Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Essays before a composition (2)

One of the problems for a composer trying to write a programme note is that the experience of listening to a piece of music is almost the precise opposite of the experience of writing it. When you compose, you begin with an idea, a concept of what impression you want the piece to give. The process of producing the music is then a process of unpacking this idea, expanding it and rolling it out into a time span. The listener does this process more or less backwards: over the time span, he or she absorbs the notes, the textures and so on and (if the composer’s done the job well) at the end will have a concept of the work in the mind (which may bear a greater or lesser similarity to the concept the composer had in the fist place). Moreover, what concerns and interests a composer in the act of writing isn’t necessarily what concerns the listener. The composer is concerned with processes: how do I put things together so a to realise this idea of sound? Of course, once he’s worked this out he feels very excited and pleased, and wants to tell people how he did it. But that’s exactly what a listener doesn’t need or want to know. Roberto Gerhard wrote, “Understanding comes first; knowledge second.” There’s a fundamental mistake that’s made all the time in the classical music world: people who like classical music know a lot about it, gos the reasoning, so if you tell people a lot about it they’ll like it. In fact what happens is that if you bombard people with technical detail they start to think that unless they know about it they can’t possibly like or even begin to listen to it. If people like a piece they may well find out more about it, and they may get into the nitty gritty of theory and technique, but that’s for later. Programme notes in which the composer drones on about the clever technical devices he used to write the piece are therefore the biggest turn off imaginable, and such notes often lose the audience’s sympathy before they’ve heard a note.

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