Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Day 44 (Round IV) "In the trenches": program-notes edition

OK, this is crunch week. Between the emotional melt-downs and the procedural brain-lock and the fires going off on my desk and exploding every time I open the laptop, there's not really much time to think, much less blog. So, bootlegging from responses to a former student's email interview, here are some thoughts about program notes--and why you might choose to use or not use them:

1) Do you like having program notes in programs when you are an audience member?

It depends on the repertoire. If it is unfamiliar to me, then yes, I appreciate context, history, biography, functional information. I am less interested in those sorts of notes that focus primarily upon musical construction or compositional form: as a historian, I am more interested in the "where did it come from?" questions

2) Do you read them? If so, when (before the concert starts, as it goes, afterwards, etc.)?

Always. Usually before--I have a low tolerance for waiting. During a concert, I would hope that the performer would be sufficiently riveting that I would not wish to look away from the stage.

3) What is the point of program notes? Who are they for?

Seems to me it varies. But what they *should* do, and who they *should* address, is any or all members of the audience whose enjoyment and emotional response to the music might be heightened by a better understanding of the music's original contexts, participants, settings, and/or function.

4) Who should write them? The performer of the concert? The composer? An outside scholar/musicologist?

Depends on the repertoire. If the composer is alive and available, I would certainly be interested to hear her/his thoughts. Absent that, any competent performer should be able to write effective program notes. If a performer does not have the knowledge and the writing skill to articulate content/background/intent, then I believe that performer has some skills still to learn.

5) What kinds of information do you think belong in program notes? What kinds of things should NOT be included?

See above, #1. In addition, I think that texted music, especially if in unfamiliar languages, should have notes which at least synopsize if they do not literally translate those texts. On the other hand, too-extensive a set of translations can cause some audience members to look at the text rather than the stage; to avoid this, I will often use synopses, so that audience members can follow the text/narrative as they watch the performance.

6) Are there any situations where you think a program note is absolutely essential?

See #5 above--and especially if either the languages or repertoires being employed are unfamiliar to the audience. If music is about communication, and there is a language barrier, notes can help bridge that gap.

7) Are there any situations where you think a program note is absolutely inappropriate?

Perhaps not "inappropriate", but less necessary and in fact cumbersome: In any situation in which the performers can simply *address the audience*--and I would include in that *most concert repertoires*--notes become much less important. I would submit that performers should be able to speak extemporaneously, knowledgably, and engagingly about the music they're playing, just as they should be able to write about it in the same fashion. If a performer cannot speak (or write) in this fashion about the music s/he is playing, I believe there are some skills still to be learned.

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