A Thousand Shades of Grey

I just finished reading Chuck Palahniuk’s outstandingly glib novel Invisible Monsters (this is by the same author as Fight Club.) The central character here is a model who has been left grotesquely disfigured after an accident. Palahniuk offers a flippant and profane skewering of our culture’s obsession with looks. It is hilarious and unsettling.

One of the repeated motifs in the book is a kind of shorthand that succinctly conveys how the main character feels about various things happening in the story. It is a throwback to her time working for photographers. For example:

Give me rage.


Give me my old life back.


Give me new parents.


It occurred to me that having a particular vocabulary like a photographer could be helpful when rehearsing an orchestra.

Give me fragile.

Give me obscene.  

(But of course, as a sensitive and diplomatic conductor, you might say instead, ‘Can it somehow be more fragile…can you make it obscene.’)  

I got to thinking about the adjectives we have for our emotions, and that they usually don’t do justice to the experience. As humans, our emotional lives are very rich and what we feel is almost always the confluence of several different things at once. Take your birthday as an example. There is the happiness of being spoiled and made a fuss over (or the sorrow of neglect), combined with a vague sense of dread about getting older (or the achievement of another year under your belt when you’re very young), combined with introspection and the resultant satisfaction or disappointment about your accomplishments in the last year. A veritable matrix of interacting subtlety!  Do you think you could read all that from someone’s facial expression in a still photo?

Give me five intersecting layers of complexity.


I had an old Hungarian conducting teacher who used to stop us while we were working with an ensemble and say, ‘What is your intention here?’ That question left most of us dumbstruck. We didn’t know how to answer it because we hadn’t thought about it. At that stage, we were struggling just to learn the music, and then we were trying to flap our hands about in some vaguely meaningful way. We were inexperienced young conductors, and like babies learning to walk, having a deeper artistic intention was the last thing on our minds. We didn’t yet ask the kind of questions I have been asking throughout this blog series like, ‘What was the composer trying to express?’

Nowadays, that is mainly what I think about. Now the notes exist as a portal to get us into the expressive and emotional world of the composer. They are not the end in themselves.      

The music that we have been talking about in this blog, those great masterworks of the orchestral literature, all have one thing in common: they strive to explore that subtlety. Very few composers are content to paint in broad brushstrokes, most want to examine the in-between, the elusive, the intangible, and the ineffable. This is because it mirrors our experience of life in the world. Nothing is cut and dried, or black and white. Instead, we inhabit a thousand shades of grey.   

Kirsten Hicks