This week I received another urgently-worded request for program notes from a venue that is supporting the premiere of a new work in February. I’ve become quite accustomed to emails requesting last-minute notes over the past few years, usually bearing colorful subject lines such as “SOS Visconti” or “Visconti premiere(happening?)”, and with good reason: I abhor writing program notes and absolutely resist doing so up until the last possible minute. Program notes have always been a perennial source of anxiety—profound, crippling, Brian Wilson-level anxiety—especially as I became a more frequent participant in the classical music community’s oddly fetishized program notes culture, both as an audience member and on occasion as an eager young annotator myself.
My beef with program notes has to do with the kind of thinking and culture that they encourage. While it’s certainly helpful to have some context for a new work, there must be a better way than our current paradigm, which somewhat resembles a detailed spoiler-laden movie review which we’re obligated to pour over studiously in preparation for some test that will never happen. Savvy presenters subconsciously realize this when they encourage brief pre-concert introductions or post-concert gatherings as a means of communicating context to an audience, but oftentimes they retain the selfsame printed program notes such talks are intended to replace. This practice has become so prevalent that I now find myself obligated to prepare two sets of program notes: one for the printed program, and another for verbal delivery to an audience that may or may not have read the printed notes as well. That’s a lot of wasted verbal shrink-wrap; just imagine, though, the confusion and dismay if even a single audience member managed to make it to the downbeat unmolested by the kind of over-analysis that next generation’s eager brigade of artistic staff think is helping to save ticket sales, but isn’t. It’s true that some people are occasionally put off by a lack of information and grounding context when they face new aural experiences, but it’s at least equally true that packaging and obscuring every new and vital musical experience with a palliative explanatory caption is offensive to other kinds of sensibilities as well. The orchestra can wear jeans and all that, but if performing organizations are seriously looking to cater to their audience’s very real desire for less rigidity and greater authenticity, maybe handing out a little book with essays that are tacitly implied to be the last, best word on the program isn’t the best way to drum up the awe of exploration. Why do we seem to assume that audiences will only be interested in music if already know everything beforehand?
The program note format also continues to haunt me in grant applications, which frequently request a “project proposal” or some other such dark-sounding statement: in essence, program notes written in future tense. While it’s certainly critical for an applicant composer to be able to articulate his or her vision for a work, I have several times found myself a bit at odds with commissioning organizations who felt that my final product veered too far off the course laid out in the initial proposal; I’ve since realized that I can’t in good faith accept support from organizations that require a very strict, paint-by-numbers realization of written proposals since the best part of composing is often where the music chooses to take you. Perhaps there’s some tie-in here with the widely-reported phenomenon of pieces which appear to have been written backwards from their program notes, like the next blockbuster movie reverse-engineered from its promo poster.
Why does the program note (and its variations including the project proposal) hold such a position of prominence and power in our musical landscape? It’s become such a prevalent means through which the composer is expected to communicate (both to juries of his or her peers as well as audiences of non-musicians) that I often wonder if the practice doesn’t stem from more than a little bit of fear; fear on the part of composers that their music will not be taken seriously or even listened to without an explanatory preamble, and fear on the part of concertgoers who have been trained to avoid direct, disconcerting experiences with the unknown at all costs.