Conclusions: Redefining the Conductor’s Role in New Music Ensembles


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Score Analyses






Single-Piece Case Studies

New Pieces & Playing the Instrumentalized Role





Throughout the presentation of my research found on this website, I have demonstrated that over the last seven decades, the role of the conductor has evolved in new music ensembles that perform integrated concerts. It was problematized by Cage; doubled (or split) by Ives, Stockhausen, and Applebaum; manipulated by De Mey, Steen-Andersen, and Prins; instrumentalized by Schubert, Khubeev, Maierhof, and Matthynssens; and deployed tactically by Verstockt, Marino, and Rosman. Each of the pieces cited requires a piece-specific performance practice and the creation thereof appears to rest squarely upon the shoulders of the performing conductor. As a new conductor in this field, I first experienced this development and instrumentalization as a personal conflict, or at least a confrontation with my own training and experience. As I began to perform more works within this genre as a musician, soloist, and conductor, I noticed patterns in pieces and artistic directors. When the opportunity then presented itself to systematically study what I had hitherto experienced anecdotally, I grabbed it with both hands. The research offered the chance to bring into focus the manner in which conductors have been utilized in new music and various artistic and socioeconomic motivations for such utilization. My hope initially was to describe a performance practice for conductors and list a scope(s) of responsibilities. The latter of which turned out to be improbable because, though I was able to demonstrate that the scope of responsibilities has expanded, each new piece and situation demanded a customized application of those responsibilities. For example, in Khubeev’s Ghost of Dystopia, though conducting gestures are used in the piece, they have no demonstrable effect on the musicians’ performance. However, in Point Ones and AMID, the conductor’s gestures do have conventional function despite, like the Khubeev, being at least partially choreographed by the composer. Instead of a list of responsibilities, I managed to find tools in Håkon Stene’s post-instrumental practice [1] and Jessie Marino’s scaling of the musicians [2] as well as methods found in Simon Steen-Andersen’s hyper-concretism [3] and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s tactical leadership [4] for creating piece-specific performance practices to functioning as a curated conductor.

Below, I will first summarize the conclusions drawn from each phase in the research, proceeding chronologically from the score analyses, to in-depth interviews, and finally the single-piece case studies of AMID and Light Music. I will also briefly summarize my findings on the tactical deployment of the conductor in Marino’s six to five. The commission offered to Walshe will not be discussed here because at the time of writing these conclusions, the piece is being written and thus its impact is far from clear.

[1] Håkon Stene, ‘Towards a Post-Percussive Practice’, Music & Practice 2 (2015),
[2] Jessie Marino, interview by Thomas R. Moore, 10 November 2019.
[3] Simon Steen-Andersen, ‘Behind next to Besides’, RTRSRCH 1, no. 3 (March 2010): 54–57.
[4] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, ASSEMBLY (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

What is the conductor’s role today when performing in the context of a professional ensemble specializing in integrated concerts and new music?



How does a composition’s artistic content and the way a concert is programmed and/or curated influence the expectations and responsibilities of a conductor?  

What is the role and performance practice of the conductor when they are the subject of the piece and/or program or when generally recognizable conductors’ movement repertoire is integral to the piece and/or program?

By offering composers commissions, can the role of the conductor and its performance practice be further developed artistically and/or pragmatically?

Each of the pieces I examined in this study were approached with the aim of gaining a better understanding of the role that a conductor can play. The six pieces with which I began were analyzed within this context: What role has the composer determined for the conductor? How has each developed the role artistically and/or pragmatically? And what motivations can be detected from the score and recordings of performances? Before I began the analyses, I first hypothesized, based on empirical observations in my artistic practice as a conductor, musician, and production leader, that two non-exclusive actors in new music may determine the utilization of a conductor, namely artistic directors and composers. Artistic directors today decide the direction of their organizations from a goal-oriented standpoint. The selection of artists is not habitual, but a clear and active expression of their vision. [1] Composers can de facto force the decision and are often present during the production phase. I further hypothesized that there were five detectable non-exclusive criteria considered when making the determination to utilize a conductor:


  • the artistic and substantive input of the intended conductor;
  • the presence of the conductor as subject being central to the piece;
  • economy (as in required or available rehearsal time, difficulty of the music, and tradition);
  • the perception of the audience of a piece, program, and/or conductor; [2]
  • generally recognizable conductors’ movement repertoire is integral to the piece – both musically and visually, their presence is not a secondary phenomenon of the music. [3]


Armed with this rigid set of premises, I then set out to test them against works that so clearly problematized and challenged the role of the conductor in contemporary Western art music. The pieces that I chose to analyze were selected intersubjectively after consultation with colleague researchers and fellow professional musicians. They are in no way representative of the entire broad spectrum of late twentieth-century composed music. They do, however, cut a clear historical and evolutionary line. I began with a work in which the conductor’s technique had to adapt to the music it serves [4] and ended with pieces in which the conductors’ technique itself was instrumentalized and put to use as the musical material.

My study began with the second movement of Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony, the Comedy.  This work was premiered posthumously in 1965 and although Ives suggests using at least two conductors during the performance, it was only at the adamant persuasion of publisher Theodore Seder that conductor and music director Leopold Stokowski hired José Serebier and David Katz as the assistant conductors. [5] Besides the work being too complex to rehearse and perform in an economically viable time frame with one silent conductor, I was also able to demonstrate that the poly-conductoral approach was utilized for at least two other detectable motivations. First, each of the conductors was given artistic authority over portions of the orchestra and thus utilized for their substantive input. Secondly, because the piece contains composed and aleatoric polyrhythms, the physical presence of the conductors can assistant the audience in their interpretation of the work, literally directing the public’s attention towards the various elements at play. Generally recognizable conductors’ repertoire thus creates a framework through which the audience can visually appreciate the complex piece.

The second work I examined was John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra. Cage takes the role and its movement repertoire head on, locking the conductor into a new and fixed choreography that is only similar to the conventional role in its placement on stage and continuing to function as a marker of time. The conductor is used in this piece to help the audience and musicians understand that time is still moving forward, even if in fits and spurts. However, more importantly, Cage seems to have instrumentalized the role to ensure that when the piece is programmed with a conductor it is new and surprising in every performance.

After analyzing these two historical examples of new music that problematized and manipulated the role of the conductor, I then delved into four contemporary examples. The composers of the first two works very explicitly instrumentalized the conductor and questioned its accepted role in Western art music performance ritual. In Alexander Schubert’s Point Ones the conductor’s movements fulfill two sometimes simultaneous functions. They are choreographed to trigger live electronics and are utilized to conduct the live ensemble. Both sets of gestures, those choreographed and the conventionally employed, fall within the realm of generally recognizable movement repertoire. The latter functions as we might expect in a performance ritual, the conductor’s gestures mark time and cue the musicians who then respond accordingly. The choreographed and electronic-cueing gestures also look like normal conductors’ movement repertoire. However, they are instead deployed to trigger live electronics. By instrumentalizing exactly these conductoral key-gestures, the conductor’s conventional responsibility to direct and cue the live musicians has not been limited, but rather augmented and enhanced. Their gestures cue both live performers and trigger virtual musicians, sometimes at the same time.

I also examined Alexander Khubeev’s Ghost of Dystopia in which the role of the conductor is instrumentalized as the subject of the piece in order for the composer to tell his tale of the rise and fall of a dictator. The conductor-soloist begins the piece bound hand and foot to a composer-made instrument. As the piece progresses, he/she breaks the bindings, and using conducting-like gestures, appears to take charge of the ensemble. As the piece comes to an end, Khubeev has the conductor take up a Christ-like pose, purposely begging the questions, ‘Is he dead? Who killed him? Is he a god?’ Though Khubeev attempts to make it appear as though the conductor continually finds more freedom, it is only a veneer. In an interview, Khubeev admitted that ‘the more freedom [he] wants the audience to see, the more he dictates’ [6] the role to his performers. Khubeev, therefore, was very clearly willing to instrumentalize and develop the role of the conductor to meet his artistic needs.

I also looked at two examples in which the conductor’s movement repertoire itself became an instrument. The first of those is Simon Steen-Andersen’s AMID. This is a curious example because Steen-Andersen, admittedly did not intend to affect the conductor in this piece. However, ‘when you write a movement piece’, [7] each movement is then suddenly thrust to the musical foreground and carries artistic weight. The conductor’s movements, as Applebaum pointed out, are not only ‘musical but become music’ [8] themselves. They extend the gestures of the musicians and become a part of the visual harmony for the audience.

The final piece I studied in this first phase of my research was Zonen 6 by Michael Maierhof. Here the composer instructs the conductor to use conventional conducting gestures (movement repertoire) to structure the long and measured silences in the piece. The conductor, however, is hidden behind the audience, so their performance is only appreciable to the audience vicariously through the members of the guitar ensemble. I was able to determine in my analysis of this work that the silences themselves have an artistic weight and importance to the piece that is equal to that of the audible passages. In order for the measured silences to then gain this artistic weight, Maierhof requires a conductor to frame them as well as focus and unify the players’ performance thereof.

[1] Christopher A. Bartlett and Sumantra Ghoshal, ‘Changing the Role of Top Management: Beyond Strategy to Purpose’, Harvard Business Review 72, no. 6 (1994): 79–88.
[2] R Graybill, Whose Gestures? Chamber Music and the Construction of Permanent Agents, ed. A. Gritten (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2001).
[3] Friedrich Platz and Reinhard Kopiez, ‘When the Eye Listens: A Meta-Analysis of How Audio-Visual Presentation Enhances the Appreciation of Music Performance’, Music Perception 30, no. 1 (1 September 2012): 71–83,
[4] Hernando Varela, ‘Adecuación, Expansión y Ruptura. La Técnica Gestual de La Dirección Musical En Composiciones de Los Siglos XX y XXI’, Revista 4’33" Año IX, no. 19 (December 2020): 33–53.
[5] John Kirkpatrick, ‘Preface to Symphony No. 4 from Charles Ives’, in Charles Ives Symphony No. 4 (New York: Associated Music Publishers, 1965).
[6] Alexander Khubeev, interview by Thomas R. Moore, 2019.
[7] Simon Steen-Andersen, interview with by Thomas R. Moore, 10 November 2019.
[8] Mark Applebaum, ‘Tlön’ (musical score, 1995).

I analyzed these works within a role-based context. Therefore, in each example, I studied how the conductor functioned in each piece. The starting point from which I began, my hypothesis, was twofold. Not only was I looking for the possible motivations, but I was also trying to discover who held which motivations. I posited two actors at work: artistic directors and composers. I was able to determine that in all six studied works these two actors held specific motivations for utilizing and even instrumentalizing a conductor in performance and rehearsals.

In all of the works except Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, I was able to determine that the artistic director (I include concert organizer and curator in this term) and composer employed a conductor for their artistic and substantive input during rehearsals and/or performances. In Ives’ Fourth Symphony, each conductor is burdened with or granted artistic choice and authority over the musicians under their baton. Schubert and Khubeev include improvised cadenzas in their works, thus leaning on the conductor’s spontaneous artistic input. Maierhof demands a highly controlled use of conducting gestures that ventures beyond what one might expect from a trained conductor, therefore creating a substantive movement-role. And in AMID, I discovered that, in my artistic practice, I was employed by an artistic director for my artistic input, but that this is not inherent to the role as prescribed by the piece itself. AMID is written in a such a way that the ‘civil world’ value regime [1] takes precedent, enforcing a level of cooperation between musicians and conductor that is akin to chamber music. Therefore, a conductor’s artistic input is not a cornerstone of this work, however it has become part of the accepted performance practice. [2] The only work in which I was not able to detect this criterion was Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra. It appears that the opposite was at play. Cage intended to turn the conductor from a ‘government official’ into a ‘utility technician’, removing any ability to enforce an artistic interpretation on the other players.

The conductor and/or its role is the subject of three of the pieces I analyzed in this phase: Point Ones, Ghost of Dystopia, and Concert for Piano and Orchestra. In Schubert’s work, the conductor straddles the virtual realm and the real world, using recognizable gestures to draw the audience’s attention to this palpable tension. As discussed above, Khubeev’s story requires a conductor as the subject. And third, like a real clock bringing order from the chaos of rushing time, the conductor in Cage’s piece serves as a looking glass, depicting the orderly passage of minutes, through which the audience can bring the performance into focus. 

Once again, in all the works except Cage’s Concert, a conductor is employed for economic reasons. In the Concert, the use of conductor may even serve to make a performance of this piece even more difficult than it would otherwise be without one. In my papers on Point Ones and Ghost of Dystopia, I argue that the audience’s understanding of these pieces relies on a broad economic understanding of the way in which ensembles and conductors typically function. The audience must have a grasp of the relationship between these two ensemble resources (cue-giver and cue-follower) for the piece to make sense. Paul Verhaege calls this phenomenon a society’s key-gestures and keywords. [3] For example, Schubert and Khubeev rely on the audience’s understanding of a conductor’s key-gesture, namely the downbeat, to give meaning to their pieces. The works I studied by Ives, Steen-Andersen, and Maierhof conform to a narrower understanding of economic utilization. All three would simply be too costly in time and treasure to perform and rehearse without a conductor.

In all six of the pieces I analyzed in this phase, a conductor was utilized by the composer and/or artistic director to influence the perceived perception of the work by the audience. In the Ives, Cage, and Steen-Andersen, the presence of the conductor (assistants in the Ives) is not a forgone conclusion, nor is it a secondary phenomenon of the music. Their employment is instead an affirmative choice made by the programming artistic director and/or curator. For Ives, there is evidence of economic reasons for this choice, but I have also demonstrated that the assistant conductors help the audience to piece together their personal interpretation of the piece, something that was vital to Ives. The conductor’s part in Concert for Piano and Orchestra adds an extra level of indeterminacy, but also allows the audience to understand that the piece still continues, bringing a ‘tension to the silences’. [4] Steen-Andersen’s AMID can be performed without a conductor, however Pieter Matthynssens from Nadar ensemble prefers to include one when Nadar programs the piece so that they can serve as an ‘extension of the musicians’. [5]

Lastly, and in a similar vein to the previous criterion, generally recognizable conductors’ movement repertoire is integral to all the analyzed pieces except for the one by Cage. Schubert, Khubeev, and Maierhof instrumentalize these standard gestures for their own artistic needs. When AMID is programmed with a conductor, then the artistic director purposely instrumentalizes these gestures. The same applies to Ives’ Fourth Symphony even though poly-conductoral performance practice has begun to be a settled issue for this piece; when employed, the assistants are utilized for their generally recognizable movement repertoire. In both the Ives and the Steen-Andersen, the conducting gestures are employed to offer a greater visual framework through which the audience can better comprehend the sometimes chaotic and complex performances.

[1] Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, On Justification: Economies of Worth, Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
[2] Simon Steen-Andersen, interview by Thomas R. Moore.
[3] Paul Verhaeghe, Identiteit (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2019).
[4] Simon Steen-Andersen, interview.
[5] Pieter Matthynssens, interview byThomas R. Moore, 21 January 2020.

To further test and refine the artistic and socioeconomic premises made, and to a certain extent, demonstrated above, I conducted interviews with 30 professional artistic directors, composers, conductors, and musicians active in new music throughout Europe and abroad. After transcribing, reviewing, and analyzing the texts, I was able to coalesce and answer two specific research questions: Are the conductors utilized by artistic directors, composers, and musicians to such a degree that it can be termed instrumentalization? And if so, what are the described motivations for this degree of utilization? The definition of instrumentalization I drew from Giuseppe Torre’s and Kristina Andersen’s work on digital musical instruments is that a tool rises to the level of an instrument when it is ‘developed and continuously redefined by the artist to fulfil artistic and musical need’. [1] During the interviews and subsequent analyses, it became clear that in specific situations composers and artistic directors did in fact retool, redefine, and continue to develop (the role of) the conductor to meet their artistic and socioeconomic goals. They instrumentalized and affected the conductor directly and physically for various motivations that include framing silences and pieces such as in Maierhof’s EXIT F and Zonen 6 and generating (new) sonic material such as in Khubeev’s Ghost of Dystopia and Simon Steen-Andersen’s Black Box Music. Those same actors deployed, for example in Stefan Prins’ Third Space, the conductor to question the purpose of gesture and create a level of intimacy. The artistic directors at, among others, Klankfabriek have also applied conductors to redefine and develop creative situations like concerts and rehearsals and were motivated to do so for both economic and artistic considerations.

Having established the conductor’s instrumentalization, I further delved into expectations and motivations behind this usage and was able to divide those into two broad categories: artistic and pragmatic. The stated artistic expectations of the interviewees included an ability to communicate artistic intention verbally and through gestures with the musicians and audience, share responsibilities with their fellow performers for ensemble playing in a chamber music-like fashion, organize and centralize artistic workflow, and 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 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 has also been shown to have been limited by the same artistic directors who employ them. Some respondents also assigned new pragmatic 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.

I aimed to assimilate the material from the interviews into a coherent and framed enumeration of responsibilities with which a conductor of a new music ensemble may reasonably be confronted. Though the description is far from complete, it became clear that the conductor’s responsibilities have been influenced for both artistic and pragmatic reasons and the specific scope(s) thereof are (re)defined by each new situation. Composers and artistic directors utilize and instrumentalize conductors and apply them to their pieces and programs in an à la carte fashion.

[1] Giuseppe Torre and Kristina Andersen, ‘Instrumentality, Time and Perseverance’, in Musical Instruments in the 21st Century, ed. Till Bovermann et al. (Singapore: Springer Singapore, 2017), 127–36,

Two of the ways in which a conductor may be instrumentalized deserved closer and more refined attention: the instrumentalization of the generally recognizable movement repertoire and pieces of which the conductor is the subject. First, I delved into Simon Steen-Andersen’s gesture-based and hyper-concrete AMID as a single-piece case study into how a conductor can best function both physically and as a member of the performing ensemble when their gestures and movement repertoire have been instrumentalized. I then fixated on Light Music by Thierry De Mey, a work that centralizes the conductor physically and the role thereof figuratively. This piece, like Tlön by Applebaum, uses the conductor’s technique as musical material. It also applies the conductor as a manual artist, using basic tools to create complex imagery and sounds. Both case studies contributed to a broadened understanding of what constitutes the developing performance practice of today’s conductors in new music ensembles.

The case study on AMID included score analysis, an in-depth interview with the composer, and practical work with a student ensemble. Together with Pascal Gielen, I reviewed the results of these three steps through a value-sociological framework provided by Boltanski, Thévenot, Hardt, and Negri. [1] In the end, we were able to offer suggestions for the conductor’s performance practice for this piece that may be extrapolated to works of a similar genre in similar settings. We determined that a collective approach is the best manner to prepare, rehearse, and perform these works and that strategic artistic choices should be made cooperatively. The study does not negate the need for artistic leadership, but it does mean that the typically unilateral decision-making embodied in a conductor is ill suited. Furthermore, we also noted that conductors have become tactical leaders. Their role is temporary and thus inherently not imbued with strategic responsibilities. When a conductor is present, they have a specific tactical function that is defined by each situation, artistic director, or ensemble. And lastly, we demonstrated that the typical responsibilities have expanded, but are applied in an à la carte fashion, customized in a way that suits Steen-Andersen’s hyper-concrete style of composing. All the gesture-based notation is scaled to the winds’ build-up and release of tension. This is reflected in the conductor’s physical performance practice of the piece, extending the composer’s transcription to a purely visual format.

In Light Music, the conductor and its role are the subject of the piece. The key-gestures have been instrumentalized to meet De Mey’s artistic goals of playing 'with a certain poetic duality of gesture’ and exploring the ‘state of tension at the border between gesture and sound, visual and sound, [and) choreographic writing and music’. [2] This explicit instrumentalization of the conductor is what drew me to the work in the first place. I wanted to better understand how to perform such works. What makes up the conductor-as-subject’s role and are there sub-roles? [3] How do I practice conducting gestures that were developed to be clear for performing musicians but have now suddenly been choreographed to paint pictures? To answer these questions, I began my study of this piece systematically with a complete revision of both the electronics and the score. We then rehearsed and performed it and finally, I analysed and am now completing the full documentation of the new version.

The solo-conductor in Light Music must perform five sub-roles that all represent both abstract and concrete forms of manual communication. De Mey found new ways to deploy these forms in virtuosic manners. As the performer, I learned that I needed to become very comfortable with the timed sequences to be perfectly synchronized with the recordings. I also had to learn, interpret, and internalize De Mey’s choreographic notation. And finally, though it is a solo work, performances of Light Music are a cooperative effort between the technician and the soloist. A certain level of mutual trust was required to allow for our impromptu performances.

One method that provided insight into how to best prepare for both situations was Håkon Stene’s work on post-instrumental practice in which he premises that there is ‘no unifying technical legacy towards which [pieces in this genre] gravitate’. Works like Light Music and AMID are multi-directional and thus constitute the need for continuous re-orientation on behalf of the practitioner’. Stene thus suggests that we take the learning methodologies that have been acquired through years and years of classical training on one instrument and adapt those to become a specialist at ‘re-thinking and invention’ on the new and often composer-made instruments. [4] In the case of the conductor, re-orienting involved a realization that movement repertoire and role are now instruments for which composers may now write. This highlighted the path to following Stene’s suggestions and assisted the adaptation of learning methodologies so that this new conductor’s instrument can also be mastered.

[1] Hardt and Negri, ASSEMBLY; Boltanski and Thévenot, On Justification.
[2] ‘Light Music, Thierry De Mey’, accessed 11 June 2021,
[3] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Nachdr., Anchor Books (New York: Doubleday, 1990).
[4] Stene, ‘Towards a Post-Percussive Practice’.

During an after-talk to a performance I played of Stefan Prins’ FITTINGinSIDE [Lockdown Version] for solo trombone, tape, walking-tour, and conference call, a lively debate emerged as to why exactly we, Nadar, used the medium of Zoom to perform this particular piece. One gentleman in the audience responded by arguing that without tools there would be no art and yet it is artists that develop and refine those tools:


Artists have ever experimented with new tools & techniques & technologies. Alongside their scientific brethren, they are the real innovators amongst our human folk.

If artists eagerly seize new tools as they are fashioned, their boldness in this regard performs a double purpose. It widens & deepens & enhances the reach of their creative thrust. And it simultaneously redeems the new implement from its status as distinctive of homo faber, to render it worthy of homo sapiens. The artist may utilise the tool to further his creation, but the tool requires the artist's blessing to be endowed with a meaning beyond the dry accumulation of trinkets & thalers. [1]


Through analyses, interviews, and case studies, I was able to demonstrate that conductors, their role, and their movement repertoire have become instruments. They are tools that are developed and continuously redefined by the composers’ and artistic directors’ hands. I have explored and laid out specified artistic and pragmatic motivations for this instrumentalization and customization. And I have even suggested a tactical approach towards performance practice. What remained then was to do as our guest suggested: commission an artist to further develop the tool and ‘widen, deepen, and enhance’ the instrumentalization of the conductor and its role.

The first commission went to Jessie Marino and was premiered in May 2021 by the RCA Guitar Ensemble. Twentyguitarists took to the floor, moving sometimes in unison and creating formations of circles, lines, and squares. I acted as conductor, leading and sometimes followingor chasing them about the space. The composer’sscore is a playbook that turned us all into life-size analog faders. Marino’s practice centers on ‘scaling musicians (...) and making the performers as physically similar to one another as possible’ as a way to ‘[erase] certain kinds of visual information from an audience’s standpoint’. Her focus on the physicality of the performer and especially her retooling of it to ‘make very small things much bigger’, led me to commission her for a piece that would exploit the physicality of the conductor’s role. And it was a success. During a performance of her piece, titled six to five, the conductor is wielded tactically by Marino to swoop in and make distinctly framed artistic choices. However, the primary function of the conductor during the pieceis faciliatory, minute, uniform in gesture, and pre-programmed. During the moments of action and decision, suddenly the role of the conductor is brought to the foreground, forcibly adding a new dimension to this already visually demanding work.


Marino’s work, and especially the creation process, developed the performance practice of the conductor to include a more rigorous approach towards tactical deployment. As rehearsal conductor, I was tactically deployed to manage a large ensemble and ensure that the performers were ready within the agreed upon rehearsal time. During performances, the tactical usage was more rigidly defined. I chose when to begin the piece, but it was more like setting a train in motion than guiding a responsive chamber ensemble. The moments that Marino’s composition required the conductor’s artistic choice were limited and goal oriented.

The second commission was given to Jennifer Walshe and will be premiered in February 2022. This piece will play with the established relationship and hierarchy of conductor and ensemble and how that may be used artistically.

[1] Miguel Mesquita da Cunha, email conversation.

In these pages, video presentations, and performance recordings, I have demonstrated that conductors of new music ensembles that perform integrated concerts are utilized and instrumentalized by the composers and the artistic directors who employ them. The reasons and motivations behind this utilization can be presented in two nonexclusive categories: pragmatic and artistic. The pragmatic reasoning includes economic considerations such as easing and managing the rehearsal process and creating a central focal point for audience and performers alike. Conductors were also employed for the practical expectation that they have a working knowledge of electronics and can balance the needs of composers and curators. Artistic instrumentalization ranges broadly, from conductors’ movement repertoire being used to frame pieces or programs, create intimacy, or trigger electronics to also being deployed tactically to make one small shift in tempo. Frequently, conductors are employed for their ability to respond spontaneously to live concert situations and especially to centralize those impromptu shifts for ensembles. On the other hand, the presumed hierarchy of conductor over ensemble found in Western art music performance ritual was questioned by composers through their use of (the role of) the conductor as the subject of their pieces, either by relying on performance ritual to tell their stories such as in Khubeev’s Ghost of Dytopia or redefining performance ritual by changing the perspective of audience and performer as in Prins’ Third Space.

With this new development in the role of the conductor comes a new performance practice and that practice must continually ‘adapt to meet the music it serves’. [1] Håkon Stene’s post-instrumental practice and Simon Steen-Andersen’s hyper-concretism offer insight into how to adapt. Both are ways of applying methodology learned or trained for playing one instrument to another. In post-instrumental practice, we step back from our main instrument and apply our bodies to another instrument (often composer-made), learning to play it from the same basic trained principles. Hyper-concretism is the practice of applying the same playing method uniformly across a range of instruments. For example, in AMID, the winds’ breathing is first rationalized in percentages which are then transcribed to each instrument. As conductors we have a basic set of trained and practically gained knowledge in musical and other pragmatic skills. For example, baton technique, rehearsal management, and musicianship are all accepted expectations of a conductor’s toolkit. My research has shown that this toolkit has expanded to include finding bespoke solutions during rehearsals, working cooperatively as a chamber music conductor, and having a good understanding of how live electronics function. In the examples cited above, the instrument, a conductor’s body and recognizable movement repertoire, have been utilized ‘as is’ to give weight to silence and frame polyrhythms. This instrument has also been altered to extend musicians’ gestures, balance dancers’ choreography, and even paint pictures. Applying post-instrumental practice, we can then step back from the conventional conductor’s role and see the menu of options and tools at our disposal. Together with the employing composers and artistic directors, we can then dexterously step into the newly customized role. For example, in Light Music and AMID, I have oriented my training in conducting gestures respectively towards generating sound and extending musicians’ physical (and musical) gestures. When generally recognizable movement repertoire has been hyper-concretely applied to new situations, such as in Schubert’s Point Ones or Applebaum’s Tlön, the conductor and their technique become a new instrument, or at least the same instrument but with a new sound. Each piece requires intense study to discover, but the realization that it is a tactical deployment helps to grasp its function. In my own practice, when approaching new solo or ensemble works, I now first determine the artistic and socioeconomic reasons for my employment as conductor usually in direct consultation with the artistic director and composer. Once having established my role and any possible instrumentalization thereof, only then can I put together a piece-specific toolkit or performance practice. For example, in preparing for six to five, Jessie Marino and I first discussed rehearsal strategy, collectively deciding to tactically apply both of our abilities to physically lead a rehearsal. This concept stretched into the artistic presentation of the piece when I, as conductor, was deployed in only strictly framed passages to make live, impromptu artistic decisions. I will approach Jennifer Walshe’s new piece in a similar manner. Though little in the piece is as yet fixed, we have already settled on playing with the audience’s perceived perception of hierarchy on stage. I am thus aware that any rehearsal management responsibilities will not extend into the performance arena. We have also discussed focusing on my hands, applying traditional gestures in new ways and inserting non-conducting gestures into the ‘conductor’s frame'. I can therefore also expect to learn a new instrument and develop or at least add new physical movements to my gestural toolkit.

Because conductors very rarely work alone, their performance practice must also include their relation to their fellow performers. At the conclusion of the case study on AMID, I suggest that the civil, industrial, and domestic value regimes, as detailed by Boltanski and Thévenot, [2] offer valuable perspectives on forming a working practice for conducted ensembles. Based on the premise that the conductor stands on a more equal footing with the musicians, the civil regime suggests taking a collective approach towards the entire rehearsal process, finding bespoke solutions instead of a top-down, authoritarian approach exacted through gestures alone. Along the same lines, values found in the industrial world propose taking on a more faciliatory role as conductor, helping where needed, but rigorously applying economical gestures. Paraphrasing Matthynssens, a conductor on stage is kind of like a dancer, therefore all visible gestures can gain artistic weight and should be taken into account. This very value is abundantly in evidence in Light Music, in which conductor’s gestures function both to serve timing and most especially as musical material themselves. And finally, the domestic value regime confirms the performer’s ‘mutual commitment’ [3] to the score. There is a common understanding that each musician, including the conductor, will do their best to learn, understand, and perform the composition as intended by the composer. A convenient feature of new music is that generally the composers are still living. The combination of the domestic values and the living presence of the composer leaves little room for any conductor-imposed interpretations.

The role of the conductor is no longer fixed in the ensembles I studied and instead has become a tactical leadership role, deployed where necessary and then ‘discarded’ [4] when no longer required. Marino’s six to five provides such an example of this style of tactical leadership deployment. Artistic and strategic decisions are often made cooperatively or by a (temporarily) nominated artistic director. Therefore, when a conductor is present, there must be specific artistic and/or socioeconomic motivations for their presence. A fourth value regime, Boltanski and Chiapello’s project city, [5] demonstrates that the conductor (just as the musicians) operates in a networked world and must continually adapt to the current situation. To optimize this, a new level of cooperation must arise in which both conductor and ensemble direction comprehend and communicate the manner in which the conductor is to be deployed in each (new) situation.


The reasoning and motivations behind employing, utilizing, and instrumentalizing conductors is continually developing. Since beginning my research, I know of at least six new compositions that have found new ways of instrumentalizing the conductor and/or its role. I, myself, have also added to this development by commissioning Marino and Walshe, the latter of which will be premiered after I have published this website. Luckily, art continues to evolve. Therefore it is possible that Walshe’s piece will even make some of what I have written here either irrelevant or incorrect. This is, after all, a tool to better understand the role of the conductor in new music ensembles. And, as our audience member so eloquently said, tools are developed by artists in ways in which their creators never could have foreseen. This study does, however, offer the chance to bring into focus the manner in which the role of the conductor in the last seven decades has been problematized, manipulated, utilized, and at last instrumentalized. The systematic study of this changing and developing situation allowed me to find tools and methods for forming the required piece-specific performance practices and thus better function as a tactical and curated conductor.

[1] Varela, ‘Adecuación, Expansión y Ruptura’.
[2] Boltanski and Thévenot, On Justification.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Hardt and Negri, ASSEMBLY.
[5] Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, and Gregory Elliott, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2018).

A project like this is never the work of just one person. I would very much like to thank all those that assisted, reviewed, offered suggestions and feedback, and prodded me along in this endeavor. I would especially like to acknowledge Pascal Gielen and Koen Kessels, my two supervisors, for their invaluable advice, guidance, the incredible depth of their insights and their well-timed questions and critique.


I would also like to thank my fellow researchers in CREATIE and Performance Practice in Perspective. These two research groups provided immense opportunity for feedback and a broadening of perspectives.  


Without Nadar Ensemble, I would not have been able to realize this artistic research. The Nadarazians, my colleagues, and more importantly friends, offered me the opportunity to discover, explore, fail, and flourish. Thank you.


Nico Couck, thank you mate for the endless discussions, corrections, Ngrams, fries, beer, laughs, …


And finally, thank you, Rebecca, for reading every word I wrote, listening to every little nonsensical nuance, providing the best and most accurate proofreading ever, being my sounding board, personal audience, cheering section, resident musicologist, danger-assessment manager, and so very much more.

Research Questions


Nadar Ensemble performs Alexander Khubeev’s Ghost of Dystopia

© KlaraFestival

Thomas Moore performing Thierry De Mey’s Light Music

© Melissa Portaels