experience is becoming more rare. Even I, a cinephile, watch more films at home
on the sofa than at the cinema any more.
and thus more precious. Two-thousand people in Powell Hall listening, watching,
experiencing, engaging in a performing art form that calls for the precision
and deft maneuvers and invisible communication of tightrope walkers--although in
this case it is 100 tightrope walkers on the same wire together.
audiences need more than the experience itself?
the sense of the collective experience be reinforced? It needs to be, for such
experiences are endangered species, being extinguished by the growth and
proliferation of the individual, Google-guided experience.
notes are best as narratives--the telling of stories that audiences share, whether
they read them online, on the page, before or after the concert. Narratives
that don't necessarily take you into
the music--only the music can do that--but at best runs parallel. Here is a
journey I have taken in this music, the author's approach may be, let me share
it with you, and you, and you.
as simple as "Elgar was playing a tune one day..." or "Beethoven was looking for
a hit..." or "I was befuddled by the music of Ligeti until..." Music is a human
utterance, made from a given place and time for both a known audience (the
composer's present time) and an unknown audience (our present time). Music is
made to compete with rivals, to seduce, to make money. Telling the story of how
music is made out of need and desire connects to all our human needs and
desires. It is made relevant (another word I've never much cared for, but after
a life of working in the arts, I know it's a word I have to own up to).
notes may be thought of less as guides or information providers or mediators or
"greatness" allocators. Program notes may help to establish the moment of the
performance itself, the relevance of the moment--the moment as conduit between
time past, present and future; the moment of shared experience--and may serve as
a connector. We all perceive differently, but somehow we also create a shared
reality out of all those singular perceptions. The authorial voice, the
storyteller, may bind us, or spellbind us: stories of Messiaen's birds, Steve
Reich's trains, Thomas Adès' ecstasy trips. Narrative has the power to help us
connect. It always has.
voice that takes you alongside the roaring river of music. It leads you to a
bridge. You perceive all the sound, all the motion of that river. You recognize
its full power. The voice dares you: Jump in.
Otello, among other things I learned
about Modernism. I learned about uncompromising artists such as Ezra Pound who
thought if you couldn't read Greek or Sanskrit, you could learn it and then maybe you could get a handle on his
poetry. He sure wasn't going to explain it to you.
liked that approach. Terms such as "user friendly" or "accessible" were not in
vogue. I could not have imagined that they ever would be. I liked the idea of
the primacy of art and artists. I still do personally, but it doesn't help much
with making program notes in the early part of the 21st century.
lot has happened since The Ed Sullivan
Show. Whereas Ed never explained anything, you may now go to any fine-arts
museum today and order up a headset. You may then stand before any artwork and
listen to a voice telling you what to think about that artwork. People pay for
those headsets. Sometimes it's a movie star telling you.
now walk by works of art, take a picture of a painting or sculpture with their
magic phone, and then move to the next painting or sculpture. Repeat.
are in the age of mediated culture, which means we are in the age of mediated
reality. Few things are experienced without a screen through which to view and
record: instant memory! Reality needs to be realized through something--a
gadget, a device, a guide.
all that--this amazing rapid shift in human consciousness--I know that I should
not be so aggravated by the very low-tech program notes (although they are
available online). They are downright homely in comparison to all the other
vehicles through which we are bombarded with information. Moreover, dare I say
it, program notes may be irrelevant. Anyone may gather information about
anything whenever and however they want. Why rely on printed--how archaic!--program
notes? The information age is a DIY world.
it is with this idea I come to realize a reason for program notes to be.
installment tomorrow, honest)
I was in junior high our band teacher packed us onto a bus bound for the opera
house in Portland, Oregon, just a few miles up the interstate, to see a matinee
of Verdi's Otello. I suspect our band
teacher had given us some sort of preparation for the opera experience. I remember
him telling us something about how opera was the highest form of music, which
was ridiculous to us given that outside of the band room we were listening to Jimi Hendrix.
sure we were handed programs by the ushers. I might even have one in a scrapbook
somewhere. And there was probably a synopsis of the story in those programs. I
really don't remember.
I do remember are sets that towered and made the Cyprian port an expansive dreamscape.
And then those voices--the powerful, brutish but gorgeous Otello; the
heart-wrenching Desdemona; the wily, villainous, yet captivating Iago.
couldn't stop applauding. A bunch of kids from a mill town in Oregon, stomping
our feet for Otello. That was more
than 40 years ago.
I had my nose in the program notes, following along with the scenes, what would
my memory be? Would I remember anything at all?
(to be continued)
always been fascinated by art. I don't know why. My dad used to be the
president of the school board in the district in rural northern Idaho where I
was born and where I attended the first and second grades. I remember he invited the
teachers from our grade school to the farmhouse one summer, and I prepared for
this by making the teachers individual gifts: works of art. I took my lined
tablet and with crayon colored in a different color between each line. Then I
cut these ribbons of color with scissors and presented it to each teacher. I
wonder if those color ribbons were not an early sign that I would be attracted
to minimalist art.
left the farm. We moved to another small town in the West. My cultural
experiences came from TV, magazines, books and movies. There was a show called The Ed Sullivan Show, which just about
everybody watched on Sunday nights. He had Elvis Presley on his show. He had
the Beatles on his show. Imagine almost the entire country watching one thing
that isn't the Super Bowl. That's what The
Ed Sullivan Show was.
Sullivan didn't just present rock & rollers. Opera singers--Joan Sutherland,
Beverly Sills--were on the show. James Earl Jones performed a scene from The Great White Hope with the entire
Broadway cast. Standup comics--George Carlin, Richard Pryor--were on. Circus elephants were on. Rudolf Nureyev danced. Natalya Makarova danced "The Dying Swan" and millions of children--boys and girls--tried to imitate her the next day. The poet Carl Sandburg strummed a guitar and droned on about Lincoln.
Sullivan took high and low culture and mixed it all up so that some people
began to get a notion that there really wasn't a difference between the two.
Weren't some of those comics as artful at what they were doing as Joan
Sutherland was singing from La Bohème?
Weren't the Beatles doing amazing things with melody, harmony, rhythm--and in
the later psychedelic years, sound itself? And wasn't that as interesting
as anything Aaron Copland was writing?
Ed Sullivan, who looked like a zombie on stage long before zombies were hugely
popular, never explained anything.
(to be continued on the Monday post, have a good weekend!)
unravel my dilemma, please allow me a little self-exploration. Clearly my
revulsion toward program notes comes from somewhere. And I admit that revulsion
is too strong a word, but here's a good rule for writers: Be provocative. Be
isn't that a problem with program notes? They're too nicey-nice. Everything
you're hearing is great. Every composer fits unreservedly within the pantheon of classical music. It's all beautiful.
things aren't interesting to say. They're especially not interesting to read. So
what should be open on your lap at the concert? Nothing? I suggest that and I'm
out of a job.
I have no need to worry about job security--at least relating to managing the printed program--because audiences want program notes. They want
information. They want, as the saying goes, "a way into the music."
As if music
weren't the most penetrable art form of them all.
backtrack, and give you some perspective on the times I've lived through, and
how they inform, color, and admittedly distort my view of program notes. And
I'll try to do this without boring you about how things were back in my day--but
rather as a way to show you more about what things might be like in our day--to
give some perspective on what we're all living through together: the most
concentrated and rapid shift in human consciousness in human history.
how that indeed has something to do with program notes, and my hatred of them.
of my duties is the editing of the program notes. I don't write program notes,
but I've read plenty of them, in St. Louis and those written for other
orchestras. I figure I must know something about program notes, which I why I
feel confident in saying what I am about to say.
thinking: It's all there for you. Listen. Watch (because the concert experience
is visual too). Be here. Now! You don't need to read this stuff while you're
experiencing it. Moreover, I think you are distancing yourself from the
experience by reading the notes. Put the book down!
as you can tell, I'm in a bit of a dilemma.
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