Writing Program Notes

This is a short guide I wrote for my students at UCF. I’m putting it here mostly so I can link to it. I’d also appreciate any feedback.

Program notes are challenging for everyone. There are lots of reasons you might struggle to write them.

  • You’ve already written the whole piece. Isn’t that enough? I mean, you wrote a second bassoon part!
  • Your music is a perfect snowflake that speaks for itself.
  • You’ve spent years learning to create things out of sound, not words.

Despite these challenges, writing a good program note for each piece is an important way of relating to the audience that you care about their experience listening to your music. After all, program notes are not a prerequisite course to attending a concert. You should expect that many—if not most—of those hearing your music will not read them. However, a well crafted bit of prose can help a curious listener to better understand you as a composer, you as a person, your music, and maybe even music generally. Here are a few things to keep in mind when composing your program notes.

Consider the Audience

Some people at a concert might have extensive training in music theory. Some of them may be music history buffs. Some may have extensive collections of Milton Babbitt records, while some others have extensive collections of Kenny Chesney tour posters. If they’re in the room when your music is played, you have to assume that they are thoughtful and curious, and that’s about all you can assume. Describe your music in terms that are precise, yet that can be easily understood. This is a difficult balance to strike. Consider this paragraph by Alex Ross describing Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings:

The strings begin with a “natural” open fifth on E and B, which pulses weirdly off the beat. The horn starts on the note G-sharp, forming a clean E-major triad, then falls to a G-natural, darkening the harmony to minor—a heart-sinking effect of a kind that appears often in Schubert and Mahler. The horn spirals through a circuitous, spasmodic pattern, creeping along in close semitone intervals and then leaping by fourths or fifths. The tenor recites the Blake text in the space of only eight bars, repeating the major-to-minor, light-to-dark shading of the opening. Afterward, the horn reprises its solo, and at the very end the first two notes are played in reverse order, G-natural to G-sharp. Thus, the piece closes in E major. But it is hardly an optimistic resolution; it is the worm’s victory. Britten had discovered one of the core techniques of his dramatic language, the use of simple means to suggest fathomless depths.

Ross uses some jargon, but always shaped by some non-technical description. Semitone intervals are “creeping along”, while fourths and fifths are “spasmodic” and “leaping”. Remember you aren’t writing a theory dissertation on your own music. Your program notes should find a welcoming middle ground that communicates to novices and experts.

Write What You Know

You don’t need to invent things to make an interesting program note. Some composers are infamous for word-salads of hand-wavy gibberish. Don’t be like those composers. Instead, tell us something that you as the composer know that we as the audience don’t. Think about answering the questions you might ask of the composer of a work you really enjoy. This might be why you decided to write for this particular medium, what the title means to you, anything interesting that came up during the process, or an experience you had working with the performer, commissioning party, conductor, or librettist.

Be a Tour Guide

Invite us into your music and show us around a bit. You have some interesting musical ideas here, and we’ll have more enjoyment and appreciation if we understand clearly what those ideas are. Tell the audience what specific ideas they could listen to in the piece that might help them to understand how the work moves from beginning to middle to end: this could be the main motivic ideas, the texture and orchestration ideas, the relationship between the text and the pitch, or the way different rhythmic or contrapuntal ideas interact with one another. This is a dangerous and slipperly slope, though. Nobody wants to read a play-by-play of the baseball game they’re about to watch. Without spoiling any surprises, tell us in the audience what we sounds we might listen for that will help us to follow along as the piece unfolds. Always remember that you spent more time with this music than anybody, and the audience is likely to only hear it this one time, so it’s up to you to help them get the most out of that one hearing.

Conclusion

Writing a program note can often turn out to be as challenging as—or sometimes more challenging than—writing the piece of music they accompany. However, a good program note can enlighten your audience and get them even more excited to hear your music. It’s also excellent practice for talking about your music, because it gives you some practice in putting together a coherent set of thoughts that you can use when speaking with listeners, performers, conductors, and friends. Communicating effectively about music is one way you can stand out among the many immensely skilled and creative musicians.

New Sounds: Stumpery

Last weekend, I got to hear a wonderful performance of a new work of mine for wind quintet. The title refers to the new Stumpery Garden at the Missouri Botanical Gardens in my hometown of St. Louis. Stumpery was on the program along with four other excellent works by members of the Central Florida Composers Forum, performed by the recently formed new music chamber collective Alterity.

Orlando is where it’s at.

There is usually an artist creating work live on stage during performances at Timucua. It’s a total coincidence that the paintings this night were tree stumps! You can hear the full concert on this YouTube playlist.

Oh, and just because it’s cool. Here’s a photo from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Stumpery.

 

New Digs

old and new site comparison
Left, old and busted. Right, new hotness.

Over the last few months, I’ve slowly been working on a redesign of my personal site. I had been helping out with several other sites for individuals and organizations, and felt like my old site was becoming the proverbial cobbler’s child. The design language was starting to look a little dated, and it didn’t do anything that might encourage anybody to stop by for a visit.

Last and perhaps most crucial to the rebuild, one of my goals for the year has been to at least make it possible for people to pay me. I don’t want my site to be a store, but if I’m going to go to all the trouble of making a page for each piece I want to showcase, I might as well put a buy button down there at the bottom. I know this is probably something lots of composers are interested in trying, but if you don’t have a lot of resources to hand that off to a team, you may not no where to begin. I certainly didn’t. So I thought I’d share a bit of what is going on behind the scenes on the new site.

The Guts

I like WordPress. Every version of my website for the last 15 or so years has been built using it. SoundNotion, CFCF, Timucua, and a half-dozen other little web experiments are all self-hosted WordPress (aka “WordPress dot org”) using cheapo shared hosting at DreamHost. The domain is registered at Hover. WordPress isn’t the only game in town when it comes to content management systems (CMSes); but it’s by far the most widely used, so there are tons of options for supporting technology, helpful YouTube tutorials, how-tos, plugins, and themes. As I tell my students, if you’re new to this stuff (or even if you aren’t) anything other than WordPress or Squarespace will probably end in tears.

The Pretty Parts

I can be a bit picky with things like colors, typography, layouts, and I’m a total snob about some of it, too. (I’m sure those who have met me have no trouble imagining that.) So finding a theme I like is always a struggle. I don’t want a hand-holdy visual builder, though there are some fantastic ones available, but I do want to take control. The theme here at This Page Left Intentionally Useless is one I built from scratch. That turned out to be a lot of work, so I’m comfortable building on the shoulders of people who know what they’re doing. My new site is built on the default Twenty Seventeen theme in WordPress. I really like Twenty Seventeen; it’s also at the core of the Timucua Arts Foundation site I worked on earlier this year. All the tweaks are nerdy and done in PHP and Sass. Wake up. We’re getting to the good stuff!

I wouldn’t recommend this level of geekery to a normal person. If you want to take control of your site, find one that has some nice customization features baked in. There are some really nice ones you can pick up for under $50, and if you raise your budget to $100 or so, you’ll find just about anything you can imagine. One theme I toyed with a bit during my build is Divi from Elegant Themes. It’s beautiful and highly customizable. At $89/year it’s starting to push into the moderately expensive range; but, you can really do a lot with its drag-and-drop page builder. If that sounds like a lot, there are some great options with less support and fewer customizations on Theme Forest.

The Functional Parts

I could go into a lot of detail on all the plugins I’m using on the site1 and why; but, I think we both know the reason you read this far. You want to know about the money stuff.

There are several ways to do e-commerce. I used Gumroad for many years, which I still think is great. However, I really wanted to be able to take care of the transactions myself. I’m never going to be selling scores at a scale that requires the heft of Gumroad’s server capacity, and I think it’s a better experience for folks to begin and end the transaction on my site.

I’m using WooCommerce, an absolute behemoth of a plugin. It’s maintained by Automattic, the same company responsible for the main core of WordPress, so it’s pretty stable, even if it is a much larger tool than I need for my tiny little shop. That’s ok. As I said, scale isn’t a concern here.

Some things were concerns, though. Most important was that I didn’t want my personal site to scream “BUY MY STUFF” all the time. Obviously, that’s not a common trait among online retailers, so WooCommerce’s default settings needed to be reined in a bit. Instead of a store, I want my site to be more like a portfolio in which you happen to be able to purchase copies of some of the work.

First came the navigation. Instead of letting Woo create its own store page, I decided I wanted to manually create my own listing. I don’t have enough things in the “store” to make this a huge burden.

Next, I wanted a much less aggressive template for each piece, and to even have pieces in the “store” that aren’t for sale. Again, Woo’s default is to make the price and the “add to cart” buttons the first thing on the page, just like an Amazon listing. For my site, I want that to be at the very bottom. This required a teensy bit of code-tweaking to change the template order. I didn’t look too far for a plugin, since I was already doing some template tweaks on the site. You may be able to handle this in a less geeky and possibly more effective way.

Last, since my scores aren’t particularly interesting to photograph, I hid the “featured image” and “gallery” that Woo wanted to create for each piece. Instead, I just begin each entry with an embedded video or audio player if I’ve got it, followed by a program-note-like description.

The Voice

Re-doing things gave me the opportunity to reëvaluate2 the writing on the site. I like to write long silly things like this that don’t always belong on the main site, but I still love writing words from time to time. Writing a bio is never fun though. I dug back through the series of posts Angela Myles Beeching wrote for New Music Box about a year ago, “Your Better Bio”. I’m still not sure I have it nailed; but, it’s much closer and says more about my music and me as a person than it ever has before. I’m tempted to write a little plugin that randomly changes some of the cheekier bits each time the page loads. Bios are hard and have a lot of different potential audiences, especially on a website, where readers include audiences, performers, presenters, grant reviewers, and hiring committees. Also my mother. Hi, mom.

Conclusion

I consider this project to be very much in the “minimum viable product” stage. I have put a sign-up for a mailing list in a few spots. I thought about the modal pop-up thing some sites used, but I decided that I hate it when those pop up in front of something I’m reading. Why would I shove that in front of people I like? It’s there all the same if you’d like to sign up. I don’t know yet what I’ll put there, but I promise it will be cool. Signer-uppers get a $10-off coupon in my portfolio/store/thing. I’m planning to add at least one more page that has some information on my other weird projects, and maybe some links to a bit of my writing that I end up sharing or linking a lot.

If you have any thoughts on the site, I’d love to hear them. As you can see, I also love talking about making tech things, so if you have questions about anything I’ve done there, I’m happy to answer them.


  1. You really want to know? Ok, pal. Here’s each active plugin on the site as of this writing: Better Font Awesome, Google Analytics by WebKinder, Jepack by WordPress.com, SendGrid, Under Construction, VaultPress, WooCommerce, WooCommerce Services, WP Mail Logging, WP Migrate DB, WP Responsive Embeds, WP Subscribe Pro. Happy now? 
  2. Tip of the monocle to Mary Norris

Nothing New

In this week’s The New Yorker, Alex Ross tweaks the nation’s flagship orchestra and opera company for their stale repertoire in this newly opened season. Conservative programming at major performing arts presenters is nothing new; but, I think Ross makes a clever connection to another kind of conservatism that lends a bit more bite to an otherwise worn critique.

As the nation contends with its racist and misogynist demons, New York’s leading musical institutions give us canonical pieces by white males, conducted by white males, directed by white males. The Met’s productions this season feature no female composers, no female conductors, and no women directing new stagings. The Philharmonic’s main schedule, at David Geffen Hall, has one female conductor and one female composer.

Ouch.

Alex Ross: The Met and the Philharmonic Look Backward

Eclipse

Happy Eclipse Day!

In 2007, I set a poem by Archilochus1 about a total eclipse visible in Greece in the seventh century BCE.

Nothing can surprise me now, nothing can astonish
or alarm me now the god of gods has galled the midday
into night and trimmed the light of the westering sun.
Surely anything can happen now, anything at all,
so brace yourselves for the sight of milk cows grazing
the dolphin-crowded seas, of sure-footed deer
and mountain goats crossing the talus of a cresting wave.

The performance above is by Joseph Baunoch, bass-baritone; Marissa Olin, alto flute; and Kawai Chan, piano.

 


  1. Translated by American poet Sherod Santos in his collection Greek Lyric Poetry 

Fall 2017 Semester Listening

Where possible, recordings are available in the Spotify playlist. Otherwise, there are links to listen elsewhere.

  • Week 1
    • Du Yun: A Cockroach’s Tarantella (2010) – Soundcloud
    • Du Yun: an empty garlic (2014) – YouTube
  • Week 2
  • Week 3
    • Tristan Perich: Surface Image (2014)
  • Week 4
    • Olivier Messaien: Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time, 1941)
  • Week 5
    • Steven Mackey: It Is Time (2010)
  • Week 6
    • Chen Yi: Tu (2008)
  • Week 7
    • Ken Ueno: On A Sufficient Condition For The Existence Of Most Specific Hypothesis (2008)
  • Week 8
    • Augusta Read Thomas: Jubilee (2010)
  • Week 9
    • Julia Wolfe: Dig Deep (1995)
  • Week 10
    • Andrew Norman: Play (2013)
  • Week 11
    • George Crumb: Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale, 1971)
  • Week 12
    • Luciano Berio: Sinfonia (1968)
  • Week 13
    • Jennifer Higdon: On A Wire (2010)
  • Week 14/15 (Includes Thanksgiving break)
    • Missy Mazzoli: Tooth and Nail (2011)

So-Called Air Quotes

There’s a plugin for that. Express sarcasm and condescension in a way normally reserved for face-to-face interaction, all while working from home.

UPDATE (18 Aug 2017): You can now install this plugin directly from the WordPress plugin directory. Just search for “So-Called Air Quotes” from your WordPress dashboard. Now, it’s official.

Dumbing-down big-time opera

Anne Midgette, following on her review of the new Steve Jobs opera by Mason Bates, compares recent trends in new, big-budget operas to the era of “prestige television”.

… it led to the libretto of an opera called “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” which had its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera on July 22, in which Jobs’s wife, Laurene, sings, “You were never easy./ But once you found your way,/Discovered you were ‘human,’/ We found a way/To connect.”

One of these things is not like the other. In a book or a movie, the lines Laurene sings would be scorned as Hallmark-worthy, romance-novel sentiment: A woman turns the bad boy good. In opera, it seems, we’re willing to tolerate it.

This strikes me as the direct result of opera companies’ focus on past repertoire. The saccharine plot turns in Mozart and the melodrama of Puccini just seem stupid when people are singing about iPhones.

… Opera — which is considered one of the highest forms of art — tends to uphold its formulas, sticking to tropes a century or two old. And opera audiences are willing to hold opera to a different standard — which effectively means that the bar is set a lot lower.

Sometimes, your opera is Two Broke Girls. Sometimes, it’s The Wire.

Anne Midgette: “New opera wants the same appeal as television. If only it could be as smart.”

Magnetic Glissandi in Sibelius 8.6

Philip Rothman at Scoring Notes:

Sibelius 8.6’s new engraving feature is magnetic glissandi lines — lines that snap to both their start and end note, updating their positions if the notes change.

Magnetic glissandi lines are quite intelligent, expanding and contracting to move out of the way of augmentation dots and accidentals. They will even slope in the correct direction between two pitches that share the same space or line.

You’ve got to check out the examples in this post. Two years after the disappointing launch of Sibelius 8, this is the first new feature that has me interested in upgrading from Sibelius 7.5.