Archive for June, 2011

Working together in harmony

June 29, 2011 1 comment

Almost any book on any subject will have a nugget or two within its pages, often quite tangential to the main subject. While reading Ken Auletta’s Googled on my morning commute I found a fascinating page or so on the unexpected subject of orchestral conducting.

This describes a presentation made by the Israeli conductor Itay Talgam on how a conductor “make[s] a large group of people work in harmony”. He picked on five great conductors, the first three of whom he dismissed – Riccardo Muti (a stern and joyless micromanager), Richard Strauss (no authority, no inspiration) and Herbert von Karajan (uninspiring – surprisingly given his reputation). He then moved on to Carlos Kleiber, suggesting that his more emotional style gave a feeling of freedom to the orchestra but also conveyed authority.

Auletta then devotes a long paragraph to Talgam’s opinion of his favourite conductor, Leonard Bernstein and a clip of him directing a makeshift orchestra formed from students from around the world to play Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Inevitably, the first day of practice was discordant

but Bernstein did not wield his baton as a symbol of his “authority,” Talgam noted. Instead, he stopped the music and spoke of the feelings Stravinsky sought to evoke, of the smell of spring grass, of waking animals. “He empowers people,” Talgam said, “by telling them that their world is larger than they think.” Cut to a week later, and the high school orchestra sat attentively before Bernstein who looked on with obvious satisfaction as an assembly of young strangers achieved musical harmony. Without a baton, arms folded, Bernstein conducted only with facial expressions… Bernstein was the boss, but he was not an autocrat. He managed to coax the best out of his orchestra, to make them part of a community. (p.285)

This led me to reflect for the last few minutes of my journey into work and the role of a conductor and how he can inspire his group of musicians, and drawing parallels with any other kind of manager or team leader trying to get a group to work together harmoniously.

I last played in an orchestra at university, but I have sung in choirs a lot since then under many different choirmasters, and it’s true how the better ones are able to give the choir the confidence to interpret the music for themselves. They also make it just so much more enjoyable. Ideally, a confident choir (or orchestra) ought to be able to perform a piece without a conductor at all, by listening to each other and being able to rely on each other. The conductor can then add finesse to the performance, rather than just having to keep everything together.

On the other hand I have sung in choirs where there has been a lot of hesitancy, where some of the singers have held back for fear of criticism of making a mistake; this makes it no fun at all. Sometimes the lead from the conductor is unclear and it goes off the rails easily – I’ve even seen some cases where the conductor follows the group, not the other way round.

As with a project team, so much depends on the style and authority of the leader (in this case the conductor). However, one thing that is so much more obvious is how an inspirational conductor can get a better performance out of the same group of musicians as one who fails to inspire, even if the latter is more knowledgeable. The success or failure of a conductor may be very much more public than most IT projects but in many ways the challenge is the same.


Ken Auletta (2009), Googled, Virgin Books, London, paperback edition

Categories: Work Tags: ,

The 1930’s semi – the true image of London

June 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Think of a building to symbolise London and you are likely straight away to think of the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London or St Paul’s Cathedral. Thinking a bit more about what London looks like, you might think of the modern offices of the City, or the busy shopping streets in the West End.

Films often show Londoners as living in stucco-clad Victorian terraces in the smartest districts of Kensington or Chelsea, or maybe brick Victorian villas in almost as fashionable North London areas like Hampstead or Islington. More gritty films and TV dramas tend to focus on run-down inner city council estates in places like Bermondsey or Hackney.

All these images portray different faces of London to the visitor, but the most typical London environment of all is rarely noticed – interwar suburbia – with its ubiquitous 1930’s semi.

They are common all over England, especially the south east; suburban London consists of swathes of nearly identical streets of nearly identical houses. Anywhere in outer London, the majority of the built up area consists of houses like this; Enfield, Ruislip, Kingston, Bromley, Romford.

Usually with three bedrooms (though often the third is little more than a box room), sometimes a little larger or smaller, or grander or plainer, they are always built in the same slightly oddly proportioned style – whether mock-Tudor, plastered, pebbledashed or plain brick. The properties advertised for sale in any outer London estate agent will give a full range of examples; here is a house in Hornchurch which, unusually, retains its original windows.


Interwar London semi-detached house

Private developers enabled the massive growth of the 1930s as Londoners moved out in their droves in search of the country, which was promptly built up as soon as they got there. This rapid expansion was only halted by the outbreak of war which gave a pause for long enough for the Green Belt Act to be passed, so the edge of London today remains more or less where it had reached in 1939. For example, the population of Chislehurst and Sidcup Urban District grew from 20,493 to 83,850 between 1931 and 1951 – almost all of this would have been before 1939.

I grew up in a house like this, as did most of my friends at school; and in a quite different part of London, so did my wife. For me, this is the true image of London.


The Rise of the Semi by James Brennan, A short article on the design of a typical semi-detached house.

Another article, The Rise of the Semi-detached House looking at the Kent town of Dartford, officially just outside Greater London now but part of its interwar suburban sprawl.

An audio/slideshow, Semi-detached London – 1930s Suburbia putting 1930’s suburbia in its social context. The site also has a wide selection of images of London on this and other subjects.

1930's suburbia, Romford

1930's suburbia, Romford

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