Yesterday I was at a concert where, just as I was thinking of reading the programme notes, the lights went down and I couldn’t read them. Some concert halls don’t put the lights down; others dim them slightly, and some put them down to ‘theatre levels’, just leaving enough light for people to find their way to the exits.
It made me think about all the effort that goes into writing programme notes which concert-goers cannot read during the concert because of low light levels. I speak as one who is married to a very good programme-note writer. Because I know how much work goes into the research and writing of programme notes, I always look to see to how they’re received at concerts. Sometimes my heart sinks when I see they’ve been printed in a font so small that audience members squint at them with an air of frustration before laying the programme booklet aside. Let’s face it, lots of us find it tricky to read in dim light.
I said something about this on Twitter and several people assured me that they read programme notes after the concert. Which is absolutely fine if the notes are mainly to do with background and context, but not much use if they aim to draw your attention to things to listen out for.
Others told me that we don’t need programme notes, that it is better to come to a performance with innocent ears and make whatever you make of it. Which is fine if you’re able to do that. But if I think of myself at, say, an exhibition of contemporary art, I often don’t know what to make of it (except to feel ‘I don’t understand this’). My uninformed reaction isn’t particularly satisfying, in fact. I welcome whatever light an expert can throw on things in the form of gallery notes.
A couple of people told me that digital programme notes, downloaded to your phone or whatever, are better (and ‘greener’) than printed programme notes. But as far as I can see, they don’t solve the problem. You still have to read them at the concert. If that means reading them on the lighted screen of your phone or iPad, you’re going to annoy everyone sitting near you.
Programme notes seem to fall into two main types. Some focus on background information about composers or anecdotes about performers and pieces. Others try to plot a course through the music, pointing out landmarks that will help listeners to follow its structure. There’s not much point in reading such notes on the train home, unless you have a wonderful memory for what you heard two hours earlier.
Perhaps the answer is for the performers to tell the audience something about the pieces they’re going to play. Then nobody need squint at the small print in the programme. But not all performers want to do this, or are good at it. And what would become of all those learned music historians and musicologists who have made an art out of describing music in words?