Silent Partner

I’ve been working recently on a small set of pieces based on verbal texts: in some cases these texts are made explicit by the performers (i.e., spoken or sung); in others, the inspiration drawn from the texts simply hangs out underneath the music, so to speak, without impinging on the listeners’ consciousnesses directly. Of course, one medium in which these hidden texts could be revealed is the program note, a standard mode of tipping one’s hand when a bunch of words (written by the composer or by someone else) are putatively important to apprehending the piece. Supertitles would serve a similar function but could be timed to reinforce connections between the interior of the text and the interior of the piece. I suppose one could even have the texts recited before the piece is played—a little precious, but it would get the job done.

However, none of those possibilities appeal to me. I’m happy to design a program note to help a particular audience into a piece and supply some ancillary information—sometimes that can make all the difference between a successful listening experience and an unsuccessful one—but I’m loath to hang the whole piece itself on the note, to include content that suggests that the piece can only be understood by way of a written description. Supertitles would be too much, too distracting, and including a pre-performance poetry slam is simply out of the question. What to do?

At the crux of the dilemma, naturally, is the question of whether the difference between the piece as perceived if you know the text and the piece as perceived if you don’t know the text is significant. I suspect that in my case it probably is, so I’m thinking that a sneaky workaround might be the order of the day: When vocalists give recitals, they often include the full texts (and translations, if necessary) in the program; I could do the same thing, declining to note that in some of the pieces you won’t actually hear the text aloud. I think this may be the best compromise, as it puts the texts in a context where we expect not to need to read them—we’ll be hearing them during the pieces, after all, won’t we? (No, but that’s for me to know and them to find out.)

How have you dealt with this problem, if you’ve encountered it? Maybe there’s a cleaner end-run for yoking an instrumental piece to a text without just stapling a garden-variety program note to it.

2 thoughts on “Silent Partner

  1. danvisconti

    In another curious case of NewMusicBox synchronity I just wrote about program notes as well–only one of the kinds of text you mention, but I certainly agree that our current provisional solutions leave much to be desired.

    A few years ago I tried putting a bunch of song texts online rather than opting to print a paper program, which was replaced by a small postcard with only basic concert information, the performers’ names, and the url where I’d posted the texts. I’ve only done this once so I’m not sure whether it was ultimately a good idea or not, but it *did* at least eliminate the audience’s tendency to stay visually glued to the program rather than the great singer onstage. Given the ritualized nature of the concert, perhaps the biggest problem with including text is finding a way to do so without unduly interfering with the musical spectacle.

    Reply
  2. Jeremy Howard Beck

    Video artist?
    Great post, Colin–have you thought about commissioning (or just “commissioning”) a video artist to create a video using the text you’ve chosen, and then project the video on a screen or wall behind the performers as they play the piece? A good video artist will be able to make a video that fits your needs as far as presenting the text in a creative and not Super Obvious (i.e., supertitles) way that enhances the piece you’ve written, but without unduly distracting from the music.

    Reply

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