Sunday, July 10, 2011

Exploding Program Notes!

One of the legends of my college years was of a composition student before me* who had printed the programs for his senior recital on conjuror's flash paper so that when the programs were first opened, each would literally go up in a flash of smoke. For another recital, given by the composer Steed Cowart, the host was kind enough to fill the program with interesting reading material, including (IIRC) a nice passage from Ulysses, some fascinating information about arthropods, and a tasty Moroccan recipe. Steed provided this material as a complement to the musical program, not an explanation, just good stuff to read.

Musicians and audiences go round and round about program notes. Are they informative or explanatory? Is informative or explanatory necessary? Are they a distraction (from the music, for better or worse)? Is there a minimum or maximum of information a program ought to have, i.e. minimum: personnel and titles of pieces, maximum probably somewhat less than a dissertation. (German program books often approach scholarly quality, but then German opera houses and radio stations usually have musicologists on staff (in the opera as dramaturgs) or on call who are hired to thoroughly research and write their articles.)

Lou Harrison insisted on attaching music stands to his homemade gamelan instruments, in contrast to traditional practice in which notation, if used, was discretely hidden from audience view, quipping that he didn't want to watch a gamelan onstage with all of the players continuously "staring at their crotches." At the opera recently, I noticed a few audience members reading their lap-stationed programs with help of the light from the their mobile phone screens. (To the best of my knowledge, the live-twittered concert or opera has not yet come into practice here**.) This was distracting and not pretty. I guess, if I had my drothers and a bit of stage magical skill, I'd have programs that went up in flames immediately before the performance began and miraculously reconstituted themselves when the lights came up again.

As to the content of program notes, if or how technical they should be, or whether they should be more intellectual and abstract or more personal and concrete (or the other way around), all I can say is go with your own strengths as a writer and don't bother us with dropping names (whether of persons met, institutions occupied or prizes bestowed). If your strength is in depth and expansion, then have courage to write more, if your strength is in concision, then make it less. If your words aspire to poetry, then a dose (keep it modest) of poetry may do us good, while words more technical or theoretical should be rationed in measures appropriate for the audience at hand. And yes, if you cannot or will not summon words to accompany your music, that's okay, too, your job description does not include the provision of anything more than the score and your score may well not want for the company of words.

* One of the facts of being a Santa Cruz student in the late 70s and early 80s was that one was ever among the belated, and not among the originals, the legendary, wild ones of the late 60s and early 70s. Of course, that was only legend, and we did have the one advantage of belatedness, which was the gift of retrospect, under the graces of which we were invited, no, required, to be innovative, even more wild, and indeed, when we succeeded, we could ourselves provide ample stuff for the legends of those of the real belated years, which I reckon run from the late 80s until now.
** A good thing ithinks, because although the live commentary does offer the possibility of interesting enhancements and counterpoints to the musical event (which I've blogged about here before), it seems a natural development that once this comes into play, with live cell phones in hand, many audience members will inevitably take up channel hopping, away from the concert feeds, and eventually be doing anything but paying attention to the concert. As something of a free speech absolutist, I don't see any reasonable argument around this, but recognizing the real potential for disturbing the shared concert, see no alternative to polite and civil encouragement for shutting the things off, or even, gently reminding of that special hell set aside for those who talk in theatres.

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