Copyright © Markand Thakar, 1998
Commentary for National Public Radio, Performance Today
First Aired, August 26, 1998

Tribute to Celibidache


These riddles show up over and over in the notes from my studies with Sergiu Celibidache. As I wrote them down I certainly wasn't sure what they meant, or what they had to do with making music, or with conducting. Over time -- years of studying and thinking and writing and doing music -- many such questions, and answers, have revealed themselves.

My first contact with Celibidache came in 1981. I was an eager, and somewhat cocky conducting student, and I had heard about Celibidache, so I traveled to Munich to see what the fuss was all about. Well, it was eye-opening, and ear-opening, and mind-opening, and life-changing. Never had I known such sounds -- never had I imagined such sounds. I found a music that grabbed me, transported me: a sublime, spiritual, transcendent experience.

How so? How was this different? - because it was different, something beyond even the standard high-quality concerts I was accustomed to. Way beyond.

Maybe the most important difference about Celibidache was the goal. Every piece or movement should lead to a continuous, uninterrupted, indivisible experience of this most exalted condition of the human consciousness. All the time. That condition is characterized by a loss of self, as in "I completely lost myself in the experience." Exactly! For the entire duration of a movement, I should have an uninterrupted, sublime, transcendent experience. During this 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."

How does this happen? Doing music involves a composer, a performer and a listener. For Celibidache, the listener's job is to empty all extraneous thoughts and open his or her consciousness to the sounds. The composer's job is to lay out a landscape of sonic relationships. And the performer's is to bring sounds to life in such a way that the highest experience is possible. Precisely how? We can't say - we don't know. We know only that the sounds must come to us as indivisible. They must come to our consciousness as joined. Outside of our consciousness there is no music, there are only sounds. The music is nowhere. It is no thing. We can't touch it or see it - we don't even hear the music - we hear the sounds. And if the sounds come to us in a way that allows us to absorb them, to become them, then the highest state of music results for us. So: "MUSIC IS NOTHING. SOUND COULD BECOME MUSIC."

Although we can't say precisely how the sounds must come into being to join in our consciousness, we know when they do NOT. So for Celibidache, rehearsals were to remove obstacles - to reduce multiplicities down to one. We fix out-of-tune playing to reduce conflicting intonation systems into one. "No! Too flat. No! Too sharp. Ahh, yessss!! Just so." We fix faulty ensemble to reduce conflicting temporal systems. And also balance: "Cellos, No! Join the violas, don't dominate them. Why so? You didn't listen? Wake up! Bongiorno! Again. - - Aaaaahhh -- Yes!! It is so." Another multiplicity evaporates. Celibidache's was not the customary process of teaching the orchestra his "interpretation" and drilling them in technical excellence. His was to bring every musician to an understanding of his or her function within the totality of the sounds. A critical and unique component of Celibidache's music-making was his awareness of energy. Every sound exists only as long as it fights the inevitable return to silence. So sound is energy; every musical articulation -- every phrase, every section, every whole work or movement -- is defined by a creation of energy and a release of that energy. With what inflections of volume must we unfold a phrase so that the sounds join? With what orientations of tempo must we unfold an entire movement so that it comes to us as one - one large-scale gathering and playing out of energy. And ultimately, when all the conditions exist, and we are open to the experience, the entire continuum of sounds becomes for us one, indivisible, simultaneous. If our conscious experience has not been broken, the first sound still exists for us during the sounding of the last. The first sound shapes and gives meaning to our experience of the last sound, just as the last sound shapes our experience of the first. Thus: "THE END MUST BE IN THE BEGINNING, AND THE BEGINNING IN THE END."

Oh, Celibidache had his detractors. Many performers and listeners are heavily invested in the status quo; and many come to music for something other than a sublime transcendent experience. These of course were never his constituents. Compounding the problem was more than a hint of paranoia which resulted in his pushing people away who otherwise might have benefited.

But suffice it to say that Sergiu Celibidache, genius of historical proportion, was himself human. I speak today to honor his memory, and to thank him. His activities served me as a constant example of what is possible in human endeavor. Moreover, he gave me myself, my own way. He showed me that by examining my experiences openly 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 better and more rewarding. I am deeply sad that he has passed from this earth; I am deeply grateful for my contact with him; and I hope that my existence does justice to his efforts.

Close This Window