1 Oct 2008
Orchestra Without Conductor
Recently I posted about a video of Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1 played by Arthur Rubinstein and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with conductor Bernard Haitink. Here is another video showing Herbert von Karajan conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major, Op. 55
He looks indispensable, but in fact the orchestra could play without him as well. He hasn’t even written the notes. Does an orchestra really need a conductor or not? As long as everyone has detailed notes and instructions, the organization is clear, and a central conductor, director or leader is not really needed. This does not mean that the system can organize itself, it only means that enough laws and rules already exist to organize the system.
Here is the same symphony directed by Claudio Abbado. You will here some minor differences – some notes are shorter – but after all it is still Beethoven who makes the music great. Neither Abbado nor Karajan manage to obscure Beethoven’s gem. The orchestra – here the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – doesn’t really need them. By the way, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra determines it’s director itself by election.
The question if an orchestra needs a central conductor is similar to the question if a company needs a CEO, a country a president or a church a bishop. My opinion is that in organizations (whether countries or companies doesn’t matter) leadership is needed especially if the company or country has just been created (to define a direction) or needs organizational change (to redefine the direction and organization). In the meantime, the CEO or president is often superfluous. Leadership is needed especially if the company or country has just been created (to define a direction) or needs organizational change (to redefine the direction and organization). In the meantime, the CEO or president is often superfluous.
If a country is newly founded, then the parliament is often quite small. During the years, it grows constantly, and the number of delegates and members gets larger every year (as well as their ample salary and their pensions, which are determined by themselves). If the country is old, it suffers from a large parliament and huge bureaucracy. It should be the opposite way round: if a country is newly founded, then the parliament needs to be large, if it is old, it can be smaller.
With companies it is similar: If a country is newly founded, then the executive board and management body is often quite small. During the years, it grows constantly, and the number of directors and managers gets larger every year (as well as their ample salary which is partially determined by themselves). Again it should be the opposite way round: if a company is newly founded, then the executive board and management body needs to be large (to work out business plans, strategies, policies and all that corporate governance stuff), if it is old and the company is running well it can be smaller.
The same argument applies to an orchestra. A conductor is certainly need at the beginning, to synchronize the start, and at the end, to synchronize the ending, and perhaps in the middle to help those who have long breaks (during “organizational change”). All the rest is basically a “show”, because all musicians have detailed notes, even for the breaks. The conductor is maybe needed before the actual performance, in order to rehearse the composition, to define the direction: to set the general tempo and speed, to modulate the volume, and to evaluate the overall sound.
In team sports, teams usually don’t organize themselves. Every team member has a clear role (for instance goal keeper – defender – midfielder – striker) determined by the coach or trainer, who also sets the overall strategy. The trainer is needed at the beginning in order to form a team, and during times of change if the team is reorganized (for example during a game if a player needs to be exchanged).
Therefore the questions remain
(1) why do orchestras have a conductor (companies
a CEO, countries a president, teams a trainer..)
if they do not really need it ?
(2) is an orchestra without a conductor (a company
without a CEO, a country without a president, a
team without a trainer..) a form of self-organization ?
The answer to the first question is perhaps that an conductor or organizer is especially needed to setup the organization. Once the organization is clarified and written down somewhere, he is no longer needed constantly, at least he does not need to be present permanently. The problem is that once they have the power to rule, the founders, managers, directors and presidents don’t want to give off/up power again. Although they are no longer needed permanently, they stay around because they are hungry for power.
There would be a more efficient method to manage a system, but it is not possible because greedy managers don’t want to give up power. The most efficient method to manage a system with a set of manager is a flexible and dynamic hierarchy. As long as no management is need, the hierarchy remains flat or empty, and the management positions are only occupied if there is really a need for management. In real life this is hardly possible, because a manager will defend his position even it is no longer necessary for the whole system: a president will defend its own position even if he not needed currently, a conductor will stress its own position even if he not necessary, and a CEO, CTO or CIO may defend its own position even it is no longer necessary for the company. This is a major drawback of self-management. Although the best way to organize something is probably to find someone who feels personally responsible for it, he may continue to stand up for it even if it the thing becomes obsolete.
The answer to the second question is no, an orchestra without a conductor may exist, but it is not necessarily a form of self-organization. The organization can also be written down somewhere, for example in form of laws, instructions, detailed notes or sheets of music. Thus if we observe a system which is like an orchestra without a conductor – for instance a living being consisting of countless cells or the brain which does not contain a central neuron that plays the role of a “conductor” – we have to be careful. Each cell follows the rules of the genes, just as each musician follows the rules of the notes. And in the brain there are several interrelated processes at work, it grows, it modulates itself, it learns, it adapts itself, and everything is stronlgy influenced and organized by the environment.
An orchestra without conductor does not always mean that the system organizes itself completely. There are many different ways to organize a system. It is certainly difficult to organize a system completely without any organizer or manager, but once you have managers, it is often difficult to get rid of them.