No More Words

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.

6 thoughts on “No More Words

  1. rtanaka

    I think program notes can be pretty helpful if it’s presented from a historical perspective…something like such and such composer wrote this piece while in the midst of doing something something… then the listener can draw their own conclusions from those given things. If they’re going to present it as something objective, maybe it’s better if they just stuck to the facts.

    Although I do generally find people’s different interpretations of music pretty interesting…maybe it’d be less scandalous if they present the notes as something personal rather than saying “this is what it is” using an objective tone of voice.

    Reply
  2. JJeffers

    For some people I’m sure the best program note would go something like:

    “There are a few things the listener should do while hearing this piece: Cock your head slightly to the side, rotate approximately ten degrees. Then un-focus your eyes and open your ears while simultaneously emptying your mind. Enjoy.”

    Reply
  3. Tom Myron

    Non-musicians love the “What to Listen For” approach. That’s probably why Copland sold so many books. They also love stories, especially funny ones.

    I heard the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra a few weeks ago. There were no program notes but Ms S. (who is both hugely talented & very charming) told a story about each piece on the program before her ensemble performed it. The stories were all about both “What to Listen For” and what her communicative goals were for the piece. The audience loved it.

    Reply
  4. Colin Holter

    I used to not write program notes because I wanted the audience to speculate about what the piece might mean rather than just reading it, but I decided to start writing them again because it’s a relatively small concession that can make a huge difference to listeners. I just make sure never to talk about technical stuff or offer too neat a conceptual package, and it seems to work out. Your mileage may vary.

    Reply
  5. gtr1971

    It all really depends on several factors surrounding the performance, such as type of venue, participating audience, and even the type of music be performed. Clearly a work of “absolute music” may warrant less explanation through program notes than “program music” (or visa versa?), and if your audience is the layman, casual listener versus an audience of edgy, artsy people or educated conservatory students – well, they all have different needs as listeners and may require more or less “leading” to help them understand and enjoy your work.

    It also absolutely helps to know if a composer created a certain piece of music under certain extra-musical conditions, such as Shostakovich may have done to artistically protest Stalin, or Beethoven hearing the “knock of Fate” in his 5th Symphony, or Bach being a devout Christian and lover of numerology, or if any New Yorker wrote a piece post-9/11. All of these factors inherently affect a composer’s output and certainly help the listener understand why (or why not) a composer did what they did. The listener can then decide whether the artist conveyed something or not.

    Having a perspective on an artist’s life surrounding his/her output can help create meaning around a piece that may otherwise not speak to the average listener – and sometimes even for the educated listener.

    Reply
  6. gtr1971

    It all really depends on several factors surrounding the performance, such as type of venue, participating audience, and even the type of music be performed. Clearly a work of “absolute music” may warrant less explanation through program notes than “program music” (or visa versa?), and if your audience is the layman, casual listener versus an audience of edgy, artsy people or educated conservatory students – well, they all have different needs as listeners and may require more or less “leading” to help them understand and enjoy your work.

    It also absolutely helps to know if a composer created a certain piece of music under certain extra-musical conditions, such as Shostakovich may have done to artistically protest Stalin, or Beethoven hearing the “knock of Fate” in his 5th Symphony, or Bach being a devout Christian and lover of numerology, or if any New Yorker wrote a piece post-9/11. All of these factors inherently affect a composer’s output and certainly help the listener understand why (or why not) a composer did what they did. The listener can then decide whether the artist conveyed something or not.

    Having a perspective on an artist’s life surrounding his/her output can help create meaning around a piece that may otherwise not speak to the average listener – and sometimes even for the educated listener.

    Reply

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