Acknowledging musical influence: A useful habit

Yesterday I read (yet another) great post by Nico Muhly – this time he was talking about influence and how “journalists ‘call out’ influence as if it were some secret, unspeakable sexual perversion”. Obviously, Muhly has way more experience of journalists than I do, but I entirely agree with his point of being ‘fully transparent’ about our influences.

I’ve always liked Muhly’s approach to influences – he wears his as a badge of honour and in a way I feel it’s a bit like how pianists are so proud of their tuition lineage – you know, when they learn from a teacher who can trace their teachers all the way back to Beethoven. But in the case of a composer, being upfront about our influences is not just about lineage – it can also give a useful point of reference for understanding and enjoying our work.

In the article, Muhly creates a list of some of his influences, and the way he writes shows how important these composers are to him:

When I map out the emotional structure of a piece on a single piece of paper, I think of John Corigliano. When I put a sforzando accent on the and of 4 if in 4/4 time, I pour one out for Christopher Rouse. When I use certain chord structures, I know I’m taking them from Stravinsky. When I do a crazy multi-instrumental smudge of harmonies and their aggressors, I wish Boulez would come over my house. When I use certain harmonic modulations and motoric gestures, I thank, and sometimes email in advance homage, John Adams.

All this gives a really clear impression of whether you might like this person’s music, so you can make an informed decision about whether to listen or not. I’m all for trying out listening to stuff you might not like – simply because you might learn something, and that something might be that you actually do like it – but with so much new music out there to listen to, it does help to know what you’re getting yourself into.

I’m going to take a little turn here into the world of web development, which many of you will know is my dayjob. Part of what I do is to help people optimise their sites for search engines. Long gone are the days when you just wanted as many ‘hits’ as possible; it’s now widely acknowledged that the better approach is to get fewer hits, but more relevant ones – for those visitors to be actively interested in what you have to say. So the information you provide about a piece – including your influences in writing it – helps to set people’s expections. Manage expectations and you’ll get a better response – maybe not as many plays, but an overall more positive reception.

We should never be afraid of turning people away if what we do makes it easier for our music to be found and heard by its ‘right people’, and I am convinced that being upfront about our influences can help with that.

The usefulness of being clear about your influences can also help people who are trying to programme your music. One of the best concerts I ever went to was a Britten Sinfonia concert where they were premiering a new commission by Nico Muhly (Impossible Things) and the whole programme was constructed around this piece and based on key influences on his music and it was amazing – just like stepping inside his head! The programme started with Purcell and Tippett, then Britten and Steve Reich, so that by the time we got to the new commission you could clearly hear all these things going on in the new piece. I can’t imagine a better way to make a new piece easily comprehensible – especially to a non-specialist audience – than by presenting it in the context of older music that has influenced it.

Composers need to stand up and be proud of their influences – to do so is not only honest but helpful. As Muhly says, “We are all wearing the cloaks of influence all the time, and we should all, as composers, proudly announce the labels on these vestments.”

How do you approach your influences? Do you acknowledge them when you write or talk about your work? Share your opinion in the comments!

Connecting through the score

The starting point for this post lies in discussions I’ve been having with Simone O’Callaghan on her use of two-dimensional barcodes (QR codes) to expand her print artworks into the digital dimension. It’s got me thinking about how we composers could use this technology to improve on the standard print-score-or-audio-file offerings which to my mind limit the options we have for promoting understanding of our music.

QR codes provide a link to a particular web address. You use the camera on your phone (or your laptop’s webcam), together with a decoder app such as i-nigma: Scan the barcode via the app and it will take you off to the website. No typing required, just snap and go.

It would be an easy matter to set up a dedicated page or site section for a piece containing extra information which might be useful for people looking at a score and have that content accessible via QR code. The question is, what information or interaction could be provided that might help listeners understand more, and encourage performers to take the plunge and perform our work?

I came up with the following fairly random list. Some things are eminently achievable, others a bit wacky and out of the realms of probability but I wanted to try to stretch the idea as far as it would go and see if any of the ideas sound feasible to implement in the here and now.

Most basic, requiring only initial posting and subsequent updating. No real interaction:

  • Link to a recording of a piece, which can then be updated as better performances occur and are recorded
  • Provide recordings/scores of variant versions of a piece which might provide insight for users preparing a performance or interested in the process
  • Analysis and full programme notes for the piece – content that is more detailed or longer than is appropriate for brief front-of-score notes, but which may aid with understanding the work.
  • Pre-recorded rehearsal parts (e.g. the piano part for a song cycle, orchestra part for a concerto) for download to help with learning the piece and help amateur players create a performance even if they don’t have access to other performers.
  • Pieces requiring tape parts could have the performance-quality tape part available for download in a variety of formats, whether as the primary method of distribution or as a backup for a physical CD version
  • Information about performances and recordings, both archived and upcoming

Slightly more advanced, requiring more active/regular participation from users or the composer:

  • A forum where performers and listeners can raise questions specific to that piece, which the composer can respond to. This then provides a further resource for future visitors
  • Updates to the score or variants may be produced based on forum feedback or to respond to specific requests. These new versions can then be uploaded to the site.
  • A list of blog posts relating to the creation of the work – for me, I track my work on pieces most days I’m working on them via One Creative Thing. I don’t always go into a lot of detail, but possibly some of it could be useful and could give a good idea of what else was happening at the time to influence the development of the work. Many composer-bloggers will talk about their work in progress to a certain extent and simple tagging of posts with a composition name can give an opportunity to easily provide a list like this.
  • Ability for site users to list a performance of a work

More advanced and probably cloud-cuckoo-land, requiring a full community using and connecting through the system:

  • Users able to upload audio/video recordings of their own performances of a piece. I can see this being of most use to amateur performers in terms of feedback on their performance – but it could also then be a great resource for the composer, who could then contact a performer who produced a particularly good interpretation and ask to use their recording on the public site.
  • Performers connecting with each other: Sort of a personals column for musicians – “I’m a flautist in London and I really want to play this piece, but I don’t know anyone who could play the viola or piano parts – anybody interested?”

Not sure whether I’ll actually do anything with this yet, but I’m thinking about it…

 

Do you know anyone who’s doing something like this? Is there anything you think might be useful in such a system? Let me know in the comments!

Follow up: The digital dimension: 1a. Programme notes

I am delighted to say that I have been proven to be ignorant and behind the times. Yay!

My last article on programme notes – being oh-so-long-ago as it was – ended up sparking a bit of a discussion on Twitter which has revealed – thanks to the very knowledgeable @frindley – that approaches along the lines of those I outlined are already in use all over the place. It seems that the UK (or at least the concert-going parts of it that I frequent) is rather behind the times even by selling programmes and that many organisations are now giving away programmes and putting all sorts of notes online too. Apparently orchestras all over the place are embracing programme notes as a way of educating their audiences and helping them enjoy the music more, and that the sort of daunting analytical programme note which sparked the whole debate is becoming a very rare beast.

Well, hallelujah, I say. I couldn’t be happier to have been proved out of touch. I won’t rabbit on about it because I’m bound to say something foolish, but as a couple of examples, have a look at the online programme notes produced by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (who also give out free hard-copy programmes) – loads of meaty but readable and helpful content, barely any ads (unlike many paid-for programmes I see) – and CityMusic Cleveland which does a nice line in audio snippets to illustrate the text and gives details of the recordings used too (if this link fails – it looks like it might be season-specific but I couldn’t see an archive – try going to their homepage, then choose Program Notes under the Concerts menu item).

As an additional item of interest, relating to my suggestion that online programme notes could be part of a pre-concert programme purchase option, @frindley tells me that in her organisation, while audiences responded well to the idea of pre-purchase (of hard-copy programme books), they didn’t act on it – I guess this isn’t hugely surprising, given buying behaviour on the web (generally cagey) and traditional patterns, but it’s an interesting snippet nevertheless – it’s good to know when something’s been tried and hasn’t worked just as much as when it has worked. And if the trend towards free programmes continues, it ceases to be a relevant option anyway.

So there you have it. I’m out of touch and orchestras the world over are embracing the digital dimension. Wonderful!


Is your local orchestra or other ensemble being innovative with their programme notes in some way? Tell me in the comments!

 

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.