Artistic and Socioeconomic Motivations for Employing Conductors in
New Music Ensembles Specialized in Performing Integrated Concerts
Thesis submitted to obtain the degree of Doctor of Arts at the University of Antwerp and Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp (ARIA)
Written and defended by Thomas R. Moore
For their curated concert Hands On (hands off), Nadar Ensemble has programmed four pieces that all have a special role set aside for the conductor. All four works require their conductor to create a piece-specific performance practice. Serge Verstockt (1957- ) in his DRIE (2006) limits his conductor to lighting and dousing twelve matches. In Point Ones (2012) and Ghost of Dystopia (2014, rev. 2019), Alexander Schubert (1979- ) and Alexander Khubeev (1986- ) respectively bind their conductor to composer-made instruments. Schubert’s is virtual and Khubeev’s is acoustic, made of twine, plastic, and glass. The exact details of Jennifer Walshe’s (1974- ) new piece for Nadar and conductor are, at the time of writing this introduction, yet unknown. However, she intends to focus on the conductor’s hands quite literally by using a video camera and live projection to bring the audience in close contact with the minutest of details usually only privy to the conductor’s fellow occupants of the stage. Each piece’s performance practice is a direct result of the composers’ active handling of the role of the conductor.
Preparing Verstockt’s DRIE as the conductor involves a great deal of active coaching and workshopping. However, during the performance itself, after having memorized the score alongside the ensemble, the conductor’s job is to listen to what the musicians spontaneously and collectively create and accompany them. The matches that the conductor strikes and extinguishes act simply as reminders for the performers. Verstockt’s work is for any number of musicians so long as there are enough to surround the audience. It is performed in a complete blackout, pierced only by the singularly lit matches. The musicians follow a schema that guides them through a series of ‘swarm-style’ actions with the conductor lighting beacons along the way.
In both Point Ones and Ghost of Dystopia (and, based on preparatory conversations, most likely Walshe’s new piece), the conductor must learn a new instrument. Schubert crafted a program in which the conductor’s gestures are mapped along three axes using wireless sensors attached to the conductor’s wrists. His piece and program utilize the gestures to trigger live electronics, forcing the conductor to balance both a live and virtual ensemble. Khubeev dodges the live-virtual balancing act by choreographing all the solo-conductor’s gestures in his piece for augmented conductor and ensemble. He also requires his soloist to make their own instrument (something that took me all summer in 2015). Jennifer Walshe has promised to have me learn ‘hand-modeling’ and study the Japanese phenomenon ‘girlfriend hand’. Like Khubeev, we are also going to dive deep into ensemble hierarchy and help the audience to confront the assumed position of authority held by the conductor.
Three of the pieces on the program described here have become a fixed part of my artistic practice. I was a member of the premiere ensemble for DRIE (ChampdAction) and Point Ones (Nadar) and have conducted both pieces on multiple occasions. Ghost of Dystopia has been in my repertoire since its showing at the Gaudeamus Muziekweek (in 2015 with Nadar). The fourth piece emerges directly from my artistic practice: together with De Singel and Nadar, I offered Walshe the commission. In all four, the conductor and the role thereof were (or will be, in the case of the Walshe) clearly utilized, instrumentalized to meet the composer’s specific artistic needs. But why? What possible motivations did Verstockt, Schubert, Khubeev, and Walshe have for deploying the conductor in this fashion, molding it to their artistic hand? Are they alone in this, or do they take place within a broader tendency? If so, can a performance practice be created to meet this development? It is these very questions that I have, through artistic research, endeavored to answer and will lay out in the following pages, analyses, presentations, and performances.
Throughout the following presentation of my research, the term ‘new music’ refers to music in the Western art music tradition that was written after the start of the twentieth century and has been premiered after 1945. Although it may be disputable, I use the premiere date as a reference because my research concerns (new) performance practices. Furthermore, I have limited the scope of my focus to new music that is performed by ensembles that play integrated concerts, where video, light and sound design (including live electronics), costuming, decor, and utilization of a conductor are all integral parts of the ensemble’s concert programming. Examples of such ensembles include but are by no means limited to: Nadar (Belgium), Klangforum Wien (Austria), MusikFrabrik (Germany), Sound Initiative (France), and Pamplemousse (USA).
The pieces and composers that I have chosen to study were selected for intersubjective reasons after consultation with colleague researchers and fellow professional musicians.
And lastly, I will endeavor to continue the rich historical tradition of employing ‘they’ or its derivatives as an epicene, singular pronoun. However, in cases where it might cause confusion, I will use he/she or he-she, or its forms, to mean a singular individual yet still intending for a spectrum to be indicated.
Conductor Carolyn Watson introduced her doctoral thesis by arguing that ‘bigger, longer, more involved and complicated performances’ in the nineteenth century ‘necessitated greater conducting involvement through which the role developed’.  Gunther Schuller wrote the following regarding new music:
The problems related to conducting contemporary music are, as might be expected, as varied and unpredictable as contemporary music itself. An unprecedented plethora of compositional schools, techniques, conceptions and philosophies dominate the current scene and it is therefore very difficult to generalize about both the compositional problems themselves and the performance and conducting problems that arise from them. Currently, the art of conducting is undergoing fundamental re-evaluations, and in some instances new compositional approaches have radically changed conducting techniques or, indeed, eliminated them altogether. 
Building on Watson and Schuller’s Musings,  conductor-researcher Hernando Varela stated that conductors’ ‘technique must have a close link with the music it serves’.  Their ‘gesturality’ can be utilized to ‘exceed the operative framework – that is, of communication with the instrumentalists – and becomes a structuring factor of the piece’. 
Watson and Schuller sketch a causal development of the conductor’s role: Western art music becomes more diverse and complicated; therefore, the performance practice of the conductor must adapt. Varela first continues along this causal line by concluding that the technicity of the role must conform to the ‘music it serves’. However, he later remarks that the conductor’s movements now surpass their faciliatory role and become a ‘structuring’ instrument to be utilized by the composer. This is Watson and Schuller’s arguments turned on their heads. At first, the conductor must develop techniques to meet the music. Yet now the music (and composers) develops techniques for the conductors.
This arc, from impromptu to instrumentalized conductor is not linear and certainly not consistent. Not all composers, when deciding to write a conducted piece, decide to actively deploy the conductor. They are happy to have the conductor’s presence continue to be a secondary phenomenon of the music, be that for (economically) traditional, artistical, or pragmatic reasons. As Belgian composer Wim Hendrickx remarked, ‘When I write for a symphony orchestra, I know it is going to be conducted’.  However, as Schuller attests in his Musings, there has been a noticeable trend in an increasingly intricate art music tradition, be that rhythmically, dynamically, visually, or via a multimedia or integrated approach.
Schuller points out that contemporary music is ‘varied and unpredictable’, which makes it ‘very difficult to generalize’.  As such, I plan on attempting no such generalization in this introduction nor in the following pages. Many lines of connection and influence can be drawn through the ranks and multitudes of twentieth and twenty-first century Western art music. However, I would like to draw one line here that perhaps can illustrate the developments described by the above-cited conductors and researchers, one from Charles Ives’ (1874-1954) Symphony No. 4(1910-1916), to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s (1928-2007) Gruppen (1955-57), to Mark Applebaum‘s (1967- ) Tlön (1995).
During rehearsals for the posthumous premiere in 1965 of Ives’ Symphony No. 4, Theodore Seder, the publisher, convinced Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, to hire assistant conductors to help rehearse and perform the second movement of the symphony, titled Comedy.  This specific movement was simply too complex to prepare within an economically viable timeframe with one conductor. It is evident here that the music shaped the performance practice: two or more conductors, a new technique, was developed to meet the music it serves. As I argue in further detail in the specific paper on this piece, the choice to use multiple conductors helped Stokowski and Seder to meet Ives’ specific goal of framing the piece in such a way that audiences could piece together their own perception and, essential to the composer, form a personal interpretation of the work.
Stockhausen’s Gruppen is for a large orchestra of 109 players divided into three groups, each with their own conductor. In his biography of the composer, Michael Kurtz writes that the ‘separation was principally motivated by the compositional requirement of keeping simultaneously played yet musically separate passages distinct from one another’.  Unlike the Ives, the decision to deploy more than one simultaneously performing conductor was decided long before rehearsals for the premiere began. However, Kurtz seems to indicate that this choice of practice followed from the division of the orchestra. The performance practice was thus pragmatically adapted to meet the artistic need. In Stockhausen’s work one can perhaps see the beginning of what Varela describes as gestural structuring  – that the conductor’s role and their gestures would themselves become the artistic material of the composition.
My third example, and the temporary end of my short and illustrative line, is Applebaum’s Tlön for three conductors and, remarkably, no players. As a means of introducing his piece, Appelbaum writes:
Tlön was composed on the basis of the observation that the act of conducting, in itself, is not only musical, but music. Furthermore, elements traditionally associated only with sound, such as loudness or dissonance (particularly temporal dissonance), may be equally cultivated in the corporeal, gestural sphere. 
The three conductors in this piece all face the audience, mark measures, and give cues in three different, yet synchronized tempos. Applebaum deploys physical gestures, conductors’ movement repertoire, as the musical material. Instead of technique and practice adapting or rising to meet the music it serves, technique and practice, as Varela suggests, becomes the musical material itself.
Through a literature study and the analysis of artistic output of twentieth-century and contemporary composers, I was able to determine, and will subsequently demonstrate in the following papers, that certain composers utilize conductors to a degree of instrumentalization and for an array of artistic and pragmatic goals. I suspected, and have also able to determine through in-depth interviews, that certain artistic directors of ensembles and venues that program integrated concerts instrumentalize the conductor as well. Specific examples can be found throughout the following pages, however here I would like to give a brief summary of the kinds of the reasoning and motivations I found along the way.
During the second year of my research, I interviewed professional musicians, composers, artistic directors, and conductors who all held specific expectations for conductors and distinct motivations for utilizing them in both performances and rehearsals. I was able to divide these motives into two broad categories: artistic and pragmatic. The artistic expectations included an ability to communicate artistic intention verbally and through gestures with the musicians and audience, to share responsibilities with their fellow performers for ensemble playing in a chamber music-like fashion, to organize and centralize artistic workflow, and to demonstrate spontaneous artistry in concert. The composers and artistic directors I interviewed also demonstrated a willingness to instrumentalize a conductor for artistic reasons such as a reframing of conductors’ movement repertoire and reliance on performance ritual. 
The pragmatic expectations of a conductor, as described by the interviewees, included rehearsal preparation, planning, and execution, though this was also sometimes limited by the same artistic directors who employ them. Some respondents also assigned new pragmatic and artistic responsibilities to the conductor such as a working knowledge of electronics and an ability to balance the intentions of living composers with the wishes of the curator and/or artistic director.
A catalyst for this research arose from a personal conflict I first encountered in 2012 between expectations and a piece-created reality with which I was confronted when conducting AMID (2004) by Simon Steen-Andersen (1974- ) for Nadar Ensemble. My experience as both conductor and musician up until that point had mostly been in classical contexts and commercial theater. I was therefore not prepared for the restrictions placed upon the performers in Steen-Andersen’s gesture-based piece. Nor was I truly prepared for Alexander Schubert’s Point Ones, also on the program. As I wrote above, each piece has its own performance practice and, as I quickly discovered, the creation of that practice falls squarely on the shoulders of the performing conductor. I therefore aimed early on in my research to assimilate the knowledge won from the score analyses and the material from the interviews into a coherent enumeration of responsibilities with which a conductor of a new music ensemble may reasonably be confronted. This turned out to be an overwhelming task as it became clear (and perhaps more important in the end) that the conductor’s responsibilities are continually influenced for both artistic and pragmatic reasons and the specific scope(s) thereof are (re)defined by each new situation. Certain composers and artistic directors continually utilize and instrumentalize conductors, applying them to their pieces and programs in an à la carte fashion.
I decided to collect and present my research in a website because the output thereof takes both written and video form and, like new music, there are many lines that one can take when perusing its content. To systematically approach what I had experienced anecdotally in artistic practice (for example, the conflict described above) I conducted my research in three large and partially coinciding phases: score analyses, in-depth interviews, and case studies. I also decided to offer two commissions to composers who I surmised would enthusiastically act on the offer to further develop the role of the conductor. The webpages are thus ordered: Score Analysis, Interviews, Case Study 1, Case Study 2, Commissioned Work 1, and Commissioned Work 2.
The order in which I have presented the following webpages is chronologically based on the commencement of each section, but by no means their realization. For example, I first examined John Cage’s (1912-1992) Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-1958) in the fall of 2018, but only presented the analysis in a lecture-recital in the spring of 2021. In the meantime, I had the pleasure to perform the Concert many times with two ensembles as well as a soloist. On the other side of that spectrum is Charles Ives’ score of the Fourth Symphony, which was the first piece I analyzed and the last I presented – and I have yet to perform it as a trombonist or conductor. Other works had more compact, but no less impactful, results, namely Zonen 6 (2007-2008, rev. 2018) for guitar orchestra by Michael Maierhof, with whom I also had a very insightful interview on not only conducting but democracy as well.
I would like to offer one short note on formatting before I continue with this roadmap. A number of the papers presented on this website were published in academic journals. Those that were not, I have formatted uniformly. Those that were published, I have left in their published format. Also, any single paper, chapter, analysis, or explanation that is longer than one and a half pages I have inserted as a download link rather than asking the reader to scroll continuously.
On this page the reader can find my analyses of six pieces from the Western art music tradition that were written in the twentieth or twenty-first century and that in some manner question, develop, or problematize the role of the performing conductor. The six pieces I selected are, in order of their premiere date:
- Cage, John: Concert for Piano and Orchestra, 1957-1958
- Ives, Charles: Symphony No. 4, 1910-1916 (premiered in 1965)
- Steen-Andersen: AMID, 2004
- Maierhof, Michael: Zonen 6, 2007-2008, rev. 2018
- Schubert, Alexander: Point Ones, 2012
- Khubeev, Alexander: Ghost of Dystopia, 2014, rev. 2019
As of the summer of 2021, all the score analyses have been presented at international academic conferences. Due to the Covid pandemic, these were held virtually and all were also recorded. I have therefore included all these presentations on the website. Where possible, I have provided video recordings of my performances of the pieces as well. The specific analysis methodology is presented in each paper; however, in short, I examined each piece with the same general questions: in what manner was the conductor utilized and what possible motivations for this utilization were detectable in the score?
In order to gain new firsthand information and test the budding theories formed through study and personal experience, I set out to interview professional artistic directors, composers, conductors, and musicians who are active in the new music field both in Europe and abroad. With prepared questions in hand, I approached each interviewee with the intent to ascertain their expectations of a conductor and the reasons they might employ one. The results are diverse, and again like new music, there are various lines one may take through those transcripts; however, measurable trends did begin to appear. Alongside the transcripts of five key interviews, I discuss two of these measurable trends at length on the Interviews page: the instrumentalization and customization of the conductor by both composers and artistic directors.
When a conductor is deployed for the visual impact on audiences and musicians, then their presence is not a secondary phenomenon of the music. Prior to and during my doctoral study, I came across pieces in which a conductor was deliberately inserted by a composer or artistic director for the sake of visible and generally recognizable conductors’ movement repertoire or as the subject of the piece and thus became an integral part of the overall presentation. In order to better understand these two particular methods of instrumentalization, I conducted two lengthy case studies, one on each method.
Steen-Andersen admitted to deploying the ‘image of the conductor to play on the audience’s expectations’ in his pieces AMID and Black Box Music (2012).  Nadar’s artistic co-director, Pieter Matthynssens described the conductor in AMID as an ‘extension of the musicians’.  Both figures’ statements point to the inherent visual nature of the conductor’s performance. I therefore decided to devote my first case study to AMID. I began with an analysis of the gesture-based score and then conducted an in-depth interview with the composer. Next, I developed a practical performance practice for the piece with an advanced student ensemble from the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp (RCA). Finally, once completed, and together with my supervisor, culture-sociologist Pascal Gielen, I then examined the performance practice through a value-sociological lens provided by Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot.  The entire case study, including two published articles, the presentation of the case study, and a ‘score-follower’ recording of AMID, can be found on the Case-Study 1 page.
The second case study focused on Thierry De Mey’s solo for conductor and electronics, Light Music (2004, rev. 2021), a piece that is very clearly written with the role of the manual and silent conductor in mind. This case study was practice-based and began with the revision of the score and especially the electronics, of which I am incredibly indebted to and grateful for the computer wizards at Centre Henri Pousseur (CHP) in Liège, Patrick Delges and Xavier Meeus. As a team, CHP, De Mey, and I then proceeded to revise the performer’s part, premiering the new version in May 2021. We are currently finishing the documentation of the revision and hope to have this presentable by the end of 2022. Recordings of the new version along with analysis of the conductor’s role can be found on the page Case-Study 2.
I offered commissions to Jessie Marino (USA) and Jennifer Walshe (IE) as a way of applyingthe new and coalesced knowledge I gained through this research. Both composers were chosen because of their unique approach towards the utilization of gesture and their questioning of current modes of hierarchy and performance practice. I shared my research with them and asked both to, in their own way, continue to develop the instrumentalization and role of the conductor. For Marino’s piece, six to five (premiered in May 2021), I partnered with the RCA Guitar Ensemble. At the moment of writing this introduction, Walshe’s piece is still ‘in the works’ and will be premiered by Nadar Ensemble in February 2022.
The following webpages and their contents may be read in any order that suits the reader’s interest. In cases where one paper leans on, or is the result of, an earlier article or interview, I have provided citation and, by following the internal links, any unclarity should resolve itself.
I would like to take this brief moment and conclude my introduction by expressing my gratitude to all the professional partners and performers who made this research possible, especially Nadar Ensemble, Centre Henri Pousseur, RCA Guitar Ensemble, Ensemble XXI, the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, ARIA, Thierry De Mey, Jessie Marino, and Jennifer Walshe. Thank you all very much.