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And now, conducting the 'The Marriage of Figaro'....
September 30, 2013 12:12 AM   Subscribe

Last week, Improv Everywhere set up the ACJW Ensemble Orchestra (of Carnegie Hall and The Juilliard School) in Herald Square in New York City and placed an empty podium in front of the musicians with a sign that read, "Conduct Us."

Background at Improv Everywhere:
"This little girl... was the first person to step up. Her father was actually playing in the orchestra, and her mother encouraged her go up to the podium. She placed a coloring book on the music stand and then started conducting."
She can be seen at 1:26 on this Behind the Scenes video. (Rehearsal begins at 0:40.)

Via: This Is What Happens When You Let Random People Lead An Orchestra
posted by zarq (41 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by DreamerFi at 12:29 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Cool idea, but I was disappointed that it's more like "Come Wave A Stick While We Do Our Thing". Would have been super neat if they had gotten some improvisational musicians who could actually react in some meaningful way to whatever it was each impromptu conductor was doing.
posted by threeants at 12:43 AM on September 30, 2013 [14 favorites]


Hmm, I guess from their report it sounds like they did react with very different tempos to different conductors, but you don't get a strong sense of that from the video.
posted by threeants at 12:46 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Would have been super neat if they had gotten some improvisational musicians who could actually react in some meaningful way to whatever it was each impromptu conductor was doing.

You mean like this?
posted by three blind mice at 1:01 AM on September 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Do the sailboat! Do the sailboat!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:36 AM on September 30, 2013


> "Would have been super neat if they had gotten some improvisational musicians who could actually react in some meaningful way to whatever it was each impromptu conductor was doing."

I've done that (with the University of Michigan's Creative Arts Orchestra) and it was AWESOME.
posted by kyrademon at 1:40 AM on September 30, 2013


That video is also like the happy bizzaro world version of the wealthy businessman who has purchased himself guest conductor spots in over 50 orchestras.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:46 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


The expressions of joy on the people's faces as the got the musicians to do their bidding-- especially the woman who got super psyched every time they repeated the final note-- are all so sweet.
posted by NoraReed at 2:09 AM on September 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Needs more finches.
posted by pracowity at 2:11 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Cool idea, but I was disappointed that it's more like "Come Wave A Stick While We Do Our Thing". Would have been super neat if they had gotten some improvisational musicians who could actually react in some meaningful way to whatever it was each impromptu conductor was doing.

I have three words to say about that comment: exactly, exactly, and exactly.

It's very telling that the video is, for the most part, a recording of the one piece the orchestra must've played over and over that day, with the various "conductors" edited in at any given point, while the music simply continues. It just really drives home the fact that these musicians were indeed just... doing their thing. Their classical music thing. And hey, they're skillful and all, and can play this piece very well, of course, but the whole thing is really just an empty exercise. A smile-inducing diversion for passersby and no doubt a bit of fun for the folks who stepped up and waved the stick, but beyond that, essentially meaningless.

Which is all the more tragic when you consider that New York City is full to bursting with brilliant improvising musicians who COULD actually respond to what the off-the-street conductors do! Like say, any number of the musicians who took part in Butch Morris's "Conduction" pieces over the years. It would be so easy to put together a group of players in NYC who would blow people's minds when these guest conductors stepped up to lead them. It would be so, SO much better than this that, well, there'd be no comparison, really.

Now, some might call me grumpy, curmudgeonly, and accuse me of raining on a nice little parade. But, really, it irks me how the European classical tradition is still the default, go-to idea for something like this. It is SO inferior, in this context, to what a group of good improvisors from the worlds of jazz and free improv could do.

So, note to Improv Everywhere: do this again, and call Mr. William Parker to put an ensemble together for it. It's gonna blow this classical shit right outta the water.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:49 AM on September 30, 2013 [16 favorites]


Cool idea, but I was disappointed that it's more like "Come Wave A Stick While We Do Our Thing". Would have been super neat if they had gotten some improvisational musicians who could actually react in some meaningful way to whatever it was each impromptu conductor was doing.

Actually, they were responding in a meaningful way to the conductors as best they could. They responded to cues for tempi and dynamics, and in some bits shown in this video and the rehearsal video, the orchestra has a train wreck if the conductor gives confusing or unclear signals. The players were clearly watching the conductors and taking cues for volume and tempo.

All the conductors fell into the cliche that conducting is just about waving your hands, so there was no shaping phrases with the left hand, or cuing entrances, balancing volume levels between the players, etc. (As a professional musician who has also conducted, I have never seen a professional or semi professional conductor tap the podium.)

While an improvisational ensemble idea is also a cool idea, I don't believe it would be conducting. Conductors don't 'create' a piece of music out of thin air; they direct the players on how to interpret an extant piece. In the case of an improvisational ensemble responding to a 'conductor,' it would more like the players responding to the 'conductor's' movements the same way they would respond to, say, an interpretive dancer. There are pieces out there that have the players responding to cues from the conductor by playing random repetitive bits of music that fit together no matter how the conductor cues and leads the ensemble. In this case, though, I think they were smart to pick a piece of music many people would find familiar, even if they didn't know exactly what it was. Also, this overture has a steady tempo throughout, not requiring the conductor to change to an entirely different tempo, or need them to switch from beating in four to beating in six. Also, almost all conductors would beat this piece in two, which is the natural way a non-conductor would lead an orchestra.
posted by jayb3369 at 5:26 AM on September 30, 2013 [12 favorites]


And once again we see that Improv Everywhere isn't improv, and isn't anywhere outside of NYC.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:47 AM on September 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


All the conductors fell into the cliche that conducting is just about waving your hands, so there was no shaping phrases with the left hand, or cuing entrances, balancing volume levels between the players, etc. (As a professional musician who has also conducted, I have never seen a professional or semi professional conductor tap the podium.)

Dude. I grew up in a house full of classical music, my father played in an amateur orchestra, and I have a relative who is a professional violinist and conductor. If you handed me an orchestra to conduct, I would probably tap the podium and wave my hands too.
posted by 41swans at 5:53 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe not improv, and I am sure there are many ways to improve upon it, but it was an entertaining video.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:58 AM on September 30, 2013


And once again we see that Improv Everywhere isn't improv, and isn't anywhere outside of NYC.

Agent Todd (Charlie to his buds) encourages remote IE cells. If you feel Improv Everywhere is failing at its mission, set up your own Improvisatory Mission Force.

As always, if you or your team are catcalled or heckled, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This metaphor will self-destruct in thirty seconds. Good luck, Jim!
posted by infinitewindow at 6:14 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Now, some might call me grumpy, curmudgeonly, and accuse me of raining on a nice little parade. But, really, it irks me how the European classical tradition is still the default, go-to idea for something like this. It is SO inferior, in this context, to what a group of good improvisors from the worlds of jazz and free improv could do.

There is no Bugs Bunny cartoon featuring a conductor and a free jazz ensemble. It really is that simple.
posted by Diablevert at 6:32 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


It was nice to give the viola a solo. You could tell he was not used to the positive attention. Probably afraid it would make him easier to hit.
posted by plinth at 6:36 AM on September 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


While an improvisational ensemble idea is also a cool idea, I don't believe it would be conducting.

Well, it wouldn't be conducting in the way the term is generally understood within the fixed framework of Western classical music. But that is only one area of musical practice and tradition. The above-mentioned Butch Morris, as well as Sun Ra, John Zorn and many others, however, would beg to differ that conducting an improvisational ensemble is not *conducting*.

Conductors don't 'create' a piece of music out of thin air; they direct the players on how to interpret an extant piece.

That is by no means always true. It was my great pleasure, for example, to be a part of improvised musical goings-on in 10 or 15-piece ensembles (depending on the night), playing under the conducting of the late, great Butch Morris. He conducted us, no two ways about it, and no other word for it. And he was brilliant. Now, I will concede that it's more accurate to say he coaxed the music from the players themselves, and not out of "thin air". But we didn't interpret an extant piece. We were guided by his conducting to create an improvised piece, on the spot. Mr. Morris's entire career was spent doing exactly that, with all sorts of ensembles, all over the world. Sometimes even with classically trained musicians, that is, ones who were game enough to try something beyond their training and expertise.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:50 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Dude. I grew up in a house full of classical music, my father played in an amateur orchestra, and I have a relative who is a professional violinist and conductor. If you handed me an orchestra to conduct, I would probably tap the podium and wave my hands too.

Sorry I didn't mean to imply that anyone other than a conductor should know that. What I meant was they picked the classical European idiom because so many people would know enough of the cliches to fake it and the orchestra would follow reasonably well. Also, I wanted people to understand that a conductor does so much more than just waive and point. And whether you find an orchestra waiting on the street, or you do it as a student, or as a professional, the first time you conduct an orchestra is an amazing feeling.
posted by jayb3369 at 6:53 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


All the conductors fell into the cliche that conducting is just about waving your hands, so there was no shaping phrases with the left hand, or cuing entrances, balancing volume levels between the players, etc.

My experience is that almost all of that stuff is actually handled in rehearsals, and that a large part of the Bernstein-esque expressive gesturing some conductors do in performance is bullshit posturing. Some of the greatest conductors of the 20th century were known to do little more than keep time in performance. This, I think, is one of the great misconceptions about conducting, both in the popular imagination and the egos of some conductors: The conductor doesn't "play the orchestra" and execute his interpretation in realtime during the performance. He is a traffic cop who manages the orchestra and guides it through the interpretation he shaped during the rehearsal process. This is why he is called a"conductor" and not an"orchestrist" or an "orchestra player." There is nothing, nothing worse than a conductor who rehearses the piece one way and then decides to "make art" in the performance. I think Bugs Bunny cartoons and other media have created the popular impression among non-classical-musicians that conducting is an esoteric system of signals whereby the conductor gets the orchestra to play whatever is in his mind. Thus, the people who made a clear "ta-daaaaa!" gesture and were surprised to see that they got something very different.
posted by slkinsey at 6:54 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


That is by no means always true. It was my great pleasure, for example, to be a part of improvised musical goings-on in 10 or 15-piece ensembles (depending on the night), playing under the conducting of the late, great Butch Morris. He conducted us, no two ways about it, and no other word for it. And he was brilliant. Now, I will concede that it's more accurate to say he coaxed the music from the players themselves, and not out of "thin air". But we didn't interpret an extant piece. We were guided by his conducting to create an improvised piece, on the spot. Mr. Morris's entire career was spent doing exactly that, with all sorts of ensembles, all over the world. Sometimes even with classically trained musicians, that is, ones who were game enough to try something beyond their training and expertise.

And I would have loved to have played in, or at least, heard, one of those concerts. But your average person on the street could no more walk up to a group of professional musicians and lead them in a free form piece the they could conduct Ives or Boulez. I don't know much about Butch Morris, but he was a great musician and composer in his own right. He formed and shaped a piece of music as it was being written by the players, and I'm sure there are many a professional conductor who can't do that.
posted by jayb3369 at 7:01 AM on September 30, 2013


But your average person on the street could no more walk up to a group of professional musicians and lead them in a free form piece the they could conduct Ives or Boulez.

Disagree. The beauty of skilled, keen improvisors is that they could take the gestures of those random people on the street and turn them into sound. Right there, on the spot. And that would be the magic that would really turn people on, spectators and random conductors alike. Would the person on the street conduct as well as Butch Morris or Sun Ra? Of course not! But that's not the point! The point would be that the motions of the impromptu conductors, be it waving their arms, gesturing their pinkies, shaking their head, jumping up and down, ALL of it, would get a sonic reaction, right there, in the moment. A genuine musical response.

You mention Ives or Boulez, and how folks couldn't conduct that. Well of course they couldn't! Hell, they can't conduct the music the orchestra is playing in this video, either! But great improvisors (and, as I mentioned earlier, ain't no shortage of 'em in NYC) could, in fact, make everyone a *conductor*. And that would be the success of this endeavor.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:19 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you're judging this by its musical qualities, I think you may be using the wrong metric. This is Improv Everywhere. They're not a musical collective; their aim is to spread joy through acts of surrealism. Salvador Dali is said to have expressed regret that when he was eating out, no waiter ever presented him with a flaming phone book. That's pretty much what IE is for.

From the looks of it, those involved with this had fun, and the world seemed slightly weirder than it had the day before. Mission accomplished.
posted by Shmuel510 at 7:40 AM on September 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


But great improvisors (and, as I mentioned earlier, ain't no shortage of 'em in NYC) could, in fact, make everyone a *conductor*. And that would be the success of this endeavor.

No, it wouldn't really. I admire the purity of your enthusiasm for music. But this wasn't about art. It was about amusement. It was a game. And to invite strangers to play a game successfully, they must know the rules. The reason this collection of random passerby is getting such a giddy joy out of this is that they get to imagine themselves in the role of the stuffy conductor in his white tie and swallowtail jacket. They've seen him before; he is an icon, an archetype. And the reason this entire endeavour is amusing is that they get to pretend to be him for a moment, get briefly to perform the anarchic Lord of Misrule role the same way Bugs does in the cartoon, taking this 20-odd piece orchestra, in their tuxes and with their fancy instruments, and submit them to their will. It is a fantasy of power, not a fantasy of beauty.

You could possibly make much more beautiful music with improvisors. But it wouldn't get the laugh this does because there wouldn't be a joke; it wouldn't get the attention and participation from the crowd this does because they wouldn't understand what they were supposed to do, wouldn't already have an icon in their heads that they were trying half to ape and half to mock. It'd be braver, and prettier, but not as popular.
posted by Diablevert at 7:45 AM on September 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


But it wouldn't get the laugh this does because there wouldn't be a joke; it wouldn't get the attention and participation from the crowd this does because they wouldn't understand what they were supposed to do, wouldn't already have an icon in their heads that they were trying half to ape and half to mock. It'd be braver, and prettier, but not as popular.

You sell people too short. I guarantee you that when some conductor's arm went straight up at lightning speed and was met with an upward swoop from some horn players, and when someone waved their arms frantically and that was matched by energetic, nervous skitterings from marimba and piccolo flute, or when someone with a decent sense of rhythm set up a tempo and it was followed faithfully by an ace ensemble of improvisors, people would know what to do real quick. And it'd be *popular* as fucking Michael Jackson, man.

And something you don't seem to understand about the points I've been making (probably because I haven't explicitly stated it, outside of using terms like "magic" or "turn people on") is that this would, in fact, be fun. Very, very fun. Probably a lot more fun than waving a stick for a minute or two in front of a bunch of classical players who are essentially doing the same thing no matter what you do. The result of what I'm suggesting wouldn't be some high brow, chin stroking "oh, what intriguing music" sort of reaction. It would be amusing as hell, brother!

taking this 20-odd piece orchestra, in their tuxes and with their fancy instruments, and submit them to their will. It is a fantasy of power, not a fantasy of beauty.

Except that no one was submitted to their will. As you say, it's a *fantasy* of power. But I'm not talking about a "fantasy of beauty". Haha! I'm not talking about a fantasy at all. I'm talking about what could have been a genuine moment of actual human interaction. A reality of unexpected communication between ordinary folks and professional musicians. One that wouldn't simply be a one-off, one trick pony (oh, look! I'm pretending to be a conductor!), but one that would be truly fun, and where everyone was a genuine participant, not simply a character in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:06 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


So, note to Improv Everywhere: do this again, and call Mr. William Parker to put an ensemble together for it. It's gonna blow this classical shit right outta the water.

No, it's more like, note to Improv Everywhere, GO HOME and stop doing these projects. But regarding the conducting: there are plenty of New York classical musicians would be able to improvise a contemporary interpretation of someone's gestures on a podium. That's obviously not what this project was about. And the group itself is a semi-professional training group designed to teach aspiring musicians how to better bridge the gap between audience and performer. This is a fun little game designed to bring people outside of their comfort zones and offer them a chance to "lead" an ensemble. It's just for fun so who cares?

That said, I do agree they shouldn't have had just ONE piece to play, but that could've been poor planning or IMPROV EVERYWHERE's stupid idea.
posted by ReeMonster at 8:14 AM on September 30, 2013


I thought I heard a few other things besides the Marriage of Figaro (maybe they were just holding a previously agreed upon note in response to the conductor).

Regardless, the criticism of this video seems incredibly misplaced. I remember being a dorky 6 year old in my bedroom being so moved by the London Philharmonic on my record player that I had fashioned my own baton out of play doh and a stick and turned out the lights imagining myself as a world famous conductor. This really was about the look of sheer joy on the face of the kid, the Bro, the Cop, and the B-Boy -- a look that confesses that they didn't realize a 30 piece orchestra playing 400 year old music could *move* them so much. I saw more than one booty shaking.

So fuck you, snobs and haters.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:49 AM on September 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


no disrespect flapjax
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:50 AM on September 30, 2013


ReeMonster: No, it's more like, note to Improv Everywhere, GO HOME and stop doing these projects.

Tell us how you really feel. Are you just such a jaded New York musician that the very mention of IE sends you in a blind rage? Those savages.
posted by hanoixan at 9:06 AM on September 30, 2013


Shmuel510 : their aim is to spread joy through acts of surrealism

Well it worked for me. This was delightful and my day is now a little better because of it. Thank you zarq and Improv Everywhere. More please.
posted by evilmomlady at 9:38 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


flapjax at midnight: there's really nothing stopping you from organizing the event you're describing here. Why not go out and do it? It does sound like it would be fun and engaging. On the other hand, criticizing this event for not being that event seems somewhat pointless. You might as well criticize a show of oils for not being a show of sculptures or criticize a jazz concert for not being a folk music concert.
posted by yoink at 10:12 AM on September 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


flapjax at midnite: "One that wouldn't simply be a one-off, one trick pony (oh, look! I'm pretending to be a conductor!), but one that would be truly fun, and where everyone was a genuine participant, not simply a character in a Bugs Bunny cartoon."

I watched both videos a few times before posting and carefully watched the people conducting. They were genuinely participating and interacting with the musicians, and I daresay getting something out of the experience. Just perhaps not in the way you were expecting them to. I do think that's okay, too. Many of them looked like they were having fun!

I get that this wasn't what you would have liked to see. But I don't think that makes this little experiment as terrible as you're saying it is.
posted by zarq at 10:36 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


You sell people too short. I guarantee you that when some conductor's arm went straight up at lightning speed and was met with an upward swoop from some horn players, and when someone waved their arms frantically and that was matched by energetic, nervous skitterings from marimba and piccolo flute, or when someone with a decent sense of rhythm set up a tempo and it was followed faithfully by an ace ensemble of improvisors, people would know what to do real quick. And it'd be *popular* as fucking Michael Jackson, man.

I can almost guarantee that this would sound like horrible unorganized bullcrap and be entirely unsuccessful.
posted by slkinsey at 11:20 AM on September 30, 2013


I can almost guarantee that this would sound like horrible unorganized bullcrap and be entirely unsuccessful.

Haha! Perhaps you've never heard any of the stellar improvised music talents who call the great city of New York home.

That said, I'm well aware that some of the finest jazz and improvised music of the 20th and 21st centuries has been characterized as horrible unorganized bullcrap (or worse!) many, many times over by many, many people. And you may well be a person who might respond to much modern jazz and improvised music with the same opinion. If so, yeah, it might sound that way to you and you wouldn't like what I'm talking about.

That would come as no surprise, really.Bur, for the record, let me state that I rarely, if ever, disparage or belittle anyone's personal taste in music, and I am not disparaging yours, in this instance, whatever your personal tastes may be.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:50 PM on September 30, 2013


Is it terrible of me to say that in high school orchestra, I paid pretty much no attention to the conductor once he said to start?
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:57 PM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


jenfullmoon: I am a middle school orchestra conductor- an even more horrifying fate than high school conducting!- and the answer to your question is yes, yes, yes. :)
posted by charmedimsure at 5:33 PM on September 30, 2013


I wish the haters would just go do the improv thing themselves.

Mostly because that also sounds really cool and I would like to see it. Take good video please!!
posted by NoraReed at 5:38 PM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


NoraReed, love your comment, except for the easy characterization of people who express opinions in the manner I've done in this thread as *haters*. To me, it's a very lazy internet shorthand dismissal which is unfair, given the lengthy explanations I've made here about why I hold the opinions I do about this. Likewise, zarq's saying "as terrible as you say it is" is, again, unfair, and is not a characterization that can be borne out based on what I've actually said here.

As it happens, music, and people's relationship with/perceptions of music, is something that, for me as a lifelong musician, is perhaps of greater significance than it is for some others. It's a topic that's, yeah, close to home. And naturally, I understand that it's something that others might not think about in the same ways. But hopefully people can avoid the facile consignment of my opinions to the *hater* pile.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:56 PM on September 30, 2013


That was a poor word choice, flapjacks-- it was meant to come off jokey and failed. Sorry about that! I appreciated your contributions to the thread in general, though.
posted by NoraReed at 10:04 PM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


IE missions tend to be quite simple for a reason. We want anyone to be able to understand the mission, decide if they want to try it, and jump in to play along, in a few seconds. Juxtaposing familiar set-ups with unfamiliar settings, or redefining well-understood roles tends to be our thing because they lower the barrier to participation.

Suggest your ideas to IE! Or DIY?
posted by BigJen at 10:49 PM on September 30, 2013


...We want anyone to be able to understand the mission ... Suggest your ideas to IE!

You say "we", so I assume you are a "member" or regular participant in Improv Everywhere? That's great! Cause now, with you reading this thread, I can perhaps assume that I've already suggested my idea to IE? That is, in the very first comment I made here: the suggestion was to contact William Parker, who might be interested in putting an improvising ensemble together for a project like this in NYC!

Or DIY?

Someone else suggested that option upthread, and in theory, on the face of it, it's not a bad idea. However, I'm sure you and everyone else would acknowledge that IE has the network, resources, contacts, experience, reputation, etc. to do it right. To really make it an event, and not just the slap dash, small affair (that stands a good chance of getting run off by the cops before it's even underway) that someone like me or any other typical lone musician would have the wherewithall to produce.

You did this one, for example, in conjunction with Carnegie Hall and The Juilliard School, as I understand it. You might consider doing one with improvisors in conjunction, with, say, Roulette.

So, I'll say it again: Improv Everywhere, HELLO! Use your considerable resources and experience to do the Conduct Us project with a group of improvising musicians! New York has one or two, you know! And document it in your characteristically professional and thorough way. You've done the classical one, now try this! Hooray!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:38 AM on October 1, 2013


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