The digital dimension: 1. Programme notes

This started out as one post, proceeded to get very rambly and a little bit ranty whereupon I realised it was actually two posts fighting against each other. This is the first part, which I hope will be better behaved now it’s on its own.

A few days ago, Killing Classical Music posted an interesting article entitled Scoreboards in the concert hall – Another solution to classical music’s problem. It looks at the issue of how people unfamiliar with a piece of music can ‘keep track’ of it during performance in a concert hall, with particular reference to the sorts of vague analytical landmarks beloved of programme-note-writers. A follow-up post appeared yesterday.

The problem as I see it, reading Greg Sandow’s original posting of Michael Oneil Lam’s original post (yes, that made my head spin too) is not with the concert, not with the performance or the venue or the repertoire, and certainly not with the listener. The problem is with the programme notes. Mr Lam writes:

My biggest gripe about modern orchestra concerts is that I lose my place so easily. The program notes talk about an “icy interlude in the high strings indicating a modulation to the subdominant;” but even if I understood what a subdominant was, the violins are nearly always playing and they always sound high to me so I have no idea when the particular segment referred to by the program notes actually occurs.

My reading of this is that because the programme notes are pointing out all this stuff, he feels he ought to be looking out for it, so his concert experience is actually ruined by desperately trying to keep track of what he’s been told is important, rather than sitting back, listening and (hopefully) enjoying himself.

The big concern I feel, reading Mr Lam’s post, is of how intimidating these sorts of programme notes must be for novice concertgoers. How much of a dunce must a non-musician feel when they’re told to look out for this icy interlude doing something they have no clue how to interpret? No wonder classical music is termed ‘elitist’ by some! I don’t agree that a concert scoreboard, visible to all, is the way to go – listening to live music is a very personal experience and while it may work for some, there are many (me included) who would be so distracted by such a thing in a concert that it would ruin the whole experience. However, I do agree that something needs to be done to not alienate audience members, and especially audience members who are being brave and giving something a go that they don’t fully understand.

So to me, revising this traditional approach to the programme note seems an excellent place to start.

A clarification: I love programme notes. I love analysis. I think analysis can play a very important part in really getting to grips with a piece, but in the current day and age of recordings vs live performances and ensembles desperate for increasing audience sizes – which inevitably means recruiting new audiences made up of people who are largely unaware of classical music and music theory, I think the concept of the analysis programme note is a little outdated as a tool for general use in the concert hall.

And so I started to think about how programme notes could change. And because I am an internet junkie and a web developer as well as a composer, I started thinking about how ensembles could value-add, tackle the problem of audience development and make the physical programme more useful to audience members of all levels of musical understanding by linking to content in the digital domain.

Point: those who specifically want analysis during a concert are likely to know they’ll want it beforehand

Point: if those people aren’t overly familiar with the music or with music in general, then they’d probably get more from quiet reading of said analysis, possibly with a recording, if available, well before the performance they’re attending, rather than a quick 30-second skim through it as the lights go down

Point: those who don’t want it possibly aren’t buying programmes?

When I put all these points together, it makes me think that changing the approach of concert-space programme notes can only be a good thing. I would suggest that the printed programme could offer more easily digestible information than it often does now – most emphatically NOT dumbed-down, but information that’s more appropriate to the context of a darkened hall and only a few brief moments in which to find out what you’re about to listen to. Who the composer was, what were the circumstances surrounding the work’s composition, the general character of the work and its movements, how does it fit in with the rest of the composer’s output – contextual stuff to give a little solid ground to aid the actual listening that’s about to happen.

I think this would make the concert experience a lot less stressful for those who aren’t familiar with analytical terms. And if programmes are providing actual information that the audiences ensembles want to draw in can understand, then those people will feel more comfortable and hopefully come back to another performance.

More appropriate programme notes would also mean that the audience will be actually listening to the music, not worrying about having missed the super-special oboe theme because they couldn’t work out where the euphonium fanfare happened.

Mr Lam uses a phrase “With increased engagement comes increased memorability” and he’s absolutely right – however, he equates “increased engagement” with “tracking the current progress of the piece”. I think this is a mere technicality – it’s ticking off landmarks in a guidebook.

There’s a wonderful line in the film A Room With A View where the parson is telling a story about a father and daughter who visited Rome: “Say, papa, what did we see in Rome?” “Why, Rome was the place where we saw the yellow dog!”. This totally sums up the issue at hand – the tourists did everything they were supposed to, saw everything in their Baedeker guidebook, but the only thing that stuck was a dog of an unusual colour. The dog was what engaged them, not the Sistine Chapel or the Colosseum. Analytical landmarks in a piece are the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum – they’re great landmarks, beautiful themes, heartbreaking chord progressions, but if you only tick them off and don’t emotionally experience them, then you won’t engage with the work. Only by really listening to a piece will you engage – and that’s when you’ll find your yellow dog.

But what about that analysis that I’ve so heartlessly culled? Head back up to the first two points I mentioned – I believe that the majority of people who actually want analysis will probably know they want it in advance. And if they know they want it in advance and can probably get the most of the concert if they have it in advance, then why shouldn’t they have it then? Put the general contextual notes into the programme – put the analytical notes online. I can see several benefits to this:

  1. Online presentation of analysis means it doesn’t have to be crammed into whatever space is available for that piece in the programme. Instead of cutting the data down to fit the space, there is room to present whatever is needed to make the analysis followable.
  2. More space means there is also the possibility of including snippets of score or audio clips, both of which aid comprehension, especially for newcomers to analysis
  3. It is possible (resources allowing) to provide different levels of analysis for musicians and non-musicians – for those who want as much detail as possible and for those who just want to know a little bit more about the work.
  4. If audience members want to take the analysis along to the concert, they can print it out and do so.
  5. From a financial perspective, the ensemble can leverage the online space as well as the print space of the programme – selling advertising space, promoting recordings with direct links to buy, or offering visitors the option of signing up to a relevant email list. To avoid the potential problem of concertgoers printing off the analysis and then not buying a programme, make it part of a programme pre-purchase deal.

I personally would love to see a day where detailed programme notes available online – or scores or continual ‘scoreboard’ updates – could be used in a concert hall during a performance, on a personal device like a mobile phone, Kindle or iPad – but I suspect that’s a way off being commonplace (although Mr Sandow’s follow-up article gives interesting descriptions of attempts at this sort of information already tried) simply because backlit devices are disturbing to others in a dark concert hall.

Obviously there will be some who will disagree with me – not everyone has access to the internet or a printer, home-printed analyses in a concert may rustle and disturb other patrons, who wants to do ‘homework’ before a concert? and so on. It’s possible that the time is not yet ripe for this approach, but Mr Lam’s idea has me thinking that instead of fretting about audience numbers but continuing to do things the same way we always have, we should be generously embracing the opportunities that digital provides and seeing what happens. As Mr Sandow says in his follow-up post:

I’m concerned that too much discussion of the future of classical music is speculation. “Oh, no, if we do X, then Y and Z will happen, and that would be terrible!” When in fact nobody knows, because X hasn’t been done.

Until we try a new approach, we can’t tell what will work. And until we wholeheartedly take a risk and throw some time/money/effort at making a new approach work in the best way possible, we can’t really tell how it will be received.

Music and silence

After Gorecki’s death a few weeks back, one obituary in The Guardian gave a wonderful quote:

If you can live without music for two or three days, then don’t write – it might be better to spend the time with a girl or with a beer.

This was the answer he would give students who would ask him how to write music or what to write. And an excellent response it is – fun and to the point. But lately I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I actually think that my response would be different. My response would be “If you can live without silence for two or three days, then don’t write”. I frequently go without listening to music for days at a time, not because I don’t want to listen to music but because I’ve not got enough silence in my life and if there’s more sound piling up on top of the sound that’s already causing chaos in my head – even if it’s music, and even if it’s music I’ve chosen – then I pretty quickly feel like I’m going insane. Without regular, large doses of silence, my brain frazzles and I can no longer find myself in my own head.

And I know I’m not the only one. Back in 1958, the wonderful Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks wrote,

‘It is apparent that leisure and silence are absolute prerequisites for composers if they are to engage fully the many forms of awareness involved in creative activity. This leisure and silence have become the greatest luxuries in the modern world, and composers less than any other group in art or science are able to command it.’

True leisure and silence have become incredibly rare, and even more so in the half-century since PG-H wrote those words. Of course a love of music and a need of music are of vital importance to anyone who would compose music – but I would venture to say that a love of, a need and respect for silence comes even before that.


If you would like to find out more about Peggy Glanville-Hicks, read my article, Peggy Glanville-Hicks: A lifetime’s search for leisure and silence at minim-media.com

A new approach for composers

Today I discovered a new site from the American Music Center via their ever-fabulous New Music Box. It’s called Meet the Composer Studio and it’s a fan-funding site along the lines of Kickstarter or ArtistShare. The difference being that (naturally) the projects on the site are all by American serious-music composers. MTC have chosen, in collaboration with performers who will perform the completed works, six composers in three US cities to complete commissions for the projects, which can then be funded by fans – from $5 for a personalised postcard from your composer up to $5000 to be the Lead Commissioner of the new work and everything in between.

I love the idea of fan-funding. I love that composers (and, indeed artists of all types) can move back to a position of interaction with the people who actually listen to their music. That a commission doesn’t have to be down to one person alone, as with historical models – it doesn’t have to be the result of a particular ensemble finding the money to fund a new work, or an individual who has the money to pay for new work finding the composer who needs that funding. I like that even if you don’t have much cash, you can be part of helping to fund new art. Obviously, MTC is in its first iteration and the model is new, but sites like Kickstarter have proven that the model can work, and I think for contemporary classical music it’s a fantastic approach – in recent times too many composers have had to make the incredibly hard decision of whether to compose without financial reward or to wait for a commission, or to not compose at all.

The other aspect I find interesting about Meet The Composer Studio is that the transactions suggested aren’t simple “money = new music” transactions. The model is encouraging the composers to provide bonuses for investors. Most of the composers are offering an option for a signed CD, signed score, a lesson with the composer, some of them offering more social options – dinner with your chosen composer. And the higher the investment amount the more of these bonuses are included. It’s a real expansion of the traditional funding model, and one that’s more in keeping with a world where social networks can enable personal connections even with people you’ve never met. The downside to it is that the composer has to work harder for their money – it’s not as simple as being paid for composition – but it takes advantage of other aspects of the composer which are marketable – the hand-written score, a composer-drawing, personal contact. Self-promotion is by necessity becoming more inventive.

The composers are also providing blog posts, audio and video posts as the project progresses, which should provide a very interesting document of different composers’ creative processes. I can’t wait to see how successful this project is and how feasible this model might become to perhaps replace the day-job as a composer’s main source of income.