20 July 2014

MFA Graduation Recital Program Notes (iv):
Why I Hate Program Notes (and you should too)
Part 2 of 4

Just as the nineteenth century profusion of pianos enabled broader musical participation at the cost of encouraging rote learning, so the explosion of words accompanying music constituted an equally insidious push-button instrument for the masses to blindly hammer away at. Reduced for much of his career to eking out a living writing popular criticism, Berlioz ironically grew deeply embittered by and distrustful of this new industry so inextricably linked with his own brand of musico-literary fusion. He also occupied a curious interstice in the social history of the orchestra, that is after it had ceased to be exclusively tethered to the court and the church but before most all of the major modern symphonic organizations had become firmly and independently established in the public sphere. As just one representative facet of the seismic societal and musico-social changes which gripped nineteenth-century Europe, that process would see the music acquire much heavier baggage than mere narrative associations: indeed, polemics of high versus popular taste escalated in bitterness, concert attendance itself became an articulation of class distinction, and a quasi-religious fervor developed around the notion of classical music as moral uplift and the artist as spiritual guide. Concurrently, “musical as well as other works of art became commodities, the worth of which depended on their salability in a free market consisting of a new, anonymous general public,” and in turn, “the spread of periodicals, the expansion of publication, and the growth of criticism attested to this commercial spirit attuned to the requirements of mass consumption and coupled with the rise of a vast complex of bourgeois musical organizations.” (Porter, 1980: 212) In tracing the ways that program annotation, as one musicological institution within this larger burgeoning industry of writing about music, both affected and was affected by these larger musical and social developments, I trust it will become clearer yet why the convention gives me pause as a practicing contemporary musician.

Befitting such an insidious convention, the nitty-gritty history of program notes is elusive, mostly strewn about in small bits among monographs on more prestigious musicological topics. Exceedingly few such volumes contain entries for the topic in the index, and those that do tend to have, ironically, the least to offer in quantity, if not necessarily quality, of information. The notes themselves, of course, would tell the story better than any secondary source, but lacking, for the moment at least, the will or capacity to undertake even a cursory survey of such a vast corpus, I rely below on the most widely available secondary literature to demonstrate how the advent of the practice reflects the aforementioned “baggage;” that is, the social privileging of refined taste, the conflation of the aesthetic and the moral, and a predominance of terms of musicological dialogue designed to sell music first and describe it second.

The first two of these postures ceased to be common practice in program annotation even before being as broadly and decisively rejected across postmodern Western musical culture as they have in recent decades; the third, on the other hand, is bound to persist as long as there is music and a marketplace for it. In any case, it is my contention here that the very gesture of supplying program notes necessarily carries these three postures along with it, no matter the wholesomeness of stated intentions, the level of erudition, or the historical veracity of their content. This is to say that in telling the listener something, anything, about the work which is not transparent in a conscientious audition, the annotator privileges a refined understanding of the work over an unrefined one, a given set of descriptive terminology over all other possible sets, and between these two acts thereby creates an ethic to which listeners conform to greater or lesser degrees depending on their willingness and ability to assimilate to the prescribed framework.

Should it be disputed whether anything quite so sinister could possibly inhere in the seemingly innocuous annotation practices of contemporary symphonic organizations and academic institutions, it is important to emphasize that the very concept of program annotation did not exist until such ethics, as I have called them, had observably become no less than an integral part of the culture which spawned the common practice classical music to which they were first applied. In other words, as Carse (1940: 13) writes, “We cannot picture an 18th century Italian opera audience, the ruling prince of a German state, the Paris aristocracy, the ‘quality’ or ‘haute ton’ of 18th century London being taught musical appreciation by any composer. They would soon have sent about his business anyone who had tried to do so.” Indeed, the emergence of program annotation directly parallels the emergence of classical music into the public sphere, the perceived need for this music to be explained (or, as it is more frequently put today, to explain itself) springing directly from its presentation to audiences for whom it was quite unfamiliar. And if the groups Carse lists might with some justification be villainized as elitist dinosaurs by contemporary social-democratic standards, it is then necessary to ask whether prescribing modes of musical engagement as thoroughly as nineteenth century classical music culture attempted to does not in fact betray the presence of the selfsame problematic ideologies. There is a difference, after all, between beating the aristocracy and joining them.

It must also be clarified here that if the courting of uninitiated listeners under a humanistic guise seemingly points to a material similarity with more recent classical music culture, this is so only under the auspices of the flickering embers of past centuries’ unsustainable expansionism (or rather, sustainable only by resorting specifically to the undue circumscription of the listening experience as a means of control). Questions of “outreach” or aesthetic “accessibility” are seldom the altruistic tacks they purport to be, a condition which can indeed be observed as readily today as it can in so many chronicles of nineteenth century European and American high musical culture. In other words, it is the influence of the market more so than that of either navel-gazing philosophers or sappy sentimentalists which has made the archetype of the “naive” or “uninitiated” listener such a powerful rhetorical device in the unfolding colloquial dialogue surrounding classical music institutions under which much discussion of program annotation remains necessarily subsumed, so much so that one might reasonably suggest “untapped” be used in place of those two more obfuscatory, mystifying terms. Such it is as well that the most visible contemporary representatives of the Western musical tradition, in spite of this tradition’s exceptional breadth and depth, have arrived more or less by their own volition at the absurd condition of allowing the terms of discourse on this and many other matters of no small importance to be dictated by the least experienced observers, if not in fact by erroneous assumptions and focus group generalities about such people.

Skepticism of that nature aside for just a moment, I would dare venture that in a broader sense, there is today most truly a stronger and more wholly altruistic desire than ever before to ensure access to concert music experiences for as many people as possible, and would assure the reader that my remarks here are made very much in accordance with this outlook and not in opposition to it. My concern, rather, is to ensure that those very qualities which impel practitioners to share the music with others are not simply maimed in the process. The term “elitism” is too often thrown around with impunity here, usually at the suggestion that concert music (or art generally) is not for everyone, a position which the most profligate slingers of the e-word will customarily find implicit in the argument I have outlined above. This familiar tantrum amounts to nothing more than an ad hominem mischaracterization. Rather, in such terms, my position would more accurately be stated as holding that concert music may or may not be “for” any given individual possessing any given cultural background living in any given social context; that everyone deserves access and exposure to concert music, but that having been provided such access and exposure it be left solely to the will of the individual to determine if and how they become or remain involved; and that institutionalized interference in this process of individual mediation with received musical culture and tradition represents an abridgment of the will, and is thus thoroughly at odds with democratic (and indeed, counter-elitist) ideals.

It must be granted, of course, given that musical cultures are ultimately just networks of human beings, complete with all of our attendant vanities, fallacies, and vicissitudes, that there can be no perfectly unencumbered process of discovery, just as there can be no perfect force applied to an object without some small degree of friction. There is, even so, something inherently essentialist about the gesture of program annotation, and it is an essentialism thoroughly at odds with the practice’s clearly non-essential role even in the concert music culture from which it spawns. There is hardly an instinct so universally shared among musical minds of all stripes as the need to proselytize for one’s most cherished works, and yet we must not fail to recognize at the heart of this impulse a desire, however seemingly trivial or innocuous, for control and self-validation. The notion of “letting the music speak for itself,” then, is not so easily dismissed (or embraced) solely on aesthetic or philosophical grounds without also considering its ethical ramifications.

Concert music’s expansionist legacy, meanwhile, continues to militate against this kind of openness at every turn, customarily donning the clothes of altruism to conceal its agenda. The right of abstention, a hallmark of free societies, ceases to be recognized by a culture-industrial complex that measures success in dollars, with faux-liberationist declarations that art is, in fact, for everyone trotted out merely to mask the unsightly gainfulness at play behind the scenes. In light of this condition, so widely observable today from the level of the individual arts entrepreneur all the way up to the largest arts organizations, one might reasonably posit any number of hidden premises lurking not far beneath the surface of any appeal to program annotation as an outreach tool, and it is upon evaluation of such premises which that observer’s opinion of the practice might reasonably hinge. The premises to which I refer are so well-known as to have become trite, but they remain contentious: that relevant technical understanding and historical knowledge equate directly to greater musical enjoyment, and that these forms of experience, which musicians acquire directly through their studies and practices, can be indirectly synthesized in a listener simply by communicating them verbally.

A wholehearted belief in these premises on the part of individuals known to have played key roles in escalating program annotation from an impulsive, naive, informal practice to an ubiquitous, professionalized one is significant but does not by itself particularly distinguish them from a great many contemporary musicians who live by the selfsame principles. The more crucial points are that (1) these premises were seldom their only nor even their primary concerns, and (2) that these extra-aesthetic concerns, particularly those such as nationalism and expansionism which could rightly be called ideologies, were and are intensely problematic. To be clear, it is superfluous here to deal in the same type of slippery abstractions as does the atheist who condemns the music of Bach for being Lutheran or the populist who attacks Haydn’s music as elitist; aesthetics and functionality alike have redeemed these composers for observers of many, if not all, such stripes. Rather, if the very scene of program annotation is similarly polluted, this is merely incidental to the fact that the practice does not so much serve the aforementioned ideologies as these ideologies inhere in its very fabric regardless of stated intentions, thus putting redeeming qualities out of the question. The only way to win, then, is not to play the game.


The seemingly modern innovation of the pre-concert talk, one branch of what twentieth century composer and critic Virgil Thomson so colorfully dubbed the “appreciation racket,” was in fact visible in German musical culture at least as early as the 1770s in the work of Johann Nikolaus Forkel at the University of Gottingen. As put by Riley (2003: 414),
Unaware that later generations would come to regard his lifetime as a golden age in the history of composition, [Forkel] diagnosed a fateful decline in musical culture since the days of J. S. Bach in the first half of the century. In Gottingen he vigorously set about remedial action, which involved an ambitious attempt to educate his audience. In free, public lectures that accompanied his concerts, Forkel offered nothing less than a complete course in music theory, starting from first principles in acoustics.
Riley’s contextualization of these efforts within the German philosophical tradition Forkel inherited is worth excerpting at length:
...faith in the value of the untrained percipient’s immediate reactions was typical of mid-eighteenth-century German attitudes to the arts. It was given formal expression by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in his Aesthetica (1750-8). Baumgarten reorientated the German rationalist philosophical tradition that had...shown little interest in art, distrusting any form of mental activity that did not meet the exacting standards of reason and logic. Baumgarten offered instead a systematic investigation of ‘sensory cognition’: the work of the ‘lower cognitive faculties’ such as the senses and the imagination. His treatise simultaneously had a pedagogical agenda, since it was intended to promote the ‘art of thinking beautifully’, in other words, to show how the sensory cognition it described could be perfected. This would involve not rigorous instruction, but the ‘exercise’ of the lower faculties through exposure to suitable aesthetic objects. Stated in the musicians’ terms, Baumgarten was describing a programme for cultivating the perception of a Liebhaber [musical amateur or casual listener] without resorting to the communication of theoretical, ‘pre-aesthetic’ information.

Forkel, like most critics of the arts of his generation, absorbed Baumgarten’s aesthetic vocabulary. But he set much less store than his predecessors by the Liebhaber’s musical intuitions; his faith lay instead in the informed judgement of the Kenner [trained musician]. . . Forkel's goal was to eliminate the divergence of taste and judgement between the two groups of listeners by exposing the Liebhaber to the Kenner’s technical knowledge. (2003: 417)
In that last sentence, contemporary readers will recognize not one but two polemics which remain familiar in our own time, and while evaluating careless assertions about the impact of musico-technical training on the listening experience remains a pressing task, I will concern myself here with interrogating the broader desire to “eliminate the divergence of taste and judgment” among the stakeholders in any given musical culture, a recurring theme in the history of program annotation regarding which questions of conditioning are just one of several important facets.

Stated so baldly, this is an objective which smacks variously of idealism, hubris, essentialism, and, at its most extreme, repression; and though today we might charitably and relativistically absolve a thinker of Forkel’s milieu from such harsh judgments leveled on contemporary terms, the perseverance of such worldviews in art music culture right through to the present day nonetheless demands explication. Such an endeavor becomes yet more pressing following the realization that this view cannot be so neatly pidgeonholed as belonging exclusively to either modernism or elitism, but in fact lives in the minds of ostensibly populist, postmodern musicians as well. Consider one such example, the composer and critic Kyle Gann, who rails against the notion of an intractable diversity of listening styles with some regularity on his widely read weblog Postclassic, in one such instance reluctantly quoting “the late James Tenney, whom I admired in so many ways, saying, ‘I can’t think about the listener, because there is no such thing as the listener. Everyone listens differently.’” Gann calls this position “one of the field’s most widely aped platitudes,” claiming that it is trotted out by academic composers with unseemly motives and obvious shortcomings merely to insulate themselves from criticism. (Gann, 2013) Timely as that critique may be, there is nonetheless an incongruously essentialist tinge to Gann’s die-hard insistence that musical taste is, or should be, inherently tractable, and hence a strikingly bare internal contradiction in his position that “there are musics that I myself dearly love...that I would never write, because they are esoteric enough to seem predestined for only a narrow specialist appeal, even though it’s wide enough to include me.” (Gann, 2010)

Forkel and Gann are just two individual thinkers separated by vast temporal and music-historical distances, but their cases make convenient endpoints within which to bracket the present discussion. They also invite the common conclusion that the best of intentions vis-a-vis “the audience” can go quite astray in absence of any reliable theory of mass listenership on which to base them. I suppose that the theory I am ultimately espousing here (evidently in the illustrious company of Tenney, for whatever that is worth) is that the only such assumption that can be taken at all seriously is indeed that “everyone listens differently.” I am not prepared to investigate that claim with the thoroughness it demands, nor is such an expedition advisable within the confines of the present study. It is possible (and relevant), however, to namecheck this theory’s happiest potential consequence independent of whether it is true or not, namely the enabling and tolerance of diversity. If creative ferment among Western musicians, like an intellectual gene pool of sorts, has historically thrived on a certain diversity of thought, and just as clearly suffocated under the weight of incestuous academic codification, it seems plainly reasonable that the same could be said of listenership. This is, of course, a vastly oversimplified analysis, but it sums up quite well the worldview for which I am advocating here, one which thus militates strongly against the notion of annotated programs which, whatever their value as distanced scholarship, run greatly afoul of this individualism in purporting to intervene in the act of listening itself.

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