On not reading concert program notes

I have a confession to make. When attending a music concert or dance performance, I never really look at the program notes they pass out. Furthermore, I feel sufficiently guilty that I always take the printout or brochure home, “just in case” I feel like actually sitting down and reading it. I never do. Several years ago I finally took a whole box of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra programs and recycled them, never having ever read any of them.

Also, when I check out a CD or DVD from the library, I don’t really look at the liner notes either.

What’s going on? And should I feel guilty? And what should I make of tonight’s dance performance Abby and I “accidentally” ended up watching because we didn’t know the full program up front?

Last Saturday’s concert by Sonia Lee and Robert Bocchino

The last set of program notes I have on hand are from last Saturday’s concert, part of the Aspinwall Presbyterian Performing Arts Series, with Sonia playing the harpsichord and Rob playing the baroque violin in one of the works. It was a nice little concert I heard about through the local recorder society. I know Rob from our playing recorder together in the group, and met his wife Sonia through him.

Choosing to go

Before the concert, I had a decent idea of what kind of music was going to be played: harpsichord and baroque violin mean, well, some kind of early music. To tell the truth, I don’t even remember if I ever carefully read the email announcement about the concert, other than who was playing and where and when! My thought wasn’t about specific pieces of music to expect, but was just, “Hey, I haven’t heard Sonia play harpsichord except briefly at that one potluck dinner at Helen’s, and I haven’t yet heard Rob play baroque violin yet, and I’m not all that familiar with Renaissance or Baroque music (yet), so I’m in!”

Sitting down, eyes glazed over

The pattern is always the same. I get to the location of the concert, there are only minutes before it is to start, I sit down, I have a couple of pages of text handed to me by someone when I entered, and the last thing I feel like doing is reading. I’m here to listen, and secondarily, to watch, not to read. It’s like, the reading part of my brain wants to shut down for a while. I spend the vast majority of my life reading. I like getting a real break!

Program outline

What’s the information I have in my hand? Names of composers and pieces, with movement names, years of composer’s birth and death, year of composition. Doesn’t mean much to me. Either I already know the composer or piece, in which it is superfluous, or I don’t know, in which case the information is practically meaningless to me. Who the heck is Gaspard Le Roux? Do I really care? And what does “Sonatina No. 8 in A minor” really mean to me? It means a certain form in a certain key, but other than that, not much. I am, of course, grateful to get this outline of the concert. It’s good to have a rough idea of time period, how long each piece might be, when to clap, when intermission happens, etc. Still, I find myself sometimes guiltily distracted by this piece of paper. Am I going to make noise while trying to glance at it during performance. Is it going to fall on the floor? Can I keep it open?

I see Mike (one of our recorder gang who also came to the concert) scribbling on his outline. Ah, taking notes? I’ve done that before. I’m too lazy to do it this time, although I have observations about the acoustics in this church, matters of interpretation by Sonia and Rob, etc. Just too lazy this particular evening. In fact, I spend most of the concert with my eyes closed, my preferred method for listening to music. I don’t really need to see anything when at a concert. It just distracts me. Rob is doing something funny with his neck; do I really need to see or think about that (after the concert, he says it’s something because of how the baroque violin is held, and without a neck rest).

Program notes

Trying to read the program notes before the concert and at intermission, I just get tired and nervous. I feel like I should digest this information and somehow have it enhance my listening experience. But it doesn’t. In fact, I think it never does. I feel guilty about being ignorant. Poor Gaspard Le Roux: what would he think if he knew? Oh wait, he’s dead, and doesn’t know. And probably he wouldn’t care either. He’d probably be excited that hundreds of years after his death, someone out there is playing his music, and people are listening! His “elegant Courante demonstrates rhythmic variety, including the use of hemiolas at cadential points.” Oops, was I supposed to wait breathlessly to notice the hemiolas and congratulate myself? Oops, I only read that now, so I don’t even remember the hemiolas? Did I miss them? Does it matter if I did? I can’t hear every single interesting musical device in my first listening of random music. Heck, I can’t hear everything in recorded music I have listened to a dozen times! I suppose I feel annoyed that program notes make me think I’m missing something.

Also, the long biographies of the performers. I know marketing is vital to a performer, but personally, when I go to a concert, I don’t really need to know a performer’s long distinguished record of performance and scholarship. (That also goes for attending academic lectures and seminars, usually prefaced by some kind of long list of awards the speaker has received.) It’s up to my ears, not text on a page, to determine whether I enjoy the performance.

Tonight’s recorder concert, plus an unintended dance performance “bonus”

Fast forward to tonight, when Abby and I went to the Convention Center to attend a free concert, “Wanderings”, that was mentioned on the recorder mailing list. The concert, free to the public, started at 7:45 PM, and was part of some big multi-day conference of the American Orff-Schulwerk Association. I still don’t know exactly what that is (yes, I know, I could explore the web site and read it, and maybe I will eventually). I was just going for the free concert, which featured a recorder player, Nina Stern, with a percussionist Peter Maund. I was excited to go because this was the first time I’ve ever seen a professional recorder player, and so I wanted to know what a famous pro sounds like, and make note of how I can sound better myself!

It was a nice concert. The place was packed, because after all, this was part of a big conference.

No detailed program or program notes

Possibly because the actual participants of the conference had their own packet of information already, Abby and I didn’t get any program or program notes. That was fine with me. All I really needed to know was, a famous recorder player was there, and “will take you on a musical voyage from Medieval Italy to Armenia, from the Balkans to the Middle East, performing ancient melodies, vibrant estampies from the 14th century and traditional dances from Bulgaria and Serbia.” Enough detail for me.

As it turned out, Nina did say a few words about each set of pieces they performed, either before or after performing it. I love this format. Much better than wasting time typing up stuff or copying and pasting impersonal text. I enjoy hearing the information very close to listening to the music, thereby making it memorable to relate to. And it adds a personal touch, because I get to hear her speak, and not just appear on stage and play music and walk off without saying a word. That’s always bizarre to me. I like to know a real human being is up there.

No pieces of paper or brochure. Just the way I like it.

Abby and I would have liked it even more if Nina and Peter had told us exactly which instruments they were playing, because they kept swapping them out. Myself, I was carefully trying to determine which recorders she was playing (she played around four different ones). I could not see very well from where we were sitting, so I could only determine from sound and length that she played tenor, alto, and soprano, but I would have liked to know something about their construction also (a few words would have been enough).

Totally bizarre dance performance by Das Collectif

Now we get to the really weird stuff.

Das Collectif

Because I didn’t know the full program for the evening, only having seen the announcement of the “Wanderings” recorder concert, I hadn’t known that after the intermission, there was going to be a one-hour long modern dance performance by a group called “Das Collectif” from Austria. So when Abby and I sat down, we assumed there was going to be more music, not that the recorder concert was over and something completely different was going to come. If I had checked the time, I would have known, but I didn’t. The announcement for the recorder concert did say 7:45 to 8:45. Well, what happened was we sat down, and “Das Collectif” came on stage, as scheduled, to perform “Stomping La Luna”.

Example text from the description: “Gradually the light wakes up the dead and a mysterious, eerie activity of the revived corpses sets in. They start fighting, gambling and enjoying the moment of their regained lives. They search for forms of communication and discover each other. In dynamic, spacious movements they are showing their undisguised emotions. The night covers up what is forbidden, the light shows what is hidden.”

Years ago I used to watch dance of all sorts, from ballet to jazz, modern, tap, ballroom, so seeing weird stuff doesn’t faze me. But it had been a while, so “Stomping La Luna” was quite strange. The demands on the dancers were quite considerable during the full hour: rolling around, bending, twitching, reciting text, singing and humming (often in lovely harmony), playing percussion instruments (including their own bodies and the floor), and even a violin solo.

On the web site there is a program for “Stomping La Luna”. I just looked at it. It wouldn’t really have helped to have seen it.

I have to be honest: if I had seen the description of “Stomping La Luna”, I would have planned to leave after the recorder concert. But having it foisted on me by surprise, I had to see it through to find out how it would end! It was entertaining enough, although totally bizarre. Not something I would deliberately attend.

(Update of 2014-04-27)

Over two years later, one day, for some reason, I was thinking about “Stomping La Luna”, so I looked online to refresh my memory, and I found a video of excerpts:


Not reading program outlines or program notes can lead to more discoveries, more attention, more surprises: living in the moment rather than trying to match up someone’s description of a concert or dance performance with the real thing.

Embracing the unexpected can be easier if one does not have prior warning of weird it might be.

Do you like to read program notes for a concert or other performance event? Do you find them useful in improving your enjoyment of the program? Or do you prefer, as I do, to let go of reading anything, and just deliberately get surprised by something completely new, without preconceptions or prior knowledge?

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