Program Notes and New Music’s Image Problem

If there’s one thing composers love to do, it’s complain about program notes. There are two kind that tend to come under particularly intense fire. Let’s call them the Play-by-Play:

Repossessions begins with a fluffy, scurrying motif in the contrabass clarinet. Soon it is joined by irritable pulsations in the high strings, and the music grows in intensity until it is interrupted by an abusive, rough-hewn fanfare in the brass and percussion. Gracious shards of vibraphone and harp descend from the high register as the opening motif is alternately stretched and compressed…

…and the Shop Talk:

The fundamental material of …le temps cyclique… is a matrix of pitches, dynamics, meter changes and bowing techniques based on a set of 147 rational numbers derived from the frequency of the note G# in Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Each parametrized line is treated interdependently, and each row and column of the matrix contains an element which triggers a rhythmic/textural disfluency, creating an ambiguous point of structural articulation and thus calling into question the dialectic treatment of the form…

There are a lot of reasons to criticize both. The Play-by-Play takes the mystery and surprise out of the music, and it risks reducing the audience experience to a game of “spot the passage I just read a description of.” The Shop Talk is dry and dull, incomprehensible to non-specialists and probably not interesting to anyone but the composer and his or her teacher. But the biggest problem with both is that they’re potentially alienating to audiences.

It’s bothered me for years that so many people who keep up with the latest developments in experimental film, literature, theater and visual art completely ignore contemporary classical music. They listen to indie rock, jazz, New Wave, electronica, industrial music — really just about anything else besides stuff written by people who call themselves “composers,’ with the occasional exceptions of Reich and Glass. I just used Google to pull up a random OKCupid profile that contained the name of the experimental Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The guy I found watches films by Béla Tarr and Alejandro Jodorowsky as well as Weerasethakul, and reads Burroughs, Joyce and China Miéville. You’d think someone like that would be fascinated by Sciarrino and Neuwirth, or Reich and Andriessen, or all of the above, but instead he listens to Joanna Newsom, Pixies, Throbbing Gristle and Albert Ayler.

What’s going on here? It’s not that contemporary classical music is too difficult to listen to: Albert Ayler can be very abrasive and esoteric. No, the problem is that contemporary classical music is uncool. Liking it doesn’t give you the kind of cultural capital that liking Tarr or Burroughs or Throbbing Gristle does; it just makes you a nerd. And part of what makes contemporary classical music seem nerdy is these extremely academic-sounding program notes. The impression they give to someone who isn’t already part of the new-music scene is: “This isn’t a show designed to transport you into a new and surprising sonic world; it’s a university lecture for people who analyze music for a living.” Obviously I have nothing against university lectures or nerds — I am a grad student, after all! Nor am I a fan of people basing their art-consumption habits on what kind of social image they want to project. But I’m more interested in getting people to listen to new music than I am in wasting time trying to abolish the very idea of “cool.” And I recognize that academia is not for everyone, and that program notes which make concerts feel like academic conferences contribute to new music’s image problem and keep the audience small.

Or so I thought! But then I actually asked some friends who are involved in other art media what they thought about these kinds of program notes, and most of them said that they didn’t mind them. A few even said that the technical terminology piqued their curiosity. Only one person actually objected to them, and that was because she objects to program notes in general: she comes from the dance world, where, she said, people generally feel that if your work needs any kind of outside explanation, it’s a failure.

Now, obviously this was a very unscientific bit of research with a very small sample size. It’s possible that the people I asked were particularly open-minded, and that a lot of other people in the other arts really are put off by “nerdy” program notes. But I have a hunch that the people who get the most exercised about program notes are composers, and that lay audience members just don’t care that much. And that means we need other techniques for getting the rest of the art world to pay attention. People are trying a lot of things right now: combining new music with video and other media, throwing out the staid and formal rituals of classical performance (is there any way to make clapping less exciting than telling people in advance when they’re supposed to do it?), and playing in venues other than concert halls (a particularly good strategy in New York, where there are venues that specialize in new music but serve drinks and look like clubs rather than monuments to High Culture™). And it’s beginning to work, but the emphasis there is on “beginning.” There’s a lot more to be done.

I’ll have more to say about this in a later post. In the meantime, if anyone’s reading, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

P.S. the next day: I didn’t realize when I posted this that nobody can leave comments! I can’t figure out how to change that, but my web designer should have it fixed soon, so come back in a couple of days and let me know what you have to say!


  1. Elliot
    Posted February 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Veni vidi commenti!

  2. Posted February 10, 2012 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    Yay, comments! I want to say a big yes to this idea:

    playing in venues other than concert halls

    (Now we get to see if HTML works in comments too.) As an artist, you’ve got to work out where your art fits into people’s lives. Music events are things that people tend to do for entertainment and socialisation, so putting them in a venue where people want to socialise is a really good idea.

    Honestly, I think advertising is a big part of this–just planting the idea in people’s heads that this is a thing they can do for fun. One of the constraints with the arts is just advertising budgets–we’ve got nothing on movie studios.

    I’m not sure I mind being told when to clap: there are very stylised cues in the theatre, and it’s sort of comforting to know that everybody’s on the same page. A poet I saw recently enjoined everybody to hold their applause til the end of his set, which was also helpful–it seemed to make the room feel more relaxed.

  3. Posted February 14, 2012 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    There is one problem with putting new music concerts in venues where people want to socialize, though, and that’s that a lot of sonic detail will be lost if people are eating and drinking. It really depends what kind of music you’re talking about, though. Glenn Branca’s symphonies for enormous numbers of electric guitars would work fine in a bar. Salvatore Sciarrino’s music, which relies on the contrast between almost inaudible sounds and violent interruptions, wouldn’t work at all.

    But people are quiet during plays, and arts-oriented people don’t typically feel like going to a play is a chore. I even know people in the new-music world who feel like going to new-music concerts is a chore. That’s a problem.

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