I’ve programmed a lot of concerts in the past 5 years. Mostly chamber music. I’ve trawled library archives, websites, playlists, the British Music Collection, publishers websites, composers websites. There is a vast amount of music out there in a bewildering array of places. Despite my ongoing efforts, I feel I know a miniscule amount of it.
A recent conversation prompted me to write this blog. I had a gap in a concert programme that needed filling. The concert had multiple touring venues, funding, performers, a keen audience. What a luxurious position to be in!
Programming is a creative joy to me. As a (former) composer, I can only really liken it (a little bit…) to creating a piece of music. There often a contrapuntal interlocking of themes, ideas shared between works. There are textures to play with, colours, shapes and patterns. Proportion. Scale. A duty: if we put this piece here, then we need to find some sort of complementary balance here. A well programmed concert is – I think – is to be applauded as much as a beautifully put together garden, or an outstanding piece of design where all elements add up to something greater than their individual parts. Scale it up and you can see why good Festival programming is an outstanding skill too, often unrewarded. I’ve not even mentioned the practical and logistical restrictions that programmers need to work around; usually financial. Its good to see the Royal Philharmonic Society recognising concert series and festivals.
Considering the sensitivity, elegance, knowledge and experience that goes into really imaginative programming, it’s surprising that we don’t have a slightly more sophisticated vocabulary for this process. Back to my concert gap: after a good search for something ‘really terrific’ (days, not hours…) I rang a couple of publisher friends. I said: I want something a bit sort of… y’know… earthy….gritty….edgy….I’ve got some spectral stuff in there but I don’t want more of that. It needs to balance it…somehow…bit more resonant…bit of warmth….but not too much…its kind of…[makes a shape with hands – pretty useless over the phone to be fair].. . We threw around some ideas. My publisher friend sent me links to some quite brilliant pieces, but they just weren’t right*. I’ll use them another day. And it struck me that whilst I may be rather pedantic about programming, the language I use is not particular to me. It’s the language of all musicians. Its the facial gestures or hand movements you see in a masterclass or between chamber musicians which perfectly communicate intention better than any words can do. It’s the language of composers and artists who will know what they want when they find it.
Most programmers are in fact musicians, composers or have some sort of inherently artistic background. I don’t think I’m alone in my inarticulate attempts to express what I wanted for my programme ‘gap’. But I’m also realising just how personal a thing programming is. Was it unfair to expect a publisher, despite his extensive knowledge, to be able to fill the gap for me? Is it rather not akin to casually requesting a colleague to complete a section of a symphonic work with only a few vague adjectives and the surrounding material to go on?
But – publishers – is there anything we can do to help each other more? I am sent many perusal scores – and I’m always delighted to find new music – but I have never yet managed to slip even one of these perusal pieces into an existing programme. We (thats me-the-programmer and you-the-publisher) want the same outcome; to get music played. To get often lesser-known works out there and to avoid adding to a 20th century canon of The Same Old. Yet it seems to me that both programmers and publishers are adopting a needle-in-a-haystack approach to this. I must be missing hundreds of gems. Publishers must be missing hundreds of opportunities for hundreds of works to see the light of day. Are there more effective ways of sharing knowledge and resources? Search engines which focus on things other than dates, names and durations? A database for both programmers and publishers to contribute to? An online source which ‘learns’ from your tastes, your choices and past history of selection…?
I’d love to talk to any publishers interested in exploring this…..
(*In the end, in case you’re wondering, I programmed some Kaija Saariaho. It didn’t really fit my definition. It just felt really right. And I found it quite by chance…..)