Truth be told, I enjoy reading just as much as I enjoy listening to music. And, as a lover of words, I’d once held the opinion that “Notes on the Program” are bound to be mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly boring – or one of the more effective embalming tools for classical music.
That all changed one afternoon at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. Seated on stiff blue mohair, I warily eyed the sheaf of paper that the usher had handed me. To my surprise, I was greeted by playful, energetic prose that propelled me line by line. Instead of presenting factoids with the uniformity of encyclopedia entries, these notes offered a distinctive point of view. The narrative voice was as generous and passionate as it was deeply informed, introducing musical works as dynamic creations living through the performers.
I was moved before I had even heard a note. Why, I wondered, had I never read anything like this in a concert hall before? I realized then that program notes could aspire to do more than mark the distance between an American audience and a European tradition imported long ago.
…my notes would be portraits in words, snapshots leaning more toward magazine features than blow-by-blow reports on the program.
The concert responsible for my awakening was the 2010 Weill debut of Claire Chase, flutist and founding executive director of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). Her program notes had not been authored by a professional writer, but by ICE’s then-development director Whit Bernard, also a composer. I find it no coincidence that such engaging reading came from new music trailblazers, accustomed to challenging the establishment and forging relationships with new audiences.
Since I’ve found few comparably appealing examples of program notes in the intervening years, I would suggest that this genre of writing about music needs an intervention. I had to face this problem head on when I was approached by Melissa Smey, executive director of Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, to pen notes for their Composer Portraits series. Each concert features the work of a single contemporary composer. Melissa, an indefatigable champion of new music, desired writing that would complement the innovative work on her stage. We agreed that my notes would be portraits in words, snapshots leaning more toward magazine features than blow-by-blow reports on the program.
Thankfully, I had amazing composers with whom to collaborate: Kate Soper, Du Yun, Tyshawn Sorey, Wang Lu and David T. Little. I tried to imagine what I could tell an audience that would help them forge relationships with these talented individuals, bonds that I hoped would last far into the future. I also thought about what musical information would be useful before hearing unfamiliar repertoire, and how I would attempt to present it with an openness that would not preempt a listener’s own experiences.
I approached the writing intuitively, but was soon able to abstract some general principles that continue to guide me. I share them here in the hopes that they will spark discussion on what kind of writing we need to best serve new music and the incredible community that makes this creative work possible. Although new music inherited many of its writing conventions from the ways in which our dominant cultural institutions frame the classical canon – privileging historical research, stylistic formality, and narrative authority under the guise of objectivity – that doesn’t mean these values serve us well, or that we are stuck with them.
Model the writing craft for program notes on great literary non-fiction.
Our opportunities to reach prospective audiences are precious, and they include those few moments in the concert hall before the show begins. The last thing I want is for someone to sit down and feel that I’ve given them a chore to do. When you wish to welcome and engage your readers, craft matters.
We could start by thinking of program notes as literature. In my music journalism classes, I teach “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”; the 1966 classic by Gay Talese signaled the arrival of “New Journalism” by using a style of narrative writing previously reserved for fiction. We can follow Talese’s example. When I am able, I allow my readers to meet my subjects as they would in real life. I set scenes, develop characters and relate dialogue. Increasingly, I think it was no accident that a musician is the center of this game-changing piece: Artists tend to have qualities that make them colorful and relatable writing subjects, including the incredible tenacity it takes to succeed.
Start the project of writing by interviewing the composer. Allow them to speak using their own voice in the finished piece as much as possible.
When I’ve written about the repertoire of previous centuries, I’ve sometimes found myself wishing that I could talk the composer. So why would I pass up the opportunity to speak with a living composer? Yes, interviewing requires time and cooperation. It’s a learned skill that requires the willingness to ask and ask again, along with the courage to decipher the answers you receive. But the best source of information about a piece of new music is generally the person who wrote it. And readers appreciate hearing straight from the source.
Interviewing can also yield unanticipated gifts. As Talia Schlanger of WXPN’s World Café told my music journalism students, she thinks of herself as a conduit for the artists she interviews: Asking the right questions ensures that they have opportunity to speak their truth. A talented interviewer can even challenge an artist to see their work from a new perspective or reframe how they communicate about it. That kind of dialogue has value in and of itself, shaping the kinds of conversations we are capable of having about music.
Humanize the composer with relevant biographical information, offering the deepest insights you can on why they create the music that they do.
Some might say that biography isn’t relevant to the music – and maybe it isn’t. The suggestion that everything a composer writes is an outgrowth of their life story is certainly a romantic fallacy.
Furthermore, representing others on the page is a tricky business, requiring us to consider how their experiences differ from our own, especially when race and gender are at play. No matter what you do, there is always the chance that you will see your subject differently than they see themselves. I’m haunted by a scene in the Netflix hit “The Crown” in which Winston Churchill so despises a portrait of himself that he sets it on fire. The artist responsible, modernist Graham Sutherland, explains, as he did in reality, that he simply “painted what he saw.”
Despite these challenges, giving your readers a sense of who a composer is as a person will help them feel connected to their music. Who doesn’t relate to Kate Soper, who blocks the internet to keep her work on track? Or Wang Lu, the mother of an infant, who uses every scrap of time to finish up her compositions? That David T. Little grew up as a musical theater geek seems entirely germane to his trajectory as an opera composer, as does Tyshawn Sorey’s practice of making genre-fluid mix tapes to play on his boom box during his daily bus rides to school.
Enlarge your reader’s sense of the composer’s body of work; in particular, include information about works in progress.
If I am writing about a premiere, it’s possible that the composer’s ink will still be wet on the score (if it’s is even complete before my deadline). But generally speaking, by the time I talk to a composer about the works on a program, they have moved on to something else.
What is foremost in a composer’s mind is generally what they are working on right now. In my interviews, works in progress often serve as a starting point, warming up my subject and opening the door to discuss past works. In my writing, I like to extend my composer’s timeline into the future with the hopes that an engaged reader will want to hear this piece next season. (Personally, I’ve been waiting to see Kate Soper’s opera adaptation of the “Roman de la Rose,” which promises to set 20,000 lines of medieval French poetry and premieres next spring.)
Detail the relationship between the composer and the performers, and allow the performers to offer their own insights.
As musicologist Christopher Small wrote in “Musicking,” “performance does not exist in order to present musical works, but rather, musical works exist in order to give musicians something to perform.” Musicians are the ones who animate musical works. They have their own unique insights into the mechanics of music and what the practice of music means in our lives today.
Musical hierarchies that place composers above performers are outdated. Their relationships are generally more complex – and interesting. Among the younger generations, many composers are still practicing musicians, a trend in keeping with jazz and pop. Many helped form ensembles during their training to ensure there were outlets for their music or maintained close relationships with certain groups in ways that impacted their creative output. Whereas modernist composers sometimes wrote music in the abstract, waiting for players who could realize what may once have seemed impossible, today’s composers are writing for specific performers who are pushing the boundaries of what is capable on their instruments. These musicians deserve credit for being integral to the creative process.
Create road maps for your listeners without describing the sound in too much detail.
As a writer, I’m wary of describing music in a way that might preempt an individual’s own intuitive response. I want to encourage audiences to listen without telling them what they are going to hear. Besides, as Stravinsky famously said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” It is largely an act of translation.
So how do I orient new listeners? In creating a framework for understanding, I attempt to answer questions like the following: What was the genesis of this piece? How is it put together? What does the score look like? How is it structured in time? How do the performers relate to one another?
When I do write from my own listening experience, I try to make it clear that it’s my own interpretation. Highlighting my own subjectivity, will, I hope, create space for the experiences of others.
I know very well that it takes the backing of supportive institutions to enable the writing of program notes like those I have described, and for that I am fortunate. But we must find better ways to communicate in the setting of the concert hall. If we wish to foster an environment in which people have the ability to speak and write intelligibly about challenging new works, this is a worthwhile investment, especially in a media climate with dwindling press coverage. As lovers of music and words, I would also suggest that it matters far less what form program notes take than that they are written with a sense of genuine interest, enjoyment, and compassion for what a composer is attempting to achieve. Readers are bound to be curious about what piques the writer’s interest. They are bound to be moved by what moves you.