Composers, use your words: Why writing program notes is so difficult

When the dots are on the page and the score is 99% finished, I face one final barrier before sending new music out into the world: program notes. There’s a yawning void on the inside cover page that must be filled. I meet it with a blank stare.

As though coming up with musical ideas, text, pitch materials, rhythms, and harmonies – not to mention time to write, notate, edit, and proofread after finding a ensemble to perform your work (hopefully with a commission at professional rates) – wasn’t hard enough, each score then demands a smart-sounding set of words to help describe itself.

Does this music mean something to me? What should people know about it? Why have I done this, anyway?

Program notes. Because I wanted to.

We composers can use program notes to educate our audiences. Those notes help conductors, performers, and concert goers (when the notes are actually printed in a program, at least) learn why the music is important to the composer and maybe what they hope to express.

Other than a pre-concert speech, the program notes are usually our only chance to explain and introduce ourselves and our work. Well written program notes (like a good title) can also stoke the audience’s imagination and help them connect with the music. This also helps us make a good first impression.

Sounds exciting, right? Kind of. There are many problems:

  • By the time I need to write program notes it is often late at night at the end of the project. Brain power is low.
  • Summoning the will to find some kind of objective viewpoint that can describe the totality of what I’ve done is overwhelming.
  • The words will be printed on the score forever (until the next version) and I’ll undoubtedly disagree with them later.
  • Music is supposed to help me describe things without words, but now all it demands is more words. This seems unfair to my tired brain.

Sometimes, in a state of near-exhausted delusion, I just want to type, in the pouty voice of a five year old:

“PROGRAM NOTES: I did it because I wanted to.

or

“PROGRAM NOTES: Just listen, already!”

These are not my best moments, but they’re real.

Can’t music survive without asking why? #JustifyYourExistence

Thanks to the internet, I know I’m not the only person who struggles with this tiny bit of writing. Composer Brandon Nelson (@brandonjnelson) tweeted this truth nugget, to which I replied:

Mental energy is valuable. Why should I explain why I composed something? Can’t the music speak for itself? Should people feel obligated to read my description? Shouldn’t the focus be on savouring the sound, rather than worrying about the inspiration or my life circumstances or that the french horns will announce the symbolic death of the dear beloved with a sombre fanfare or that the composer was deeply affected by his childhood cat?

“warehouse of souls”

Admittedly, I’m a bit sensitive to this issue right now because I recently completed a new piece for chamber choir called “warehouse of souls” that, I felt, called for a lengthy explanation of what I was thinking. It wasn’t easy, because there is a lot to say, and say clearly.

The score makes a mashup of the words of some well-known politicians who have spoken publicly about the global refugee and migrant crisis. It’s a big topic focused into six minutes of choral singing.

The music skips abruptly from one statement, one mood to another, eventually becoming something I called the “non-committal bullshit cloud” – a sort of swirling haze of meaningless words thrown together haphazardly. It has moments of intense beauty, tortured comedy, and confusing apathy.

It’s unlike any other piece I’ve written.

Borealis Choir and director Ben Ewert commissioned “warehouse of souls” and will be the first to perform it during the choir’s upcoming Politicoro concert in Edmonton, Canada on February 8, 2017.

Every piece of music, every score is an opportunity to communicate something important.

Some people will enjoy the music without any preparation and will take from it what they will. That can be healthy.

Others, maybe the most enthusiastic concert-goers, will spend extra time to really try and ask “What were they thinking?”, or “Why does this sound this way?” I’d like to help those people too, because I appreciate their passion and attention.

Program notes, you’re a golden opportunity. I’ll try and keep it together long enough to respect that.

p.s. Here’s an example of some program notes that I’m still proud of. It comes from the inside cover of an orchestral piece called “The Alms Tree”:

The Alms Tree program notes

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You can find a bunch of other program notes (and more importantly, music) by clicking through to my catalogue here.

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