Tell Us About Yourself…No Wait, Don’t

For the most part, program notes bug me. I do, however, enjoy fondling paper in the concert hall to find out the title of a particular work and maybe read a little bit about the composer. The downside: most composer bios are dreadfully formulaic and totally irrelevant to whatever artistic motivations the composer has. Shouldn’t composer bios give us an inkling about the artist more telling than a summation of higher degrees, a rundown of esteemed composition teachers, and a list of awards and grants? Think about all the folks in the concert hall who aren’t entrenched in the new music scene. For them, all this pedigree babble is pretty much useless.

It’s no secret that most composers pen their own bios, but maybe this should stop. Perhaps composers should hire professional writers to do the job instead. Imagine if a bio actually captured the personality and artistic concerns of a composer—something like a profile piece in the features section. Thanks to a new freelance writing gig, I was recently sent some exceptional examples in the bio-cum-profile format. Check this one out. And this.

Granted, these texts are about visual artists, but the same strategies can easily be adapted for music creators, and I’ve been asked by Creative Capitol to try and do just that. I just hope that I can shed all the trappings of typical composer-bio writing and really get to the crux of the composer—the person and the work. I’m looking forward to the day when concert programs are actually an interesting read, but until that time comes, I beg of you all: come out from behind your trophy cases.

19 thoughts on “Tell Us About Yourself…No Wait, Don’t

  1. Colin Holter

    I think you’re right on the money. Most bios are boring as hell and about 75% vanity anyway – the time for a bio revolution is come.

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  2. Kyle Gann

    As a sometime professional program note writer, I spend a lot of time protecting composers from their most boring self-promotional instincts. With dead composers it’s easy – you just talk about their sex lives. But most living composers don’t seem to have very exotic sex lives, and if they do, they are burdened by an insanely self-defeating compulsion to avoid appearing in any way eccentric. And who wants to read about an artist who’s not eccentric? Composers frequently will only send me those goddamned repetitive award lists, and I have a hell of a time tricking them into telling me something interesting and usable, something that will pique listeners’ attentions and relate to the music. They’re always telling me “The music should speak for itself!,” like those Democrats who think all you need to do is put the poverty and global warming statistics into a nice graph and trust everyone to vote in a rational way.

    So, yes, composers should almost never be allowed to write their own bios. And – maybe even before they compose the music – they should all go out and have interesting enough lives to be worth writing about. The two examples you give are a program annotator’s dream, but how many composers are (or at least, will admit to being) that bizarre? To spend your life applying for awards and occasionally winning them is not good for your bio – nor, probably, for your music either.

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  3. Daniel Wolf

    Risk saying something about your music and yourself
    The problem is not simply that composers are putting out awful autobiographies, it’s that they are trying to use their academic CV’s as bios. Sorry, that just doesn’t work: your audience doesn’t need to know about your prizes and academic credentials, let alone the name of your publisher or agent. However, they may well want to know something that at least hints at why your music might be engaging to them, and they might find it useful to learn a bit about the context — musical, cultural, intellectual — from which you and your music come.

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  4. danielgilliam

    my favorite…
    my favorite composer bio line is “one of the most respected of their generation” or “highly regarded” or “internationally recognized” or “acclaimed, award-winning”… and the dramatic, black and white photo of the composer staring at manuscript paper, as though their spouse caught them in a moment of inspiration on camera, when really it was one of 36 posed shots that didn’t have the composers eyes closed.

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  5. FraKctured

    I think the visual arts bios in those links were just as annoying, if not more. (“Look how weird and eccentric I am–I must be a real artist”). Those bios where well on their way to becoming dating adds…”likes base-jumping and sunsets, preferably in that order.”
    I’m not making a case for the “award-winning internationally renowned” type of bio either, don’t get me wrong. I’m saying that this is a part of the marketing side of this “business” that is distasteful in some way no matter how you do it.
    A “Bio Revolution”? Sure–“Composer’s Unite”–but who would notice anyway?

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  6. vachon321

    Writing a more interesting bio is a wonderful idea…However, it simply isn’t practical in a lot of cases. I also don’t think the kind of over-written prose you used as an example serves composers any better than the usual CV/narrative style (a lot of people aren’t going to read the bio carefully no matter how you write it).

    In fact, that kind of prose can be downright fatuous and prententious—every bit as fatuous as the flowery phrases (“the most beloved of his/her generation…”)—I take out of the endless stream of composer and perform bios I edit.

    What would be good is a balance of both styles.

    Last, if you can find a composer or performer who has won an important award and doesn’t want it mentioned in his/her bio, please let me know. For now, I think, both kinds of information will have to be woven into a more coherent narrative—hopefully one that actually tells a story.

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  7. EvanJohnson

    There are a lot of questions going unasked here.

    Such as:

    Who is the intended audience for these things? If it’s liner notes for a CD (that has to be, after all, unwrapped and opened in order to read them), or program notes for a concert, why do they need to give a sense of what the music is like? Why can’t the music do that?

    What do they want to know about a composer? Why? Why is it more important that the reader know that the artist likes jumping off things and has three cats than that she’s won three Guggenheims?

    Anyone writing about themselves is going to come across as self-conscious. It’s inevitable. And trying to be atypical and stylish and antiestablishment will just make the result even more self-conscious than it would otherwise be. The standard awards-and-teachers-and-performers listing is just the hallowed way of trying to get the listener to take the music seriously, to give it the benefit of the doubt; and while that’s problematic, of course, obviously, it doesn’t seem to me like a sin either.

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  8. rajordahl

    bios.etc.
    Rather than hash through the usual selfserving stuff that you describe, why not a real introduction to the composer as a person?

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  9. EvanJohnson

    Rather than hash through the usual selfserving stuff that you describe, why not a real introduction to the composer as a person?

    Why? What would constitute such an introduction, and what purpose would it serve?

    To be honest, I’ve never been quite sure why these things were ever included (especially in concert program notes) in the first place. Notes on the music, sure; but…

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  10. jbunch

    Maybe since there are a plethora of different types of people who come to a concert (and hopefully not just music eggheads like us) they would be interested in not only hearing why and a little of how you wrote the piece, but also a little something that helps to paint you more or less as a person not unlike themselves – rather than as a narcissistic show-horse or a base-jumping mountain-dew commercial?

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  11. hausorob

    It seems like there’s two ideas being painted with the same brush here. Bios themselves can be dry, but a bio in a concert program should give the audience a thumbnail sketch of where the composer came from and how did he/she get to where they are now. Those I don’t have a problem with, since performer and conductor bios are usually the same if not worse.

    The irritation comes not with the bio of the composer, but with the program notes about the work. It’s one thing to be self-concious about one’s own history, but a composer should be able to give the audience a glimpse of the piece through the composer’s own viewpoint – whether it be through a process description, an anecdotal narrative about what caused the piece to be written or any number of methods. I’ve had to compile plenty of notes for programs and there’s nothing lamer than a one sentence description of the piece – if anything, there should be a paragraph about the piece and a single sentence about the composer!

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  12. EvanJohnson

    if anything, there should be a paragraph about the piece and a single sentence about the composer!

    Yes, this is precisely what I am trying to say. “Why the composer wrote the piece” belongs in the program note. Bios are there because people always ask for bios, nothing more.

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  13. Colin Holter

    I’m not sure I agree. I’m anti-program-note – I’d rather read a bio that will allow me to place the piece in question in the context of a composer’s musical and extramusical interests (even, if central to that composer’s aesthetic, base-jumping) than a program note explaining an individual piece’s technical constitution or conceptual program.

    If a composer’s music is, as Joji Yuasa proposed, an extension of his or her cosmology, I’d rather investigate the cosmology than read about the music – a top-down approach, so to speak.

    On the other hand, maybe most listeners just want an instruction manual for listening, and I suppose that’s understandable.

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  14. Rob Deemer

    On the other hand, maybe most listeners just want an instruction manual for listening, and I suppose that’s understandable.

    I don’t see notes as a manual – not as much explaining how to hear the piece, but rather to put the piece into a context for the listener to start from. You’d be able to tell more about a composer by how they describe their work than their C.V., err…bio.

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  15. MattDavignon

    As an events curator for a “new music” venue, this has been the most trying element of what I do. Most of the bios we receive from artists contain only the info I tend to ignore as a music fan – colleges, awards, and a list of every person the artist has ever worked for. This is great for seeking a grant (I think), but in the context of promoting a show it just fills up space. In about half the bios I get, there’s no indication that the subject even makes music.

    This trend is mindblowing to me
    The original post suggests that musicians shouldn’t be allowed to write their own bios. Unfortunately in most cases that would mean that a bio doesn’t get written. (Especially with the non-funded artists what we often work with.)

    So, if you’re an artist who needs to (re)write your own, let’s start here: What makes your music unique from all the other music that’s out there? How do you make it? Why do you like it? Write down some adjectives and phrases for qualities people will hear in your work, and work that up into a few sentences.

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  16. EvanJohnson

    So, if you’re an artist who needs to (re)write your own, let’s start here: What makes your music unique from all the other music that’s out there? How do you make it? Why do you like it? Write down some adjectives and phrases for qualities people will hear in your work, and work that up into a few sentences.

    Well, that’s all well and good, but that’s not a bio at all. That’s what seems to be generally called an “artistic statement,” which is entirely different – and in my opinion that’s the sort of information that’s more germane to a program note anyway.

    If I’m asked for a “bio,” I provide the standard paragraph or two of boilerplate info that’s getting abused in this thread – performances, awards, performers, degrees, etc. I’m aware that it’s not scintillating reading, and the only reason I read those of others is to make myself feel insecure. I’d be happy, instead, to provide something along the lines of the above, as a statement of artistic interests, or what have you – but nobody’s ever asked for that!

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  17. JKG

    Composer credentials…
    It is the legacy of recent decades that now the only “real” composers are the ones with academic pedigree. This, of course, is meant to filter out those lamentable sentimentalists and their pathetic clinging to tonal conventions. However, wouldn’t it be something if serious composers came along who not only disdained all or most of the “intellectual” posturing of the past fifty years, and were in possession of virtually no academic credentials at all? If the only valid criterion for great music is one’s schooling and academic acheivements, then we may as well get rid of ninety per cent of all the “great” composers in the standard repertoire. Personally, I think the proof is in the music – the reason many academics pile on their degrees and other unmusical information, is because they tend to lack the talent to communicate musically.

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  18. kacattac

    Notes
    My problem is that I’m not interested in reading ANYTHING when I’m at a performance. I got to this point after having a performance ruined for me by reading program notes that indicated the piece would have two easily distinguishable sections, then spending the entire piece waiting for the second section (which evidently I missed entirely). About bios, it is true, most people at the concert don’t care about awards; nonetheless, the consquences for not playing along with the name dropping might actually be worse. I just don’t think personal lives are relevant, but I’m obviously in the minority, even among those who claim to be composers. Whether I or someone else writes the bio, I can only cross my fingers that everyone will wait until after the concert to read it.

    Reply

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