Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Your regularly scheduled program

My feverish son is home for a couple of days, which means that my studio is keeping its nighttime job as his bedroom for the moment, leaving me with a bit of time to read and blog. I should be reading Mahler, but I got sidetracked by my wife's gift of Anthony Bourdain's latest, an all-too-absorbing account of his post-fame life. As an enthusiastic home cook and armchair food critic, I just can't resist this stuff. No, I won't be auditioning for Finland's upcoming version of MasterChef, though less due to of lack of time than out of a proper sense of shame at the raised eyebrows from my degree supervisors should I choose to go on a reality show instead of finishing my thesis. Also, I couldn't hack the restaurant lunch shift challenge.

I've also been distracted by my addiction to news, and yesterday this story about a study on the usefulness of program notes was the source of much online chatter. In that charmingly sensationalist manner of much latter-day American journalism, the headline boldly announces that program notes aren't helpful in experiencing music, which of course makes me bristle as a freelance program annotator. Based on the actual conversation about the study, it would seem that the conclusions it reaches, and the implications thereof, are far more prosaic and diffuse. I can't access the full study from here, but it seems to me that it shows largely that purple prose about an isolated passage of music isn't helpful to 16 undergraduates in Arkansas with no musical training, far from a black-and-white assertion that program notes are a hindrance to the enjoyment of music. Far more interesting and complex would be to hear how different types of program note affect the experience of music for different types of listener, the content-vs-context part of the equation. That's something I find more fascinating than the reductive approach seemingly used here. Any takers?

However, critiquing a study I can't read in full isn't my purpose. I'm more reacting to the radio conversation than anything else, and am sure the full study is far more nuanced. The real point is to address in some way the various functions program notes can have for the people involved in the creation and reception of music. It's a difficult balancing act, what to say, how to say it, which aspects of a piece to focus on, which to leave out. It goes without saying that you can't ever say everything about a piece in a program note, no matter how much space you're given. The type of piece – contemporary or classic, warhorse or historical curiosity – as well as the intended audience also influence what can and should be said. Writing about music that is familiar on some level to most listeners changes how you can approach it to a program note. An unfamiliar or brand new piece requires a different tone.

All this is obvious, but I think of program notes differently depending on which hat I'm wearing at the time. Of course, my most extensive experience wearing any of them is with new music. However, as a concert-goer, I tend to glaze over and snore whenever anyone writes about structure, form, thematic development, or focus too closely on tiny details of material elaboration. Likewise, I chafe when composers talk endlessly of philosophical mumbo-jumbo that has precious little to do with the actual sounding experience of the piece at hand. (Kyle Gann mercilessly parodied this type of note in a post a few years ago, though I regret his use of a Finnish-sounding ersatz composer name, as program notes here tend to be humble, self-effacing and overwhelmingly focused on formal aspects rather than airy-fairy post-structuralist aesthetic ideas.) Tell me a story about the composer's life while writing the piece, though, and I'm yours. I could care less about motivic elaboration in Julian Anderson's Symphony, but I loved finding out that the compositional process was catalyzed for him by viewing an Akseli Gallèn-Kallela painting of Lake Keitele at the National Gallery in London. The fact that I had a similar experience with that same painting only adds to the piece. Did knowing this create expectations about the music? Sure, but I would have like the piece regardless, and only found this tidbit clarified some of his choices for me. In the local context of Finland, that information would be helpful to a lot of people, since pretty much everyone knows that particular painting (and would dearly like to see it come home, I think, but that's another story).

Dealing with an older, more widely known piece, I don't want to read about the thematic processes at work in Mahler's second symphony, but knowing that the sacred atmosphere of the end was so important to him that he went and bought a set of church bells for the premiere is the stuff of listener dreams for me. In short, I don't want to be guided through the temporal process of listening to the piece, to be told what to listen for and when. That does ruin the experience for me as an average listener, to be walked through it in a linear fashion, because it disrupts the non-linear, atemporal aspect of music's communicativeness, the way it bombards you with meaning and experience on so many different sensory levels, independently of temporal flow, creating associations through memory and subtle triggers of pitch, rhythm and timbre, leaving some things unsaid. What I want to know is what the piece can be said to mean. I don't care that it may not mean the same thing to me, but I want to know what someone thinks of it. It's not that I need to be told how to think of it, but I appreciate having a window into the music from someone else's perspective. Having a foil against which to form my own opinion is helpful to me, as I suspect it is to many others.

And that's really what a program note is, a window into an artform that many people have difficulty approaching and orienting themselves within because of the temporal nature of the experience. Give me something to hang onto, an idea to give me some direction, not as to the structural detail of the piece, but to what the piece is trying to articulate – assuming it's trying to be articulate.

Which is why, as a program annotator, it drives me into fits of blind rage when composers refuse to say anything about their pieces, and won't supply information to those who try. Don't want to say anything about your piece? Fine, but let others write about it as they wish. (You may laugh, but I've seen program notes stating plainly that composer X doesn't describe their music. Now that's unhelpful, and frankly lazy on the part of the annotator. What's the composer gonna do, sue you for writing something about their work? Respect the creator, but also respect the listener by giving them something to chew on.) If I'm writing notes for an orchestra concert and can easily access your score and a recording, I'll of course give your piece a hearing and come up with something on my own that's meaningful to the average listener – always my intended reader when I write notes. But if I'm writing an entire festival book and have 70 words to devote to your piece on one concert? Sorry, but you're S.O.L. If you refuse to provide me with material, I won't write about your piece. To suggest that music can't be encompassed in mere words is simply facetious. If a listener wants to know what you think of your piece, wants to get to know you through means other than hearing your music, why would you deny them that opportunity? It seems niggardly, a hoarding of meaning unto oneself, and makes no sense to me, unless non-communication is your goal, which I sincerely doubt.

I might as well come clean and say that, as a composer, I consider program notes extremely important in the compositional process, a part of communication that I'm unwilling to forsake in the name of not shaping people's opinion. I consider them so important that I frequently write them before writing the piece. It's odd, I know, but it helps me form an idea of what I want the piece to be. I edit them as I go, but reducing what I'm trying to say through the piece to a short text helps crystallize the ideas for me. If it's such an important part of my creative process, why would I suppress that to the listener, placing on them the sole responsibility of figuring out something I barely understand myself? Of course I'm trying to shape their opinion of the piece. I want people to like my music. I like writing, and on my better days I'm pretty good at it. I think long and hard about what to say about my pieces, and what I think people would like to read about them. I fancy that people read them, enjoy them, and it adds to their experience of the piece and helps them get a little more into it, and a little more out of it. I've been won over by a program note before, why shouldn't others? A tune I might otherwise consider schlocky may be more palatable if I knew the composer had just become a parent. I know the feeling that brings, why shouldn't I relate to that in a piece?

Ultimately, though, my window analogy holds up. That's all a program note really is, a glimpse into the world of the piece, and no more relevant to the experience of music than that. It can be helpful or not, depending on the individual listener as much as on the note. You can write whatever you want, but in the end listeners can't be told what to think about a piece unless they let themselves. But to deny the importance of program notes, or worse, to reduce it to an equation free of context, if x then y, is simplistic. Not that the above study does that. It's more of an effect of the reductive tendency of media exposure than any conclusion the study itself reaches, a point alluded to by its author, and unfortunately glossed over in the editing. I'm sure some people find program notes a hindrance, just as some people find filling out a few questions with the goal of better governance intrusive. But I'd wager that, in this age when musical literacy and familiarity with the repertoire are declining even in highly literate places like Finland, audiences will appreciate any lifeline thrown to them in their attempt to orient themselves within our work. And I will always be happy to throw it to them, in any form they find helpful.