20 July 2014

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

In proffering this necessarily incomplete frisson of critical perspectives and my own occasional commentary and conjecture based upon them, it has been my objective to paint the history of program annotation in three phases, the program note’s late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century forerunners being defined by spontaneity and pragmatism, its catching on in the mid-nineteenth century being hastened by classical music’s emergence into the public sphere and the free market, and, from the late-nineteenth century, its acceptance and ubiquity in classical music culture, bolstered officially by the values of professionalism, eloquence, and humanism, and unofficially by economic expansionism and the will to power, remaining largely unquestioned. To these three important periods, each of which continues to leave its imprint on contemporary classical music criticism in much the same manner that musical styles themselves are variously revived and absorbed over time, I would add a fourth and equally important recent development: the program note as required coursework for music students. This is a circumstance which, to state what should by now be obvious, I see as effectively and thoroughly making the implicit explicit, laying bare the inherent philosophical and ideological problems with program annotation in a manner which is less easily coddled than it has been throughout the practice’s first two centuries of widespread acceptance.

It would be reasonable to assume that as program note writing became increasingly professionalized, as it thus became an important income source for those who practiced it at the highest levels, and as it concurrently was, some would say, itself elevated to an art form in the hands of its greatest practitioners, greater academic currency was inevitable. I for one, however, have found no reason to think based on either scholarly or anecdotal sources that the practice’s most overdetermined advocacy within the academy is motivated by anything quite so innocuous. Rather, the drive to institutionalize program annotation in courses of pre-professional musical training is quite clearly rooted in expedience rather than idealism, the task itself being, as advocates miss no opportunity to point out, an inherently multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary one. This is to say that a student's writing, research, marketing, and performance preparation skills all factor into the final product, and knowledge acquired in core undergraduate classes (which increasingly include a Music Business component) must thus be applied to a “real life” musical situation of just the type to which music schools of all stripes are under escalating (if largely self-imposed) pressure to subject their charges.

While a superficial name-checking of such considerations has become commonplace, the deeper philosophical questions raised by such developments are customarily ignored. In any case, experience will show, I think, that even the supposedly pragmatic, real-world conditioning thought to follow from such requirements is a red herring. To wit: this being no less than the fifth academic recital I have put on, to say nothing of the several dozen others on which I have collaborated, what eventually becomes most striking about the experience in contrast to one’s concurrent and subsequent professional activities is the highly controlled nature of the situation and its minimal bearing on anything whatsoever that might be encountered post-graduation, first and foremost because the audience for academic degree recitals, if there is to be one at all, is near-exclusively comprised of specialists and personal acquaintances. This condition has become so widely and frequently maligned for so many reasons that raising it here might seem too obvious a tack; is it not fair to say, though, that such a setting well and truly obviates the need for program notes by virtually any measure? This is hardly the ideal curatorial laboratory it is made out to be: rather, students may write notes for their known audience in a manner which has little application to any other listeners, or write notes for an imaginary, uninitiated audience as an empty academic exercise of precisely the type advocates of the practice explicitly disavow. (The third option, to do the absolute minimum amount of work needed to earn a passing grade for the recital, typically resulting in notes which achieve nothing whatsoever by either standard, is of course the most popular choice, raising a host of issues that must necessarily be tabled for the moment.)

As the ravenous two-headed monster of general-academic and discipline-specific accreditation increasingly squeezes the life out of music school curricula, such composite assignments become increasingly attractive for their potential to combine many requirements into a single task which can be rolled into the student’s existing course load under the heading of applied instrumental study, recital preparation, or other courses which students are already required to take. It is not my task here to question the validity of ascribing such value to the practice within an academic context. All else being equal, the maneuver seems to me in fact rather logical, perhaps even a bit clever. My objection even so is that all else is never quite equal here; that such an institutionalization of program annotation offers none of the benefits and all of the drawbacks as I have outlined them elsewhere in this paper; and most of all, that institutionalizing the practice over such objections threatens to privilege and enforce particular modes of listening while at the same time insulating them, along with the very notion of such maneuvers, from criticism.

According to Gorzelany-Mostak (2009: 431-2), the virtues of compulsory program annotation include “a multidisciplinary approach to the analysis and research of songs,” a chance for students to “hone interpretive skills and gain in-depth knowledge and coherence of individual works in the short term, as well as potentially prepare them for future work as teachers,” and to “devote more time to honing their writing style while adhering to the fundamental components of a good essay, rather than becoming bogged down with the arduous planning and outlining that a more lengthy paper entails.” She argues that core curriculum theory and history classes, “while valid and integral in their own right, fall short of providing singers with the tools they need to become skilled song interpreters,” touting program note writing as a missing link of sorts between foundational musico-academic coursework and the act of music-making itself. Henry (2002: 53-4) also cites “opportunities for interdisciplinary learning,” and appeals to standards-based learning models when she remarks that “a perusal of the National Standards shows us that we are responsible for creating musicians who are also knowledgeable about the music they play.” To the question of “whether pieces typically programmed for secondary-level choral concerts were significant enough to merit substantial discussion,” she argues that “any thoughtfully chosen musical selection contains numerous musical attributes that can be described or emphasized,” thereby skirting the more relevant question (and the one which she purports to be addressing) of whether they should be.

In addition to codifying such newly-recognized educational potential, this sort of advocacy also remains chock full of appeals to program annotation as an outreach tool in terms which have scarcely changed for two centuries, and in this sense it reflects a certain constancy of thought as well. Fogg (2011: 37-8) requires his students to write program notes for every piece they study whether or not they are giving a recital, and believes that, “it is our privileged responsibility as performers to inform audiences about what they are going to hear.” The newfound academic function of program notes can indeed be partially accounted for based on its seamless fit within this traditional outreach narrative, as when Block (2008: 20) relates the view that, “the goal of a concert program should be to show that music is not just an important part of school but an essential one,” and that, “the ideal program tells its readers that ‘we're in the middle of an educational process.’” Academic currency, then, is also cultural and political currency given the constant need for music and art to justify themselves on empirical grounds to tone-deaf public and private funders, and insofar as extra-musical academic import can be claimed for compulsory program annotation, it offers a refreshing compliment to threadbare extrinsic benefits tropes which have worn thin both within the musical community and outside of it.

Such it is that the altruistic and the Darwinistic remain as entangled as ever in shaping how musicians write about their work, a point recognized by Downie (2008: 197) when he writes that “those performance measures associated with commodity form and behavior have spread to encompass not only public sector services such as health care, utilities, infrastructure, and education, but also cultural provision and production,” and that, “phrases such as ‘selling yourself’ or ‘making the right impression’ point to a process that seeks the extension of the commodity form away from material artifacts and goods to soft services and interpersonal behavior profiling.” Citing Bordieu's assertion that “cultural artefacts are different from material goods in that they can only be successfully consumed once their meaning has been apprehended,” Downie calls program notes “texts that function to further determine and constrain that network of signifiers that manage the impressions given to composers’ customers.” (204) Indeed, it is precisely this constraining of the dialogue surrounding music, and, by extension, of the listening experience itself, which I have been arguing is rather inherently incompatible with both aesthetic pluralism and selfless musico-institutional outreach. More specifically, though, it is beyond incompatible with the spirit of free inquiry and open dialogue that Western academia has traditionally considered essential; rather, the two are anathema.

Ultimately, though, I am less concerned with achieving the purely selfless, non-ideological act than with the far simpler matter of personal honesty and directness. To that end, if it can fairly be asserted, as many have in all manner of colorful ways, that the very notion of writing or talking descriptively about music poses, in spite of the act’s ubiquity and, indeed, necessity, some substantial philosophical problems, then there remains no more effective way to steer clear of such problems than that of simple abstention. Perhaps this view becomes absurd taken as an absolutist declaration, but as a matter-of-fact observation it is plainly logical. Only when verbalization solves greater problems than it creates can it be conscientiously relied upon. Those who continue reading will find that despite such misgivings, I have not only complied with CalArts' own program annotation requirement, but, if I might humbly say so, gone above and beyond it. In my view, the pitfalls of grandstanding in this case outweighed those of reification. It bears emphasizing even so that nothing contained in either this essay or the ensuing notes is essential to the experience of the music I will perform this evening, and it is thus telling of the peculiar insidiousness of the drive toward verbalization that an institution known first and foremost for nurturing both plurality and subversion for their own sake is nonetheless a signatory to one of mainstream classical music culture’s most enduring emblems of top-down conformity.

Indeed, is American musical academia not content living in infamy merely for its well-known tendencies toward institutionalizing and politicizing musical taste? Have we grown tired of merely dictating what is worth hearing and thus moved on to the question of how it is to be heard? Further, given the concurrent turn toward teaching Music Business alongside music making, is there not good reason to fear that Downie's constrained network of signifiers, the discourse of culture manufactured for a free market, threatens to have a far greater influence on this emerging faux-dialogue than will the matter-of-fact scholarly missives of those program annotators of last century whose writing earned its scholarly currency the old-fashioned way? And finally, is it really progress for the academic community to not only encourage but celebrate a Cliff’s Notes level of musicological dialogue, repackaging superficial amalgams of elementary writing skills under the headings of interdisciplinarity, outreach, and accessibility? Seen in that light, perhaps academic absorption, codification, and acceptance is actually the death knell for program annotation, just as it has been for the vitality of so many musical styles and traditions before it. If so, it certainly is hard to imagine a more welcome or fitting end.

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