On program notes

Written: July 9, 2003

Program notes are a tricky business. They need to convey something about your music to an audience – but it’s impossible to truly describe how the music actually sounds. It’s even harder to convey what a piece of music means. What follows are some of the kinds of program notes I abhor.

The worst is the blow-by-blow account of everything that happens in a piece. Amazingly, these kinds of notes fail to give you any real idea how how the music sounds, despite (and maybe because of) the fact that they go into such detail. A fictional example:

The piece begins with a motive in the clarinet, consisting of the notes A4-C#5-D4-G#3, which forms the basis of the material for the first 5 measures. It is then inverted in the next section, transferred to the oboe, and transposed up a major second until measure 26, at which point it is replaced by a new idea in the bassoon based on an [0134] tetrachord. This continues until the second half, after which, through what is known as an M7 transform but subtly altered, the tetrachord is expanded…

Look, man, nobody cares. None of that stuff really matters. What matters is how your piece sounds, not how you made it. If I care, I’ll figure it out myself.

Almost as bad are program notes that throw a lot of big words at you and read like tracts on postmodern metaphysics, and are intended to show an audience how much dumber you are than the composer. Another fictional example:

Ineffable Visions attempts to explore the interplay between diametrically opposed viewpoints concerning the contradictions inherent in reconciling Apollonian and Dionysian interpretations of discourses critical to the philosophies of Hegel, Derrida, and Foucault. By addressing the flawed nature of dialogue (regarding speech qua speech) and applying lessons we have all learned from the study of semiotics, my piece achieves transcendence, finding a solution to a thorny existential problem which most people barely perceive liminally, yet which affects everyone at a truly atavistic level – an issue which, among other things, caused the eventual disharmony between Freud and Jung.

I recall happening upon the word ‘enantiodromic’ in somebody’s program note. What the hell does ‘enantiodromic’ mean? Who the hell cares?

Equal in pretentiousness are program notes that try to be deep and provocative, and just wind up reading like stereotypical bad high school essays.

Lost Memories in a Haze of Blueness captures the feeling of broken innocence, floating away in the depths of our subconscious, like a butterfly wandering about, searching for a home now gone.

Think of supple, sweet, delectable oranges, now decayed, crumbling, wasted.

When we think about things now missing, part of us is brought back into the past; lonely, disconnected, ephemeral abandoned children.

Time is enigmatic. Coping with its capriciousness is what makes us who we are, what makes us human…what makes you, you.

I guess the real weakness of such kinds of program notes is that they try to intimidate an audience into thinking a piece is important before they hear it – and consequently, they betray an insecurity, as if the composer is afraid to let the audience judge the piece on its own merits.

I think the best examples of program notes offer some context for why a piece was written, what went into its composition, and maybe suggest some things to listen for…but the piece has to be allowed to speak for itself. A real-life example might be a program note I saw for Elena Ruehr’s The Law of Floating Objects:

When I was a little girl I used to listen to my father, a mathematician, talking to his colleagues on the phone about infinity. As I listened, I imagined him inhabiting an internal world of colorful universes, endlessly opening, spinning in space. My father’s work was, in fact, based on more prosaic things like infinite number series and Fourier analysis. But I still prefer my original understanding of infinity.

Just as I was interested in the infinity of my childhood, I am interested in Galileo’s experiments, not because of their physical demonstrations, but because of the poetic ideas their titles inspire. This piece is my own description of floating objects and the laws that govern them. Flutes float in an atmosphere of cymbals bound by the gravity of drums. Time moves in circular patterns that stretch and contract. The landscape changes but the musical law is constant.

Not too long, interesting, and relating the ideas behind a piece (musical and otherwise) without trying to browbeat you into forming an opinion before you’re heard it.

I guess what I feel works best is telling the audience the story of how a piece was written – which is very different that talking about the piece itself.


[7/17/2003 – Sam Young writes: “‘Enantiodromic’ describes a word that means something as well as its opposite. A synonym is ‘antagonymous.’ The only example I can come up with off the top of my head is ‘cleave’, which can mean ‘to cut in two’ or ‘to stick to.'”]