I hate program notes. I don’t like reading them; I don’t like writing them. So when Carnegie Hall asked me to annotate one of their upcoming concerts, I agreed without hesitation.
Believe me it was a torturous task, but hey, I needed the money. The process made me do a little soul searching on the subject, and I found that one of my biggest issues with program notes is the tethering of language and ideas to the music. I mean, who’s to say what sort of significance or meaning a piece of music has—certainly not the composer of said piece. They’re always too close to the work and usually get it all wrong, pointing out ridiculous structural relationships and silly surface details that really don’t affect a listener’s gut reaction to the music. Hmm, maybe gut reactions would be interesting to read and write about, but since everyone is different, there could never be a playbill big enough to cover any significant ground on this front.
I also think that program notes should avoid that what-to-listen-for approach. Whenever I’m required to submit program notes for my own compositions, I rarely, if ever, pontificate about specific properties in the music. I like to be oblique in an effort to provoke concepts which may or may not be associated with the music in the mind’s eye. The point is to take those listeners who choose to read someplace nonmusical, which might be convolutedly related, but without leading them to draw any conclusions that couldn’t be reached by skipping the notes altogether. Sometimes, I’ll use a singular tangential statement such as: I want to live in Paris.
But in the end it doesn’t matter, because somebody out there is going to slap some text onto your music—whether they hire some hack like me or some artistic director jots down his or her thoughts about the work, there’s no avoiding it. I recall a certain European festival that reprinted my aforementioned one-sentence program note, along with several more paragraphs about I don’t know what. In the end, if I wanted to communicate something so concrete and literal that it could be written about, I wouldn’t be scribbling a bunch of dots, lines, and musical symbols on manuscript paper.