Important news stories (1)

800 Very Unsquare Feet New York Times, November 30

What this story says:

In Malibu, there’s a store called Free City Supershop, run by a fashion professional named Nina Garduno. “Is it a camping store?” the story asks (and it’s a very vivid, focused story, I might add, written by Cathy Horyn). “Ms. Garduno sells customized teepees, with one on display near the entrance.”

“Is it a bike shop? She sells vintage and new bicycles, each one refitted and custom-painted so that no two are alike. “Is it a clothing store? Ms. Garduno sells hand-printed T-shirts and sweat pants that she produces herself, the block type reminiscent of the style, if not the spirit, of a concert handbill.”

Free City Supershop is also a place where people come to hang out. There’s free orange juice for everyone.”‘Surfers will come in and just load their pockets with oranges.’ [Ms. Garduno] grinned. ‘It’s totally great.'”

This is a high-end clothing (or whatever) store; some of the t-shirts sell for $200. But it’s also comfortable. And that’s the point. That’s the key both to the store and to the article about it:

…for something to be perceived as authentic, that value has to be communicated cleanly through every detail — from the quality of the wash, if it’s a T-shirt, to the integrity of the physical environment. This is the almost visceral sense you get when you enter Free City. Not to sound crunchy, but you feel the love.

Yet if fashion executives were to look beyond the granola rhetoric of Laurel Canyon circa 1975, beyond the $140 T-shirts with mystical-sounding phrases like “Texas Tokyo,” they may be forced to admit that Ms. Garduno is in fact very instinctual, that her ideas are prescient. They may even have to ask why the fashion industry has not been able to create a new shopping experience equal in its fun and sense of surprise to that of Whole Foods or Apple, but which is available in 800 square feet in a strip mall in Malibu.

Why this is important:

Has anyone in classical music created anything with the creativity and sense of surprise of Whole Foods or Apple?

Has anyone created a concert experience whose authenticity is “communicated cleanly through every detail”?

We especially haven’t done the latter. The program book, for instance, at most performances, gives the game away. It tends to look like a community newspaper. Very sweet, very sincere, but not anywhere near the artistic level the music is supposed to be at.

Of course, some people will tell me that the music is what’s important, not the setting, not the sizzle, not the accessories. To which I can only reply that classical music already has ambience and accessories. Concert halls are built in standard ways, and convey a sense of formal luxury (spacious at best, pretentious at worst). Musicians wear formal clothes. Etc. We all know the drill. How does all of this help the music? What kind of performance does it encourage?

And how would we want concerts to look and feel, if we designed them from the ground up, with no preconceptions, starting only from the music?

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Yvonne says

    For those of us who are unfamiliar with the full gamut of American orchestra program books, say just a little more about “community newspapers”. Are you talking about homespun graphic design? Lots of little ads for local businesses? Inadequate writing?

    Homespun graphic design, absolutely. Great naive enthusiasm about simple things. Writing that’s not even remotely interesting, unless you already love the orchestra. The largest orchestras are getting away from this, sometimes successfully. But it’s still a plague.

    I once spent some time with the marketing director and publications manager of a major orchestra, going over their program book. We all agreed that it was just about unreadable. Fixing it was another story — not cost-effective, since it would have required new staff, and by itself wouldn’t have made enough difference in how the orchestra presented itself. (Though if combined with many other changes…)

  2. says

    OK, now I’m intrigued Greg – what are your thoughts on conveying the ‘authenticity of the concert experience cleanly’ through the program book?

    We’ve done a fair amount here recently to try and enhance what’s included in our books; to link the materials – particularly that provided by our annotators – to the entire program (i.e. not just to each individual work). We’re also trying to elicit the thoughts of the performers as often as possible – most recently, Marin Alsop on a program featuring a work by James MacMillan amongst others.

    Thoughts? Suggestions?!

    Jonathan (who’s on the artistic staff of the Pittsburgh Symphony) has already heard my answer, because we e-mailed privately about it.

    The old line about the medium being the message applies here.If the program book prints serious musical stuff, then it’s telling the world that the Pittsburgh Symphony is a serious institution with an educational mission.

    Instead, the program book should communicate delight and creativity. Instead of printing Marin Alsop’s very serious thoughts about music, it should print her poetry. (Well, assuming her poetry is individual enough, and full of delight.)

    There should be things in the program book that have nothing to do with music. If the woman with the store in Malibu sells teepees as well as fashion, what could the orchestra feature? Maybe motorcycles. Among other things, they sound really wonderful. Or birds. (Not that everything has to be about sound.)

    How you do this when you’re a large institution, and not a quirky individual, isn’t obvious. But the path to it could be wonderful for the institution. Everyone — staff, musicians, board members, volunteers — could return for a while to their original, naive love of music. Without forgetting the sophsticated love that developed later.

    What else in life evokes, suggests, reminds them of that love? What else in life do they love in the same way?

  3. Yvonne says

    Here’s one example of a program book communicating authenticity in the details.

    The program in question was for Les Arts Florissants performing Rameau’s Zoroastre in 1998. The copy I have is entirely in French, so I can’t comment on the character or quality of the writing, but the by-lines lead me to think the two essays are probably authoritative and well-written. I also can’t comment on the performance since I wasn’t there, but it was reported to me as exciting and beautiful, vigorous and sonorous, “seriously” done but also entertaining and impassioned. (I’m prepared to believe that based on LAF performances that I have seen.)

    What is important, though, is that I would have known this from the design character and sheer quality of the program book: the gorgeous matte stock; the carefully chosen reproductions from the original MS and of original costume designs; and the French libretto in full, which speaks of the seriousness of the exercise and shows a proper recognition of the importance of the text in a piece such as this. The layout is clean, elegant and achingly simple with lots of white space and it nods to the period of the work with a nicely chosen old-style serif face.

    If I had to choose one word to characterise this publication, it would be sensuousness. And I would think that this program in relation to the performances was very much at “the artistic level the music is supposed to be at”, to quote the original post.

    Does it also communicate “delight and creativity”? Clearly it gave me delight, which is why I kept it even though I wasn’t there and can’t read it, and why I recalled it now, more than 8 years on. And there is evidence of creativity in developing a design that would lovingly reflect the period and character of the musical work and its performance. Is it sophisticated? Absolutely. But in a beautiful, enticing way, and without shame or apology.

    Sounds wonderful. And talk about the medium being the message — if you can’t read it, and were completely seduced by it anyway…

  4. Yvonne says

    Sorry, going overboard here – but your comments beg a response.

    The implications of printing “serious musical stuff”: The New Yorker prints “serious stuff” (some of it musical). I guess it’s a serious institution, but I wouldn’t think of it having an educational mission, at least not in a negative sense. Can’t the printing of serious musical stuff also communicate a recognition that your audience likes to be stimulated, that it likes to think, that it’s curious about the art form? (I realise that’s not the only kind of audience out there, but of the “let it wash over me” kind how many want to read the program in depth anyway? The concert may touch them in a completely different way and that’s ok.)

    “Communicating delight and creativity”: oh, I agree. But I suspect that, like being “cool” this is something that happens less and less the more and more you “try”.

    Would I rather read Marin Alsop’s thoughts on music or her poetry? I have to disagree with you there. I would want to know what motivates her music-making and her programming. Reading her poetry might be interesting, but it won’t necessarily give me a better insight into the concert I’m hearing. And before you say, “But you’re a music professional,” I will say that the same goes for the other arts. At a play, I would rather read what Cate Blanchett has to say about Hedda Gabler than see her watercolours. And why shouldn’t the artist’s thoughts on her art communicate delight and creativity?

    “There should be things in the program book that have nothing to with music.” I’m sorry, programs already have plenty of content that has nothing to do with music: sponsor messages, donor listings, staff and board listings, and so on. Let the rest be about the music. Let me correct that: let the rest be about The Concert – what inspired it, what propels its musical journey, what’s important and wonderful about the works and the way they fit together, how the complicated stuff works… Now I should admit that my fantasy program book looks a lot like The New Yorker, and so would definitely include great cartoons and side-splitting comic pieces. But even these would have some quirky, tangential connection with the concert I was hearing.

    Malibu boutique analogy: we won’t achieve something similar by having content that has nothing to do with music (the woman running the boutique isn’t selling anything that isn’t somehow connected to fashion in the looser sense, it’s just that not all of it is clothing, it’s the medium that’s going left-field not the subject). If music is our “fashion”; then the program note on Varese’s Arcana is our T-shirt and a specially commissioned fantastical drawing inspired by the dream Varese had when writing it is our tee-pee. But it’s all to do with the music.

    Original, naïve love of music vs sophisticated love: I would say that the original, naïve love is inspired by the artform itself. Seeing Macbeth, seeing Rigoletto, seeing Giselle, listening to Camelot, driving my parents batty by playing the Scheherazade LP over and over again. Immersion. The only way to inspire that kind of love is directly, with performances. No program book will ever do it. Nor should it try. BUT, having gotten excited about the art form or the work, you start to grow interested in it. And because it’s large-scale and a little complex in places you become curious about how it works and you want to get to know it better. And because the legacy of the 19th century means that reading about an artform is nearly as important as the artform itself (that’s changing for sure, but Dahlhaus is right about the 19th century and that’s where our canon comes from), we start reading about it. Enter the program book: the love letter for the soul who has already fallen in love, who has already been touched by the artform itself. Now of course the program book mustn’t kill that love with dusty writing or glib dumbing down or dull presentation, it should beautiful and enticing to look at, and those who write must truly love music with unquenchable enthusiasm; but it has to be created with the recognition that as audiences we turn to the program book precisely because we want our naïve love to turn into something more sophisticated.

    “Enter the program book: the love letter for the soul who has already fallen in love, who has already been touched by the artform itself.” Yvonne, I love that.

    And now, be honest. Have you ever seen anything in a program book — the ones you edit, or anyone’s — that actually lives up to that wonderful phrase I’ve just quoted from you? I don’t think I have. Certainly all the variously informative pieces we read (program notes, interviews) don’t come close.

    As for sponsor messages, lists of donors, and the like, I’d banish them tomorrow, if I could. I’d substitute something about charitable and socially helpful causes that the orchestra supports in its community. What message do we want to send? That we’re about the money we receive, or that we’re about the good we can do?

  5. says

    Thanks Greg, for a really thoughtful response, and to Yvonne for sharing details of that wonderful-sounding publication!

    The ideas are definite food for thought on our publication here at the PSO, although I can guarantee that a slow evolution is much more likely than a wholesale re-modelling/rethink. Not least for the fact that, even as a large(ish) organization, we definitely don’t have the disposable resources to throw at changing the tried and tested so dramatically (alas!).

    One last thing – to be fair to Maestro Alsop, her thoughts on the program were far from ‘very serious’, and she elaborated on them quite wonderfully at a post-concert chat with the audience. But I do get your point about including something less serious and presumptiously educative on the audience

  6. Yvonne says

    Ok, granted, I was waxing lyrical in the wee hours. ‘Love letter’ program books are idealistic. And of course, you’re right, I’ve never seen a program book that I could, in its entirety, describe that way. At best I’d come across a faint hint here and there, perhaps in the form of fantastic design (the equivalent of using our nicest writing paper, favourite fountain pen and sealing wax on the envelope), or in the form of a program note that, while informative, transcends formula and reveals genuine enthusiasm for the music.

    Which brings me to this matter of being ‘informative’.

    Because – and here’s the rub – talking to people in the audience across age groups, a good many say that they want to be informed, and that they do, in various ways, do things to ‘prepare’ for the concert, including reading programs and listening to the music. I wonder if – like ‘elitism’ – ‘informative’ needs to lose its negative edge without throwing out the proverbial baby. And maybe that means eschewing excessive formality without sacrificing style and flair, using humour without succumbing to snideness, being more imaginative with presentation. I think that can be done.

    Maybe then we wouldn’t have ‘love letters’ (which, after all, implies a poetry and magic that we should be leaving to the music and not getting too much in the way of) but something more like ‘lively letters to lovers’.

    (I herewith abandon this analogy before it gets me into a corner!)

    Yvonne, I don’t doubt that some or even many people who come to classical concerts now want to learn more about what they’re hearing.

    But how about the people who aren’t coming? What’s going to make them want to come? They, too, might say, if you asked them, that they’d like to know more about classical music. But an atmosphere that’s too overtly educational might turn them off. People, in the last analysis, go out to have something happen to them, not to be educated. If classical concerts look, feel — and even sound — like nothing much is going on, then it’s no surprise that many people don’t come.

    As for waxing lyrical in the wee hours — I hope you’re not backing off from what you wrote! I loved it, and I’d really love to see a classical music program book — or the entire look and feel of a classical concert — that really embodied the “love letter” you waxed lyrical about.