A child’s first visit to a concert hall will reliably produce the same query: what’s that guy doing? Glancing across the stage, everyone seems to have a tool and function which may intuitively be connected to the sounds striking your ears: that thunderous pounding must be coming from the guy at the back whacking those great big tubs, the fanfare-like parping was probably issued from the people puffing and wheezing down their curly brass pipes. But what about the doofus at the front with his back turned rudely to the audience, shaking some sort of stick about in mid-air as if trying hopelessly to swat an errant fly? And how come the one person whose entire effort appears entirely fruitless is the one with their name on the front of the programme?
The figure of the conductor was not always bestowed with such singular esteem. Before the nineteenth century, the system known as ‘double-direction’ would often place the composer behind the keyboard offering some general direction from the back while the orchestra ‘leader’ stolidly beat time against a stand with a rolled-up copy of the manuscript score, adding a thumping four-to-the-floor house beat to the symphonies of Handel and Haydn which would have been quite audible in the front few rows of seats. But post-1800, the conductor became increasingly a sort of orchestral dictator, imbued with quasi-mystical powers. The electrical associations of the name inspired newspaper cartoonists to depict famous orchestra leaders like Richard Wagner and Hector Berlioz with lightning bolts shooting from their hands, animating the musicians like Frankenstein and his monster.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Berlioz’s Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes described the orchestral players as little more than ‘machines’ played upon by the conductor like a giant piano. British commentators at the time would harrumph about ‘despotism in musical governance’ and, in the twentieth century, music theorists like Christopher Small and Jacques Attali would agree, seeing in the orchestra and its arrangement a microcosm of society in which, as Attali put in, the musicians themselves were ‘the image of programmed labour’ and their conductor ‘simultaneously entrepreneur and State, a physical representation of power in the economic order.’ The metaphor, albeit reversed, is anticipated by Marx in the thirteenth chapter of Capital, where the image of an orchestral conductor is employed to explain the ‘directing, superintending, and adjusting’ function of the capitalist class.
The obvious thing, then, for any socialist reorganisation of musical performance would be to simply get rid of them. And that, in the early days of Soviet Russia, is exactly what happened.
The ‘Proletkult’ movement of the immediate post-revolutionary years produced a fertile environment for new experiments in musical organisation. Composer Arseny Avraamov created a ‘symphony of factory sirens’ with an orchestra of steam-whistles, cannons, hydroplanes, and the foghorns of an entire naval fleet; Nikolai Roslavets occupied himself researching a new seventeen-note scale to replace the bourgeois dodecaphony baked into the piano keyboard; and, in 1920, the small city of Penza, 600 kilometres south-east of Moscow, arranged a ‘collective concert’ played by a full symphony orchestra with no conductor standing at the podium.
The concert at Penza was a one-off — and apparently not a huge success. But it did anticipate the establishment in Moscow two years later of the First Symphonic Orchestra without a Conductor (Pervyi simfonicheskii ansambl bez dirigera — or ‘Persimfans’, for short). On stage they cut a strange cloth, with all seventy members arranged in a circle, like in a children’s game, but Persimfans were nothing if not disciplined. The ensemble featured some of the most esteemed musicians of the day, each of whom had to learn the full score of each piece they played (not just their own part). They rehearsed relentlessly and performed hundreds of concerts a year — mostly in workers’ social clubs and factories. Prokofiev, whose work the orchestra performed frequently, rated them highly, and the group was widely imitated, with conductor-less orchestras subsequently founded in Petrograd, Kharkov, Odessa, Kiev, Ekaterinoslav, Voronezh, Tiflis, Baku — and even the USA (though the review in Musical America apparently felt that Amsimfans’ concert missed the presence of ‘a command-ing personality’).
The original Persimfans lasted ten years — the victim, perhaps, of the ‘restructuring’ of artistic activity under Stalin, though many claim the group had already long lost its spark before its final concert in 1933. Few of its imitators lasted even that long. But in the twenty-first century the idea has witnessed a revival. Inspired in part by the research of Konstantin Dudakov-Kashuro, assistant professor at Moscow’s Lomonosov State University, Persimfans was rekindled in 2009 and continues to perform a mixture of classical and modern music to this day (already outlasting their Soviet-era inspiration). In a 2014 interview with the Moscow Times, Dudakov-Kashuro saw the notion of a decentralised musical ensemble as highly relevant to an era of social media and flash mobs. ‘The idea of unity and equality,’ he concluded, ‘is still the way we want to move toward.’