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31 July 2007

Notes with Potential to Make Music

Notes with Potential to Make Music

I’ve noticed that performing musicians, with rare exceptions, do not interest themselves in program notes. ‘I can read the music, after all’, you can almost hear them saying. Program notes are for the amateur.

The exception is the creative musician – the composer. For every composer from whom program notes about their works are extracted as willingly as teeth, there’s another who is more than willing, seeing the note as potential explanation and advocacy.

Composers have, however, attempted to realise this potential in very different ways. And as new music has moved more and more outside the zone of familiarity of the listener, program notes have come to play a greater role in the presentation of music. For some listeners, program notes can translate what might have been an incomprehensible racket into a meaningful experience.

Choosing the language

Many writers fail to recognise the appetite of their audience for a strong opinion against which to measure their own reaction to the music.There was a time, mainly in the 1960s, when every new piece of music seemed to come with a lengthy note, justifying it by explanation of its language and technical devices, or by invoking literary analogues or sources. Analysis and theory from academic discourse on music moved into program notes. Sometimes combative, often obscure to the uninitiated, such notes could take longer to read than the piece took to perform.

More recently, the widespread convention that composers provide their own notes has sometimes provided islands of readability in an otherwise dusty landscape: composers want to be listened to and are apt to provide lively, personal and often non-musical information. Old notes written by and for their peers are joined or replaced by notes addressed to a non-specialist audience – or are some composers beginning to feel that words about music fail to advocate or explain if they are too technical?

Composers who write ‘intelligible’ program notes sometimes imply that it was not their intention that listeners should follow the creative techniques and theory-in-practice they used. In some cases they may even admit to having become aware of what they have done only after the event. At all times in musical history, however, some music has been more demanding on the listener – it’s a measure of the ‘learnedness’ of the composer’s craft. What makes matters more complicated for today’s listeners is the variety of musical languages used by composers. Even in a program of all-Australian music, think of the contrast between – say – John Antill, Graeme Koehne and Michael Smetanin.

Acting as our guide

Words can make even a highly technical issue more accessible to the listener. More, perhaps, than a technical explanation, the listener needs signposts – quick guidance – as to what conventions apply in a given period or style. That will change – a program note for John Antill’s Corroboree when it was new in the 1940s will need to be replaced or supplemented by one which places the music in historical perspective and will hardly need to defend what once made it new and challenging.

Program notes, in some form, are here to stay; acknowledging that for a majority of audiences some guidance is necessary and that most people’s literacy outruns their musical skills. It seems a pity, to some. Hans Keller’s wordless [functional] analyses were based on the incontrovertible premise that musical understanding comes through the intellect working on sound; so that to someone trained to listen, well-selected musical excerpts, and illustrations of might-have-beens, give more understanding than can any words. But this is something you can only do at home. What about during the playing of the music, in the concert hall? The notes are in the program acquired at the concert, which makes the link, though fewer concert-goers than of yore seem to be reading during the concert itself.

In the hierarchy of purposes of a printed concert program, the notes – rightly – come quite a way down. The ‘program’ is: primo – a record (and souvenir) of the event; secondo – an order of service (what is being performed, in what order, where are the breaks, for applause, for drinks, for toilet); tertio – a list of the performers. Program ‘notes’ come as an attachment to the order of service, and are not obligatory, which is why they shrink most of all when space is at a premium.

Encouraging us to think for ourselves

A program note should be, in the first place, a good piece of writing, engaging the reader’s attention and interest. As it is presented together with the performance, its assertions may be confirmed by the guided ear, testing also the authority of the writer.

A program note should serve as an adjunct to programming, and support it. The reader brings questions: ‘why are we hearing this piece? In this concert? In this musical context?’. For a symphony by Beethoven, the answer can remain implicit, in common assumptions shared by writer and reader. But for the Symphony – say – by Beethoven’s contemporary Vorišek, the question would need answering: maybe there’s a Czech conductor? There’s an anniversary? In the Australian context, the information that the composer is Australian may be enough, though here, too, the historical context may be used to explain why – say – the music of Carl Linger, or Fritz Hart, or even David Ahern, is being revived.

Too much emphasis is often given to composer’s biographical details because it provides a non-technical and often chronological story which suits this written-word genre. In the relativist, academically correct tendency which has affected program note writing, writers have favoured ‘interesting’ biographical data, together with source and performance, and reception history, consciously or unconsciously, over the kind of evaluative writing I’m advocating. The value judgments can be outsourced to third parties: ‘interesting that an 18th century critic thought this Mozart piece made difficult listening - but does it? For us? What do you think?’ In the ABC, the major concert promoter in Australia, most program notes were unsigned (until the late 1980s); individual writers hiding behind a house ‘voice’ akin to that of a newspaper, rarely venturing the opinion of a leader writer. Putting the author’s byline on the program notes allowed a more value-laden approach.

Writers should remember that music is heard as a sequence in time. The note needn’t slavishly follow the order of events in the music. But turning of corners, disclosure of new vistas, surprise, completion, interruption, and a host of other metaphorically described events – these can give writing the sense that music will not stay still, unlike the pictures in an art gallery. You could start the note with the end, if that’s where unpacking the music most satisfyingly begins. But you must give the reader bearings. Sometimes the piece will ‘go’ in inversion to the note: the writer may begin with Dowland’s Lachrymae, but Britten in his piece of that name doesn’t state his crib from Dowland until the end. Fortunately, you don’t have to worry, as do some film and book reviewers, about ‘giving away’ too much of the story. Music will always tell it in a different, non-verbal language anyway, and it remains to be heard.

Expanding our knowledge and understanding

For whom are concert program notes written? It goes without saying that the potential readers will differ greatly in their level of confidence with the terminology that describes music. Once again, the ear is the test.

Romanticism surrounded the creative process with literary analogy or sub-text. When confronted by a reference to a book, to a philosopher, to a religious system, an explanation of a hermetic title, it may be reassuring to be pointed to musical facts: a recognisable generative theme, a principle of organisation such as variation. Here, musical terminology will help even those who don’t feel confident with it.

Writers of program notes – knowledgeable and good with words – are often teachers, academics. There is a wider range of interested parties. Program notes are about the presentation of the music to its hearer. The performer, repertoire planner, or both, should take an interest in how the program notes support the music, at least to the point of briefing the writer. In turn, the writer should be actively curious about how the music came to be, and how and why it is performed. What I call ‘program note driven programming’ does happen: truly knowledgeable writers will raise questions of the programmers – about versions, alternatives, editions, and so on. A typical case, at a simple level, concerns the finale of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, where the composer couldn’t make up his mind whether to include the third and last hammer blow. The program note writer may want to indicate what will actually happen, which is the conductor’s decision.

The program note writer is expected to act as counsel for the defence. A dilemma: when an orchestra, unconducted, performs Mahler’s arrangements of Beethoven and Schubert string quartets, how much weight should be given to Mahler’s own warning that he made these transcriptions for himself, and justified them only by his own conducting? The intellectual honesty of the program note writer may detract from the concert-presenter’s impulse, and even question the marketing of the event. Healthy is the organisation where such issues become subjects of debate. Marketing staff may interest themselves in the program notes (usually in response to queries or complaints), but their target is different.

Options for delivery

Pundits on our media culture are suggesting that information in program notes is now being assimilated from other sources. But the prophets of doom seem more interested in the twilight of the orchestra, or of the concert, than in program notes. Perhaps to ‘save’ the concert experience, or simply because they seem to be good ideas, there are experiments taking place. A few years ago The Queensland Orchestra trialed a USA-developed idea of projecting on a screen, during the playing of the music, numbers marking events. The concert patron was given a numbered list giving the ‘meaning’ of these events. Similarly, an orchestra in America trialed handheld devices giving a running commentary on the piece – like the electronic guides in art galleries, but silent!

These variants on analytical program notes have the drawback of dividing attention between the act of listening and the following of an analysis. It is – again – something better done at home, where score, sound, and guidance may be provided simultaneously from the ‘media platform’, and you can start, stop, and repeat at will.

Some concert-goers have always wished that program notes be available in advance, and several Australian orchestras are now putting notes online.

Noticing, perhaps, the success and influence of broadcast talks presenting music in depth, more and more concert presenters over the last twenty years have provided pre-concert talks. In contrast to program notes, such talks allow passive assimilation of information, and they may be illustrated with musical examples to be heard rather than read. They have been pushed not as a substitute for program notes, but as a value-adding extra. A growing feeling that a professionally presented concert is incomplete without a pre-concert talk is a tribute to the sense embedded in our culture that words about music are important – a bridge for the lay outsider into the musician’s arcane world? Although the pre-concert speaker may be supplied in advance with the program notes, little has been made of the possibility that a talk may liberate a program note writer to do other things, and vice-versa.


What of the future? There are signs that program notes, while not being abandoned, are in many places being reduced in length. Rather than a reflection of shortening attention spans, this probably shows that visual ways of experiencing things are inclining people against large blocks of text and nothing but text. Short notes can be good notes, provided they were intended to be short all along, not scissored and blue-penciled from a longer note. Short or long, they are to be read. They can be surrounded by pictures, broken up into short sections, underlined, highlighted, italicised, broken out into side boxes – they remain program notes. There will be those, perhaps more and more of them, who seek their guidance in music in other ways. But most of those other ways can’t conveniently be provided at the concert – not during it, anyway. So some, at least, will go on reading while they listen.

David Garrett, after teaching history at Monash and Sydney universities, worked in programming and administration for the ABC and other music presenters. Now studying for a doctorate at the University of Wollongong on the history of the ABC as a music organisation, he continues to be one of Australia’s most prolific writers of program notes.


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