Writing? It’s all relative

As the university and school terms have finally come to an end, and lecture planning can go on hold for a little while at least, I’ve spent the majority of this week reading up for various sets of concert programme and CD notes in the comfort of the British Library. I love weeks like these – they remind me of all the reasons why the variety of jobs I do makes this kind of freelancing life so perfect for me. But talking to other people about my ‘portfolio career’, I’m always fascinated by the way most of them – usually without realising it – create a hierarchy from most to least important in terms of the kind of work I mention. So in advance of next week’s post, when I’ll write a bit more about how these first months of freelancing life have gone, I want to look a bit more at those hierarchies. I’d love to know if anyone else has had the same experience.

At the root of it all comes one simple idea: that writing about music around day-to-day performance and recording is not ‘worth’ as much as extended, printed pieces of research. Now let me be clear: this is not an accusation of unfair treatment, nor an attempt to bundleall academic colleagues in a box that implies that they do not value non-academic writing. Rather, it seems to me to be a reflection of how we treat writing ‘around’ live music, rather than writing about music in a more abstract form.

What do I mean by writing ‘around’ live music? Think of the last time you went to a concert. You will have been alerted to the event by a brochure or flyer, probably containing a short marketing blurb. Then you will buy a ticket and go along. There will be programme notes, with text translations if appropriate. After the event, there might be reviews, and  then perhaps a recording of the event will be released on CD and/or download. For this recording there will be further blurb, plus liner notes (and more translations if needed). Then the recording might be reviewed. That amounts to a lot of writing, a lot of work for quite a few people, all of which needs designing, formatting, editing and proofing. And all of these pieces of text would probably fall under the heading of ‘performance ephemera’.

Now let’s move a bit further along the chain. Say that concert you went to contained a new composition, a world premiere. The process is unchanged; but if that piece now gets further performances, and its composer is deemed good and interesting, there might in time be a few scholars who decide to review the composer’s overall output, examine his or her style and technique in detail, place the work in a full cultural and historical context. So here you might find yourself with a journal article, a collection of essays, or a monograph. That would be ‘scholarly/academic writing’.

There is also another dense layer of text that we’ve not yet mentioned, and that’s other journalistic outputs – interviews with performers and composers, articles that draw together all of a composer’s work in a given genre to provide new listeners with an overview, recommendations of reading and listening, radio and film work. It is in this category that the lines between scholarship and – what should we even call it? non-scholarship? – can become blurred. The best of each should inform the other.

This is a crude distinction of course, but it raises some interesting points. Scholars who love what they do tend to privilege the journal articles and monographs as their most important work, the things of which they are most proud. Rightly so: writing such things takes an enormous amount of time, skill, energy and love. They probably rate their books above their brief slots on Radio 3, or occasional notes for the Southbank. And if they don’t, they certainly know that to progress in scholarship means that they must be seen to do so. I remember feeling exactly this way.

And then I realised something. I realised that for me, scholarly writing was fun and valuable… but it was also one of a host of things I loved doing; and that, of course, it could inform a great many other projects I was involved with, but which didn’t fall so clearly underthe academic banner. I value every single programme note I write just as much as I do my ‘academic’ research. I seek out information in the same way, from the same books. The different is the who and the what (who is giving the performance, who is it for, and what do they want to know?), and the where and the when (where is this performance happening, and is the timing important?).

Writing – and saying – the right thing to connect with your audience takes a lot of careful thought, planning and effort. I adore it. It is just as relevant in the teaching of a class of third-year undergraduates as it is to notes for a Naxos CD, or programme notes for a major venue, or pre-concert talks, or an article in Music & Letters, or a study day at the Wigmore Hall. How are you going to make your point without alienating or patronising your readers? There is always a way of doing it, if you look hard enough. But to do so, you have to know your own natural tone and your own preconceptions, and adjust them accordingly.

There is an increasing amount of scholarly interest in just what ‘performance ephemera’ has to tell us, and we should be sure to include recorded performance (and all the associated text there) as well as live performance in this study. In the meantime, creating suchephemera is something I wouldn’t give up for the world, and a large part of my career that brings me great pleasure. Maybe I should write a book about it…

… in the meantime, Happy Christmas!!Fountain pen on paper

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