Thursday, May 01, 2008

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture"




Erin raises the subject of programme notes. It's something that I've thought about a bit over the years, not least because I've written a few myself, both for my own and other composers' music.

And the conclusion I've reached is this: most of them are a complete and utter waste of time.

I can't remember the first one I wrote, but I suspect a big factor in my starting to do them is that you're expected to do them for your own pieces if you're a composer. And most composers are terrible at it. I went to an spnm workshop on this very subject once, and some of the examples given were astonishing in their obtuse unreadability.

There's a basic problem, in that the way you think about a piece when you're writing it is almost exactly the opposite of how you perceive the same piece as a listener. One often gets the impression that many young composers are treating their note as an exercise for their musical analysis class.

It's not just composers who are bad at this. When I think of the times I heard Stockhausen discuss his music, and compare his clear, simple, lucid introductions to the reams of obfuscatory rubbish I've seen written by others about it, it's no wonder he ha a reputation as incomprehensible to anyone without a PhD in music and mathematics.

There's no point in putting musical analysis into a programme note. it's almost entirely irrelevant. Those who can understand such things don't need to be told about it, and those who can't, well, can't, so why confuse them further? it's distracting, confronted with Schoenberg, say, to be told to play spot the tone-row when what you should be concentrating on is the emotional import of the piece.

Tovey wrote wonderful pieces of musical analysis that are held up as exemplary programme notes, but what's rarely pointed out is that these wonderful essays were sent out to subscribers weeks before the concert they related to. There's an argument for bringing that back, of course,. but in the context I'm thinking of - the interested layman sitting in his or her seat waiting for the concert to start - it's way too much to take in.

I'm also confused by this habit of writing long descriptions of what happens in the piece. I don't want to know the plot of a book or film before my first encounter with it, why should I be denied the excitement of finding my own way through a piece of music?

What does help is context. It's good to know where the composer was coming from when he/ she wrote; so in the note I've just finished* for Strauss's Alpine Symphony I've talked a lot about the influences of Nietzsche's Anti-Christ and Strauss's friendship with the recently deceased Mahler. I also like to put in any odd facts I may discover relating to the composer of the piece, simply because I like that sort of thing. What I want to do is write something that is actually enjoyable to read and puts you in the world of the music and puts you in the mood for it. I like to put a bit of humour in as well, if possible. A lot of people feel like there's a barrier between them and this fancy-dan classical music stuff, and a joke or two helps reduce that, I hope.

So, my rules for a successful programme note, partly influenced by Orwell's six rules of journalism:

  • Talk about historical context
  • Put in something unusual or entertaining about composer or piece, the more trivial the better.
  • Don't use any technical musical terms.
  • Don't write descriptions of the music, except in the most general terms
  • It's acceptable to mention something specific near the end of the piece, so the listener will know they're near the end.
  • Entertain the reader.
  • If at all possible don't mention the actual music at all.


*Sorry, no free lunch here - you'll have to go to the gig and buy the programme if you want to read it.

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