Symphonic Mind: States of Consciousness in Orchestral Performance

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Music conciousness

Below is an article I wrote for an issue of Contemporary Music Review titled 'Music and Myticism' in 1996 (slightly revised 2020)

Contemporary Music Review, 1996 OPA (Overseas Publishers Association) 1996, Vol. 14, Parts 3-4, pp. 55-64 Amsterdam B.V. Published in The Netherlands 


Most musicians and music-lovers would agree that music is a phenomenon that affects the spirit and nourishes the soul. Yet this aspect of music-making is rarely, if ever, discussed in the world of classical music. In his article Richard Gonski identifies some of the conditions that can give rise to a higher states of consciousness during orchestral concerts and rehearsals, and suggests some priorities for the modern day Symphony Orchestra.

'Tt's all in the mind" is a truth that we ignore at our peril. The implications of this cliched statement are far reaching - responsibility for our own state of mind can no longer be laid at the feet of the outside world, and we are forced, (if we want to escape the unhappiness of an unfocused mental state) to put a stop to the endless stream of thoughts and desires that hinder an awareness of our true selves.

The above is never truer than when we are performing or listening to music. On a number of levels, participation in a musical event can be viewed as a short cut to our innermost being, with the music itself acting as a concentrated dose of medicine - bitter to those who resist its potency, life-giving to those who can open them-selves to it.

A musician filled with self-doubt or weighed down by the demands of an unrelenting ego may undergo extreme states of mental anguish before, during and after a performance, whereas one who is no longer troubled by these negative manifestations of self immerses himself in the music and can reach ecstatic heights. Most performers fit somewhere in between these two extremes.

Less well documented are the mental states of a concert audience. If we are at all to accept the validity of the concept of an audience (ie: a group of people about whom we can make generalisations), we should be brave and recognise that in terms of audience participation, concerts of classical music (compared to rock concerts, for example) are near the bottom of the scale. One reason for this discrepancy is the high level of amplification that the rock genre demands - you cannot fall asleep, you simply have to be there. The resulting physical and aural sensations that are unavoidably experienced serve as a focusing point for the mind, whereas the more subtle energies of a chamber concert will only be consciously perceived and appreciated by individuals with above average sensitivity and powers of concentration.

The sheer volume and timbral variety of a symphony orchestra in turn attracts a wider audience than a string quartet.

The Orchestra

If we begin to make judgments about musical performances based on spiritual rather than materialistic criteria, it would appear that the format of the symphony orchestra is from the start an impossible concept. We have all, as individuals. seen how long it takes to make even the smallest steps in the direction of a healthier spirit. The expectation that 70-100 people can sit down for a few hours and develop this aspect of themselves seems a utopian one which is bound to bring disappointment and frustration in its wake. Even small ensembles like string quartets and rock groups have great difficulty staying together for any length of time because egos gradually become more important than the music. This is not to say that it is impossible - with intent, anything can be achieved. Group meditations are one example where it does work, but only because members of the group are there for that specific purpose.

In the case of an orchestra, the primary motivation for being there is to play music and development of the spirit is not normally on the agenda. Despite this inherent disability, the symphony orchestra has survived for over 200 years and is viewed in Western societv as one of its great cultural assets. The 19th century orchestra was fuelled by new instruments, an expanding repertoire and the effect of increasingly larger (and louder) groups. The twentieth century orchestra has built on these foundations by relying on a constant improvement in technical ability and the birth of affordable recording and playback devices. There has not however been any significant change this century to the basic format of the symphony orchestra and this has resulted in stagnation which has inevitably led to decay.

The real dilemma facing orchestras and orchestral musicians in the 1990s is defining their role for the 2lstC. The way forward lies not in improved marketing techniques, but in the openly declared pursuit of a single and simple goal - the musicians and the audience should leave the hall feeling better than they did when they entered it. Thus motivated, the musician becomes a spiritual healer, the audience the patient, with both parties benefiting from the experience.

The very act of consciously giving and of genuinely being concerned about the well being of others has its own effects, one of which is to calm the mind. A quiet and tranquil mind in turn allows awareness to arise, and as we shall see, awareness is the first step on the path to a musical performance that is free of mental filters.

Bio Feedback There are a number of a-priori factors which can help make this idea a reality. First and foremost among them is the fact that whatever the receptiveness of a given audience, music works - it is just a question of degree. (Undoubtedly, 'right motivation' on the part of the musicians and ultimately, the intention behind the sound, will contribute greatly to the power of the music being played.)

The generation of sound has innumerable effects on all the elements of the universe - this fact has been noted throughout the ages, and it is surprising that so many people still regard such a view as new-age nonsense, As a teacher, I have tried to impress upon my students the importance of understanding that our aural abilities encompass only a small part of the frequency spectrum to which we are continually exposed, and that to ignore the vibratory effects of frequencies outside this range will limit their ability to have complete musical experiences. More-over, a complete description of the effects (whether physical, emotional or spiritual) of those sounds that are audible is a task that has yet to be satisfactorily accomplished by anyone, despite attempts by some of the greatest philosophers and mystics. We do however know that music has an immense power to arouse the whole gamut of human emotions and in some cases can open a door to higher states of consciousness.

Secondly, there is the power of collective consciousness and group dynamics. If a majority of the members of a given group agree upon a common goal and are ready to make the effort to realise it, they are likely to pull the rest with them. A highly motivated and committed minority can be equally powerful in persuading the whole group to embark on a specific path. In terms of symphony orchestras, it is often a core of players who give the whole group its 'personality' and sense of identity.

Thirdly, there is sympathetic resonance. This effect relies on a system that has 'snapped into place' or is 'in tune with itself' - ie: a condition is created whereby vibrations that are being generated by one part of the system, cause other parts to vibrate sympathetically. If the sympathetic part of the system is very reflective, (ie: non-absorbent) a feedback loop is created; if the amplitude of the feedback passes a certain threshold, the whole system may enter a state of self-oscillation. In a symphony concert, the system components include the musicians, their instruments, the acoustic properties of the hall, the music that they are performing, the sum of the mental states of everyone present - in short, a complete description of the system demands that all factors be taken into account.

At the present time we are not even able to define the exact causes of individual events, let alone attempt to follow the infinite permutations which result when we try to analyse the result of inter-acting ones. For example, we know that a violinist, by drawing the bow across a string, causes the string to vibrate, which in turn sets in motion a series of events whose end result is the aural perception of a sound. We are almost completely ignorant of what is happening on a momentary basis muscularly, or indeed how the player converts an emotion like love or sadness into a physical movement that alters the sound that expresses the emotion. (I am not referring to obvious 'techniques' such as vibrato or bow position).

Proof of the above can be found in the world of electronics - all attempts so far to convincingly simulate acoustic instruments with long sustain portions have failed for the simple reason that an electronic oscillator is too regular. Attempting to randomise parameters (in an effort to alleviate this problem) doesn't work either, as the sum total of causes which result eventually in a violin sound is definitely not a random event - we are simply unable to identify all the elements in the chain, and are even unaware of the existence of many of them. Fortunately, we do not cease to be affected by an event just because we are ignorant of its exact cause.

In practice

How does all this relate to orchestral concerts? In the role of a conductor, I am always acutely aware of the different levels of energy that come and go in every rehearsal and concert. On occasion, while we are playing, everything will suddenly click into place, and everyone slips into a different space - at these times the performance becomes a resonant one. Flowery words these, but words end where these experiences start.

I have nonetheless attempted to identify the elements that cause this state of resonance to arise and this article is an attempt to list and discuss some of those that I have noticed.

Over the years I have been fascinated and intensely curious to establish whether orchestra members had noted those moments when all hindrances disappeared and the music came to life. I was at first both disconcerted and disappointed to discover that very few had, but consequently realised that they simply had not made a conscious note - on pressing them further they would say "Oh yes, that was a good bit" or something to that effect. By encouraging the musicians to pay attention to what was really happening around them and within themselves, they were able to note the shifts in energy levels, and to be aware of the factors that brought resonant moments into being. Here again group dynamics played its part - bringing the subject into the open made it an accepted and clearly understood goal of the orchestra.

One of the most important and indeed essential ingredients in the 'resonance recipe' is a consistent rhythmic pulse and a tempo which is appropriate to the place and time. The former generates a resurgence of sound at periodic time intervals, and providing the tempo is suited to the acoustic environment, a sympathetic system can suddenly spring into life. (This also leads to the conclusion that strict adherence to metronome markings is inappropriate, and one should regard them as guidelines only.) During the early eighties, when I first started using computers for music applications, I began to notice that the rhythmic accuracy of classical orchestras was not very good in comparison. I decided therefore, in preparation for a performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto K491, to sequence the concerto (together with my friend Francis Monkman) and give the orchestra (and myself) the opportunity to hear what an absolutely accurate rhythmic performance would sound like. This was a truly revelatory experience which brought many illuminations, among them the understanding of the fundamental importance of timing in vertically layered textures, especially in music which uses large ensembles. The clarity of a slow movement in a Beethoven symphony where the quarter, 8th, 16th and often 32nd notes all take their rightful place on the time continuum explained at least in part how periods of resonance arise during a performance - at these moments the tempo and the rhythm find their correct space for that moment in time, and instead of a lot of phased sonic impulses, a synchronised pulse arises creating a self-generating and sustaining energy which vibrates everything and everyone within its sphere of influence.

Under such conditions, the high amplitude levels associated with the attack portions of acoustic instruments give added impetus to a system which is in effect perfectly balanced - only a small amount of energy is required in order to keep the whole thing going. An important by-product of such a state is that it allows the musicians to devote more of their mental energies to the music as less effort is needed for the actual production of the sound. In at least one sense, all musicians are aware of this - playing in a reverberant acoustic is a lot easier than playing in a dead one and the best instrumentalists know that less is more in terms of physical effort. The astonishing part is that when a resonant state is created, time seems to stand still, as if one could photograph the music in its entirety. A friend of mine recently drew my attention to the ability we have of instantaneously 'visualising' a piece of music which we know intimately, without having to go through the process of playing it in real-time. A resonant performance. or moment in a performance, has that self-same quality.


In many non-Western cultures rhythm is used to induce ecstatic and transcendental states and is often the most important part of the music. Tibetan music, which appears to lack any discernible pulse is actually perfectly timed and reflects a deep understanding of sound and its effects, and an ability to allow intuition rather than intellect to be the master. In twentieth century Western culture, it is rock music which has grasped this specific truth - that's what the drummer is there for. During the eighties, when drum machines first emerged, many live drummers found themselves out of work. After a few years, when the pop/rock audience tired of listening to computer-accurate drum loops, live drummers were back in business. Their playing however, had undergone a real transformation in that they were forced to satisfy a much more (rhythmically) demanding and aware listening public.

It seems that until we refine our rhythmic consciousness and sensitivity to the time dimension, resonant states in classical performances will continue to be both a matter of chance and rather more rare than we would want.

Another essential building block in our resonant system is the music itself. Undoubtedly, an orchestra will perform great music better than mediocre or bad mu-sic. We are left with the thorny problem of categorising different works. It might be helpful to examine whether great works are those that are structurally (rhythmically harmonically and melodically) in tune with themselves - ie: they contain the potential to create a state of resonance when they are brought to life.

One could view the great composers as beings who can intuitively feel how each note and sound in a piece of music evolves as a consequence of what went before, and causes the (inevitable) arising of the subsequent ones. We can see an example of this in the chorales by Bach - his choice of the note to be 'doubled' in a four voice texture is often governed by the harmonic tension at that point, and more importantly, hints at the direction of its resolution. (Doubling of the major third is only one instance where he 'breaks the rules' for a higher truth.)

The recapitulation in a sonata form first movement provides another example of musical integrity in a composition. In the hands of a great master like Beethoven, the recapitulation is the pinnacle of a great edifice. It is the maturity of the youthful exposition, and comes after a development section in which all elements are rigorously exposed and subjected to the light of day. The differences between the exposition and the recapitulation are a result of the transforming experiences of the development, and not because 'the movement needed to end in the home key'.

In the first movement of the Eroica, Beethoven has composed a coda of immense proportions, as the recapitulation was not able by itself to resolve the consequences of such a large musical edifice. In the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies where movements are joined and thematic material reappears in subsequent movements, a process of unification and continuity began that was to culminate in the operas of Wagner.

Unfortunately, these consideration are not usually taken into account when the music is played rather than talked about. For example, in my experience, the energy level of an orchestra during the recapitulation is on the low side. The musicians have played through the exposition twice, (the first time is usually more energetic than the repeat) emerged from the more technically difficult development section and are now on the home stretch. Consciously or not, the musicians are pacing themselves, using the relatively crude yardstick of physical and mental stamina. A relaxation of the energy is almost inevitable. In a resonant performance, these obstacles fall away - immersed in the music, concentrated minds, guided by the inherent truth of that point in time, become the master and bodies the willing servant.

It is of significance that most of the orchestral music we play was composed a long time ago, and that all of our music whether old or contemporary is written down, not transferred orally and aurally, as it is in most other traditions. There are perhaps superficial advantages to this in that we do not have to devote mental energy to decision making in regard to pitch choice and the time intervals between them, although we do have to devote energy to reading the notes. Yet it is the very ability to allow intuition and our inner selves to 'decide' that separates the artist from the craftsman.

In non-classical traditions, improvisation is an integral part in any musical performance. In the case of pre-composed music, we actually have to overcome the barrier that notation creates between ourselves and the music we are performing. We can only reveal the inner truth of the music and give it its life by treating it as an object that transcends time and is infinitely adaptable, despite the rigidity of its pitch and rhythmic framework - any lack of flexibility on the part of the performers will prevent this occurring.

Timbral Quality

We need to examine the instruments that produce the sound as well. With the advent of modern orchestral instruments we lost one of the more potent effects of symphonic music - ie: the richness of its harmonic spectrum. The race for louder, brighter and more mechanically versatile instruments resulted in the loss of clearly audible low and mid-order harmonics that are a feature of 'authentic' instruments which use lower tension gut strings or tubes without a multitude of keys (which can only interfere with the instrument's vibratory pattern). Consequently, an un-modified 18th century violin sound is full of resonant harmonics which touch the heart in a very overt way - this is, I think, one of the main reason for the astounding rise in popularity of authentic instrument performances and recordings.

There is one other issue relating to the development of instruments that is pertinent to our subject, and that is the gradual slowing down of the attack time of an orchestra (and other classical instruments) over the last 200 years. An obvious example is the harpsichord compared to the modern grand piano. While the harpsichord is not regarded today as an orchestral instrument, it certainly was a part of orchestral performances until the 19thC. A very clear aural definition of the beat and its sub-divisions was therefore a feature of music in this period. Likewise, we could compare old and modern string instruments.

The advent of brass as melodic instruments in the 19thC slowed down the attack time of the orchestral ensemble even further. It is interesting to note that the principal percussion instrument in the symphony orchestra, the timpani, has a very slow attack characteristic compared to other percussion instruments, and this has been exacerbated by the switch to synthetic drum skins. Stravinsky felt the need for fast attack characteristics in order to bring out his ground breaking rhythms, and brought in a variety of different percussion instruments in order to achieve this, as well as being very specific about articulation and accents.

The attack portion of a sound is therefore a critical factor in any musical event - we can view the attack as the cause and the decay/sustain part of the sound as the result. Attempts by synthesizer manufacturers to create 'realistic' simulations of acoustic instruments by tagging an oscillator generated sustain onto a sampled attack (Sample and Synthesis) failed because these two elements were treated as separate entities. Seen from this angle, it follows that the very 'being' of the sound is dependent on the nature of the attack (which itself is dependent on the intention of the musician), and that timing and rhythm are part of a much larger and more intricate network.

Among musicians and public alike, a great deal of emphasis has always been placed on the technique and technical ability of the performer. Although the words are used frequently, their definition is not all that clear. On the assumption that technique is not a purely physical entity, but rather a result of mental intention, it follows that if we rid ourselves of unnecessary mental activity, our inner self can take over and generate the necessary physical movements.

Under such conditions, we have no need to automate our movements and suffer the consequences of being separated from our bodies. The physical state of the performer is therefore as much a part of our potentially resonant system as any other component. Unfortunately, most musicians only pay attention to their bodies when a problem arises - a strained muscle, a technical difficulty or an aching back are common examples. Many then seek help through Alexander technique or other similar methods in an attempt to solve the problem. Hopefully, one consequence of such drug-free and non-invasive treatments is a greater awareness of the body in general. This is not only beneficial in that simply focusing the attention on the body, (or specific parts of it) will in many cases be sufficient for a process of self-healing to take place, but is also an essential requirement in the attainment of higher states of consciousness.

In orchestral situations, lack of body awareness and consequently non-appreciation of the state of physical balance (ie: not tense and not relaxed) results in an inability to perform seemingly simple musical tasks adequately. For example, in many classical symphonies the strings (especially the lower ones) are often asked to play many bars of repeating eighth notes - most musicians find it impossible to play all of them with an equal attack and amplitude. (This is highlighted even further when non-specialist classical ensembles tackle minimalist repertoire.) From our point of view as musicians, it is important to note how a balanced physical state which allows us to perform unhindered by 'technical' difficulties is dependent on our mental state being itself free from the obstacles which were described earlier on. Clearly then, the mental state of the musicians and the audience is critical.

If, as I suggested earlier, we regard music as an alchemy of spirit and material, we will also be able to accept that true creativity springs naturally from a mind unburdened by ego and mental aberrations. Nevertheless, despite the varying degrees of spiritual development which are to be found in any group of people, including orchestras, the power of music is such that it can overcome this obstacle and indeed remove it completely, depending on the resistance of the musicians and the audience. I keep grouping the musicians and the audience together as they are both part of the feedback loop, as any musician who has faced an indifferent or insensitive public will confirm.

Setting A New Standard

We do however have to generate a conscious awareness that such states exist, if we want states of resonance to become the norm - for this reason, the importance of bringing spiritual criteria out into the open cannot be over emphasised, especially in the context of modern Western society.

When an amateur plays with love, the hardened professional is shamed into silence. One can hear it in the sound. My experience is that many orchestral musicians, especially of the younger generation, are not only open to these ideas, but have secretly harboured them inside for a very long time. The 'realities' of life and the fear of being unprofessional in front of their peers has been the main reason for their silence. It would however be unwise and irresponsible to ignore the dangers of bringing spiritual matters to the fore, as the eruption of suppressed feelings and emotions on the one hand, and unqualified messengers who have jumped on the new age bandwagon on the other, could cause more harm than good.

I have in the past suggested to an orchestra (The Electric Symphony Orchestra) that we have a group meditation session before rehearsals and concerts. At first, there was a polite silence, but a few people turned up to the first session, and by the time we got to the concert, most of the orchestra was participating. The concerts themselves were both excellent and memorable, but we did not continue the practice on a regular basis as I did not feel competent enough in my own meditation to take on the responsibility for a whole group. A less intimidating method is to start off rehearsals with a few minutes of silence, thus enabling the musicians to clear their minds so that they can focus their attention on the musical experience that awaits them.

In general, making everyone aware of the continually changing energy levels is a healthy and unthreatening first step which in itself can lead to significant changes in attitude, intention and execution. It's also glaringly evident when the audience are moved and when they are not. It always amazes me how a sudden and palpable rise in audience attention occurs when 'something begins to happen'. It is obviously a lot harder to develop new attitudes with an audience than it is with a regular group like an orchestra. Our only means of communication is through the music we play, and we have to rely on the power (in the most positive sense) of the performance to produce the effect.

We can however help our audiences be more open and receptive by providing an environment which is conducive to the state of mind we are attempting to engender. The comfortable familiarity of contemporary orchestral concerts is sleep inducing, and the argument that the music should be sufficient is a denial of the effect that our surroundings, through our senses, have on our mental state. Furthermore, behavioural patterns that are at least a hundred years old are an added hindrance to overcome when we are trying to breathe life into an ailing body that will not adapt to its time and place.

We should also bear in mind that an 18thC audience was capable of actually Iistening to a piece of music and appreciating the subtleties of modulations and other compositional devices, whereas the average audience of today has been totally desensitised, mainly through over saturation.

Last, but perhaps not least, there is the conductor.

Last because in an ideal world there would be no need for one. Modern orchestras are capable of executing the most complex scores simply by watching the leader, and there are even a few chamber orchestras that pride themselves on not having one. In the absence of a conductor, each musician becomes responsible not only for his own contribution, but for that of the group as a whole. This in turn necessitates an increased awareness and concentration on the part of the individual and can only be a good thing. Assuming that all (or most) of the musicians are capable of letting go and entering a state of 'immersion in the music', the music itself is the conductor, the need for a human intermediary disappears, and the performance becomes a resonant one.

Not least, because most orchestras do perform with conductors. Inevitably the question arises of what they are actually doing up there. Despite the fact that this question is a common one, giving a coherent answer is a lot more difficult. I am fairly certain that the label 'interpretation' is too vague and encompassing to be of any real use. As a student, I had the opportunity to hear many different young conductors working on the same bars of music with the same orchestra, yet each individual still produced his own 'sound'. Many orchestral musicians swear that they know if a conductor is any good before he raises his hands, and all of them are free of doubt after the first beat. Furthermore, it appears that clarity of beat is not a crucial factor when orchestral musicians make judgments, although on the occasions when they are uninspired, they feel that a clear beat is the least they can expect. Furtwangler and Klemperer (when he was already an old man) both had seemingly erratic and indecipherable hand movements, yet orchestras all over the world responded with ease.

The only reasonable explanation is that orchestral musicians respond almost involuntarily to the 'intent' of the conductor. He serves as a focus of energy for the whole musical event, and it is his intent that starts the whole cycle of cause and effect and keeps it going. This intent is transferred to the musicians who produce the sound, and then to the audience, whose response to the music completes the feedback loop. The more a conductor is able to let go and give himself to the music. the more focused the energy and the purer the intent. In the event that the conductor does not manage to galvanise the orchestra, he has failed in his task. This point is easily missed, as we forget that given a downbeat, an orchestra will produce the notes and an acceptable performance of the music.

Looking Ahead

I am optimistic that in the coming years we will begin to see changes In behaviour and attitude that will allow the kind of ideas I have been suggesting to become more acceptable and widespread. While writing this article, I have been nagged by the thought that I don't have any real evidence or research to back-up my arguments, only my experiences and my intuition. I do however feel that the general direction and orientation is correct and that the matters I have been discussing should rise to the top of our list of priorities rather than remain shrouded in silence as they are currently.

Frequent conversations with orchestral musicians bear witness to the desire on their part to do this, and if our motivation is honest, we should not shy away from the responsibility of allowing it to happen. I have found it difficult to adequately describe the feelings that arise and the states that one enters into when participating in a resonant performance, and I have therefore limited myself to pointing out the criteria and conditions that I believe are essential to their manifestation as well as putting forward some ideas on how we might create these conditions communally. True knowledge and wisdom comes from personal experience and not by word of mouth - our priority should therefore be the creation of the circumstances and environment that will allow others to have these experiences as often as possible.

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