As though in memory of those antediluvian Playboy “pictorials” in which the hapless young lady posed with whatever attribute of her metier the photographer had unearthed in the props room—an alleged student of architecture with a carpenter’s wooden compass, a presumed graduate of the police academy with a sheriff’s badge, a putative nurse with a stethoscope—on concert-hall posters the conductor is photographed with his baton. Raised aloft and signifying—significance.
To be sure, Hugh Hefner did not invent symbolism. From cave painting to Christian iconography and all the way down to Envy, Yuri Olesha’s immortal novella of 1928, where an iconic old-world object—the pillow—stands for the “conspiracy of feelings” that the new world is intent on suppressing, visual images, “pregnant with latent meaning,” have stood for all the larger, “relatively unknown things,” as Jung puts it, “that cannot be represented more clearly or characteristically.” But while the Cro-Magnon shaman knew that a zigzag scratch on his cave wall represented the mystery of water, nobody knows what the conductor’s upraised baton means.
Ennio Nicotra, a Sicilian friend of mine, was an aspiring conductor when he first heard of a man by the name of Ilya Musin (1903-99), then the resident guru at the Leningrad Conservatory. With the insouciance of his forebears who swapped their coppola caps and lupara shotguns for quarantine on Ellis Island, Nicotra moved to Leningrad, learned Russian, and was soon accepted into Musin’s intimate circle. A book, Introduzione allatecnica della direzione d’orchestra (Introduction to Orchestra Conducting Technique), came out of his Russian experiences, following on Musin’s own studies of the subject, Tekhnika dirizhirovaniya (The Technique of Conducting) and Yazyk dirizherskogo zhesta (The Language of the Conductor’s Gesture). Musin and Nicotra are to music, then, what Ferdinand de Saussure and, say, Umberto Eco are to linguistics—dilating on the aspect of it that has, since Saint Augustine, borne the occult name of doctrina signorum.
But even Ennio has never been able to explain to me, a layman, what a conductor actually does. I thought of this last summer, when, thanks to the career exigencies of a pianist wife, I found myself in Aix-en-Provence, lodging in a small hotel that had once been the house of the composer Olivier Messiaen and attending some of the concerts that were part of the annual music festival there.
Surely, I thought, as with the semiotic branch of linguistic theory, any putative science of conducting is at best some kind of auxiliary apparatus, a blind man’s cane, a household appliance in a 1950’s perfect American home. Surely the signs we produce count for little next to the meanings we impart to them, so that, on occasion, a marathon runner who falls wordless at our feet can deliver news more vital than what has been written in a hundred books filled with supple prose. Can one not imagine an anchorite who is an illiterate blind deaf mute to be the sort of sage born once in a millennium? Or, at the very least, someone like Søren Kier kegaard, clinically awkward, both socially and intellectually? Content, in music as in philosophy, is no less noumenal than expression.
The festival’s main attraction was the Richard Strauss Elektra, with the Orchestre de Paris conducted by the Finnish genius Esa-Pekka Salonen. Suffice it to say that my old London friend Didier de Cottignies, since 2009 the artistic director of that orchestra, did not know until ten minutes before the curtain went up on the premiere whether he would get a seat, while the tickets reserved for the conductor’s family had been pinched from the box office by an unknown swindler who claimed to be Maestro Salonen.
I have been told that the opera, whose libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal has been said by more than one modern critic to presage the films of Quentin Tarantino, depends on the skill of the conductor to a far greater extent than, say, an opera by Verdi, where satisfactory, adequate, stock solutions have long been in place and, if the soloists shine, this is enough to make the performance memorable. By the life of me, though, I could not tell where that skill lay, and how the conductor was able to communicate to the orchestra his perception of the work’s dramatic content. There was no science. If there was anything, it was faith, intuition, or magic.
Rather like constitutional monarchy, I thought. How have the civil liberties of Englishmen survived through the centuries without a written constitution, without all those U.N. charters, and without the ceaseless prattle of human rights or, for that matter, civil liberties? The answer is, just the same way Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Elektra, his understanding of content ruling over his expression of that understanding. He was a king at one with his people, and no political-science maven or authority on semiotics will ever tell you how this can be.