At Jerry’s suggestion from the front page I’ll stir up the nest with several thoughts about composing and the composition world:

1. Length. On the front page an author refers to a relatively short work, at a little under twenty minutes. To me twenty minutes isn’t short, but not long either. It’s somewhere in between. Has our perspective changed over the past 100 years? Were Mozarts early symphonies, some lasting about ten minutes, considered long or short? Is a twenty minute orchestral work short and a twenty minute trio for violin, viola and cello long?

2. Similarly, have composers been writing pieces that are too long? Do we become so caught up in the “development” of a work, proving how clever and composer-like we can be, that we lose sight of what our “line” is saying (le grande ligne)?

3. Unsimilarly, how many of you include in your bios “internationally renowned,” “critically acclaimed,” “growing international (or national) reputation,” etc? If you do, why? Have we talked about the purpose of the bio yet on the CF?

67 Responses to “Disparate Thoughts”
  1. jodru says:

    The 20-minute comment gave me similar pause. For a concerto, that’s not short, even in a relative sense.

  2. david toub says:

    I think it’s all relative. I’ve written things that are around five minutes and also over two hours without pause, so in that context, 20 minutes might seem “short.” Same with Feldman or La Monte Young, for that matter. I’ve seen Feldman’s Palais de Mari described as a relatively short work for his late period, even though it is certainly not Webernian in scale.

    I don’t think in general that we’re too caught up in writing long pieces. I just don’t hear of that many works that are more than an hour in length these days. Most people still seem to write “manageable” works; 20 minutes or less, I suspect. From a practical point of view, that’s to be expected. I was having dinner with an old friend last Monday before the concert, and she’s an accomplished harpsichord virtuoso. She didn’t think that most people would have the time to learn a really long piece, for example. And she’s right—there are few performances of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards, of Feldman’s For Christian Wolff, etc. But when they do occur, they’re generally spectacular.

    I think we have to get away from the notion that music needs to “fit” into something that will go on a CD or be practical for a 1-2 hr concert. If there is good reason to do something long and the results are musically compelling, then that’s wonderful. I don’t think people are losing sight of the forest for the trees.

    I’ve never indicated “internationally reknown” or anything of the sort in a bio. It’s too much hyperbole, in my view (and for me, it would be an outright falsehood). If people want to do it, then that’s their right, but it strikes me as just so much marketing spin…

  3. Jeffrey Quick says:

    When I was an undergrad, I advocated “45ism” – the notion that a good piece should fit on one side of a 45 RPM record (which dates me, I’m afraid). My biggest piece would fit comfortably on one side of an LP (24 minutes). So yeah, I don’t see 20 minutes as “medium”.

    I’ve edited bios for programs, and in general, the longer the bio, the less the accomplishment. I see people throwing on every teacher, piddly competition win, and publication, as if to shout, “Look at me, I’m IMPORTANT”. And then we hear the music, and it SUCKS, but we want to give it the benefit of the doubt because “this guy’s an important composer.” Maybe we should make it a kind of union rule that all composer bios need to include some objective metric, like number of performances per year, the size of your last performing rights check, number of non-self-published recordings and scores, etc. Quit the puff and show your stuff!

  4. david toub says:

    Maybe we should make it a kind of union rule that all composer bios need to include some objective metric, like number of performances per year, the size of your last performing rights check, number of non-self-published recordings and scores, etc.

    Without question, there’s a lot of bogus stuff going on with biographies, and certainly not just within the music world. Most people, I think, have a sense when someone is committing an act of hubris, as opposed to writing something that is objective and useful. We get a lot of everything on the new music wiki, but most people “get it,” and write something that is largely objective and not full of plaudits.

    I don’t know that your metrics are that foolproof, either, however. # of performances/yr could be high for someone who writes crappy but playable music coupled with a lot of useful political connections, while someone who is visionary might rarely be performed. By this criteria, many new music composers of genius (Partch, Feldman, Satoh, your name here…) would be excluded. Same with publishing and recordings. Having a lot doesn’t mean one’s music is any good.

  5. 1. As of today, “short” in my work is ca. 15 seconds (possible world nr. 3 for example) and “long” is 40 minutes in Within Fourths/Within Fifths – both these examples are piano pieces, and for me the length difference is less essential than the fact that the thinking in those pieces is not so far apart really. Length is sometimes just a compositional tool or ingredient, not a target.

    2. Some composers have written pieces that are too long, but usually those are too long from bar 2 onwards. Too Longness sets in when I think “What the hell is supposed to be so interesting about all this?”

    3. I think bios should be fun to read, as should any prose. Sometimes I try to make my bio connect in form to the form of my piece.

    I’ve had lessons with quite a few Famous Persons, but I don’t want to identify myself as a student of famous composers, since my work has nothing to do with my teachers, and I don’t want to put listeners on the wrong track. Also, I would suggest I learned a lot from them, but the people I learned most from have in fact much more often been friends, for example.

    I sometimes do put in some recent things or collaborations that I’ve been proud of, though usually only when I think there will be people in the audience who might find such things interesting – and even then, for the sake of readability, I won’t give complete lists. I remember editing one composer’s biography for a concert I organized, and there was a humungous list of collaborations, exclusively with people I had never heard of. In the end I printed the whole list in a four point font.

    I usually put in my main occupations – that I compose, play the piano, and write poetry. Sometimes I mention some important side occupations, but I don’t talk about jobs that I consider to have no bearing on my compositions.

  6. david toub says:

    Samuel, you’re quite right that some pieces are too long early on. Many of these are actually “short” works. Feldman’s stuff never seems too long to me, but some works by Adams and a few others seem too long even though they’re around 20 min or less

  7. Rodney Lister says:

    Well, of course too long is completely relative. I heard a piece by Alvin Lucier recently that was an hour long and I think could be described as reviting (or however one spells that word). On the other hand, some pieces, after a minute of two…

    I remember reading about Billy Wilder telling a story about going to hear a Wagner opera. He said it started at 8:00 and about midnight he looked at his watch and it was 8:15…..

  8. Lanier Sammons says:

    Samuel – your bio was my favorite of those on the concert program.

    In general though, why do we even do composer bios? I rarely find that anything I read in a bio helps me relate to the piece better than anything in the program notes. It mostly seems to be (as Jeffery pointed out) some sort of hedge for the composer. Shouldn’t the music stand on its own rather than being propped up by the composer’s awards, teachers, and degrees? I suppose it might be nice for people to know where to find your music/contact you if they really liked or really hated what they heard, but that’s all the value I see.

  9. david toub says:

    Lanier, I think they are done because people have a basic curiosity to know more about someone else. That’s why people write and purchase biographies, I suppose. The music should always stand on its own, which is why I’m always wondering why we also like to have program notes. My original program notes for the concert last week were really short—maybe a sentence or two. But I went back and forth with this, since I’ve also been told on this forum that people really find program notes helpful. So I wrote some more about my piece. In reality, I think the music is what it is, and like composer biographies, they might be of interest to some, but if the music doesn’t hold its own, it doesn’t make the music any better.

  10. David is right about curiosity, especially in a personality-driven culture. Plus, long program notes and biographies can be very entertaining — something to do when the horrid music is playing.

    Seriously, though, short notes and bios bother me; it’s as if the composer is too hifalutin to share thoughts with the audience. To me, those short notes seem part of a long-established pattern of audience contempt (in both nonpop and pop), an unwillingness to engage on the first level of shared communication, the “my music says it all and if you don’t get it then screw you” approach.

    As for lengths of my music, the shortest is 17 seconds. The longest is 27 years, but that’s electronic. Among performed pieces (as opposed to those waiting desperately for performance), the longest electroacoustic one with performer is 90 minutes, longest acoustic composition is an hour, and numerous uninterrupted pieces last about 1/2 hour. I have no idea of others’ perception of time in these pieces.

    To me, relative time is taste-based. Much as I’m interested in Lucier or Feldman, for example, after a few minutes I lose interest in actually listening to their music. Mozart or Handel, for example, are worse; their stuff won’t get past a minute before being turned off and in concert, their music has to be programmed in an escape slot, so I can be late or leave early.

    The most interesting post to me, though, is Samuel’s, where he projects his taste on the music but third-persons it, as if it were about the music rather than about him (“I think ‘What the hell is supposed to be so interesting about all this?’”). Here is where a composer’s pedigree comes into play. The answer to Samuel’s question is easier found with a pedigreed composer (a Feldman or Lucier, for example) than in any of us here, and so marketing a pedigree is not so much Jeffrey’s “look at me!” but a kind of self-marketing calling out from the savagely competitive field of composition, its pedigreed circles where significance is conferred rather than earned, and across cultures and geographies where the artistic approach is mutually misunderstood. In other words, the bio of a relatively unmarketed composer should make me think, “how did I miss this artist?” — and then the music does the rest.

    Dennis

  11. david toub says:

    I think that short program notes do not necessarily connote a contempt for the audience. With some people, I’m sure that’s true, but I think it may also be a bit of modesty in other cases. I dislike writing about myself and what was behind a particular piece I wrote simply because I always worry that it will be taken as egotistical. Glad to hear that many people find it helpful, and the fact that some may take program notes to be a sign of contempt makes me very glad I added a bit to what I wrote for last week’s concert. But I personally don’t get too put off when there’s little detail. Again, I do think there’s something to be said for the music being paramount. No amount of insightful program notes will make the music any better if it sucks, although I second the comment that it does help to pass the time while listening to boring music!

  12. Lanier, thanks!

    As to the question: I usually want to know a few things about the composer. It’s not only curiosity as such, but it’s that it might put what I hear in some perspective. It won’t be likely to change how much I “like” or “dislike” what I hear, but it might help me get an idea of where it’s coming from.

    The first thing I want to know is how old a composer is. I find it frustrating to read bios without year of birth – and it’s too bad that in many concert cultures women are supposed to hide their age. I just want to know if I’m dealing with a young composer or a very experienced composer, say. If the music suggests “nice ideas but perhaps lacking in focus” for example, I’m going to see that in a different light when the composer is young (or has just started writing) than when the composer is (or should be) highly experienced.

    Likewise, I’m interested to know a bit about side occupations. Singers think differently from pianists (different areas of the brain are involved, even), and a composer who is a singer might think differently from a composer who is a pianist. Such knowledge won’t change the music for me, but I’m happy when I can relate what I hear to what might be behind it.

    Likewise, I think the program note should “get you in the mood” or say something about where it’s all coming from. This can sometimes be accomplished with style more than with specific content – for example, when a composer goes on for paragraphs about, say, which motive is developed in which measure, then I’m not interested in that blueprint for the piece itself, but the fact that that is apparently how such a composer thinks about music.

  13. Forex, David, the fact that you talk about programming definitely helped me understand your piece – it didn’t make me like it more (no need – I enjoyed it!) but it did give me an extra handle on what I found striking about its form.

  14. david toub says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Samuel—I liked your piece as well, and I found your notes helpful (and interesting to boot!). My wife and daughter also found that your notes helped them understand The Weather Riots a bit better.

  15. Evan Johnson says:

    Samuel wrote:

    I just want to know if I’m dealing with a young composer or a very experienced composer, say.

    This I find sort of interesting. I don’t disagree, but I also wonder where the compulsion comes from to evaluate not only the piece at hand but also the composer? Why should it matter, if the piece is of a certain quality or lack thereof, whether or not the composer should “know better”? Is it merely a matter of filing away names of promising youngsters to check in on in 15 years when their technique is improved? (In my better moments, I optimistically place myself in this category!)

    As for bios in general, I am guilty on all counts. My bio is name, year of birth, schools, teachers, festivals, awards, performers, full stop. Recently I caved in and added a sentence at the beginning, a feeble, half-hearted, thoroughly unsuccessful attempt to at least give some sense of what my work actually sounds like, or at least in what concepts it trades.

    Why is bio like this? No good reason. It’s been like that since I first was asked to write one, six or seven years ago. I don’t actually expect anyone to read it, nor do I expect anyone to be impressed by it or gauge my work through its lens; I just have it there, in a folder on my cyberdesktop, ready to go if someone asks for it. I’ve never given it much thought, and quite frankly don’t plan to…

    Finally, as I noted last time this came up either here or on NMBx (and it does, with a certain regularity), “creative” bios tend to turn me off, in general, more than standard boilerplate stuff, even when the latter claims “leading composer of his/her generation” status. Perhaps it’s just my general phobia about drawing attention to myself. Anyone here a shrink?

  16. Evan: yes, indeed, I like to keep track of composers’ developments. Also, age gives a clue about the kind of world that they were born into. A Coplandesque neoclassical piece by somebody born in 1915 makes a different impression on me than the same piece by somebody born in 1960, and again a different one than the same piece by somebody born in 1990. It’s not that I will like the piece more or less, but I’m not happy with only the music. I’d feel no surprise about my knowledge of the world if the piece is from the 1915 guy. If it would be from the 1950 guy, I’d ask myself, well, is this some kind of political statement? If it were the 1990 guy, I’d probably be interested in the talent but also get slightly depressed about the limited aesthetics young people are exposed to in this world of abundant possibilities.

    Perhaps you could say the piece itself says something about music as such, but only the combination piece/composer – as a being somehow rooted in this world – says something about the world. Art rarely means much to me outside of context. And the bio, I think, is about providing context – not per se “drawing attention to yourself” (if you dislike that, why have your pieces played to begin with?).

    And that indicates a problem of the standard bio – it gives no real context.A standard bio means: context is of no importance, and I might sometimes even take that to imply that the aesthetic appeal is to eternal musical values. It immediately suggests academicism, particularly when lots of names are mentioned.

    If you expect nobody to read it, fine, but then why print it at all? The thing is, I *do* read them!

    “Creative” bios are dangerous, I agree, simply because not everybody writes well.

  17. Evan Johnson says:

    A Coplandesque neoclassical piece by somebody born in 1915 makes a different impression on me than the same piece by somebody born in 1960, and again a different one than the same piece by somebody born in 1990.

    Yes, this is certainly true – although the date of composition is at least as valuable then, I’d say. I had interpreted your original comment more in the light of an impression of compositional “maturity” or “promise” or something… which, again, I can’t say I disagree with – it’s just that I’ve never “heard” it “said” (or read it written…)

    And the bio, I think, is about providing context – not per se “drawing attention to yourself” (if you dislike that, why have your pieces played to begin with?).

    Well, I don’t mind drawing attention to my work :)

    But my “drawing attention” comment was in reference to “creative” bios, which more often than not strike me as merely self-conscious and cutesy, hipper-than-thou… generally disagreeable. They say, quite ostentatiously, “I know better.” At least, that’s how they tend to strike me, hopelessly addicted as I am to the status quo.

    And that indicates a problem of the standard bio – it gives no real context.A standard bio means: context is of no importance, and I might sometimes even take that to imply that the aesthetic appeal is to eternal musical values. It immediately suggests academicism, particularly when lots of names are mentioned.

    Well, it all depends on context, and on the work. When I was in college, I went to all the monthly student concerts put on by the graduate music school – and although all the composers were students at various stages of their time at that music school, they all had in the program longer or shorter bios of the standard variety. I doubt any of them really intended to show off, or to make a contest out of it; it’s just the way things were done, and it would have been more “show-offy” to self-righteously and self-consciously buck the trend, I guess.

    There was never any correlation between any of that and the music they wrote.

    If you expect nobody to read it, fine, but then why print it at all? The thing is, I *do* read them!

    If it were up to me, I’m not sure I would, at least not in the concert program. I don’t know – the whole thing is too complicated (which, I imagine, is why it gets brought up so often).

    I read them too, always. But the only reason I read them – or, at least, the only thing I tend to get out of them – is insecurity about my own accomplishments. Which is exactly as juvenile, narcissistic, and pathetic as it sounds, let me assure you!

    I would protest that you seem to read too much into the presentation of a “standard” biographical blurb. I don’t agree that the absence of an aesthetic stance in the bio is evidence of either absence of a coherent aesthetic stance in the work or of a particular stance (of “eternal musical values”). For one thing, that’s what program notes are for. For another, if I am any indication, people who present those type of bios do so because they don’t see any better way.

  18. Short bios and notes may not have anything to do with being highfalutin. As in the case with the Sequenza concert, we were all asked to submit short bios and program notes – 3 to 4 sentences. Some pieces are easy to write about, others are difficult, other than to just describe the instrumentation. I try to include subjective and objective information, even in short paragraphs, that way there’s a little something for everyone.

  19. Ian Moss says:

    You know, some pieces really have a great story behind them. In such cases, I prefer that story be told – it can add a dimension to the listening experience that cannot be replicated any other way. I’m defining “story” broadly here; it doesn’t have to be “what happened to me the day I decided to write this piece,” it could be philosophies that guide it, a narrative encapsulated in the piece itself, any number of things. In contrast, many (entirely worthy) pieces have no story at all. The story is as follows: “Well, the piece starts out like this, and then this happens, and elements of the first two sections start to interact, and everybody plays together in the end.” Such pieces are not “about” anything but themselves; they have no program to speak of. In such cases (and there are many), I see neither need nor reason for a program note, or at least not one that is longer than two sentences.

  20. Re notes and bios: I’ll always vote for more information than less. Concert-goers are free to ignore whatever they choose, but concert producers have a responsibility to not enforce ignorance.

  21. MJ, you wrote that “As in the case with the Sequenza concert, we were all asked to submit short bios and program notes – 3 to 4 sentences.”

    Why? Was there a shortage of paper? Insufficient budget? No design or layout or typing folks? Did everyone in the audience already know the composers and their music? Or was this the withholding information as a matter of style? I think it’s interesting to consider the topic both as originally presented (too long) as well as the subtext of notes and bios that are too short.

    You wrote, “Some pieces are easy to write about, others are difficult, other than to just describe the instrumentation. I try to include subjective and objective information, even in short paragraphs, that way there’s a little something for everyone.”

    I have no disagreement with a piece that might be difficult to write about, nor am I making a case for excessive writing. I’m pointing out a tradition of either mysterious brevity or calculated obscurity. I admit that this is a frustration borne out of having tried to create an audience-friendly radio environment even where CDs would arrive with highly styled but otherwise rude booklets containing minimal if any notes or bios. The denial of information was clearly a conscious behavior (sometimes even a hostile one) and perhaps the kind of guerrilla act that forces a consideration of the sound alone, whatever the wishes of the audience.

    In that regard, has an audience survey ever been done about the value of long or short bios and program notes?

    Dennis

  22. Evan Johnson says:

    Well, now we’re talking about something else. For all the ill-advised indifference with which I treat my biographical blurb, I put an inordinate amount of time and effort into my program notes, less to give any concrete information about the piece and how it is put together (usually) then in an attempt to get the listener in the mood, conceptually speaking. To let them know, perhaps somewhat elliptically, what to expect…

    but I would certainly not say that brevity is an a priori virtue here, especially given the listener’s God-given right not to read anything at all.

  23. CB says:

    Well, “as slowly as possible” is a couple decades long…

    so anything shorter than a year is “medium length”?

  24. Dennis, since there were twelve composers on the concert, I just assumed they were trying to keep the verbiage to a manageable level. The program was a 12-page booklet as it was, with no performer bios. When asked to submit a short bio or notes, I tend to follow the request, to edit down myself, instead of trusting the person compiling the program notes. I once had my bio condensed to basically my being a Vermont native, while all of the other composers had more informative and impressive bios (depending, of course, on whether you think being a Vermonter is more important than having written some music.) ;-)
    I’ve never gone for mysterious brevity nor calculated obscurity. I’m also not big on bs, so sometimes there just isn’t anything much to say, unfortunately. I certainly could use the writer of the recent press release from BOAC, although that had so many hot button press release words, that it was almost comical.

    I have program notes for almost all of my pieces on my web site. As for value in length, I had an interesting experience when I wrote up a pre-concert article on my piece for this site. I expanded my original paragraph, and the article ended up being fairly long, but I learned a lot from the experience, and with Dan Goode’s help was able (I hope) to express more clearly what the piece was about, which I guess is the whole point. And even then, I was thinking “is it too long? Will anyone actually take the time to read it?”

  25. Ian Moss wrote, “Such pieces are not ‘about’ anything but themselves; they have no program to speak of. In such cases (and there are many), I see neither need nor reason for a program note, or at least not one that is longer than two sentences.”

    Is there such a piece? Compositions “not ‘about’ anything but themselves” have been subjects of theses dozens of pages long. And particularly if a composition is not ‘about’ anything, wouldn’t it be especially helpful for an audience to have the composer’s helping hand? If the composer is willing?

    Dennis

  26. Ian Moss says:

    And particularly if a composition is not ‘about’ anything, wouldn’t it be especially helpful for an audience to have the composer’s helping hand?

    No. It is precisely these pieces that are meant to be listened to “on their own terms,” so to speak. If a piece is about music and music only, talking about the piece isn’t going to serve any purpose to the non-musicians who I assume comprise the primary audience for most performances. For theorists or others who would like to study dozens of pages about the internal mechanics of your piece, put that shit in a journal (or, if you must, in a note accompanying the score). Just my opinion. -I

  27. Ian Moss says:

    I suppose I should clarify that I was using the “general you” instead of the “specific you” in that last comment, and “shit” in the jazz musician sense of “[anything you want it to mean]” as opposed to “unpleasant, smelly stuff that no one wants to look at.” :)

  28. david toub says:

    MJ, you wrote that “As in the case with the Sequenza concert, we were all asked to submit short bios and program notes – 3 to 4 sentences.”

    Why? Was there a shortage of paper? Insufficient budget? No design or layout or typing folks? Did everyone in the audience already know the composers and their music? Or was this the withholding information as a matter of style?

    Dennis, I take full responsibility for asking the 11 other composers on the S21 program to submit a short set of program notes. The reason is pretty simple: page layout is a bear. I’m a Web person, not a print person (different culture, different skill sets, and different approach). I know from experience that space is always at a premium, and trying to fit in what we had as it was was pretty challenging.

    Someone could say “well, then just add in more pages.” But it’s not as simple as that. The final program also had to not only look good, but be coherent. You don’t want one page to be filled up, followed by one that is only 1/3 full because the next performance note fills an entire page and then some. And it’s not as good to have notes that flow from one page to the next side—it looks cumbersome, and is clunky for the reader.

    As it was, we were able to accommodate two sets of lyrics, and notes that ranged from a few sentences to 3/4 of a page. Some people were nice enough to provide both a long and short version—the longer version was accommodated in every case.

    Still, shorter is better from a practical point. There were a few changes that were required, and some of these necessitated moving a lot of text around to keep things fitting. Longer sets of text are much less flexible than a lot of shorter ones. And don’t forget that someone also has to print these things and assemble each one. We didn’t use professionals for this—remember, the concert had a limited budget and we were relying on donations from the S21 community, for which we were very grateful. Everyone on the committee worked for free, and we wanted to devote a larger portion of our limited funding for the excellent performers involved, not to pay people to do scutwork.

    And I also want to give a big set of kudos to Galen H. Brown, who printed and assembled the programs. Keeping the program shorter rather than longer meant he had less scut to do so he could spend more time writing music!

  29. Having put together thousands of concert programs of all shapes and sizes, I can confirm what David says about it being much more complicated than it seems. I recall I volunteered to help, because the whole process has become pretty automatic for me by this time, but I probably volunteered too late in the game.

  30. Ian wrote, “It is precisely these pieces that are meant to be listened to ‘on their own terms,’ so to speak. If a piece is about music and music only, talking about the piece isn’t going to serve any purpose to the non-musicians”

    Yes, that’s the essence of it. I consider unwillingness to help an audience grasp a new piece to be the hifalutin a/k/a audience-hostile behavior to which I was referring. If the composer can’t be bothered to use the language they both already share, why should the audience be bothered to put in listening effort? To me, it’s a breach of trust in times when a common musical vocabulary doesn’t exist.

    Dennis

  31. David Toub wrote, “Dennis, I take full responsibility for asking the 11 other composers on the S21 program to submit a short set of program notes.”

    You don’t need to defend the program. I wasn’t involved, so have no idea of the logistics. My own take is always that content trumps design if there’s a choice to be made, but that’s just me. Volunteer projects are a study in compromises, and considering the tattered state of my own projects, I’m in no position to be a critic! My preference: more words, less white space. :)

    Dennis

  32. Dennis, it can sometimes be high-falutin to take the approach you are decrying, but it’s also true that there are some things that music can say much more clearly than written or spoken language.

  33. david toub says:

    Lawrence, I absolutely agree. While I find good program notes interesting from a curiosity point of view, and they might round out one’s experience of the music, the music trumps the notes any day. Some program notes (usually not written by the composer) actually do the music an injustice by reducing it to simplistic and inaccurate concepts. Consider some program notes that make Ives out to be akin to a folksy, eccentric composer who wrote music based on American hymns and popular tunes. Doesn’t do the music, or Ives, justice, IMHO. So it’s a double-edged sword.

  34. lawrencedillon wrote, “there are some things that music can say much more clearly than written or spoken language.”

    I agree completely with this in an ideal world — that is, after all, the point of the artform.

    But if your listener has no common language with the music, no shared sonic vocabulary with your acoustic world, then it seems to me that the only opening is through the language you can be reasonably assured you do share: words.

    I’m not trying to be hard-headed or argumentative. The evidence I call on is the ten years hosting a nonpop radio show, and the number of callers who asked for help the ‘get’ the music — and especially those were enraged by two composers (who shall remain nameless) who wouldn’t talk about their music and said ‘just listen’. If our listeners didn’t like it, what about your captive audience who don’t have a telephone they can pick up and complain with? How do you solve the problem of the listener who doesn’t get it? Do you just cut them loose? Or is there another way that is neither ‘just listen’ nor lusic program notes?

    Dennis

  35. That’s “lucid”. Nice how it became “lusic”. :)

    Dennis

  36. Ian Moss says:

    Dennis, you seem to assume I’m talking about music that is inherently hard to understand. I assume no such thing. Do you need program notes to enjoy Music for 18 Musicians? I sure don’t.

  37. Ian Moss says:

    Also, you talk about “the language they both already share,” but this is precisely my point: talking about music in which there is nothing to talk about except the music is not a language shared by composers and audiences by any means. Many times the only way a composer is capable of putting such music into words is by either detailing arcane technical processes that went into its creation that no one without a Ph.D. would understand, or by simply laying out what happens in the piece chronologically from beginning to end. It’s not interesting! This is interesting writing about music. Why? Because it relates to things that are not musical! You have to remember that non-musicians (and it seems that we agree that this is the “audience” we are talking about) are, by definition, not well-versed in musical jargon. So the best way to relate something to them is to bring your piece outside of iits own little universe. Now, some pieces just do not like it when you try to do this to them. They weren’t written that way, or for those reasons, and why should they have been? In those cases, I really do feel that “shut up and listen” is the best program note one can give. It calls for a higher standard because there is nothing else to fall back on — and to be sure, some music will fail miserably as a result. However, that is the concert promoter’s problem, not the composer’s. Music that doesn’t communicate well shouldn’t be programmed to an audience of non-musicians in the first place, imho.

  38. david toub says:

    Dennis, I think you’re generalizing based on what you perceived as patronizing comments from two composers. I don’t think that’s valid. I think it’s a bit highfaluting to feel that listeners who have “no common language with the music” either need an explanation to “get it” or that they’ll even get it at all if they don’t have something in common with the music. There is music that any person just won’t like, ever—it’s not a function of understanding what the composer thought or having some basic knowledge of music. People don’t need to know anything about music or about a piece in particular in order to “get it.” One either likes a piece or not. If the music communicates to that person, then it may be interesting to read about it. Or not—sometimes the details get in the way of the music.

    Ian’s correct—you don’t need notes to enjoy Music for 18 Musicians, or even serial music. That’s like saying one needs to have a study guide to Chagall to appreciate I and the Village—this is simply not true.

    The whole point of art, music, etc is to communicate, and this impacts people at an emotional level. If I like something, I don’t need some text to make me feel validated. Similarly, no amount of reading program notes about some music (I’m withholding names to protect the innocents) will ever make me like it.

  39. There’s another side to this whole problem — a lot of composers get into music partially because they have a hard time speaking or writing clearly. They may end up becoming really proficient at writing music, but if you ask them to say anything about what they’ve done they are liable to fumble for words and come across as idiots — which they may or may not be — so they choose to say nothing.

  40. Gosh, David, you’ve combined a lot of different stuff in one post. :)

    First, I didn’t say they needed an ‘explanation’. Whatever form the notes may take, they can offer an open door which the music may not. This expects that the composer is aware of the character of the audience for which the notes are requested. The form may be a poem or an analogy or an approximation of events or a listening tool or a drawing.

    Second, it doesn’t matter whether the person likes the music, but rather whether they leave the event with a sense of it, which might be liking, or might be curiosity, or even a deep-seated fury. If as the first-person guide, the composer can avoid a misapprehension (for whatever reason), then the extra effort to create an appropriate set of notes will have been worth it.

    Third, who says you don’t need notes to enjoy “Music for 18 Musicians” — in 1978? I was at the premiere, and though there were a lot of trance fans there, there were also walkouts by people who didn’t hear what you can hear nearly 30 years later. (Neither could a lot of those trance fans.) You were a teenager and Ian wasn’t even born, so it was more your milieu than a lot of those listeners, including me, who grew up in the late modernist era — serialism was music I could ‘get’ and minimalism was new.

    With both of you in the postmodern era (as well as urban critters), it seems entirely natural that the music should speak for itself — yet an attentive composer might consider this is not necessarily true, recognize the circumstances under which it isn’t true, and respond to those circumstances with a helping hand to the audience.

    Dennis

  41. david toub says:

    Ian wasn’t even born when I was 17? Shit, I’m old!

    Truth be told, I also could “get” serialism at that point—I was writing 12-tone music at the time, was deep into the second vienna school and all that—and minimalism was a breath of fresh air precisely because it was different. I heard Einstein on WHPK-FM for the very first time and listened until the middle of the night (something like 4 AM) because I was blown away by it. And I didn’t have any notes to guide me—the music just hit me.

    Your mileage may vary, of course. But being into serialism didn’t preclude me or a lot of other people from responding very favorably to new music on a very physical level without knowing that much about it. The best music has that effect

  42. Lanier Sammons says:

    First, thanks to everybody who responded to the question in my comment – I enjoyed reading your thoughts. David, you’re right that the curiousity factor is unavoidable – that’s certainly what gets me reading bios. And I have to admit that I do enjoy reading bios that genuinely give me a sense of who the person writing the music is. Even when the lists are just litanies of awards and teachers, I suppose there isn’t really any harm to having bio notes in there, and I should probably just ignore ‘em instead of complaining about ‘em if they bug me ;).

    Also, I wanted to address Samuel’s point about including age in bios (apologies for taking the conversation back a bit). The line of reasoning that you describe is exactly why I try to avoid including my age in my bios. I’m far closer to 1990 than 1960, but if I wrote a neoclassical piece, it would be for a particular reason and not because I haven’t been exposed to other aesthetic possibilities.

    I suppose a careful bio or program note could make that point for me, but sometimes it’s no fun to give everything away. At this point, I think I’d rather take my best shot at doing work on par with older composers than risk leading the audience into faulty assumptions about me before they’ve heard a note of my work. Though maybe that’s a bit of naivete/hubris/bad tactics on my part.

  43. Well, Lanier, I would assume you’d want those particular reasons to be clear from the piece itself then, right? So why avoid giving this context?

    Imagine this: what would be gained from not knowing Mozart (1756-1791)?

  44. All of this seems to show that if the shoe fits some people, that’s no reason for everyone to wear it. Whatever you put in a program, somebody’s not going to like it. And others will.

  45. Well, Lawrence, I would be interested to see one of you speak up and say “I don’t want to know what year a composer was born when I go to a concert!”

  46. It won’t be me. I already registered my preference, way far up there in the thread: “Re notes and bios: I’ll always vote for more information than less. Concert-goers are free to ignore whatever they choose, but concert producers have a responsibility to not enforce ignorance.”

    But there’s a difference between stating a preference and establishing a rule, so I’ll take whatever the composer is willing to give me.

  47. Lanier Sammons says:

    Samuel, my fear would be that an audience member seeing my birthday before hearing the piece might miss the clues in the music if he or she had already made some assumptions about me based on my date of birth. Maybe I’m not giving my audiences enough credit there – that’s something I need to think about.

    I also don’t like to give the audience information that I’d like them to take from the piece. I think that giving too much preliminary information risks taking some of the fun out of listening. It could be that I’m giving my writing and/or audiences too much credit here – maybe a little more guidance is desirable. That’s something else for me to consider.

    To answer your question, I don’t think anything would be gained by not knowing that Mozart was born in 1756. But I think that the issue is different for living composers. We have several hundred years of history to help us understand Mozart, so his birthdate places him in a definite social and artistic context.
    I think it’ll take more time before me putting (b.1983) after my name does much more than make people think, “Hmm…he’s pretty young.”

    Unfortunately, a lot of the thoughts that might follow that observation are ones that I’d like to avoid (‘He can’t have much experience,’ ‘He might not have developed a broad musical palette yet,’ even ‘Well, I should give him the benefit of the doubt if things aren’t great’ or ‘That was pretty good…for a kid’). Maybe they think “Well, MTV’s been around his entire life,” “He grew up with Post-minimalism,” or “Rap is his generation’s rock” and that provides them some insight into my music. But again I hope the potential implications of those facts are in my music (if they’re relevant to the particular piece), so I don’t want to ruin the fun of finding them there. Once I feel that I’ve aged out of the ‘young composer’ category and its potential negative connotations, then I could see myself providing my birthdate.

  48. JLZ says:

    Whoa! I step away from visitng S21 for one day and look what proliferates….

    Long, short — each of us sense those measures differently. ( For the past 10 years or so I’ve been composing 7-minute movements, so anything c. 5 or so for me is ‘short’.)

    What’s more interesting to me, however, is the listener’s expectation of how long a movement ( or ‘moment’ in a piece ) is going to be. Here, the behavior modification visited upon us by television timing must be something we’re at least alert to, and may wish — if we’re Quixotes — to take on in battle: 3.5 – 4.5 of main matter; 2.-3.5 ‘sorbet’ ( read,”commercial”).

    It’s a definiste ‘ouch!’ to those of us who are artistically more ‘essayists’ than ‘epigrammists’.

    [ FYI Since WIZARDS was written to be a competition piece, its timing was prescribed at between 6.5 and 8 minutes. (I exceeded the max by half a minute.) Within the compressed time-slot I determined to include a number of differing technical and interpretive challenges.

    After deciding on 3 quite different episodes. these needed connection - so the piece's opening measure had to contain a germ which would eventually evolve into all three types of pianistic approach. And I also determined that the conclusion would be a steady-state, 2-minute-flat toccata. The unwavering, dominant close would work to tie together all the preceding shards ( even if the listener didn't quite pick up that they are actually interrelated). ]

  49. Re: listener’s expectation of length – I actually find it extremely helpful as a listener to find the lengths of the works in the program booklet. It helps getting a feeling for the form on first listening immensely.

  50. Rama says:

    ooo… i like that samuel, good idea including lengths, that definitely shapes my listening; proportions etc.

    on the other hand, i come from the world of the psychedelic rock band (vermont! ;) )where part of the fun was never knowing what piece will be played next. … i also like dark theaters and memorized music (so no music stands). which of course is very rare, not to mention difficult with “new music”.

    but i suppose i can understand enjoying reading about peoples backgrounds and ideas – sometimes understanding conceptually can help in appreciating.

    this reminds me of an idea i’ve been meaning to implement with ensemble pamplemousse: to give the programs at the end of the performance. that way you get the information, which can help you to appreciate the works – while protecting the mystery, and a bonus – we don’t have to hear papers rustling during the performance!

  51.