Over at Standpoint magazine, the new home of Jessica Duchen’s blog, another conversation has started up on the perennial subject of program notes. My initial comment was on the long side, so I’m bringing a tangential thought over here rather than trespass further.
It’s this: when it comes to talking about writing in program books, we need to make a clearer distinction between technical terms (which can often be helpful) and jargon (which generally is not). [Disclaimer: jargon isn’t quite the right word, but it will have to do for now.]
Jessica’s piece was prompted by a column by David Lister in The Independent. It’s called “You need a PhD for a night at the opera” and going by the examples he gives from the Royal Opera’s Tristan und Isolde, he’s right. There are breezy references to Lacan, without the benefit of a wikipedia link, and beginnings like this: “Love is an act of radical transgression that suspends all sociosymbolic links and, as such, has to culminate in the ecstatic self-obliteration of death. The corollary to this axiom is that love and marriage are incompatible; within the universe of sociosymbolic obligations, true love can occur only in the guise of adultery.” As Thomasina would say, Eurghhh!
David Lister is right to complain about over-intellectualised writing that cloaks everything in abstractions. There’s a place for thinking and writing of this type, but perhaps not in the Royal Opera’s program book.
But it’s not right to conflate that particular flaw with a quite different one. Jessica conveys it with an analogy: “…can you imagine if the notes on the ballet set out a blow-by-blow account of the choreography, tracing every landmark grande pirouette, grand jeté and port de bras with in-the-know terminology spread as thick as marmalade?”
Bernard Shaw made his own analogy by analysing Hamlet’s soliloquy:
“Shakespeare, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognise the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends. Here we reach a colon; and a pointed pository phrase, in which the accent falls decisively on the relative pronoun, brings us to the first full stop.”
Personally I find technical terms – in any art form – far less offensive than the abstract jargon that’s sometimes trotted out, especially in the visual arts and in certain kinds of theatre.
After all, a word like “pizzicato” or “tremolo” or “chord” or even “recapitulation” ultimately refers to something real and tangible: you can see/hear it, you can attach a real experience to the technical word. That’s why kiddies have no trouble learning all this and more when they’re studying practical music.
Yes, technical terms can be over-used, or used inconsiderately. Some technical terms are simply too advanced for a diverse readership. But ultimately they lend themselves to being helpful because they are precise and tangible and, once known, they focus attention on specifics.
What is never helpful is the jargon, as I’m calling it, the loading of writing with abstractions (“where new adjacencies might reactivate latent meanings” anyone?). Instead of focusing the reader’s attention on things that can be seen and heard, this kind of writing fosters thinking that is both muddled and disengaged. Once you’ve deciphered it, you’re not necessarily any closer to noticing and appreciating the magical things that are happening on stage in front of you.
But it’s fair to say that the kind of obfuscation in program books that David Lister highlights is a trap that goes hand in hand with opera’s current obsession with the director and the “concept”. Fortunately, concert music (ironically a much more abstract art form) doesn’t lend itself to this approach. With the possible exception of a few old-guard new music circles – you’re unlikely encounter corollaries to axioms or suspensions of sociosymbolic links in concert program books.
At least not in the Antipodes…