Does it seem a little odd that our concert-going experiences involve so much reading? Granted, program notes are great when bored stiff only 5 minutes into a piece, especially prose written by the composers themselves. Whether pontificating about some anecdotal detail or obsessing on certain musical elements, these mini-manifestoes always provide insight, though not so much in the way we hear the music unfolding. I mean, we all understand the inner workings of music in our own special ways and that’s how it ought to be, so I don’t go looking for any musical epiphanies or great wisdoms of logic to be imparted by these texts. Program notes, more often than not, are simply windows into the personality of their creators, rather than the reliable listening roadmaps they claim to be. To be honest, I wish more composers would riff about what happened, say, last Tuesday rather than explain musically how this follows this, and this comes in, which relates to that… snore. And what’s so important about all that stuff anyway? Give me an ad hoc context instead, even if it’s cryptic.
Personally, I like to treat my own program notes like an extension of a work’s title, something enigmatically interesting, yet somehow related to the music. Of course presenters are often frustrated when my efforts don’t exactly fit their mold. For last year’s Global Ear Festival, my program note simply read: I want to live in Paris. Six words, that’s it. When I composed This May Not Be Music, those six words precisely captured what the piece was all about. Of course when the program book arrived from Dresden with a few extra paragraphs tacked on, I refused to get upset about whatever was written, and luckily I don’t read German. Regardless of what was printed, I can assure you it wasn’t necessary or even relevant to the music’s performance.
At the London premiere of This May Not Be Music in December 2001, a time when weasel-hating Americans were enjoying “freedom fries,” my references—musical, political, program note and title-wise—were obvious. Now a few years down the road, the whole package has grown oblique, but so what? Shouldn’t the music be hermetically complete in and of itself? The fact that I’m a Francophile and won’t allow the piece to be performed on American soil should never trump the music itself. Any piece of music that relies on a lengthy explanation as the key to its enjoyment, to me, hints that something is out of whack. I’m not suggesting an end to program notes, maybe just a tweak in focus. Besides, who wants to be stuck in a crowded concert hall without anything to fan themselves when things get a little stuffy.