Archive for January, 2010


Programme notes and ethics?

Last Saturday I gave a 90-minute talk to around 100 people on “Programme Note Writing”. Crammed into a poky room in the deep bowels of the Petronas Twin Towers it was not the ideal setting, but the audience seemed fairly interested and there were some unusually pertinent questions at the end. It would be nice to think that I was able to reveal something of both the value of programme notes and the art/skill involved in writing them. It matters to me that programme notes are well-written and useful; not least because they support (especially in the case of the MPO) a world-class orchestra whose musical performances deserve only the very best support in written materials; let’s face it, when it comes to supporting publicity and marketing, the MPO gets a bum deal and no mistake.

In my researches for my talk I looked at a number of programme notes from around the world and came across something very strange and disturbing; programme notes which seemed completely unsuited to the target audience; intense technical terms for children’s concerts, kiddie-talk for refined string quartet performances, and the like. My pet thing is that the programme note writer must know his audience and their background if he is to communicate effectively with them. What’s the point, for example, of an American telling a Malaysian audience that “this is the kind of thing you hear every Sunday in church”? Some of the programme notes I came across had, quite obviously, simply been lifted off the internet by those too lazy (or mean) to commission something original, but some seemed simply bizarre. And then the penny dropped (or the cent, sen or pfennig, depending on my audience). These notes were in return for favours given.

A peculiarly blatant piece of Americana for an Asian audience was by the same man who had written a puffy piece of praise on an online music review site about the orchestra some months earlier. A weird piece of Australio-centric tub-thumping (for a different Asian audience) was by a man who had been chairman of the panel of judges which had given the orchestra’s conductor a prize. And a smarmy piece by an I’m-much-more-clever-than-you-yoiks Englishman for a concert in the Middle East, seemed neatly to tie in with the same writer’s highly complimentary article in an international investors’ magazine about the quality of music in that same Middle East country.

Much closer to home, I recall when the MPO got off the ground and publicity was being desperately sought, a critic was flown from London (at the MPO expense) in order to write a piece about the new orchestra. Surprise, surprise! It was highly complimentary. I recall, also, a previous Marketing Manager asking me for a list of writers who might be induced to compile a laudatory piece in various magazines across the globe in return for an expenses-paid trip to Malaysia with, perhaps, a weekend on Langkawi thrown in. And I am well aware that critics who write nice things about recordings of some orchestras often get invitations to go and hear them in the flesh (at the orchestra’s expense, of course). I’ve had them – and I’ve turned them down.

It seems harmless enough, I suppose, but is it? As a critic, I am conscious of the risk of a conflict of interest being perceived to colour one’s judgement. I’m absolutely sure that none of my professional colleagues (I can’t speak for the amateurs who adorn local newspapers the world over) allows this to happen, but perception, as they don’t say, is nine-tenths of the law, and if it looks as if something might have happened, in many peoples’ minds, it has. I don’t think any editor has ever told me in 40 years of music criticism not to write about any organisation or event in which I have an interest, but my personal ethics don’t allow it. And, as a result, I miss out on a lot of freebies, but sleep well at night.

Programme notes may not afford the same kind of personal assessment on the performers as does a piece of criticism, but by offering them to those who have no real perception of the demographics of the audience, the concert-organisers are selling their own audiences short; giving them the second-rate when they deserve the first-rate. There again, does it matter? Programme notes are ephemeral and most who read them don’t even bother to look to see who wrote them let alone question their impartiality. But if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly, and if that isn’t a maxim which affects every aspect of music-making, then we’re in the wrong business.

But I do have a confession to make which possibly undermines everything I’ve just written. Several months ago Gramophone sent me a disc of vocal music for review released on the Melba label. I duly did my piece, which was unusually (for me) complimentary, concluding that Melba was a “distinguished Australian label”. Even as that was going through the sub-editor’s hands, I had a call from an agent asking if I could write as a matter of some urgency notes on Bach’s Trio Sonatas for organ for a CD due for imminent release. I did so, and sent them off with a request that the disc be sent to me on its release. It came the same week that the issue of Gramophone with my vocal music review was published. Only then did I realise that I had written notes for a Melba disc and that my Gramophone piece might be seen as an attempt to curry favour with the people responsible for commissioning notes. I hang my head in shame not for any wrong-doing but for giving rise to the possible perception that my critical praise could have been coloured by personal gain.

Anyway in for a penny in for a pound (or cent/dollar, sen/ringgit, pfenning/mark, depending on my audience). The Melba vocal disc (songs by Vierne and Chausson with Steve Davislim, the Queensland Orchestra and Guillaume Tournaire on MR301123) is a stunner and, without any prompting from me, got an Editor’s Choice accolade in December’s Gramophone. The Bach Trio Sonatas disc (with my good friend Christopher Wrench playing his fingers and feet to the bone on MR301125) is notable for the excellent notes (both written and played) and I’ve added a link to the Melba site for good measure. If the Queensland Orchestra want to invite me, in return for my kind words about them in Gramophone, to write concert notes for them, giiving me an all-expenses paid trip to Brisbane with a weekend on the Sunshine Coast thrown in for good measure, then I’ll say yes; the die has already been cast. And while I’m in the throes of destroying my own hard-won reputation for impartiality, if Melba wanrt me to write more notes for them, they only have to send the blank cheque. Who cares about serving the musical piblic ethically?


New Year, New Blog, New Music

Some years ago I was on a radio discussion when, quite out of the blue, the lady chairman asked us what our New Year Resolutions were.  I was sitting next to her so I had to answer first and, without any kind of forethought I just said that my New Year Resolution was Not To Make Any New Year Resolutions.  She looked horrified; clearly regarding me as a real kill-joy and motioned that I had to explain.  My off-the-cuff response was that, with that as a New Year Resolution, I couldn’t do anything but break it straight away and thereby invalidate any other Resolution.  That got more laughter than I expected, and have kept it as my guideline ever since.

So this new blog is NOT the result of a New Year resolution

Well, it couldn’t be anyway, since it was first conceived in July and, with modern technology being what it is, it has taken all of 6 months to get up and – in its own funny way – running.  It’ll presumably take another six months before anyone reads it and even longer before anyone posts any response.  My target readership I assume to be as technologically inept as I and will probably fume and shout in response to my utterances but not have the foggiest idea how to put  reactions on to the blog.

But I do have a sort of New Year resolution which comes to mind in early January every year when I peruse the huge mountain of forthcoming programme, CD and other notes I am expected to write over the next few months.  I promise myself I will flag up and new works which appear during the year and give them my very special consideration.  It’s really exciting to think that there are new works not even written which I will write about and, hopefully, hear before the year is out. Will a great masterpiece emerge in 2010?  Will our listening experience be enriched by something written this year?  I live in hope, but experience shows that disappointment is the most likely outcome.

Certainly it was with 2009.

Among the regular concert series for which I write the audience notes are the exciting Spectrum concerts at Singapore’s Esplanade, which often involve brand new music by young composers, and the ground-breaking Forum for a Composers which Kevin Field masterminds in his sterling efforts to encourage Malaysians to write serious music (presumably in an attempt to undo the damage done by decades of Ramlee-mania in which the inane and shallow in music has been a source of national pride).  I feel my duty is to provide the audience with a kind of verbal road-map to help them untangle to aural complexities which young composers feel is de rigueur, and to this end I have always believed that the most important thing is to get the composers themselves to explain what they are attempting to achieve in their music.  And that’s where it all falls down.

I’ve just been sent the six submissions from the Malaysian composers.  They were supposed to comment on their new piece and give a bit of biography.  In the latter area, I’m amazed how little they seem to know about themselves (I can put that down to a-typically Malaysian reticence), but more seriously, few of them seem to have any idea what their music is trying to achieve.  Few of these young composers can string more than a couple of words together, and some appear to be barely literate.  Some, on the other hand, try so hard to impress that they submit a pile of gobbledegook which doesn’t even begin to make any kind of sense.  Last year, I remember adding a comment to one Spectrum note I submitted, which largely used the composer’s own submission, advising the Esplanade not to allow the programmes to be handed out until the audience was locked in the hall; the note being sufficiently depressing to drive anyone who read it in advance straight into Harry’s Bar for something more uplifting.

You could argue that, if you write music, it’s because you don’t write words.  An argument that falls down when you look at the gloriously coherent writings of, among others, Telemann, Berlioz, Schumann, Wagner, Milhaud, Vaughan Williams, Boulez, the list is endless of literate composers, capable of expressing themselves cogently on paper.  You could argue that these Malaysian composers do not have English as their first language.  Again, in the past one did submit a note in BM which was even more incoherent than most of the English ones.

The fact is that if composers can’t organise or set out their thoughts in words, one wonders whether they can do so effectively in music?  Is there a correlation between the ability to express ideas verbally and to express them musically?  I strongly suspect there is, because I am quite sure that most of these pieces will prove to be as incomprehensible and obscure as their written explanations.  A few in the audience will nod sagely and say how profound the music is (there are always posers around in a concert) but a look at the struggling members of the MPO as they grasp the lifelines Kevin Field’s all encompassing conducting throws to them (in these concerts one is painfully aware that, unlike programmes of Strauss, Wagner, Mahler etc., were Kevin to keel over, the orchestra would immediately grind to a halt) reveals that this music is neither pleasurable nor accessible.

Does music have to be?  No, of course it doesn’t.  But it must have some coherent train of thought so that an audience can grasp its basic message and, hopefully, want to delve further into it through repeated listening.  Sadly, if a composer can’t begin to express basic ideas through language, one wonders how he (or she) can hope to do so through the undeniably more complex medium of musical notation.