Jargon Hell

red_rose.jpgI went to an orchestra concert recently, excited to hear a world-class orchestra playing a program by one of my favorite composers. The featured soloist was legendary, and the concert-hall was second to none. This was going to be a program I wouldn’t soon forget.

Beforehand, there was a pre-concert presentation given by a faculty member who taught music theory at a nearby university.

“The form of the first movement is a hybrid between sonata and ritornello,” he said. And he went on to explain the movement’s key relationships, pointing out many of the unusual structural elements in the work. He had graphs and charts, with colored pencil markings and really interesting shapes which we watched while he played excerpts on the sound-system. It was all nicely organized in a Power-Point presentation. There were pictures of composers, music notated in Finale, and references to other works by the same composer and his contemporaries.

As we exited the room and entered the concert hall, I listened carefully to the comments around me. They were brutally honest. “I didn’t get it,” one said. “I thought I knew something about music, but I guess I’m wrong. That was a waste of time,” sighed a quiet, disappointed voice.

What had just happened that had failed their hopes and expectations so miserably?

Sometimes I challenge young musicians to try to discuss music without using the terminology they have learned. I’ll tell them they can use metaphor, but they have to avoid the words they have come to rely upon. They can’t use exposition, recapitulation, da capo, modulation, or sequence. No sonata, no ternary, no rondo. They immediately freeze, because, without a shared vocabulary there isn’t a way forward. They become mute. After a few moments, they laugh – followed by, “This is hard!”

As field, we either talk down to audiences, or we assume they have the same knowledge base as we do. There’s a good rule to live by here. The moment someone feels stupid, they check out. It’s over. Think “audience churn” – and you haven’t even played the first note!

You would think that a pre-concert talk would always help us build and retain audiences. But we should HEAR that talk as if we were attending for the first time. What if, in our good intentions, we’ve inadvertently convinced new audiences that they can’t possibly enjoy the evening’s music?

Imagine you buy a ticket to hear a concert. You arrive early to learn whatever you can to help you really, intensely benefit from the performance. Now, try to really HEAR this sentence, “The form of the first movement is a hybrid between sonata and ritornello.”

What do you actually have to KNOW to enjoy the scent of a rose?

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t teach, but it might serve to remind ourselves who is listening.

What if we first gave a pre-concert talk to some non-musicians and had them keep notes on the points in our presentation where we had lost them? I’ve done that. It’s humbling, to say the least. You learn a lot about what doesn’t work.

And figuring out what isn’t working is already a good start.

Oh, and by the way, it isn’t really a hybrid between sonata and ritornello. Actually, its a typical double exposition you would expect in any classical concerto of the late 18th Century, except that the second theme modulates even in the first, orchestral exposition. THAT’s rare, although it is surely due to the fact that this concerto is in the minor mode. You would think that instead of modulating from the minor tonic to the major mediant for the second subject, he would choose to use the parallel tonic and simply present the second theme in the major mode, reserving the actual modulation to the mediant for the second, soloist exposition. And that makes you wonder what he might do in the recapitulation: modulate again, or present everything in tonic – first theme in minor, and the second one in the parallel major? After all, he HAS to end in the home tonic, right? So I don’t really buy the “hybrid between sonata and ritornello” argument anyway.

I hope you’re laughing right now.

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  1. says

    I agree with you whole heartedly! It is so easy to alienate people by not speaking to their level. On the whole, I don’t think most people really go to a concert to hear the form of the music. They just want to go to hear something beautiful or thought provoking. I’ve not been to too many pre-concert talks, but I think the same thing applies to program notes. When I read the notes, if it’s a piece I’ve never heard, I’d like to know what to listen for in the piece. Simply reading about the form of the piece doesn’t tell me that something exciting might happen after the first big rest, or that the composer added a special turn of phrase after the repeat. Those are the things that I’d rather read about. A well-presented talk or program notes should move the audience to be more excited about the piece, not more confused!

  2. says

    An excellent post!
    Recently I challenged myself to do what you suggest for young musicians — to explore a musical work without using the usual analytical jargon. I chose to do this with Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw. This provided a particularly difficult challenge for me since right now I am in the middle of working through the piece analytically (not just using but inventing jargon).
    The problem is not a simple one of substitution of analogies and metaphors so the layman can get close to the same kind of “form appreciation” as the professional musician. In the case of Survivor, jargon substitution would have raised a particular problem because I would have had to find a way to get across the idea “everybody talks about this piece as ‘loosely’ serial but it’s not really serial at all (in the count-the-notes sense) and that’s a large part of what makes it cohere.” (Jeez. I just put myself to sleep. Note to self: Describing what you are doing is not as exciting as doing it.)
    Instead I set myself a similar but slightly different task: talking around a musical work while withholding the music itself as long as possible such that when the music is finally introduced … you don’t have to talk about the music at all. To create a room where the music can speak for itself. This is what I wrote:
    I suppose I could have stopped with the words “this is what they heard.” But (confession:) this wasn’t really so much about A Survivor from Warsaw as it was about “audience shift” over the past 60 years. I.e., it’s about us today. This is more than the panic-du-jour over demographics, especially “aging.” It’s about openness, maturity, challenge, judgement, attention, logic, and a whole host of grown-up stuff that we discovered was standing between us and our addiction to empty culture-calories.
    PS: Jargon Hell would make an excellent name for a band.

  3. Steve Freeborn says

    Strangely enought, I find the same communication difficulities when I make financial presentations to most “not for profit” boards. One must be come creative and use terms that is understandable to the lay person. Pictures and graphs help greatly. After all, the point is to transfer useful knowledge in a manner that is understandable and can be up to use for the betterment of the organization.
    Also, recently my wife and I attended a pre-concert presentation at a renown symphony hall. I followed it for a bit, but when it came to the concert, I could not connect what I had heard to the music I was hearing.

  4. Gary Tucker says

    Excellent comments!
    And the same goes for wall text in museums – Too many curators fail to engage their audiences, by posting “descriptions” that are far too high-falutin’ and esoteric for the common arts patron to grasp and appreciate.

  5. Wes Ramsay says

    Excellent essay!
    I have a personal theory that musicians use jargon because a number of them never become comfortable (or fluent!) at expressing themselves in English. They ‘do music’ because it’s a comfortable semi-literate bubble they can live in. What they do appears mysterious and unapproachable, so few people question them.
    Lectures like the one you describe remind me of that great scene between Mike Meyers and Michael Caine in one of the ‘Austin Powers’ movies. They decide to jabber with one another in ‘real English’, with subtitles provided. It’s one of the funnier moments in the whole series.
    I did chuckle at the final paragraph. I understood exactly what you were saying, geek that I am. It may be an illness…

  6. Rick Robinson says

    I know I’m late to this conversation… but I just discovered you here John (after rereading some orchestrarevolution.org responses) and I want to contribute.
    I couldn’t agree more that we lose people by trying to impress them with how much we know rather than how much we know about THEM. But since we only get one shot at presenting some words that will help them ENJOY the music right off the bat, we DO have to make some assumptions. One would assume that because they took the extra time to come to a preconcert lecture, they want to know WHY the composer wrote it. When and where are sometimes an important part of that, sometimes not. People need to know if the piece is abstract. If not, they’ll want to know what the program is ABOUT.
    I happen to believe that what newcomers really want to know is how they might expect to FEEL about the piece. And since we can’t tell them that we can at least them them how WE FEEL about the piece… in some detail! It can even be, “This part makes me think of…”, but this will give non-musicians a relevant baseline for comparison.

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