Wednesday, July 17, 2013
This work is based on a true story as fictionalised in a made-for-TV movie as reinterpreted in an evening-length dance performed by swans and handpuppets
One of the common turns or tricks used for program or liner note in recent music is that in which the composer identifies his or her work as based on X [where X = some story, novel, painting, dance, film, poem, sculpture, installation, video, TV or radio serial, building, mathematical/physical/biological property, function or feature, philosophical idea, etc., take your pick] and this reference may, in some cases, be interesting, useful, provocative or otherwise of value to the reader-who's-about-to-become-a-listener. Composers are frequently interesting people with non-trivial interests in any or all of these things, and sometimes these interests get wrapped up in non-trivial ways with their compositional production. But not always. Sometimes a reference like this can come off as obscure, unhelpful, or even appear to be pretentious to the reader-who's-about-to-become-a-listener. (Let's face it, many composers are sometimes, often, or even always obscure, unhelpful, and/or pretentious. (And yes, you may indeed count this composer in this number) so holding this quality in check can be a useful social skill.) While I will grant the possibility that it is, in a very few, limited situations, appropriate to be suggestively obscure or playfully misleading about a work of music, and to be suggestive or playful in a program note is certainly fair game, allow me to advise some moderation in this. If a work is based on X, and knowing that a work is based on X may be useful for the reader-who's-about-to-become-a-listener, then fire away, let us know all about your X life. But if this based on X relationship is buried deep in the DNA or algorithm of a work of music, consider leaving this referend buried as well. Now, this isn't to say that a program note can't most usefully detach itself from the piece of music, one step away as metaphor, or further around the field as a minor league literary diversion, or a bit of misdirection to keep the reader-who's-about-to-become-a-listener in suspense, or just a bit of light reading (how about a poem or a good recipe?) to keep the reader-who's-about-to-become-a-listener occupied while waiting for a piece that really wants no introduction.