By Erica Sharp
“Sometimes as a joke I refer to myself as ‘your intrepid annotator,’” said Michael Clive, longtime program note writer for Pacific Symphony, in an interview last week. He had just arrived back at his Connecticut home and grabbed a cup of coffee, ready now for a chat on the phone.
Clive was referring to a Symphony Magazine piece written about his style of program note writing during his early years with Pacific Symphony. “The premise of that article is that program notes were taking a new direction. They were becoming less formal and more interesting.”
Though he had done some program book writing for regional orchestras as a volunteer when he was 23, Pacific Symphony was officially the first orchestra he wrote program notes for. After Clive’s fellowship at the National Endowment for the Arts for classical music writers, Joseph Horowitz, former artistic advisor of the orchestra, recommended that he contact the Symphony.
From the very start, he was encouraged to take chances in his writing.
“Every time I have written something and thought it was risky, they put it in,” he said. “I said you can take it out if you want, but they have left it.”
Clive obtained his masters of arts degree in music criticism at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in 1987. At the time he was enrolled at the university he had a job with an advertising agency in New York and was living what he described as “a very corporate” lifestyle.
Since he could not give up his career at the agency, Clive drove approximately five hours, both ways, to attend his classes in Baltimore. Clive, a 30-year-old graduate student at the time, recalls the drive vividly and doing his school assignments at the same time.
“I remember with fondness the exhilaration and terror of dictating assignments to a tape recorder,” he said. “And the thrill of actually arriving to class on time and having transcribed what I dictated.”
Clive had decided to attend Johns Hopkins to study primarily in the Peabody Institute’s music criticism program in order to recapture his interest in music and journalism, although he said he was making more money than he could ever dream of as a writer for the ad agency.
“Jazz musicians call this ‘going under the bridge,’” he said. “I wanted to simplify and reduce, sort of go back to the beginning and relocate myself in my career in journalism and music.”
Following Johns Hopkins, in the late ‘80s to the early ‘90s, Clive found himself a scriptwriter for executive producer John Goberman’s “Live From Lincoln Center” on PBS. He also went back to grad school at the Columbia School of Journalism, earning a master’s in a then-new program for mid-career journalists.
Besides writing scripts for the commentators, Clive primarily worked on a plethora of intermission pieces for the PBS series. Mental illnesses, great composers, stage fright or anything remotely connected to the pieces performed on the show, Clive said, were featured during these intermission segments.
“Goberman used to say that his ideal was if his audience was channel surfing and they happened to catch what we were doing during intermission, even if they had no interest at all in classical music they would stop and watch,” he said.
In fact, Goberman’s style is one of the influences Clive said he incorporates in his own writing today.
“I’m very ambitious in my program notes. I want to catch everybody,” said Clive. “I want to fascinate the people who are enthusiasts and might know more than I do about a particular work as well as people who never heard classical music in their lives before and couldn’t care less.”
While writing, Clive strives to create notes that contain more than just composers’ biographies. He said he also wants to establish relevance between the composers and his readers.
“There’s no Beethoven piece that I can write about that hasn’t been written about really well by lots of writers. But Beethoven struggled with ideas that we are all struggling with in our lives right now,” Clive said. “I want my readers to feel like Beethoven is writing music for them, right now. So I’m trying to make the composers’ concerns real, and the aesthetics of the music are right in there, live and beautiful.
Like the ideal of Martin Bookspan, another of Clive’s influences, who also worked on “Live From Lincoln Center,” Clive wants his writing to be the best it can be. Although he only indirectly worked with Bookspan, Clive used to prepare materials for him in the case of programming emergencies.
“The joke was he never had to use any of that material because he could extemporize for 20 minutes and it would come out as perfectly scripted prose,” he said. “It sounds odd but what Bookspan taught all of us was it always has to be good, no matter what the circumstances. There are no excuses, your writing always has to be good.”
Although he said he is fully absorbed in what he writes, he remembers the problems he encounters while trying to express the composer’s ideas. While working on the Manuel de Falla piece “The Three Cornered Hat,” for instance, he had to convey the abusive practices on the peasants by the rich bureaucrats.
“You’ve got to get up and stamp your feet when you listen to this music,” he said. “I want listeners to know before they hear it that all of that is in those notes.”
Clive said he recently experienced the same difficulty while attempting to communicate the emotional intent of John Williams’ score to “E.T.,” featured in the Pacific Symphony summer concert series, especially when writing about the famous bicycle scene.
“Everyone knows that scene where the bicycle flies and is silhouetted against the moon,” Clive said. “John Williams wrote music for that that expresses the sort of feeling of innocence and freedom of riding a bicycle and taking off into the sky. Every work has some unique emotional content that I am trying to convey and it’s hard to do. ”
Nevertheless Clive’s laid back, “Californian” writing style is well received.
His eight-year run with Pacific Symphony has influenced the tone of his writing for other orchestras, who also want a more casual tone in their program books.
“It has sort of a modern outlook,” he said. “A couple of other orchestras have come to me and said, ‘Can you do what you do for Pacific Symphony because we want to lighten our notes.’”