Tribute to a Teacher
by Markand Thakar
Music is nothing.
Sound could become music.
The end must be in the beginning,
and the beginning in the end.
I am here because I am not here.
Music lives in the eternal now.
Music is the now becoming now.
These mystical, enigmatic aphorisms appear over and over in my notes -- these, among many others. I wrote them down, but I certainly wasn't sure what they meant, or what they had to do with making music, or with conducting.
I showed up in Munich for the Celibidache Dirigierskurs with the Munich Philharmonic. It was the summer of 1981; I was a serious young student of conducting with degrees from prestigious schools, and had spent a year conducting in Europe as a Fulbright Fellow. I knew what America had to offer, and I knew what Europe had to offer, and I knew what I had to offer (quite a bit, if you asked me). I was there because I had heard of the legendary Celibidache -- a friend told me I would learn more from observing one rehearsal than I had learned in my life to date. Of course I didn't believe him, but I had to go because -- wellI had to find out. And too, a respected mentor in America told me, "Celibidache is the greatest conductor alive today. Whatever he is doing, GO!" Of course I didn't quite believe him either. But I went.
We started the four-week course with physical exercises, and right away I sensed something different -- something organic -- something fundamentally right. Everything Celibidache told us about the physical act of conducting was grounded in this simple and elegant insight: the job of the conductor can be accomplished only when his or her physical motions resonate synchronously with the sounds. So, we must first learn to free our bodies of the habitual, unconscious tensions which force us to gesture against the music. We practiced finding the basic position, a position free from undue tension. Sure it sounded easy, and it looked easy: just raise your hands to the basic position with a minimum of tension, without raising the shoulders, without raising the elbows, without tensing the neck. I got the hang of it after a week or so (all except for the neck business -- that took a little longer). But by the second day we were beating already. Ah, beating. Creating, from stillness, an impulse in the arm -- an explosion of energy -- after which the arm flies free, free for the next explosion.
And then proportion. Traditionally, conducting students are taught to make gestures to control the orchestra from a position of authority, with clear, sharp ictuses that can be followed easily. From Celibidache I discovered that we are only truly effective if instead we allow our gestures to participate with the ensemble. It became evident that our gestures cannot possibly be clear if they conflict with the sounds (I was surprised to realize that the shortest, most violent sounds in the repertoire were neither short enough nor violent enough to correspond to the seemingly clear ictus). So we learned beating with proportion: controlling the explosive impulses so that each gesture corresponds precisely to the character of the sound. And then we learned patterns -- organizing the beats into their musical groupings; and planes of inflection -- allowing the placement of the gesture to correspond to subtle inflections of intensity; and disparait -- more complicated patterns involving unequal beats and groupings. Every gesture was practiced over and over until it was free from tensions -- free to join the sounds.
Oh, but then what sounds. My first experience with Celibidache the musician was at a rehearsal with the Munich Philharmonic Choir. Never had I known such sounds. Never had I imagined such sounds -- I, who grew up in the capital of the world; I, who regularly heard the finest orchestras and choirs and chamber musicians. I came to Munich hoping to gain at least some small thing of value, and, like Howard Carter opening the tomb of Tutankhamen, found a wealth of treasures beyond my wildest imagination. What I found was a music that grabbed me, seized me, tore me from my surroundings and transported me to another world. It was like no music I ever heard; a spiritual, awakening experience that I never had dreamed possible.
Hyperbole? No. Because it really was a different music. The sounds were different -- they came together in a different way, even from the standard high quality professionally produced concerts. I saw how they were different, and how this extraordinary difference was achieved; no -- I heard how. I heard, that is, after he noticed me following along diligently with the score, as good conducting students learn to do. He took time out from the rehearsal to scream, "Close the book! LISTEN, DONT READ!" And then I listened; and then I heard. I heard sounds that began as individuals, separate and distinct from each other, conflicting in some way -- perhaps in terms of a simple attribute such as intonation, or temporal placement (ensemble), or perhaps in a more subtle way. And I heard the conflicts gradually disappear.
"No! Too flat. No! Too sharp. Ahh, yessss!! Just so." A conflict of intonation systems disintegrates; the sounds join as if indivisible. "No! Too soon. Why so? Yes! Wonderful." A conflict of temporal placement (ensemble) dissolves; again the sounds join as if indivisible. "Basses, No! You cover the tenors. Why so? You didn't listen? Wake up! Bongiorno! Again. Aaaaahhh -- Yes!! It is so. Do you hear?" They do. I do too. Another conflict -- this time of levels of intensity (balance) -- evaporates as the basses structure their volume in a musical relation to that of the rest of the choir. The sounds cease to be sounds. They join, they melt, into a celestial balance. And we who experience them lose ourselvesour selves -- in them. There is for us no more consciousness of subject, and no more consciousness of object (certainly the experience could not take place without subject and object, but they are not present for us in our experience). There is only consciousness -- pure consciousness. In the English language the only word for this transporting experience is beauty; beauty on the highest level.
Celibidache insists on no less than creating the conditions for this narcotic, celestial experience of beauty without interruption in every piece. To create these conditions, we must present the sounds in such a way that they are transcendingly beautiful; we must unfold the sounds so that the open listener can, through focusing his attentive consciousness exclusively on them, have an experience characterized by loss-of-self, an experience that is subject-less and object-less. The sounds must be present so that the subject is not a necessary component of the experience: they are present in that way when every attribute of every sound participates in a single entity -- a unity. Not that imaginary emperors-new-clothes unity that is ascribed to a work if the main theme recurs from time to time, but an experiential unity, an indivisible unity of experienced sounds.
The rehearsal process is one of reducing multiplicities. The multiplicity of conflicting intonation systems is reduced into a unity of intonation systems; and the multiplicity of temporal placement systems is dissolved into a unity. With each multiplicity dissolved, I the listener am no longer needed as an active component in the process. I am not needed to connect the out-of-tune tones; they come to me pre-connected, already within their non-conflicting logical relationships, and I am left free -- free to experience more sounds. But I am also not needed to connect the tones that are not together; they, too, come to me pre-connected, already in their non-conflicting relationships. Again I am free to experience more sounds. This freedom comes to me as beauty. When I experience a momentary fragment of exquisite beauty in musical performance, it is because the sounds have come to me in just this pre-connected way, freeing me from actively participating in their connection. My sublime experience is rudely snuffed out by the first sound that comes to me as unconnected -- for example, the first out-of-tune tone, the first tone experienced as not together, or the first pedestrian structure of balance. Celibidache strives to eliminate these conditions that put an end to this magical experience.
If we carefully examine our customary experience at even the highest quality professional concerts, we find a shish kebob of thoughts or experiences that follow each other in succession: a moment of sublime beauty, a thought about the timpanist, a nice melodic line, a thought about the conductor's gestures, a guess at the soloist's fee, another moment of sublime beauty, and so on, all attached to the skewer of a continuing musical experience. Of course the specific content of these successions of thoughts will vary depending on the listener; for instance, those of the more educated listener may include thoughts about the extra-musical program, or about historical considerations, or about mechanical aspects of the performing process, or about structural considerations of the work. Within any such succession, the component segments are delineated by new objects of consciousness: with each new object of consciousness the previous segment is ended, and a new one begins. Objects of consciousness are themselves defined or delineated by the _disconnection_ of sounds. For example, a passage is sounded so that every sound comes together, already connected for us. We hear it, and experience an extraordinary and sublime moment of beauty. BANG! A sound comes that is unconnected, even in some most subtle way. We are torn from our experience of beauty -- it is ended. That moment of beauty takes its place as a segment in the succession. BANG! Another sound unconnected. BANG! Yet another. Each disconnected event defines the borders of segments within the succession. We tire of being torn back to the real world of the concert hall. We slip into a thought of our tax bill, of the babysitter. Or, concentrating on the concert, we slip into a thought about the tuba player, about the conductors social life, or perhaps about the fourth finger vibrato of the principal cello. If we are particularly musically sophisticated, perhaps we think about the Toscanini recording or a performance with Thomas Beecham that we once heard. All these segments of thoughts are added on to the succession. Another beautiful passage comes, inviting us, drawing us away from non-musical thoughts, from thoughts of any kind. All the sounds are just one, without interruption, without individual components. They invite us in, they seduce us away from our real-world consciousness, they -- BANG! One more disconnected sound; one more segment for our succession.
The actual difference in the sounds between a performance that allows this magical experience and one that does not may be extremely subtle. The difference in our experience, though is enormous. Imagine an oboe tone that is just a bit too soft to join with the other woodwinds in a sublime, spine-tingling balance. Played just a fraction louder, it is loud enough to join with the other tones. That first tone of the oboe, too soft, is disconnected from the unity. It becomes defined as an object itself, and thus creates a multiplicity. Experiencing this multiplicity brings us back into the physical world. We experience the oboe tone as an oboe tone; the woodwind chord as a chord in the woodwinds. While that is not bad, it is not the magical, spiritual experience of musical beauty. Playing the tone just a fraction louder -- the fraction needed to bring it into a sublime balance with the other tones -- allows us to remain in that magical otherworldly experience. The oboe tone does not divide our consciousness into an awareness of separate objects; it does not return us abruptly to the real world. We continue to be drawn into the transcendent experience of pure consciousness. We are not encouraged to think of the laundry, or make comparisons with the Toscanini recording, or even with a previous Celibidache performance (all equally non-musical activities of the intellect); instead we continue to be seduced into the narcotic experience of musical beauty.
So what I learned from Celibidache is extraordinary. Because first, he knows this experience; he knows the crystalized beauty of, say, a celestial balance, and he knows that it comes about when the volume of each component is structured so that the totality comes as an indivisible unity. He knows his job to be not one of seeing that the volume of the orchestra matches a written marking (Oh its written forte? How loud is forte?); but instead one of encouraging and promoting this celestial experience. This he does by pointing out obstacles to the experience for the orchestra to eliminate: "No, too flat. Too sharp. No. Horn too loud. No. Why so? Listen to your function. No. No. No. No. No. AAAAAAHH -- Yes. You hear it now. It is so." And by pointing out obstacles to the orchestra for them to dissolve, he aids them in bringing into existence the conditions in sound for this ultimate beauty. The first thing I learned from him, then, is that there is a narcotic, seductive, extraordinary experience that is available from music; and we performers can consciously make the conditions for it. We make those conditions when we structure each component so that they all join into an indivisible unity.
But I also learned something else extraordinary. Celibidache knows about the temporal aspect of our experience. He knows that time is relative, and that physical time has nothing to do with the temporal aspect of our experience ("How long is a four-hour date with a boring person? How long is a four-hour date with an exciting person? So," he asked, "how long is four hours?"). Along the same lines, he knows that tones stand in the same fundamental relation sounding concurrently or sounding successively. For instance, concurrently sounding tones must be unfolded within a certain structure (balance) to be experienced as an indivisible unity, and thus to yield the incomparable experience of this highest beauty. Likewise, successively sounding tones must be unfolded within a certain structure to be experienced as an indivisible unity. Again, the experience requires that all attributes of all component events are joined together, without conflict. He is aware of the attribute of dynamic function: the gathering of energy or dissipation of energy that comes with the experience of any musical event. Any grouping must be unified in all its attributes; the attribute of dynamic function is unified when the energy created is susequently resolved in an equal degree. Thus a phrase must be presented in sound so that the energy created by the intensification to its climax is subsequently resolved in an equal degree; otherwise these two components (gathering of energy and dissipation of energy) stand in conflict. When its tones are experienced within an indivisible unity encompassing all attributes, the phrase will coalesce into just the same kind of celestial experience of beauty. And, assuming the composition allows it, this is also true of the entire movement. There is no higher experience on earth, I do not believe, than this: when our open consciousness is focused exclusively on the sounds of the entire temporally extended movement, which comes to us as one simultaneous moment, bonded together in an indivisible whole, bonded together with ussubject, object, and consciousness all indistinguishable. From Celibidache I learned that this experience can exist; I also learned to become sensitive to the subtle conditions of balance, of phrasing inflections, and of tempo direction that contribute to bringing it about.
I spent that summer with my mind constantly abuzz, from the flow of new information and possibilities and experiences, and nonstop exercises and lectures and daily assignments conducting the orchestra. I left a changed man. Over the next few years I had more contacts with him: another summer in Munich, and three weeks in Philadelphia for the preparations for the now-famous concert with the Curtis Institute orchestra in Carnegie Hall.
I believe Celibidache was unhappy with me for not staying in Munich and studying with him as he suggested. I very much wish he understood why: I had to learn things for myself. Perhaps it is my spirit of independence or self-sufficiency. In any case, I could not join his remarkable cadre of followers, who go to his rehearsals and concerts, following him from city to city around the European continent. Many are there because they want to be reflected in the glow of the legendary Celibidache; still asking the same inane, irritating questions after years. Even the bright ones, though, are there to get the knowledge from him. But I needed to learn things for myself. For instance he spoke of phenomenology; I wanted to read phenomenologists to discover for myself what they had to offer. He spoke of discovering musical experiences, of problems conducting, of different types of musical conditions and their effect on this highest experience; I wanted to go through it all myself. As an intensely dedicated teacher, he wanted to lead me each step of the way; and as an intensely dedicated student, I wanted to learn by giving it my own best shot.
Maybe he was also disappointed that a somewhat promising young man would leave to embrace the prevailing level of mediocrity at just the point when a really valuable development had begun. He thought, perhaps, that I would stop developing when I no longer had him to scream at me. ("Sure, I studied with Celibidache," someone once told me. "Would you like to see the scars?") Well he vastly underestimated himself as a teacher, then. Because, of everything that I gained from him, most important was this: he gave me myself; he gave me my own mind. He gave me an essential respect for my own being, in part by making it clear to me that the experiences I had were _my_ experiences, not those of the famous Celibidache, nor of anyone else. He answered my questions by posing riddles, and I hated him for it at first, because I felt stupid. But his riddles led me to other questions, which he answered with more riddles, leading to more questions. He allowed me -- no, he forced me -- to answer my own questions. He made me know that the truth lay not in Celibidaches dogma, but inside Markand Thakar. I could answer my own questions if I examined my experiences in great detail, openly, without fear of what I found. I had the key, and he gave it to me.
I have used that key every day of my life since. Years after I last saw him I was teaching at an enormous farming university in Pennsylvania, where I put some things together. The question arose in a class: where is the music? Ultimately, we found we had to say that the music exists only in the consciousness of the listener. When I experience music it seems as if I am hearing an object, and that object is music. But the music exists only in my consciousness. Out there are sounds, not music. The music results from the connection of those sounds; more precisely, the music is the connection of those sounds, a connection that exists only in my consciousness of them. (In a similar way, when I see a line of trees the line does not exist in physical reality; the line exists only in my consciousnessit is the way that I connect the trees.) Music then occurs only in my consciousness of the sounds. One way I know that is because the sounds start and stop, but the music -- the connection of the sounds in my consciousnesscomes to me as continuous. "MUSIC IS NOTHING; SOUND COULD BECOME MUSIC." So an enigma falls; a veil of confusion is lifted.
So what? "Sound could become music." So what? So if the music is something, then the object of my experience is music. The highest experience of music, however, comes to me as object-less -- as pure consciousness. To consider music as the object of my experience is to forfeit the possibility of the highest musical experience. Furthermore, if sound could become music, then it could do so under certain conditions. One condition is my openness as a listener to the experience. Another condition is the nature of the performance -- the way I give life to the sounds. I must find the way for the sounds to combine so that this highest experience results.
More enigmas fall. There is an almost durationless now-point that we experience as an immediate now; it is past as soon as it arrives. There is also another vantage point from which we experience: that is the extended present with which we experience temporally extended objects. For instance, the sounding of the name CARNEGIE HALL has temporal extension; it has a measurable duration. But we experience it all as a single, simultaneous, momentary event, all in the present. Although we do not hear the sound C concurrently with the final sound L, the experience of the sound C is retained as part of our experience in the now-point in which we hear the sound L. Likewise, although we dont hear the sound L concurrently with the sound C, the sound L is part of the essence of the sound C. The sound C would be essentially different without the context of the sound Lthe sound L is protended in the immediate now-point in which we hear the sound C. The sounds C and L, and the entire continuity of sounds in between, are experienced simultaneously in the experience of an indivisible temporally extended object such as the sounding of the name CARNEGIE HALL. When we experience a musical passage as beautiful, it comes to us in a similar way: simultaneously, and as indivisible. (The difference is that I ordinarily would not have a loss-of-self experience through listening to the sounding of the name, but, for a complex network of reasons, I do have it when the experience of the musical passage leads to the highest beauty.) Thus, THE END MUST BE IN THE BEGINNING, AND THE BEGINNING IN THE END. Only when the last note fully participates in the first, and the first fully participates in the last, will I experience this highest form of beauty. MUSIC LIVES IN THE ETERNAL NOW. MUSIC IS THE NOW BECOMING NOW. Music can happen when the now-point experience -- in which the entire grouping occurs simultaneously as a continuity of retentions, actual now-point experiences, and protentions -- is exchanged for a new now-point experience -- in which again the continuity of the entire grouping occurs simultaneously -- in an unboken continuum of such exchanges.
During this most exalted, sublime aesthetic experience, the distinction between subject and object is not there. I absorb the sounds, they overcome me, I become the sounds. Within my focused consciousness there is no them, and because there is no them different from me, there is also no me. And without a distinction between me and the external world that is not me, I come to experience my own being in the fullest way. Thus: I AM HERE BECAUSE I AM NOT HERE.
This detailed analysis of the musical experience may be confusing, and, Celibidache would strongly assert, is irrelevant to the experience itself. To understand the structure of the musical experience is valuable for the performer if it helps him clarify his contribution within it. But neither this, nor any other intellectual process can be part of our consciousness during a musical experience. On the contrary, one requirement for a musical experience is the open, unencumbered consciousness of the listener, absorbed exclusively with the totality of the sounds. If you listen to a Celibidache concert to discover the difference between it and standard fare, you will never find that difference. Because if you listen for something -- if you associate your experience of the sound with something, you can never lose yourself. The subject is ineradicably involved in the process. There is only one approach that will afford a listener this highest experience that a Celibidache concert may -- if all goes well -- offer: find a comfortable position, empty your mind of all external baggage, and focus exclusively on the totality of the sounds. Only if you go to the concert open, like a small child, unencumbered by thoughts of taxes and parking, unencumbered by thoughts of phenomenology and now-points, or of comparisons with the Berlin Philharmonic or Toscanini recordings, or by any thoughts other than the exclusive absorption with the totality of sounds, will you be able to taste this wondrous and unique experience. Afterward is the time to examine the performance. What was that experience? How did it happen? What were the conditions for it to come about? How can I have it again?
This is difficult for many, who have been taught -- both by regular concert-going and by educators -- that the only way to enjoy a concert is to listen _for_ something. Years of ingrained habit combined with self-doubt make Celibidache's contribution hard to accept. As a result, people tend to classify him, and inaccurately at that. On the one hand there are those that vilify him as eccentric, abnormal, crazy, fascistic, and dangerous. Yes dangerous, if one can imagine. But he is dangerous. He is dangerous to those with a vested interest in maintaining a happy status quo. He is dangerous, as is the Communist Party member who says, "Yes, Comrade, but in reality there IS no food." Celibidache, through his insistence on nothing less than the highest possible experience, says, "Yes, Comrade, but in reality that performance does not allow the highest experience that could come from those musicians playing that piece." He, like the honest Party member, is dangerous, because he is right. Celibidache does offer a more valuable experience. While the discovery of a higher experience is eye- and ear-opening manna for that person interested primarily in music, it is shattering and invalidating to anyone whose self-esteem derives not from the musical experience itself, but from a participation in the machinery of the music business. More than a few professional musicians, teachers, conductors, and critics fall into that latter category. No -- for these people Celibidache must be crazy, an eccentric, irrelevant to what they know as music; and dangerous.
Some say he is eccentric -- that he demands too many rehearsals. That is true, if you listen to the relationship between the sounds and the score, or the difference between the sounds of the Celibidache concert and those of the Toscanini recording. If you are willing to limit yourself to ordinary musical experiences (as pleasant as they assuredly are), then it is quite reasonable to stop rehearsing when the ensemble plays together, and in tune, and with a beautiful sound, and with a certain excitement. If, however, you insist on the highest, spine-tingling, magical experience of musical beauty that is available, then there is no choice but to rehearse until the oboe joins with the other woodwinds -- until every tone joins with every other. Nor is that as impossible a task as it seems. It is eminently achievable if the musicians play with that experience as their goal.
Some say he is impractical. (Celibidache may rehearse without a score, but I dont have time to learn my scores that well. Im just soooo busy, offered a former teacher.) They say, in essence, that it is too hard to demand that every attribute of every tone exist in function of each other; that this experience of ultimate beauty is not worth the trouble. To paraphrase the old TV commercial, I say: "Try working hard! Try extending yourself! Try listening openly to the sounds! Try this extraordinary experience that comes when every sound falls into place -- just so. Try it! Youll like it!"
Others ascribe theories to him. I recall statements from three different people (none with any first-hand experience): "He's a fascist -- he makes everyone do it his way" and "He likes the bass soft and the high notes loud" and "Oh Celibidachehe's the one who ends every phrase softly." From my first-hand experience, I offer this opposite impression: Celibidache has no interest in theories, or in principles of performance. His interest is in the highest, transcendent experience of musical beauty. Every musical grouping has a different set of relationships within which the sounds must be unfolded to allow this experience, and for each relationship there is a latitude (we do not know exactly how large a major third is, for instance, but we do know when it sounds too large or too small). We know this set of relationships not from a theory, and not because of any higher authority. On the contrary, we know it because of the most direct and doubt-free reason: we hear it. We know it because we have the magical experience when the sounds come together in this way, and we dont have it when they do not. Once they have come together, we can then examine those relationships that did allow the extraordinary experience. There is no theory, though; if we consider one thousand passages, we will find one thousand different sets of relationships that allow the tones to come together. To speak of a general principle of performance, such as "Play high notes loud" or "End phrases soft" is absurd and anti-musical. Moreover, there is by no means one performance -- one specific way to play. The specific, measurable, physical attributes are of no interest whatever (student: "Maestro, I know that we must get softer in this spot, but how much softer?" Celibidache: "Six centimeters. Pre-cise-ly!"). These measurable physical attributes change from performance to performance, from orchestra to orchestra, from conductor to conductor, from hall to hall, etc., and are essentially irrelevant to our experience of transcendent beauty. Celibidache is, however, fascistic: he insists that everyone -- students, and orchestra members, and performers -- do as he does, giving no less than the utmost of their capabilities.
On the other hand, there are those that deify him as a legendary genius. They, too, are off the track. In no way do I imply any disrespect in this. To say Celibidache is a god; I am a mere mortal, and could never do what he does, is equally missing the point, and in fact goes completely counter to his fundamental message. This message might be summarized as follows: "I, Celibidache, am just a guy. Like any human, I have human experiences; like the audience, like the orchestra musicians, and like -- say -- Mozart." Mozart's works allow us to make the conditions in sound for that extraordinary musical experience, which is a human experience, one that we all as humans can share. We -- conductors and musicians and audiences -- can all have essentially the same experience as he did (it is, after all, the fact that we share the experience that allows us to agree on Mozarts greatness). I, as a conductor, hold no secret keys -- have no magical interpretive powers. I do not create the sounds -- the orchestra creates the sounds. I can at best influence the orchestra in a positive way; at worst, in a negative way. When the orchestra plays an exquisite phrase, however, it is not Celibidache's phrase -- my stick made no sounds. They play an exquisite phrase because they, the musicians, are responding to the requirements of the sounds in an effort to attain the highest experience of musical beauty. My job as conductor is to bring it to their attention when their sounds stand in the way of this experience, and to suggest where they can look to find the correction. I invite an audience to the concerts so they share with us this most high and ennobling experience; any listener with an open consciousness focused on the sounds will -- if we do our jobs -- find it also.
I have come to see a powerful force behind both extremes of opinion: fear of the self. Fear of self motivates Celibidache's deifiers, who look outside themselves to him to structure their lives; and it motivates his critics, who have already found their external structures elsewhere. Celibidache is above all a giver of selves. He teaches his students that they have the means, they have the answers, they themselves are the source; and can find truth if they look internally -- if they look with unflagging criticism at their own experiences. This is terrifying for those students, who, mistrustful of themselves, look to education for a comforting set of external rules or commandments by which to act. Complaints from such students generally take the shape of either "I can't pin him down," or, "I could do without the rhetoric. If only he would just tell me what to do."
Fear of self also motivates criticism of his performances, although in a somewhat more subtle way. Audiences, especially educated ones, often listen to classical music performances to add to their knowledge. The details of the performance become part of their accumulated knowledge, as trinkets in the continuing acquisition of intellectual wealth. Standard performances promote this attitude by presenting sounds that stand as individuals, as objects. Celibidaches performances discourage it, by seductively inviting the listener in. The sounds come together, as one, indivisible, eliminating the need for a subject, and for an object. His performances invite the listeners focused consciousness on the totality of sounds alone; they seduce it, they demand it. There is no external structure to hang on to; there is only pure consciousness -- the self. For those listeners -- fearful of experiencing their own being -- who attend concerts to acquire information with which to structure their lives, Celibidache's concerts -- which force the listener into an exclusive experience of himself -- are understandably frightening.
It would be less than honest, though, to ignore some negatives. Celibidache is not without imperfections, which often serve him poorly. For instance, with his students and his orchestra he uses the old-fashioned tool of humiliation. This is partly generational. European conductors of his generation learned sarcasm and humiliation as part of the trade. I personally hated him for it at times (many of his orchestra members do likewise), and, in the process of finding my own way, have attempted to discard humiliation in favor of more effective tools. He humiliated his students, though, only if he knew they could do better, and so my hatred was never very deep or long-lived. Still, giving it up would surely result in the universal adoration from his orchestra and students that he deserves, and (I believe) is seeking deep down. This is a minor consideration though. More destructive are both the trace of paranoia and the urge to conquer that run through him and surface from time to time. He tends to see questions as attacks -- personal attacks -- and answer them accordingly. On the positive side, he will travel great distances to learn something new himself and to share his own mastery with humanity; he is extremely generous with anyone who is genuinely interested. He refuses to actively solicit new believers, secure in the knowledge that the music speaks for itself, and knowing that only those attracted of their own accord will gain something lasting. On the negative side, he often carries that refusal to an unhealthy extreme, putting off and even ridiculing some who might otherwise learn from him. He demands a kind of supplication from those newly interested in what he offers, saying essentially, "What we do here is special, and we invite you to join us, but to join us is to repudiate everything you hold near and dear." His tendency to speak in enigmas and riddles, which can have positive results with some people (myself, for example), is often carried to extremes -- at times it can seem to do more harm than good. This inclination to discourage limits his audience; it drastically reduces the number of his potential beneficiaries. And, although his Napoleonic strain is quite common (what conductor, famous or otherwise, is free of the urge for recognized supremacy), I think he would be better served to overcome it -- to invite interested minds, telling them (as I know he believes), "Our goal here is to find and share that very experience of musical beauty that drew us all to music in the first place."
But enough vinegar; suffice it to say that Sergiu Celibidache, genius of historical proportion, unyielding seeker and giver of truth, and unquenchable lover of humanity, is himself human. I write this not to excoriate him, but to honor him, and to thank him. His own activities serve me as an inspiration, as a guide, as a constant example of what is possible in human endeavor. Moreover, he gave me myself, my own way. He showed me that by honestly examining my experiences and demanding no less than the utmost of my capacity, I too, may eventually approach those possibilities. He changed my life -- made every single day of it better and more rewarding. I am thankful that such a man has walked on this earth; I cherish my contact with him; and hope that my existence does justice to his efforts.
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MARKAND THAKAR is the author of Counterpoint: Fundamentals of Music Making, (Yale University Press;1990).