of artistry in performance has focused on the relation
of performers to musical works and to their instruments. But an important
domain of musical artistry is social, relating musicians to their fellows in
performing groups. This “socio-musical” artistry contributes to the artistic
accomplishments of performing groups as a whole. I identify two distinct kinds
of socio-musical artistry, and discuss some of the ways in which different forms
of group organization articulate different possibilities for their exercise.
Finally, I discuss at some length the extreme case of a performing role that is
purely socio-musical, that of the orchestral conductor. I discuss both
discontinuities and some subtle and extensive continuities between the
conductor’s role and the musical roles of instrumentalists and singers, with
the aim of situating this purely socio-musical activity in relation to musical
performing more generally.
audience; collaboration; conductor; music; performance
Setting the stage
Philosophical consideration of
performing art leads almost immediately to questions of the scope of performing
artistry. In what David Davies calls the Classical Paradigm, performers execute
works (plays, musical compositions, choreography). Artistic agency in the
shaping of a performance is unequally divided between authors (playwrights,
composers, choreographers) and performers. Once performers select a work to
perform, the scope of their artistic agency is constrained by the nature of the
philosophical work on musical performance explores the scope of such agency in
the performance of compositions in Western art music (WAM). Work on
historical authenticity in performance focuses on additional constraints that
might be imposed by considerations of authenticity. And some
authors have investigated the kinds of actions which constitute the exercise of
performers’ musical artistry.
This work typically addresses the
simple case of a single performing agent, focusing on the relation of
performers to musical works and to their instruments or voices. The division of
artistic labor between composer and performer raises the same issues for solo
and group performance. But solo performance is a relatively small subclass of
musical performance in general. Group performance creates a further division of
musical agency among the performers themselves, engaging kinds of musical
artistry that don’t figure in solo performance. This domain of musical
performing artistry is obscured by work which focuses on solo performance alone.
A broad philosophical understanding of the art of musical performance will need
to do justice to the varied forms that this art can take, and the various
dimensions of artistry involved.
The following is meant to contribute to
such an understanding by characterizing kinds of musical artistry that are
essentially interpersonal or social in nature. I’ll begin with some
considerations that are common to solo and group performance. My aim will be to
distinguish performing artistry proper from other artistic contributions that
are made by performers (notably in the preparation of performances). I’ll then
discuss kinds of performing artistry that emerge only in group performance. The
artistry of group performances is in key respects a collective accomplishment.
The ways in which individual performers contribute to this accomplishment
mobilizes musical artistry of a kind that is found only in group performance. I
identify two distinct kinds of ‘socio-musical’ artistry, and discuss some of
the ways in which different forms of group organization articulate different
possibilities for their exercise. Finally, I’ll discuss at some length the
extreme case of a performing role that is purely socio-musical, that of the
Artistic agency in musical performance
Before proceeding to issues that arise
in group performance, it will be necessary to make some points which apply to
both solo and group performance. Performers
typically exercise musical agency in two distinct stages. Prior to performing,
there is a stage of rehearsal and score-study, in which the performance-plan
embodied in the score is elaborated
with further planning. This activity, like composition, is a matter of creating
musical plans for later execution.
Then there is the performance itself.
This is the stage of execution rather than planning. There’s an element of
continuity in that performers’ planning can determine musical details not
settled by the work, and the performance can determine details not settled by
the work or the performers’ planning. Moreover, performers’ planning will
typically narrow the range of performing options from those established by the
work, and the performance will complete the process of narrowing to one
exhaustive set of choices. But in performance, the details are set not by
planning but by carrying existing plans out in one particular way. The
determination of details is intrinsic to the activity; there’s no such thing as
a detail left undetermined in performance.
The musical artistry exercised in the
planning stage is basically compositional. Any collaboration in the planning
will involve musical activity that goes beyond the image of the solitary
compositional creator, but it won’t introduce elements that are specific to the
role of performers, and I’ll have nothing more to say here about this stage.
Musical agency exercised in the course
of performance involves the determination ‘on the fly’ of features of the
performance not determined by prior planning. Composers, and performers in the
planning stage, develop plans for performance. But in performance itself those
plans are executed, and the artistry specific to performers lies in features of
the performance that are set only in the execution. In the central repertoire
of WAM, this is limited to fairly fine nuance. The musical character of the
performance is determined in great detail by the constraints of the work
performed, and by additional planning carried out in score study and rehearsal.
Still, nuances determined in performance can make the difference between
successful and unsuccessful performance, and between performances that succeed
(or fail) in different ways. In jazz and other musical domains that allow more
scope for improvisation, much more of the character of the performance is
determined only in the performing. Even in WAM, different works (and different
rehearsal-to-performance processes) can define the details of performance to
Ensemble performance and socio-musical artistry
In the case of solo performance, the
single performer is the only one responsible for the control of fine details of
the performance’s musical features ‘on the fly.’ Artistic agency is shared with
the composer, but the performing
artistry is the single performer’s. Part of what changes with group performance
is just a multiplication of the agency and artistry present in solo
performance. In a performance of the ‘Kreuzer’ sonata, one musician is
responsible for the piano part and another for
the violin part. Each exercises musical artistry in the control of
detail in her part.
The typical use of sheet music in WAM
ensemble music makes this division of agency particularly vivid. Typically,
each performer plays from sheets containing only that performer’s part. There’s
a multiplication of the solo player’s case; in effect, each player has the
material for a (not very satisfying) solo performance, and the solos are
Putting the matter this way is an
over-simplification that suggests something like the parallel play of young
children, or the pre-established harmony of windowless monads. If this was the
only difference between solo and ensemble performance, an investigation of
musicmaking artistry wouldn’t need to go far beyond the solo case.
But even in a ‘parallel play’ group
performance, there would be a dimension of collective outcome unlike anything present in solo performance.
Musically important features of a performance are not limited to those of one
part or the other, even though the performance comprises only the performance
of those parts. Balance between the parts, or the matching or varying of nuance
in phrases which occur in both parts, are not features of either part taken by
itself. They are features of relations between the parts. The control of such
features is the cooperative work of both performers. This control and artistry
extends to such domains as those of overall tempo, dynamics, and so on. A group
performance will exhibit a particular
overall tempo, for example, only if it exhibits the relational characteristic
of coordination among the tempi of the parts. Given such coordination, the
tempo of any part reflects the tempo of the whole. But the overall tempo is the tempo of the whole, accomplished
by the coordinated activity of all of the performers. We might call
these details of relation or coordination ‘details of group performance.’
In the artificially simple case of
parallel musical play, the details of group performance would emerge from the
simple combination of the features of the individual part-performances, as long
as the latter were suitably related. (This might require particularly careful
preparation in the planning stage; the harmony of the monads would need to be
effectively pre-established.) So even in this simple case, there would be
group-directed elements to the musical agency of the individual performers.
The artistry of interpersonal musical responsiveness
In real-world ensemble playing,
cooperation among performers can include extensive interaction in the course of
performing. Tempo is coordinated by listening to one another. Phrasing is
matched or varied, balance is adjusted, tuning is maintained on the fly (within
parameters set by the work performed and earlier planning in rehearsal), as
each performer listens and responds to the others.
This is a crucial dimension of the
activity of performing with others in groups. And this dimension engages a kind
of musical artistry not found in solo performance. We might call the artistry
with which a performer responds to the musical activity of fellow musicians the socio-musical artistry of interpersonal
musical responsiveness, where the phrase ‘socio-musical’ indicates the dimension
of musical interaction in a performing group.
The lore of both chamber music and jazz
places a particularly high value on this sort of interpersonal responsiveness. A handbook
entitled The Art of String Quartet
Playing emphasizes that:
The first requisite for a good ensemble
is that each player shall have the sense
of the whole. This he can only feel by listening
to the others – constantly, whether he knows the music or is reading at
sight…. In performance, it is the only way to achieve the necessary
give-and-take, to play in and out, to respond freely to the others’
interpretations, to meet the unexpected.
An ethnomusicology of jazz performance
makes a corresponding point:
From the performance’s first beat,
improvisers enter a rich, constantly changing musical stream of their own
creation, a vibrant mix of shimmering cymbal patterns, fragmentary bass lines,
luxuriant chords, and surging melodies, all winding in time through the channel
of a composition’s general form. Over its course, players are perpetually
occupied: they must take in the immediate sensations around them while leading
their own performances toward emerging musical images, retaining, for the sake
of continuity, the features of a quickly receding trail of sound. They
constantly interpret one another’s ideas….
By way of this sort of interaction,
members of an ensemble can exercise musical artistry in shaping a performance,
controlling the nuances left to performers by WAM compositions or the
larger-scale features subject to jazz improvisation. This engages the
socio-musical artistry of responsiveness. The passages quoted above describe an
artistic relationship between individual performers and their fellows. The
artistry of listening and responding is fundamentally interpersonal. In solo
performance, musical artistry is exhibited in the production and control of
musical sound in singing or directly manipulating instruments. Following Stan Godlovitch,
we might call this ‘musical primary craft artistry.' Such primary
craft artistry is certainly an important element in ensemble performance. But
the artistry of individual musicians in group performance also includes
socio-musical artistry. Nicholas Cook writes of musical scores as ‘scripting
and socio-musical artistry is the artistic reflection in performance of this
feature of musical works. This is a kind of individual musical artistry that
can be exercised only in the course of group performance.
Analogous to the artistry of
interpersonal musical responsiveness is a form of responsiveness available in
both solo and group performance: responsiveness to cues from the audience. Even the quiet
audiences of conventional WAM performances can evince momentary shifts of
attention, pleasure, puzzlement, and related reactions to the ongoing
performance. Other sorts of performance involve conventions that allow much
more vociferous reaction by the audience. And attentive performers can include
these reactions in the input to which they respond artistically. There is not,
of course, the sort of mutuality of artistic response that characterizes
interplay among the performers; the roles of performer and auditor are very
different. But the artistry involved in responding musically to such cues seems
closely related to artistic responsiveness to fellow performers. And one
important difference between hearing a performance in person and via recording
or broadcast is that in-person auditors can participate in this process and
(spatially or temporally) distant auditors cannot.
The artistry of interpersonal musical initiative
The socio-musical artistry of
interpersonal musical responsiveness, and the concomitant interplay of
individual and group music-making, characterizes all of the members of a
performing ensemble alike. The members of a string quartet or a jazz ensemble
should all exhibit artistry in listening and responding to their fellows and so
contributing to the group activity of shaping the performance on the fly. Much
of the rhetoric surrounding string quartet playing valorizes the equal
participation of all the members; on this view, the social activity scripted by
the quartet score is intrinsically equal and democratic. But the fact
that the group as a whole must exercise musical artistry in the control of
details of group performance does not imply that all the members of the group
have equivalent roles in the process.
In the dynamic interplay of ensemble
performance, one performer might take the initiative. A minimal degree of this
is built into the very idea of listening and responding. To respond to another
performer is to take one's cue from her, and in that interaction she (at least
momentarily) functions as initiator. But initiative may also be more
deliberately assumed or assigned, and can extend beyond audible cues to visible
gesture. Such leadership may be assigned to different performers for different
passages, as in the Guarneri Quartet’s assignment of visual ‘leads,’ a sort of
equitable interchange of unequal roles. Or such
interchange might be accomplished by more-or-less spontaneous initiatives in
the course of performance, as often occurs in jazz performance. Finally,
initiative of this kind might be taken more-or-less permanently by one
performer. (The traditional opposite-pole to the democratic model of the string
quartet is one in which the group is permanently led by the first violinist.)
This sort of leadership demands the
artistry of interpersonal responsiveness; the shaping of a performance at a
particular point should be responsive to its prior shape. And the spontaneous
interchange of initiative requires responsiveness not only in particular musical
gestures but in role-assumption as well. But especially when leadership is
retained over a considerable span of musical time, it engages a further dimension
of socio-musical performing artistry, which might be called the artistry of interpersonal musical initiative. This is the artistry specific to the role of leading performances or performance
episodes. The musical role of group leadership resembles the overall
performance-shaping agency of solo performers. But while the solo performer
exercises this control in her own playing or singing, the socio-musical
initiator’s agency is partly located in her playing or singing of her individual
part, and partly in the social action of guiding the performance of others. And
while the leader’s cues may be found in the way she sings or plays her part,
they may also be conveyed in other ways, particularly by visible gesture.
Here it might seem that the role of a
leader replaces the collective
activity of the ensemble in shaping relevant features of the performance on the
fly in the course of performing. Since the leader is a member of the group, a
more accurate description would be that the ensemble’s activity involves a
division of roles among its members, allocating particularly extensive musical
agency to one of them. The activity of a leader might constrain the scope of
musical artistry of the other members, but their artistry remains an essential
part of the picture, and they retain musical agency in their response to the
gestures of the leader. Particularly in more improvisational settings, some of
the response may be unexpected, taking up the initiator’s cue in musically creative
Here again there’s a somewhat analogous
form of interpersonal artistry involving the relation of performers and
audience, which is again available to solo and group performers alike. Even in
situations in which the audience doesn’t participate in performance (singing
along, rhythmically clapping, etc.), performers can use audible or visible
gesture to guide the listening attention of auditors. Visible gestures intended
for the audience are often derided as showboating, at least in WAM performances.
But there’s reason to think that following visual cues is important to the
musical experience of auditors with access to them. The
interactive interpersonal context of performance includes (spatio-temporally
present) audience as well as fellow-performers, and socio-musical artistry can
be engaged in both connections.
So, in group performance, the ensemble
shapes the performance as it occurs. Members of the group exercise primary
craft artistry in the performance of their individual parts, and socio-musical
artistry in responding musically to one another and to their audience. For
(temporary or more permanent) leaders, musical agency extends further into the
shaping of the performance as a whole and its reception, and socio-musical
artistry extends to the artistry of interpersonal initiative.
The conductor as socio-musical performer
The possibility of leading not just by
example but also by visible gesture suggests that someone could lead a
performance exclusively by gesture without participating directly in the
production of musical sound at all. And this, of course, is precisely the
practice of conductors, the paradigmatic leaders of WAM performance. The
detachment of key socio-musical performing roles from direct physical
music-making represents a significant departure from other modes of organizing
More than one author since the middle
of the twentieth century has described conductors as the virtuosos of
present-day classical music. The critical practice embodied in reviews of
performances and recordings is united in assigning the responsibility to the
conductor for artistic success or failure in orchestral performance. And to the
extent that musicology has turned to the analysis of performances, it too assigns the relevant musical
agency to conductors. An adequate
understanding of musical performing art must extend to the artistry exhibited
by conductors. But this is no simple matter.
The role of conductor is of course
limited to group performance; solo conducting would abandon music in favor of
mime. The role is exclusively socio-musical, and we might expect the preceding
discussion of socio-musical performing artistry to be helpful in sorting out
the musical performing artistry exercised in this role. If we mobilize the categories
developed above in combination with Godlovitch’s discussion of primary craft,
we can develop a nuanced understanding of the role of conductors as musical
performers who exercise a distinctive form of musical performing artistry. Such
an account will need to do justice both to the continuities between conductors’
performing activity and that of paradigmatic musical performers (singers and
instrumentalists) and to the distinctive features of the conductor’s performing
Playing the orchestra like an instrument
To get a better sense of what needs to
be sorted out, it will be helpful to articulate some of the tensions
surrounding the idea that conductors are performing musicians. There is a
perspective from which this idea may seem pretty bizarre. Norman Lebrecht
captures the prima facie incongruity
when he writes of the conductor:
plays no instrument, produces no noise, yet conveys an image of music-making
that is credible enough to let him take the rewards of applause away from those
who actually created the sound.
Is the conductor a performing musician
in the sense that she exercises the musical artistry specific to classical
performance? The conventional response to points like Lebrecht’s is that the
conductor’s role is indeed analogous to that of an instrumentalist, but that
the conductor’s instrument is the orchestra itself.
instrument which the conductor uses…is the most sensitive, most richly and
diversely equipped and articulated, inexhaustible, and most inspiring: it is an
organ of which each pipe is a human being.
This suggests that the conductor’s
real-time control of the details of orchestral performance is analogous to a
soloist’s control of the details of her solo performance. The conductor’s
control is chiefly applied to details of group performance. Individual
musicians may still exercise musical artistry in controlling the details of
their own parts. But if the conductor plays the orchestra like an instrument,
it must be that conductor’s guiding role is crucial for many or most of the
most important features of the performance.
This, then, is the conventional
response to the incongruity of classifying silent baton-wavers as performing
musicians. Arguably, a performing group the size of a symphony orchestra can’t
exercise flexible real-time control of many details of group performance in the
absence of a single leader, and it seems that at least many such details are
best controlled by the visible gestures of a leader who is clearly visible to
the entire orchestra. In any case, this is the mode of control practiced by
symphony orchestras for the last century or so.
Clearly, the conductor is at
least a party to the artistry of a performing group consisting of conductor and
players together. But of course the conductor doesn’t ‘play’ the orchestra just
like a fiddler plays the fiddle, and the disanalogies threaten the suggestion
that the conductor is a musical performing artist in her own right.
The cliche that the conductor’s
instrument is the whole orchestra captures an important analogy between her
artistic role and those of singers and players. But the contrast that I
emphasized above between developing and executing plans for performance
suggests a central disanalogy. The artistry proper to performance resides in
the execution of directions (plans) embodied in musical works and elaborated in
rehearsal, but in both rehearsal and performance, the conductor is the source
of further directions that are executed by players and singers. To the extent
that the conductor controls details of group performance, she does so by
directing the playing and singing of others.
This is of course clearest in
rehearsal, where the instruction is often explicit and verbal, and is in any
case temporally removed from actual performance. Here, the role of the
conductor is in many ways closely analogous to that of the stage-director in
dramatic performance, and nobody would classify the director as a dramatic
When we reach the stage of performing,
some of this doesn’t change. Even in the course of performance, the conductor
directs the activities of others who produce the musical sounds that the
audience hears. Even in performance, her role is in this respect like that of
the composer or stage-director. And this challenges the suggestion that
conductors exercise the artistry proper to performance; they do not, as players
and singers do, (directly) shape on the fly the audible details of musical
Interpersonally mediated control and socio-musical performing artistry
The parenthetical qualification in this
last sentence suggests the obvious rejoinder to this line of reasoning: the conductor’s real-time
control of detail in performance is to be sure mediated by the activities of players
and singers, but it is nonetheless real and significant. If the orchestra is a
responsive one, many of the features of a performance are determined by the
precise qualities of the conductor’s gestures as the performance unfolds. In
this respect, the role of the conductor deviates sharply from those of
composers and stage-directors.
At this point, we can usefully mobilize
the earlier discussion of dimensions of performing artistry in such groups as
string quartets or jazz ensembles. The conductor’s guidance in the course of
performance is an instance, albeit an extreme one, of the sort of
performance-guiding socio-musical artistry that can be part and parcel of the
artistry of performing musicians in ensembles. Moreover, like the exercise of
such artistry by chamber musicians or jazz improvisors, its exercise by
conductors also involves the socio-musical artistry of interpersonal musical
responsiveness. For example, Max Rudolf notes that:
However well-rehearsed the ensemble and
however well-marked the parts, only the actual sound of the music tells the
conductor which gestures to use for dynamics. If the orchestra plays too loud
in a f passage, the conductor may
decrease the size of his gesture and even use the left hand to subdue the
group. On the other hand, a p passage
may not stand out sufficiently unless the conductor gives a large beat.
Interpersonally mediated control and primary craft
On the other hand, the fact that
players and singers make musical sounds directly while the conductor is
involved only via the mediation of her activity does seem quite relevant to the
question of whether conductors exercise primary craft artistry in orchestral
performance. Godlovitch’s account of primary craft is designed to specify a
kind of immediacy of sound production that he takes to be crucial to musical
performance. The kind of mediation that
most concerns Godlovitch is electronic rather than interpersonal; in his book about musical performance, he has lots
to say about synthesizers and computers and nothing at all about conductors.
But his account of what’s missing when synthesizers and computers are brought
to bear applies equally to the activity of conductors:
[M]usic-making skill paradigmatically requires
the immediate causal intervention of the player. That immediacy provides a
basis for determining and assessing performance handicaps. Instrumental skills
are essentially and broadly manual; vocal skills are essentially glottal. This
type of direct control embeds performance within ‘primary craft’ traditions.
Valuing performance skill is an instance of valuing results in a primary craft.
Exercising musical skill involves
physically altering something directly. Every musical effect stems immediately
from some physical control the player has over the vibrating object.
Performance requires an intimate acquaintance with the sounding properties of
one’s instrument as well as ways of using parts of one’s body to exploit those
properties. Music-making calls for ‘contiguous hands-on control’ over sound. I
call direct or immediate physical causation of some effect by an agent ‘primary
causation.' The skilled primary causation of sound I call ‘primary skill’ for
The exercise of primary skills stamps the details of the agent’s actions
directly into the emerging effect. Each nuance of sound reflects some physical
This is a rich description, containing
elements that are perforce absent from the activity of conducting as well as
some which may be present. Immediate physical causation of the audible results
is of course out of the question. Godlovitch contrasts immediate control with
‘remote control,' and it’s clear that a conductor’s control of detail in
performance is remote control. But when a responsive orchestra performs under a
skilled conductor, it could yet be that ‘each nuance of sound reflects some
physical manoeuvre’ among the conductor’s gestures.
This is certainly what conductors
strive for, and what the responsiveness of an orchestra can make possible.
Daniel Barenboim seems to echo Godlovitch when he writes that:
…with a good conductor, musical
contact can be so strong that the musicians react to the slightest movement of
his hand, his finger, his eye, or his body. If the orchestra is at one with the
conductor, they play differently if he stands up straight, or bends forward, or
sideways or backwards. They are influenced by every movement.
The control of sound by gesture is
perhaps simplest in the matters of overall dynamics (typically proportioned to
the amplitude of the conductor’s beat) and tempo (controlled by the timing of
the gestured beats). But by combining fine-grained control of these elements
with others indicated by, for example, the shape of the beat, the conductor can
control more subtle and complex musical nuance. For example, Rudolf describes
some of what goes into the shaping of melody:
The manner of interpreting melody is
one of the most individual characteristics of a musician. Just as a melody
played by different soloists may produce varying impressions, so a melody
played by an orchestra under different conductors may not affect the listener the
In short, the shaping of a melodic line
is achieved by means of a purposeful combination of the basic techniques that
have been discussed. The use of legato, staccato, and tenuto beat for
indicating articulation has been taken up previously. It has been shown that
changes in the size of the beat affect not only the dynamics but also the
phrasing. In addition, subtle variations in the size of the beat, even from
count to count, can express the inflections in the melody that are not
indicated by interpretation marks but are ‘behind the notes.' The value of
variations in the intensity of the beat, from very intense to completely
neutral, has also been treated.
Frederik Prausnitz summarizes what’s
controlled by the conductor’s beat:
The beat shows when to play,
indicates how to play,
controls the musical shape of
coordinates all musical lines in terms
of precision and balance,
directs the interchange of musical
initiative within the orchestra….
What distinguishes beats, as the
primary set of conducting signals, is precision and control. The exactitude
with which a modern symphony orchestra is able to follow the directions of its
conductor is wonderful to watch.
Bruno Walter writes in a similar vein
…contrary to appearance…it is in
actual fact that single person [the conductor] who is making music, playing on
the orchestra as on a living instrument…. The musical feeling of the listener
perceives that the conductor’s conception and personality sound forth from the
playing of the orchestra….
Indeed, Walter emphasizes an analogy to
the handcraft that figures so prominently in Godlovitch’s discussion of primary
craft musical performance. So, for example,
I cannot say in what specific physical
trait the manual aptitude for conducting lies, any more than I can pinpoint the
physical disposition for a craft such as, let us say, joinery. But if we
closely watch an artisan who is specially gifted for his craft, we see how
naturally and purposefully, and with what sure instinct, he handles his tools.
They appear to be part of his own body – his nerves do not seem to end under
the skin, but seem to continue through the tool he uses, directly affecting the
object on which he works….
In the hands of the born conductor, the
baton gradually becomes a tool of this kind.
If Rudolf, Prausnitz, and Walter are
right, the conductor’s ‘remote control’ of the musical sounds of a performance
can share many salient features of a player’s or singer’s more direct control.
All of this suggests that the musical artistry of the conductor involves a sort
of interpersonal extension of primary craft artistry, and this is what animates
the metaphor of the orchestra as the conductor’s instrument.
Interpersonally mediated control and artistic collaboration in performance
On the other hand, the interpersonal
dimension of this extension of primary craft remains centrally important. The
conductor’s control requires the active and musically engaged collaboration of
It is important not to take Walter’s ‘it is … that single person who is making
music’ to suggest that the conductor is the only one ‘making music’ in
orchestral performance. Barenboim
addresses the hypothetical extreme suggested by Walter’s ‘single person who is
There is nothing worse than the
attitude of an orchestral musician who comes extremely well prepared, able to
play the notes perfectly, but totally without any kind of character, so that
the music is, as it were, then made by the conductor. And he is in fact saying,
“I play the notes, and you make the music.” And there’s nothing further from
the possibility of good music than that.
So while the conductor's shaping of
performance involves the exercise of something at least close to primary craft,
its version of (or analogue to) primary craft is itself socio-musically
The interplay of initiative and engaged
response has yet another dimension that further engages the conductor in the
artistry of ensemble performance. Recall that the last item on Prausnitz’s list
of functions of the beat is that it directs the interchange of musical
initiative with the orchestra. The conductor cannot be a source of musical
initiative in every element of the performance. Rudolf writes,
The conductor must decide when he will
direct the melody, how much attention he will give to the inner parts, and
which details need special attention. The choice of “what to conduct” lends
individuality to the interpretation. For example: when two groups play the melody,
the larger one is usually led more directly, but if a particular orchestral
color is desired (as strings with solo wood-winds, the wood-wind color
predominating), the smaller group is addressed. The effect of a passage may be
greatly enhanced by directing counter-voices more strongly than the main
melodic line. Generally speaking, however, it is unwise to pay too much
attention to inner parts and to use elaborate gestures for a great number of
small details, for this disturbs the logic of the over-all musical picture and
may easily become a mannerism.
Decisions made in the course of
(conducted) performance about what part of the performance to conduct might
seem to be entirely specific to the art of the conductor. But we’ve already
identified the interchange of leadership roles in the course of performance as
a dimension of the socio-musical artistry of chamber musicians and jazz
improvisers. The conductor’s varying focus of address is a version of something
that once again carries over from other sorts of group music-making.
If musical performing artistry is
artistry which is exercised in the course of musical performance and which
shapes the musical qualities of the performance as it takes place, then
conductors clearly exercise such artistry. As with individual singers and
players, its domain of exercise is the real-time control of detail, mostly at
the level of precision left open by the score. Like chamber musicians taking
leadership roles in the course of performance but to a greater and more sustained
extent, conductors shape the fine-grained nuances of performed versions of
compositions in collaboration with players and singers who are also artistic
agents in the creation of the performance.
I’ve emphasized analogies between the
artistry exercised by conductors in performance and that of players and singers
in chamber music and jazz. The categories of primary craft artistry and
socio-musical artistry, the latter including both the artistry of responsive
listening and of performance-guiding initiative-taking, provide a means to
bring out the extent and some of the nuances of the analogies. But for the conductor, the order of priority among the
dimensions of musical artistry is reversed. For chamber musicians and jazz
performers, socio-musical artistry emerges in the exercise of primary-craft
artistry. The basic artistry of listening and responsiveness is exercised
through instrument-playing or singing. Although visible gesture can play an
important role, much of the performance-guiding activity in these domains is
accomplished audibly through appropriately nuanced playing or singing. With the
conductor, musical artistry is socio-musical through and through; the
primary-craft-like element is itself social, accomplished through interaction
with a group of musically active collaborators.
And this brings us back to the fact
that the conductor’s role is located within a group whose collective activity
generates the details of group performance. Like shorter- or longer-term
leaders in chamber music or jazz performances, conductors have a role in the
group which influences the details the group performance far beyond the
leader’s particular part. For the conductor, this takes the extreme form of
having no ‘particular part’ at all, so all
the influence is on the parts of others. It’s tempting, especially if we begin
our account of musical performing artistry with solo performance, to see
conducting as a sort of amplified version of solo performance, leaning on the
metaphor of the orchestra as the conductor’s instrument. But it’s more
illuminating to view the performance of orchestra-with-conductor as one way of
organizing the various artistic functions of group music-making, with the
conductor gathering functions that are exercised in other ways, by individuals
or by the ensemble as a whole, in other forms of organization. The musical
artistry of the conductor is an element in the deeply social artistry of group
To simply say that the conductor is a
musical performer underplays the significance, emphasized by Godlovitch, of
making and controlling sounds in a way that ‘stems immediately from some
physical control the player has over the vibrating object.’ To simply deny that the conductor is a musical
performer underplays the deep continuities between what she does in the course
of a performance and what singers and instrumentalists do in ensemble
performance. The conductor’s real-time exercise of socio-musical artistry
controls details of performance in ways that include many of the elements of
primary craft music-making, and her socio-musical role is made up of elements
that can be crucial components of singers’ and instrumentalists’ musical
performing activity. We can accommodate the disanalogies while recognizing the
fundamental importance of socio-musical artistry in performance by
distinguishing two levels of genuine musical performing activity: primary performing activity, which
requires the direct making and control of sound, and socio-musical performing activity. Conductors are musical
performers, but not primary musical
performers. (This is reflected in the fact that there can’t be a performing
group consisting only of conductors.)
The role and artistry of a conductor
in performance is purely socio-musical. But the role and artistry of an
ensemble player or singer is deeply socio-musical as well. Performers listen
and respond, and are listened to and responded to. Musical initiative is
exercised in roles that are assigned in advance (for entire performances or individual
episodes), or spontaneously assumed and relinquished. And the artistic qualities
of ensemble performances emerge from the socio-musical artistry of the
There’s no music at all without the
production of musical sound, and in that sense activity involving direct
control of vibrating objects is musically primary. But as soon as two musicians
join in performance, their art takes on a social dimension. Only by taking this
dimension seriously can we fully understand musical performing artistry. And to
the extent that other kinds of group performance (in dance, drama, and so on)
involve analogous forms of interaction, the point applies to them as well.
Apart from the special case of solo performance, performing art must be
understood as art which is exercised by social organizations (performing
ensembles) by way of the artistic performing interactions of their members.
Aron Edidin is Professor of Philosophy
at New College of Florida, where he writes and teaches widely in analytic
philosophy. His most recent work has focused on thinking philosophically about
Published on November 14, 2017.
 David Davies, Philosophy
of the Performing Arts (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), Ch. 2. See also
Paul Thom, For An Audience: A Philosophy
of the Performing Art. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).
 Stephen Davies, Musical Works and Performance (Oxford: OUP, 2001), Aron Edidin, "Performing Compositions," British
Journal for Aesthetics. 34 (1997), 323-335.
 Stephen Davies, Musical Works and Performance; Peter Kivy, Authenticities (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), Aron
Edidin, "Look What They’ve Done to My Song: Historical Authenticity and the
Aesthetics of Musical Performance," Midwest
Studies in Philosophy 16 (1991), 394-420; "Playing Bach His Way: Historical
Authenticity, Personal Authenticity, and the Performance of Classical Music," Journal of Aesthetic Education 32
(1998), 79-91; "Artistry in Classical Musical Performance," British Journal for Aesthetics 40
 Paul Thom, The Musician as Interpreter (University Park, PA: Penn State
University Press, 2007), Stan Godlovitch, Musical
Performance: A Philosophical Study (London: Routledge, 1988), Edidin, "Artistry in Classical Musical Performance."
 Here I follow the account in Edidin, "Artistry in Classical Musical Performance."
 Or chart, in the case of jazz arrangements,
or other analogous work-vehicle. That such things as jazz arrangements are
musical works is somewhat controversial, but nothing in my discussion hangs on
a narrow construal of the category of musical work.
 M.D. Herter Norton, The Art of String Quartet Playing (New
York: Norton, 1925), pp. 22-23.
 Paul Berliner, Thinking in Jazz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 348-349.
 There is something of an analogous
element in solo performance in the adaptation of the performance’s later
features to its earlier ones. See Edidin, 2000.
 Godlovitch, Musical Performance, pp. 53-55.
 Nicholas Cook, Beyond the Score: Music as Performance (Oxford: OUP, 2013), pp. 256-273.
 I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer
for CA for emphasizing the importance of interaction with audience as a
dimension of socio-musical artistry.
 Mary Hunter, "'The Most Interesting
Genre of Music’: Performance, Sociability, and Meaning in the Classical String
Quartet, 1800-1830," Nineteenth-Century
Music Review 9 (2012) 53-74.
 David Blum, The Art of Quartet Playing: The Guarneri Quartet in Conversation with
David Blum (New York: Knopf, 1986), pp. 10-11.
 Berliner, Thinking in Jazz, Ch. 13
 This is noted by Hunter, Blum, and
 Berliner, Thinking in Jazz, Ch. 13, Blum, The
Art of Quartet Playing, pp. 5-6.
 William Forde Thompson, Phil Graham,
and Frank A. Russo, "Seeing Musical Performance: Visual Influences on
Perception and Experience," Semiotica
156 (2005) 177-201, Michael Schutz, "Seeing Music: What Musicians Need to Know
About Vision," Empirical Musicology
Review 3 (2008) 83-108, Chia-Jung Tsay, "Sight Over Sound in the Judgment
of Musical Performance" Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences 110 (2013) 14580-14585. For two pianists’
takes on some dimensions of the artistry involved, see Alfred Brendel, Me Of All People (Ithaca, New York:
Cornell University Press, 2002), pp. 60-61, and Charles Rosen, Piano Notes (New York: Free Press,
2002), pp. 128-132.
 For example, in various articles in
John Rink (ed.), The Practice of
Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
 Norman Lebrecht, The Maestro Myth (Bridgewater, N.J.: Replica, 1992), p. 2.
 Hermann Scherchen, Handbook of Conducting (London: Humphrey
Milford, 1933), p. 3.
 Max Rudolf, The Grammar of Conducting (New York: Schirmer, 1950), p. 312.
 Godlovitch, Musical Performance, p. 53.
 Daniel Barenboim, A Life in Music, revised and enlarged edn (New York: Arcade, 2003),
p. 80. See also Stephanie A. Ross and Jennifer Judkins, "Conducting and Musical
Interpretation," British Journal for
Aesthetics 36 (1996), 16-29, ref. on 21-22.
 Rudolf, The Grammar of Conducting, p. 226.
 Frederik Prausnitz, Score and Podium: A Complete Guide to
Conducting (New York: Norton, 1983), p. 41.
 Bruno Walter, Of Music and Music-Making (New York: Norton, 1961), p. 82.
 Ross and Judkins are concerned with
the possibility of attributing performative interpretations to conductors in
the presence of the artistic role of the players.
 Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, Parallels and Paradoxes (New York:
Pantheon, 2002), pp. 69-70.
 Rudolf, The Grammar of Conducting, pp. 309-310.
 It’s not clear in
the passages I’ve quoted from Godlovitch whether such direct physical
manipulation is meant to be a defining characteristic of primary craft. If not,
it remains an important feature of his paradigm cases.