The Orchestra

The conductor draws back his arm, baton poised in the air. The applause and chatter that greeted his arrival die down until at last the hall is charged with silent expectation. All attention is fixed on that figure, awaiting the first movement signalling the note with which the music will begin. Surveying the stage, the orchestra spreads out before him: the violins and strings, the warm sheen of varnished maple and spruce, hinting at the rich resonances and secrets locked within; the ebony black of the wind instruments, the sparkle of their silver keys; the golden glint of polished brass; and finally, the array of percussion instruments at the back, from which the timpani steal the show, their huge copper bowls, the metal shining as it catches the stage lights. In a largely synthetic world, it is hard not to be struck by the organic nature of these materials, the unique properties and imperfections that give each instrument its distinctive voice, a testament to the maker’s craft, honed over centuries, a craft in which instinct and feeling reveal the limitations of science in the hands of a master who knows just how to cut and shape the materials to obtain the perfect sound. Perhaps it is this excess of detail that imbues the music with a certain luxuriance, an unrivalled depth and complexity, the purity of the acoustic, unadulterated by the electron’s flow.

As the music fills the air around us, it’s not so much that it enters our ears but that we are immersed in its timbres and pitches, enveloped by its rhythms and tempos. We become one with this air, with the instruments themselves, following the rise and fall of the notes that fill the score as the landscape of sound it codifies and preserves opens up around us. Some, for it may be the first time they have heard the piece in question, may find themselves overwhelmed by the power and detail of the music; else others, who have heard it before, begin to pick out familiar features, at once different and altered, transformed and recontextualised with different nuances and accentuations, the products of different interpretations that vary from performance to performance (for after all, it should be remembered that we are dealing with a performance, and not a recording, of which no two are ever quite the same), while also discovering new ones. For is that not precisely the hallmark of good music, that it never ceases to surprise us?

The sea of bows before the conductor rises and falls to the pathos transmitted through his hands, the audience listening intently, not only with their ears, but also with their eyes, because who can help but become gripped by a sense of anticipation as they see a tall figure rise from his seat at the back of the stage and draw back his arm, ready to strike the bass drum? Who can fail to sense in his movements the impending change, delivered as the conductor brings down his hand, the drummer transforming at a stroke pathos to drama? The swelling and throbbing of the strings at once takes off, giving way to something dark and sidereal. From this momentary lull, the music will rise once again, building to its thundering finale, the conductor triumphant at the head of the orchestra, the symbolic figurehead of a civilization built on hierarchy and subordination, the figurehead of establishment and empire. And as the final note dies away, the audience will erupt into applause, applause that is at once a celebration of the orchestra’s ability to breathe life into the music, but also of something more, something delivered to us by proxy: the creative vision of the composer. For behind the skill of the musicians on stage lies a vision whose depth and thrust are at odds with the times in which we live, suggestive not of mere accident and contingency, but of solidity and permanence. Suggestive of the ability of a mind, a figure towering larger than life in the annals of history, to behold beauty, to see deep into the human soul and a wrest from it a work of art whose substance has perdured centuries. A romantic figure, one of genius, a word strangely out of kilter with the credo of our times.

First Published in The Kalyna Review, Autumn 2014



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