In this installment of ROCOInsider, Audience Engagement Coordinator, Rachel Smith, sat down with ROCO’s program note writer, Mark Buller, to chat about what goes into the making of a program note.
Hi, Mark! Thanks for chatting with me today. We love having you write program notes for us, but we wanted to give everyone more of a sense of what they are, what they’re for, and how you go about writing them…more of an inside look at the process. So, what are program notes?
Mark: Haha, starting philosophically! The purpose of program notes is to contextualize music, which is such an abstract art form. Written program notes help give both historical context and a bit of a listening context for someone who might not know how to actively listen.
Are program notes more for people who know a lot about music, or for people who don’t know much about classical music at all?
Mark: I think they should be both! They should have something for everybody. Everyone is trying to communicate with the audience in some way, and I’m trying to do that in a way that allows the music to have the greatest impact possible. That’s why I always have a food analogy, or some other analogy to take it a bit more out of the abstract. Even if someone has six degrees in music, they probably haven’t thought about whether Mozart is more like an éclair or a pizza.
Are you writing notes more from the point of view of, “these are the things I think are really important about this piece”, or “this is what I would want someone to know if they didn’t know anything about it”? Or does it depend on the piece and the audience?
Mark: Yeah, I think it depends, but I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I think it’s good to be well-rounded – what’s interesting about the composer and his or her life, but also what’s interesting about the piece. They are very connected. A composer doesn’t have his or her “life-phase” and then their “composition phase.” The Ethyl Smyth piece on the February 23 “Ticket to Ride” concert is a good example. She was just a super gutsy, really fascinating person. She was a suffragette, somewhat early in the movement, wouldn’t take a “no” from anybody, and you hear that in the piece. The piece is very bold and it just goes out there and gets it done.
What is your favorite piece for which you’ve written a note?
Mark: That Mendelssohn concert piece from earlier this season was super fun because there are so many of those from that era and so many are bad. So I went in with the expectation that this would be one of those humdrum “student” pieces, and then what do you know, it blew me away. ROCO did it with bassoon and clarinet, but it’s originally written for bassoon and basset horn, so it was fun to hear “virtuoso basset horn” playing. Plus, the whole story about how Mendelssohn wrote it in exchange for sweets from Berlin (he was in Leipzig) was so hilarious, as well as how he claimed to have written it in a day. That was a perfect example of what I mean about humanizing a composer. It took Mendelssohn from this huge figure who revived the works of J.S. Bach and made him a guy who wrote a piece basically for free for some friends who were going to bring him dessert. It showed he really had a sense of humor, which I thought was just perfect for a program note.
So, often, program notes are written by a music historian or a musicologist. Do you feel that writing them as a composer gives you a different point of view?
Mark: I don’t know! That’s a good question. It must give me some different kind of point of view… it probably certainly gives a different point of view when it comes to writing program notes for the premieres. I know a lot of people have trouble with that, and often when you see notes for premieres, the notes have been written not by the usual program annotator but by the composer themselves. I don’t know, maybe I speak that language that composers speak? It’s also fun, though, to filter what they give me through my own experience and then into the note. So I’m not sure. Maybe I can come at the notes more like a musicologist for the older pieces and more as a composer for the newly written works where I get to talk directly to the composer. I think I do ask different questions in those instances.
Do you write notes for your own compositions?
Mark: Yeah (sighs), I do. I really haven’t had to much in an official way. I don’t like doing that. It’s good and everybody should be able to, but…
Are you too close to the subject?
Mark: I think so, yeah. There’s a part of me that thinks if I could express in words what I was trying to say, I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble to write the music.
So, historically, there were some composers who very deliberately wrote their own notes instructing the audience on how to hear and understand their work. Do you think that that was just a point in history, or an idiosyncrasy of those composers? What I’m hearing from you is that you’d prefer to go a much different direction!
Mark: It’s probably a historical vagary, I think. To me, “here’s how to listen to this piece” sounds like such an egotistical thing to say. Plus, there’s also a stubborn part of me that says, instead of telling someone how to listen, just put it in the notes. I feel like a really good piece, ideally, can stand on its own and people can listen to it any number of different ways. For instance, Also Sprach Zarathustra, the famous Strauss overture, was intended to be heard by people who knew Nietzsche really well. But when we hear it today, we think of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It works really well in both contexts. It’s also in a comedy from the early 80s – a disco version as Peter Sellers’ character is walking down the street, and it’s perfect! So, it’s a really good piece, and it works in these three disconnected universes. Strauss, though, didn’t have to say, “you have to hear it this way”.
In cases like that, do you ever feel like where you want to spend more of your program note is alerting the audience to all the different ways pieces have been used or “interact” with culture and society?
Mark: Absolutely! First off, it goes to show that concerts aren’t museums. While it might help to understand what people were thinking and what society was like back then, we can also appreciate the music on its own terms and in today’s culture. Good music works in both spaces. People will be listening to Bach 300 years from now in flying cars or whatever. They won’t necessarily need to know what it was like to live in Leipzig in 1740. Now, when they go to Leipzig, and walk on the streets and visit the coffee shops and maybe read the Gardiner biography of Bach and see what it was all like for Bach and how hard his childhood was and yet he wrote this perfect music, that does give them another layer, but it’s not strictly necessary to enjoy the music. Ideally, program notes are a multi-layered kind of thing; we want to draw people in further, give them an appreciation of the piece, and hopefully, make it a piece they come back to over and over.
Do you think that it matters for an audience member when they read a program note? Does it make a difference if it’s before they hear the piece, as they’re hearing the piece, or even after the concert when they’re home and the find the program sitting on the kitchen counter the next day?
Mark: I don’t think it matters. Personally, I try not to read during a performance, but everybody has their own approach to the music. Reading during the performance works perfectly well for some people.
Fun Factoid: One of the reasons we leave the house lights up at ROCO concerts is so that people can read the program if they want to!
Do you ever get to interview our commissioned composers, or are you going off of their own notes?
Mark: Both. They’ll usually send me their note, but then I also send them a five to ten point questionnaire. I always ask what the form is and what food they would compare the piece to. Beyond that, I do as much research as I can on the piece and ask questions based off that. With the Jim Stephenson piece coming up, for example, I had kind of assumed that he was a big train aficionado. But he isn’t. Turns out, his dad is the enthusiast, and this piece was a great bonding experience for them. He spent the afternoon with his dad talking about trains and whatnot. He actually used the train tracks to figure out how they could be used as percussion instruments.
How neat – it sounds like the piece is really almost as much about family as it is about trains!
Mark: Yes! There’s a strong human connection there.
One of the things I’ve always appreciated about your notes is that they have some humor in them. Is that just Mark, or is that something you’re trying to put in on purpose?
Mark: It’s something I try to put in. We all get so caught up in “Great Art” that we forget it’s supposed to be fun. It’s good to remember why we got into it in the first place. The musicians I love are people like Gil Shaham and Yo-Yo Ma. You can tell they absolutely love what they’re doing. They’re smiling the whole time! So when it comes to program notes, I try to show the audience that side. I try to show them that, hey, this is good music, and there’s a good reason that these pieces were chosen at the exclusion of six hundred others!
Catch Mark’s next set of notes during Ticket to Ride on Saturday, February 23, 2019. We’d love to see you there!