Program Notes

Program Notes

This week I received another urgently-worded request for program notes from a venue that is supporting the premiere of a new work in February. I’ve become quite accustomed to emails requesting last-minute notes over the past few years, usually bearing colorful subject lines such as “SOS Visconti” or “Visconti premiere(happening?)”, and with good reason: I abhor writing program notes and absolutely resist doing so up until the last possible minute. Program notes have always been a perennial source of anxiety—profound, crippling, Brian Wilson-level anxiety—especially as I became a more frequent participant in the classical music community’s oddly fetishized program notes culture, both as an audience member and on occasion as an eager young annotator myself.

My beef with program notes has to do with the kind of thinking and culture that they encourage. While it’s certainly helpful to have some context for a new work, there must be a better way than our current paradigm, which somewhat resembles a detailed spoiler-laden movie review which we’re obligated to pour over studiously in preparation for some test that will never happen. Savvy presenters subconsciously realize this when they encourage brief pre-concert introductions or post-concert gatherings as a means of communicating context to an audience, but oftentimes they retain the selfsame printed program notes such talks are intended to replace. This practice has become so prevalent that I now find myself obligated to prepare two sets of program notes: one for the printed program, and another for verbal delivery to an audience that may or may not have read the printed notes as well. That’s a lot of wasted verbal shrink-wrap; just imagine, though, the confusion and dismay if even a single audience member managed to make it to the downbeat unmolested by the kind of over-analysis that next generation’s eager brigade of artistic staff think is helping to save ticket sales, but isn’t. It’s true that some people are occasionally put off by a lack of information and grounding context when they face new aural experiences, but it’s at least equally true that packaging and obscuring every new and vital musical experience with a palliative explanatory caption is offensive to other kinds of sensibilities as well. The orchestra can wear jeans and all that, but if performing organizations are seriously looking to cater to their audience’s very real desire for less rigidity and greater authenticity, maybe handing out a little book with essays that are tacitly implied to be the last, best word on the program isn’t the best way to drum up the awe of exploration. Why do we seem to assume that audiences will only be interested in music if already know everything beforehand?

The program note format also continues to haunt me in grant applications, which frequently request a “project proposal” or some other such dark-sounding statement: in essence, program notes written in future tense. While it’s certainly critical for an applicant composer to be able to articulate his or her vision for a work, I have several times found myself a bit at odds with commissioning organizations who felt that my final product veered too far off the course laid out in the initial proposal; I’ve since realized that I can’t in good faith accept support from organizations that require a very strict, paint-by-numbers realization of written proposals since the best part of composing is often where the music chooses to take you. Perhaps there’s some tie-in here with the widely-reported phenomenon of pieces which appear to have been written backwards from their program notes, like the next blockbuster movie reverse-engineered from its promo poster.

Why does the program note (and its variations including the project proposal) hold such a position of prominence and power in our musical landscape? It’s become such a prevalent means through which the composer is expected to communicate (both to juries of his or her peers as well as audiences of non-musicians) that I often wonder if the practice doesn’t stem from more than a little bit of fear; fear on the part of composers that their music will not be taken seriously or even listened to without an explanatory preamble, and fear on the part of concertgoers who have been trained to avoid direct, disconcerting experiences with the unknown at all costs.

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24 thoughts on “Program Notes

  1. Troy Ramos

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I don’t understand why people require or need these program notes. I don’t like the idea of telling people what to think when they listen to some sounds that I’ve created. It’s unnecessary and somewhat invasive.

    It seems to be off the point when you have to think of words written about sounds rather than the sounds themselves.

    I often feel like program notes take something away from the music you’ve created, because it’s almost as if it implies that the sounds aren’t good enough to speak for themselves. It’s like another meaning gets thrust upon the sounds. I prefer the idea of everyone being able to create their own program notes in their head, and then they can choose to express them or not.

    Good article!

  2. Chris Becker

    And I couldn’t disagree with you more :)

    Program notes are another opportunity for composers to educate listeners, to put the music into some kind of context, and to illuminate the process of creation.

    There’s so much bad music writing out there. Why shouldn’t a composer welcome the opportunity to take away the power of an uninformed critic or corporate media entity bent on passing along misinformation, and speak for their own music?

    It’s taken me some time to come to this, though. My writing skills aren’t all that hot. But I’ve been inspired over the past few years by composers blogs (Joesph Philips, Matana Roberts), John Zorn’s Arcana books (and his own liner note which are often very illuminating), and by several recent books by musicians about music. We composers may be the most qualified to talk about our own work.

  3. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Dan- This is a very good assessment of the problems with program notes, and it gets to the real issue of composers (or any artists) communicating with their audience. I often think of program notes as an analogue to the audio tours for special exhibits at a museum, only less comprehensive. I will be giving my masters recital this spring, and as this will be the only full concert to date of exclusive my own music, this will also be the first time that program notes will (collectively) shed any light whatsoever on me, my process, my music, etc.

    The demand for program notes comes from, I believe, the inability of promoters to market music they do not understand. They don’t have the time to become intimately familiar with Dan Visconti, Mischa Salkind-Pearl, or some other “young” artists, and the audience is generally a little distrustful of unfamiliar names. Program notes provide the promoter- and thus, much of the audience- the reassurance that the composer has a clue what he’s talking about.

    That said, I’ve come to try to think of the notes as almost being part of the piece, just as a title is. My titles are often long and meandering, but make sense to me (for instance, my wind ensemble piece titled “It Has Been Many Years Since I First Anticipated This Stage of My Life, During a Hurricane, With My Parents, Surrounded by Strangers” etc). I find that there’s an artistic necessity to my titles, but the danger is to let the notes become a justification of the work. It’s not what promoters want, but what I’ve begun to try writing notes which inspire some imaginative act in the audience before the piece even begins, but leaves questions unanswered. Still, this isn’t the most practical.

    Lots of thinking out loud on my part, but thanks for the great post!

  4. pgblu

    Poor composers! Such a burden!!
    The program note doesn’t have to be listening instructions! Who said it did?

    You can put anything into your program notes that you want to put there. When the piece was first performed, who it was written for, whether other versions exist, what the title means, to whom it was dedicated — these are all facts, and I do know a good number of composers who think that such a compilation of facts has the makings of a great program note.

    But the program note can also be an extension of or analogy to the listening experience. What if your program note was a transcription of the piece? Or simply a description of the office in which you wrote it? Or a poem that is constructed like your piece is constructed.

    Certainly if you see this as a yoke rather than an opportunity, then leave the thing blank.

  5. philmusic

    In my line of work learning is much simpler if folks can connect what they already know to what they are just about to find out. Program notes can help connect those dots.

    Also there are many composers and sound artists who create works that are on the surface incomprehensible (I don’t mean good or bad just monochromatic). So with out program notes or the editorial of the curator the audience just won’t get it.

    For myself, especially with my own vocal works, I want the music to speak for itself.

    Finally I think its a big mistake to overlook the sentimental attachments that can only be created by program notes etc. Many careers have been built on just this.

    Oddly, I was at a pre-concert talk once where the performer’s speech made me hate the composer.

    Go figure.

    Phil Fried One of Phil’s many pages

  6. Ed Windels

    to both David and Troy. This is a subject that has always irked me, to the point where it can affect my reception of the actual music referred to. Worst are the notes that give you a scenario of what the piece is doing. If an auditor can’t follow the music purely by listening, then surely a written blow-by-blow isn’t going to provide any deeper clarification. And then those treatises about the genesis or inspiration for the piece, where there seems to be a tacit competition for who can provide a more obscure or effete context..

    As someone facing writing the notes for his first concert in 14 years, I find the whole experience dispiriting. If my music doesn’t communicate on its own, surely all the words in the world aren’t going to accomplish that function.

  7. Jeremy Howard Beck

    Great article, Colin, and it’s something I wish we’d all talk about more: what are program notes for, anyway?

    Looking over all my program notes, I’ve realized that I tend to just tell the story of how the piece came into being (who commissioned it, and why, and when, and for what, etc.), and also what life was like at that time, and how that influenced what I wanted to write. I’ll usually include a sentence or two about nuts-and-bolts musical construction if I think it’ll contribute something valuable to the audience’s understanding of the piece, but I, like you, instinctively recoil at the kind of program note that follows the “first A, then B” formula. No novelist or filmmaker would provide a synopsis of their work at its beginning, so why do we feel obligated to do just that? I want my audience to have a good idea of what to expect–at least on an emotional or referential level–when the piece begins, but I definitely do not want them to have any idea what is going to happen. Overall, I guess my stance on program notes is that they should function like that VH1 show “Behind the Music”–illuminating, but not explaining. It’s a very tricky line to walk.

  8. Jeremy Howard Beck

    Great post, DAN, not Colin. D’oh!
    Of course I meant to say great post, Dan, and not Colin (I got distracted by the name on the first comment. D’oh!). All apologies; that’ll teach me to post comments after 10PM.

  9. Troy Ramos

    I’m still not convinced by any of the pro-program notes comments. I don’t have a problem, obviously, with composers discussing their works; but it isn’t, in my opinion, the composer’s job “to educate” listeners on their music. That’s the job of the music itself.

    I mean, we’re talking about two different art forms here, aren’t we? Why should a composer have to try to master words as well? It’s easy to say, ‘well, then just leave it blank’, but the point is that you simply can’t do that with some organizations or panels or faculties. It’s often required. And as long as people think it’s necessary, composers will probably have to try to transfer something from one art form to another.

    Somebody could probably make the argument that if the listener is having trouble making a connection, they could just simply improve their musical competence on their own time. There are many ways to do that without using program notes. And I’m not trying to take a ‘who cares if you listen?’ approach, because I do care if people listen. I’m just saying that it seems unnecessary for composers to write, in another form, about what’s going to happen, what’s happening or what has happened, rather than just allowing listeners to hear to the piece.

    Besides, program notes, either for amusement or lack of memory or both, often encourage composers to lie about their works anyway :) (see Stravinsky)

  10. Kyle Gann

    As someone who’s written hundreds of program notes, for dozens of other composers as well as my own, I consider them nearly indispensible. Many people can listen to a piece of music cold and get from it what there is in it. Many other people have a really confusing time processing an unfamiliar musical style, and have a much easier time dealing with words than sounds. Many of those people can process a new piece much, much more easily with a few verbal pointers as to what its attitude is, what’s important in it. Why, oh why, with the new-music audience already as small as it is, would we want to cut those latter people out of the loop? Since my music-processing abilities are pretty good, I tend not to read program notes until after the performance anyway. If you don’t write them well, get a good writer to do them for you – in fact, I think third-party program notes are usually more helpful, as long as the writer really understands the piece and its style. But I’ve always regarded the common composer’s hatred of providing them an elitist impulse. Those people who relate to words better than music are not to be scorned. One of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten was, “I really didn’t know what to think about that piece until I read your article about it.” And that doesn’t mean they’ll automatically agree with what I wrote, but it gives them a way in.

  11. Chris Becker

    And in addition to Kyle, there are so many great examples of writing by musicians and composers. Why paint yourself into a corner?

    And what you write doesn’t necessarily have to be brilliant. Just try to communicate as honestly as you can with your reader/listener.

  12. mta

    As someone without a lick of musical ability who is nonetheless a fervent listener and a long-time lurker on music blogs, I have to agree with Mr. Gann – there is often a good deal of merit in program notes / liner notes, and it seems to me somewhat elitist to eschew them on principle. Sure, there are pieces that are going to be self-explanatory, but there are also pieces where a mention of some specialized means of construction, some procedural flag, is absolutely of use in guiding a listener to recognize an inobvious principle in the piece.

    To use an ancient and therefore somewhat neutral example: Ockeghem’s “Missa Prolationum.” Perform this piece for a group of civilian non-specialists (and even many conservatory students) without explanation, and they’ll find it a reasonably pretty lump of sound without a strong sense of its shape and its fascinating procedures. Explain the basic principle of the piece, and suddenly those same people will be listening with exactly the ears you all want us to listen with: paying rapt attention to construction, rather than sitting passively, sloshed by a wash of harmonious noise. Then suddenly we will see that the harmonic integration of the piece is not merely pleasant, but an achievement, given the other parameters the composer laid upon himself. We are in a position then, to be attentive to, and to appreciate, the brilliance of Ockeghem’s architecture.

    And in the modern context, the same kind of thing could be said about, say, Nancarrow’s 3rd String Quartet, which is constructed along somewhat similar lines.

    Of course, one reads program notes that give away too much, or (and this is especially from younger composers) that do indeed have an “effete” self-congratulation to them. (I think, for example, of a piece Thomas Ades wrote when but a slip of a thing, which referenced Nabokov, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” anagrams, and anonymous inscriptions from the Spanish in a parable about how brilliant, visionary boys are so misunderstood.)

    But my basic point is this: Many of us are willing, even delighted to take the voyage with you. And it’s only good policy to tell us what dock you’re leaving from.


  13. pgblu

    I also agree with Kyle that one should consider the many kinds of people who come (or might come) to concerts. It’s just that accusations of elitism are a little misplaced here and, to me, run the risk of ruining an otherwise interesting conversation.

    If writing an ‘explanatory’ program note feels wrong to me (and it doesn’t always), I won’t do it — not because I’m elitist but because I feel that I have to trust the listener to draw their own contusions. I haven’t found a way to solve the most pressing problem of all: what I say about the piece will always risk overshadowing what the listener thinks I’m saying. To me that’s sad. I care more about what the listener thinks than about what I think.

    The problem here is not with composers being incomprehensible, but with listeners feeling somehow threatened by something they don’t understand. Why do they feel threatened? It isn’t because they’re dumb or ignorant, it’s something about the kind of atmosphere we foster in new music concerts — the assumption is that a composer is actually smarter or has better ideas than a listener… that a piece of music is an object lesson in perception, rather than an organism with a life of its own… we don’t provide program notes at the zoo, either (other than provenance and endangerment data) — we trust the visitor to simply enjoy watching the behavior and movement of these lovely creatures.

    Ok, I admit that this post is purely for the sake of irritating Ryan Tanaka… but I do mean what I say. Perhaps my next program note will be about what my piece eats, when it sleeps, and other care and handling instructions, in case a visitor might like to take it home for a while.

  14. Troy Ramos

    I had submitted (at least I thought I submitted) a very polite response to Mr. Gann, but it seems to have been lost or something.

    Anyway, I take your point Mr. Gann. I don’t want to turn people away, and that wasn’t my intention. But I still think program notes aren’t as valuable as you make them sound. I think a listener who is interested after hearing a piece will find their way in if they want to. Why not let the sounds do the talking? Subsequent discussions and questions on behalf of that listener are very different, I think, than being informed by program notes.

    And as somebody already said, why not let the listener imagine whatever they want? I don’t mean to step on the intention of the composer, but why should the composer do the ‘imagining’ for the listener?

    Perhaps most importantly, I think it’s unfair to throw out the elitist charge. Especially when the intention, of those being charged, is simply to make a suggestion that they think might be better, and not to turn people away from new music. I don’t want to turn anyone away, but we can’t pull out the term elitism every time somebody suggests that listeners could stand to make a better effort themselves (like all of us). If we do, then I don’t think we’re being honest to both sides.

  15. danvisconti

    Hi Kyle, I can only speak for myself but I don’t think composers who take issue with program notes necessarily do so from an elicit impulse to deny access by withholding explanatory context. Besides, it’s not like the only two options are “context in the form of program notes” and “no context at all”; Like a great many composers, I have a sincere interest in communicating with my listeners; it’s just that I’m not sure that program notes are the best way to accomplish this, for me at least. I’m not against explanation per se, but there are a range of explanatory modes and I don’t see why printed program notes necessarily do a better job than spoken introductions, or audience Q and A, or some staged Q and A between conductor and composer only augmented with performed excerpts, or an interesting lobby exhibit displaying the same information as well as photographs and interactive video.

    Besides, I think that while it’s true that audiences desire some degree of explication, one of the most amazing things about music (and especially new music) is the thrill of new sounds. For every person put off by lack of suitable context for a performance, there are surely others who dive into all kinds of underground and experimental music with a genuine appetite for new sounds yet are put off by what they see as the overly stodgy atmosphere of our art music concerts and out overly textbook-like manner of providing performance context. I love a good program note as much as the next guy, but I do wonder if our community’s reliance on program notes to the exclusion of more interactive and more innovative presentations might be part of the problem, not part of the solution

  16. jonrussell20

    I think we all just need to have a much more flexible, playful sensibility about program notes. They don’t have to be spoilers, they don’t have to boil the piece down to an overly simplistic explanation, they don’t have to talk down to anyone, they don’t have to show off how erudite the composer is. They can be whatever we want, from a brief description of how and why the piece came into being, to a discussion of extra-musical influences to a massive discourse on the philosophical/aesthetic viewpoint of the work, to something totally bizarre and cryptic that will do nothing more than pique the audience’s curiosity. I’ve tried all of these approaches with different pieces. Some pieces seem to warrant lots of explanation, if there’s some important extra-musical or biographical influence or technical break-through they exhibit. Others warrant very little. While I’m all for pre and post-concert discussions and other types of interaction, these are not always practicable and program notes serve as a simple, versatile means of providing a basic introduction, of whatever sort we like, to our work. And people don’t have to read them, and many (including, frequently, myself) do not. So if a listener is worried their experience will be ruined by too much foreknowledge, they can just skip the notes (much easier to do than tune out a discussion by the composer right before the piece). To me, program notes are nothing more than an opportunity to provide an optional framework for the listener to use to approach the music, which in the end is a very empowering thing for a composer to have.

  17. David McMullin

    I never want my program notes to limit a listener’s experience of the piece, so I try not to be too specific about what they should hear, think or feel. In particular, detailed formal descriptions and especially technical jargon can be intimidating to listeners who often already feel like they’re not “qualified” to understand new music. But saying nothing can be equally intimidating and unwelcoming. So I see a program note as having two purposes:

    1) Put the listeners in a receptive frame of mind. Reassure them that their own experience of the music is what counts, based on whatever they happen to bring to the encounter, and that if they’re open to it, something interesting might happen.

    2) Reviewers often don’t know what to say about a piece, so they end up writing a response to or synopsis of the program note. This gives you a chance to set the terms of the review.

  18. danvisconti

    These are some great points, thanks to all who responded! (And David I think your assessment in particular was helpful to me—I definitely have a more nuanced appreciation of the pros of program notes than I did before this thread was started)

  19. philmusic

    So if I set my program notes to music, then I could set the program notes for my work, program notes set to music, to music.

    Then I could set my program notes for the program notes for my other new work program notes to the program notes of my work program notes set to music, to music. Its only a hop, skip, and jump to set the program notes of the program notes of the program notes for my new work program notes to the program notes to the program notes to the program notes of my work program notes set to music, to music.

    One question? Is this work programmatic?

    Phil Fried, I know I know…

  20. Troy Ramos

    I agree with Dan, in that, my perception of program notes has shifted a bit because of this conversation. Essentially, I think the biggest problem I had with program notes was that they seem to have a soundbite quality to them. And since I really dislike seeing so many aspects of our culture become void of thoughtful discussions (24/7 media channels, for example), I sometimes tend to confuse ‘introductions’ with ‘quick fixes’.

    I know they aren’t meant to be a substitute for discussions or the music. But it just often feels like, generally speaking, the people with increasingly short attention spans always get their way. So, sometimes it can be easy to forget about the percentage of people for whom introductions might actually help; however small that percentage might be.

  21. Hank

    Great Post!

    Our world has become so diverse, so fast, and so specialized that many of us seek more knowledge on a constant basis. It’s one thing to have the knowledge to fully appreciate a Mozart concert. But if the composer is less known, and his/her music less familiar, we resort to the Program Note as one way of seeking greater appreciation of what we are about to hear…


  22. Paul T. Jackson

    I’m coming late to this article and discussion, but you all should know that program notes document history. What happened when with whom and where.
    Much information in program notes is only found there…no where else, so these programs for a given performance become PRIME materials for researchers of composers, of works, of orchestras, of ensembles et al.
    From the viewpoint of a listener, and a writer of some program notes, I pretty much agree, the listener only needs to know a few major details about the composer and work…not a dissertation. However, from the standpoint of research after the fact, the more detail the better for the researcher, book author, biographer, et al.


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