Concert Programming

By Mark Gotham, University of Cambridge


Concert Programming

I tend to think of concert programming as a creative practice that’s analogous to composition: you choose some pieces of interesting material and try to put that material together such that it works as a whole. That’s a crude simplification, of course, but I find that it neatly captures the sense that a programme needs to be cultivated and can amount to more (or less) than the sum of its parts. Incidentally, the analogy is also suggested by the etymology of the word ‘composition’ which comes from ‘componere’, to ‘put together’.

Like all creative practices, programming resists any attempt to define a magic formula for success; that said, there certainly are conventions both within and even across genres that diverse artists have adopted and which might provide you with a helpful starting point for decision- making. In the most basic terms, most events show at least some sign of having selected and ordered items by reference to their length, familiarity/complexity, and sheer energy (including volume and speed).

‘Energy’ is a great concept by which to plan a programme. The ‘energy profile’ of an event might take any number of different forms, but there do seem to be two particularly ubiquitous types: programmes that work up to and away from one or more climax gradually (in the manner of a sine wave), and those in which climaxes are followed by   a sudden drop, or even break (like a sawtooth wave).

This latter can be especially helpful if you have shorter sub- sets separated by interval(s).

In either case, you should spare a thought for the overall profile too (i.e. how those peaks compare). For a DJ working on an event lasting several hours, the highest peak is likely to fall in the middle of the night, while for an ‘evening- length’ classical, jazz, or rock concert, the main climax would tend to fall at the end, providing the so-called ‘big finish’. In rock concerts, this big finish is often reserved for the encores: loud and crowd-pleasingly familiar items which come ‘after the end’ of the concert proper (which may have ended in a deliberately underwhelming fashion in order to heighten the comparative effect).

For programmes with a greater number of shorter works, varying the length of successive items can become a priority. Here the analogy extends into language. It’s as wearing to read a prose in which the sentences are all of the same length, as it is to listen to a succession of three minute songs. If you have some longer ones then try spacing them out with shorter pieces; but conversely, if you have some really short miniatures, then consider grouping a few together so they don’t get obliterated by their more substantial neighbours. Other musical parameters can also get in on this ‘variety’ act. For instance, you might want to make a plan for which instruments dominate when. This is perhaps clearest in the distribution of solos in a jazz set. The conventional solo order – horn player(s), piano, bass, trade 4s with the drums – is all well and good, but can be tedious even on the second time of asking. Try  mixing     it up: determine solos by what feels right for the song, maintain some balance (piano will usually get more solos than bass or drums), and try to surprise your audience at least some of the time.

This ‘big finish’ is extremely popular with diverse artists and speaks not just to the volume, but also to the length and ‘substance’ of the items in question. For  instance,  the overture-concerto-symphony format so common to modern orchestral concerts features a gradual lengthening of works from short (5-10’) through medium (10-30’) to long (30-60’). Presumably, the idea is that the opener is relatively undemanding and will help to set the scene such that the more epic works that follow seem all the more impressive by comparison. To reverse that order might risk making the epic, symphonic journey feel excessively daunting and inadequately prepared, and the shorter offerings feel anti-climactic. Here the analogies often take a culinary turn, with entrées, main courses, and perhaps a small, sweet encore at the end.

You may also elect to vary the relative familiarity/ complexity of works. This ties in with the practice of giving pride of place to one work (such as the crowd-pleasing rock encores discussed above), and is to be found in many other contexts besides. It also cuts both ways; highlighting one piece in the order necessarily means diminishing others, and that fact is often, deliberately exploited. For instance, there is an unfortunately apologetic quality to the common practice in classical concerts of ‘hiding’ a piece of ‘difficult’ new music after the interval. You might find this distasteful, but you can at least see the rationale for slipping it in between warhorse favourites (and immediately after the interval drinks)! This is just one of the many ways in which programmes betray the attitudes of those designing them (or at least of what those programmers think that their audience wants). It is not by any means unique to classical concerts; even an all-contemporary-jazz programme might well open with a more familiar standard as a relatively gentle ‘way in’.

Finally, there are also many ‘logical’ reasons for presenting works in a certain order, and perhaps even selecting them in the first place. Chronological order of composition is a favourite in contexts such as piano recitals of common practice repertoire (though here again, the inclusion of     a contemporary work will often buck that trend by failing to come last). Many programmes are also constructed in whole or part according to more or less restricted ‘theme’. These themes tend to focus on some shared quality such as a similar geographical or temporal origin, or a common musical or extra-musical subject matter. Where only two items are linked in this way, they will usually be juxtaposed. This speaks to the much wider matter of juxtaposing items in order to put them in some kind of dialogue; the reasons why you might be inclined to set up that kind of relationship defy summary.

 I hope this has provided you a useful introduction to some aspects of conventional practice. I’d encourage you to bear these ideas in mind, but they certainly should not dictate what you do. You know your style and repertoire better than anyone else, so be creative, try things that seem interesting to you, and when you find something that works then don’t be afraid to do it again!

I hope at least to have convinced you that programming is worth thinking about. Clearly the quality of the music and performance is the main priority, but the ‘packaging’ can also contribute to the overall effect.  If  you  still think this is all just a load of cheap tricks or window dressing, then try thinking of it the other way around: wouldn’t it be a shame if you played well, but could have made a greater impression with no additional practice, but just a bit of planning?


Mark Gotham

Affiliated Lecturer, University of Cambridge

Socials: @markgothammusic

By Mark Gotham, University of Cambridge

Concert Programming
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