Orchestral conducting as illustration of organisational “dark matter”

Bryan Magee, philosopher, broadcaster, and sometime Labour Party and SDP MP, died just over a month ago, prompting me to return to “Ultimate Questions”, his profoundly satisfying meditation on the enigma of human existence.

It contains a splendid passage that describes the undefinable qualities that is present in organisations working at the highest level, which I describe elsewhere as “dark matter“.

“I contend that our knowledge and understanding of other people, and our relations with one another, cannot be explained by the observable exchanges we make with one another. Something else is going on as well.  A particular and extreme – and for that reason clear-cut and useful – example of this is provided by orchestral conducting.  Many music lovers are able to hear the difference between two recordings of the same work conducted by, shall say, Toscanini and Sir Thomas Beecham, but no one seems to be able to explain how each of these is arrived at, ranging as they do from the unity of the overall architecture down to each individual detail and its integration into the whole.  Such things cannot be fully explained in terms of what the conductor says at rehearsals (which often is not much) plus the way he looks at the musicians and wave his arms about.  An immense amount that we cannot account for is being communicated by one person to dozens of others who carry out his wishes in subtle detail.  I have long been fascinated by this, and have discussed it across the years with orchestral players and conductors.  Players agree immediately, and without question, that they play differently for different conductors, but they cannot account for why, still less for how the what that is required of them is communicated to them.  Conductors know what they are doing, and can do it at will, but they can no more explain how they do it than I can explain how I move my fingers, though I can do that at will too.  Here we have a highlighted example of something that, it seems to me, is going on amongst us human beings all the time.  It is impossible to account for the warm, capacious, deep, detailed, sophisticated and rich understanding that we have of one another in terms of our attention to another’s words plus our observations of other’s bodily movement.  Something else, of a different order is going on.”