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Program Notes for Fun and Profit

When I got off the phone with the executive director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, just having agreed to come on board as the PBO’s program annotator—i.e., the guy who writes the program notes—I had to suppress an Indian-style war-whoop. (I was in a public place.) But why would I be so tickled? Money is not the answer; program note writing is not a road to riches, no matter what the per-word or per-article rate. Quality program notes take time, lots of time, to create; you can’t just sit down and bang something out. Well, I can’t just sit down and bang something out. I’m a picker, a reviser, a rethinker, a the-sentence-rhythm-is-a-little-bumpy-so-let’s-tweak-it-until-it’s-OK kind of guy. And that’s not even counting the background research, which may involve studying the score, spending abundant time listening, reading piles of articles and stacks of books, even arranging pow-wows with the composer or folks with an inside scoop. So I had just committed myself to a great big pile o’work. And this on top of my assignments for the SF Symphony, a working relationship I cherish. But I’m as happy as a kid with a new toy, pleased as punch.

Maybe I just need to get out more.

But that isn’t it. For me, researching and writing about music is getting out more; it’s R&R with holistic healing qualities way beyond a week in Maui or a pricey shrink. I get a charge out of producing an article, and not just gazing lovingly at my finished, published work. I really like the process itself, making words go bloop-bloop-bloop onto the computer screen, sending them zipping hither and yon, conjuring and vanquishing them, as I seek my prose nirvana of the moment. Once a paragraph has begun to take shape—the statue emerging from the stone—I take delight in reading it, both silently and out loud, just digging the tippity-tap of English words as they strut their stuff for the big boss man, jockeying to land a place in my chorus line. Sounds blending and mixing and colliding in a carnival of rhythm, infinite layers of association scenting every word and sub-phrase, grammar and syntax manipulating shades and moods and colors: English is one seriously cool plaything.

Columbia Masterworks engineers left the tape recorder running while Igor Stravinsky rehearsed the CBC Symphony back in the early 1960s. At one point he directed an orchestra member to play precisely what he had notated. You may have an idea about the way this should be played, he said with that marvelous cooing Russian accent of his, but I want you to play it the way I wrote it. It’s my music, and I like my music.

I feel the same way about my writing, not every last jot and tittle of it, but definitely the stuff that has emerged from abundant time and revision. I like my articles, and I’m tickled when other people like them, too. Especially when they like them enough to buy something new from me. So far I’ve never suffered even the most ephemeral, millisecond-long reaction of oh shit, more goddamn writing to do. Instead, every time an e-mail or phone call arrives with a proposed assignment, my head lights up with oh boy, oh boy! Maybe it’s just Sally Field Syndrome: wow, you like me...you really like me! Probably not, though. I never got that boy oh boy jolt from an invitation to play a recital; in fact, more often than not I had to thrash through an irritated ostinato of oh shit, another goddamn recital.

But for any number of musicians, writing a program note is nothing less than a dismal slough through head-banging hell. I remember one of my colleagues recounting his paralysis as he attempted to cough up a note for a chamber music concert. He told me that he began with: “A string quartet is....” and that’s as far as he got. No more would come. I suppose he meant to convey just how transcendent was his experience of the string quartet genre, leaving him utterly beyond words save a basic identifier plus ontological verb, but as far as I was concerned, he just needed a better lead. I can’t imagine any readable string-quartet program note opening with “A string quartet is”. But I held my counsel, not wanting to spoil his story.

To my fellow non-program-annotating musicians: I feel your pain. (That’s different from saying that I share your pain, because I don’t.) Far too many performers strain mightily to produce gnats of this species:

Beethoven wrote Sonata No. 12 in D Major in 1808. It is in D Major. He was born in 1770 in Bonn, Germany. There are four movements. The first movement is Allegro con brio, the second movement is Andante, the third movement is Scherzo: Presto and the last movement is Allegro. Beethoven lived in Vienna when he wrote the D Major Sonata. The first movement is fast in D Major. It is in sonata form, because the piece is called a sonata, and it has an exposition, development, and recapitulation. There is also a rondo with a reprise and episodes. After Beethoven wrote Sonata No. 12, he wrote Sonata No. 13. He died in 1827 in Vienna, Austria.

All right, maybe I’m being mean. And of course I’m not speaking of all performers. One finds witty, literate, and highly entertaining writers who make their living playing an instrument. It’s probably a fine thing that they are in the minority, however, otherwise I wouldn’t be allowed to indulge myself by writing for them.

I could list all number of advantages to be had from writing program notes, but there’s no point. Either you already know what they are, or if not, nothing I could say would convince. Because in the final analysis you either enjoy writing or you don’t; the actual subjects aren’t so important. Music writing has its own lingo and its own conventions, just like sports writing or travel writing or whatnot. But it’s all still writing, and that’s what really matters.

Just this morning I was flipping through a six-month-old National Geographic while waiting for the dentist. I came across an article about modern-day Singapore, and for the next 10 minutes or so I was utterly engrossed. Singapore doesn’t float my boat all that much, mind you. But obviously the author just frigging loves to write, and his joy in creating fine English prose leapt off the page and into my head. The guy can cook, boy howdy can he cook. And I’ll bet anything that his reaction to the assignment was oh boy, oh boy!

So I’m scrubbing away on program notes for the SFS and the PBO, having myself a fine old time, because I also just frigging love to write.

The Red Priest and his all-girl orchestra: it sounds like an ad for a louche Burlesque review, but in this case history trumps marketing.

We have Leopold Mozart’s parental insecurity to thank for a series of epistolary tableaux that reveal daily life
chez Wolfgang in the winter of 1785.

Time and again, history has demonstrated that a good new musical form tends to travel as fast, and as far, as a good new joke.

Mozart remained fond of his
Thamos music even in the face of unmistakable evidence that the play had laid an egg with theater-goers.

Or I could just write It is in D Major. Naaaaahhhhh.........


Scott 9-2010
Scott Foglesong

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