Speak for Yourself

“I don’t really believe in program notes, I think the music should speak for itself.” Boy, do I get this from composers a lot. I’ve made a living for 22 years from explaining music in words, and I’d say half the composers I meet consider it a dishonest living – justified only insofar as I can praise them in print and help them get future gigs. Music should speak for itself, should communicate what it’s about, and thus the veiled hostility of the statement passes without notice. When music fails to communicate, it can be the music’s fault, and it can be the listener’s. If it’s the music’s fault, then program notes are of little avail. A program note for a poor piece is a lawyer defending a guilty client. But what if the defendant is innocent, and it’s the listener’s fault?

In an audience of any size, there will be a certain proportion of well-intended people who do not process new auditory information as accurately as they do verbal and visual information. Those people appreciate, and benefit from, a nudge in some direction as to how they should understand the music they’re hearing for the first time. It doesn’t even have to be the right direction, they’ll self-correct through experience soon enough. The most gratifying comment I’ve ever gotten is, “I didn’t really know what to think about that piece until I read your review.” As Virgil Thomson so incisively wrote, “The purpose of music criticism is to aid the public in the digestion of musical works. Not for nothing is it so often compared to bile.” It is a composer’s professional deformation to forget that, for most people, hearing a new piece of music in an unfamiliar style is a rare experience for which they have not spent any time mentally preparing. You can go through your career secretly despising these people, but the composer who despises the vast body of well-intended lay listeners amply deserves to fail – and will, unless he or she succeeds in a superficial sense by clever politicking in musical society, as so many do.

There are many routes to an interest in music, and the music-should-speak-for-itself crowd inexplicably want to close down all but one. I had a student from Danbury, Connecticut, who took up a particular interest in Charles Ives because he was from Danbury. Is that an ignoble reason to make a hobby of someone’s music? Had I told the class, “Who cares what city he was from, dammit, the music should speak for itself!” – she would never really have heard Ives’s music. Program notes can put a human face on strange-sounding music. Composer Jennifer Higdon told me that she once caught 41 bluegills in a pond in Tennessee where she grew up; that may reel in a segment of the audience less impressed by the 410 composition prizes she caught later. Music also, as we all ought to have learned by now, sometimes carries an ideational content that doesn’t register with unpracticed listeners until it’s pointed out to them in words. Another student didn’t care for Cage’s music at first hearing, but became fascinated with the I Ching. Everyone rightly respects the paradigmatic experience of suddenly hearing a piece of music and being so overwhelmed that you have to know more about it, but I have to admit that not every composition I now dearly love came into my heart through that direct route. And my favorite use of program notes is for after the concert – by listeners so impressed they had to know more. Pure experience is a wonderful thing, but to have a shared artistic culture we have to fit our experiences into a narrative. Program notes can be the humble building blocks of that narrative.

So let’s correctly interpret what “the music should speak for itself” usually means: “I just want my music played, and I’m too busy and important and self-absorbed to bother helping anyone who doesn’t get it. If they’re not sophisticated enough to understand it just by listening, SCREW ‘EM!” Is that really the image you want us poor music critics to think you intend to project to the world?

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