But You Can Call Me AssCock

There’s a good — and to me, timely — story in today’s New York Times.  It’s called “Essay in D: The Critic’s Cogitation About Titles” by Allan Kozinn, and it’s about composers’ titles and the baggage that goes with them.

As Kozinn points out, “Through much of classical music’s history, the titles of secular instrumental works were usually just formal descriptions (symphony, quartet, concerto), and when titles were affixed (“Moonlight,” for example) they were usually a publisher’s idea. Publishers understood that titles, and the imagery they evoked, could help move copies; composers were in it for the art.” I’m going to blame my own personal conflict with titles on the fact that I’m self-published, so while I’d like to just be “in it for the art,” I also have a mortgage to pay, and the publisher side tells me that calling everything “Fantasy #7 for Band” is not doing to help.

Sometimes for me, titles come first. “Turbine” is an example where the title (suggested by AEJ) led to the form (also suggested by AEJ), and it helped a lot while writing the piece to not simply be writing something 100% abstract. In the case of the current piece, “Asphalt Cocktail,” the title was “donated” to me by Jonathan Newman, after several years of begging for it, and that fact has added a lot of pressure to deliver on what the title promises. I don’t remember ever having this much trouble with a piece, primarily because the title froze me up.

Other times, the title comes after the piece is finished. Although I think it fits extremely well and the piece really does sound like the title, “Kingfishers Catch Fire” is an example of that. (AEJ picked the title after hearing the piece.) The titles of the middle movements of my Sax Concerto indicate the scoring for that movement, so those titles of course came first.  Another after-the-fact title is “Redline Tango,” half of which is stolen from Steve Bryant. (Speaking of titles, if there’s somebody who can use a poetic, evocative title effectively, without making me cringe in the slightest, it’s Steve.)

Good composers definitely misstep on titles now and again. Even John Adams is no exception. “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” : fantastic title. “My Father Knew Charles Ives” : a little pompous. Well lah-dee-dah to you, John Adams. You don’t see me writing a piece called “My Father Knew Grover Washington Jr.” do you?

My most-hated titles are the ones that just don’t fit — especially when somebody else uses that title, meaning I can’t have it. There’s “Espresso,” a piece that premiered in 2004. When I heard the title, I thought “this is going to be a crazy, non-stop, hyper piece.” Instead, it was dark and sludgy and bitter — the elements of espresso that are less-fun.  Or “Grind,” I title I rather wish I could have used, but one that was used a few years ago on a piece that didn’t sound nearly grindy enough to me. There’s a band piece called “Sparkle” that gets a lot of play, and it’s a good piece — but it ain’t sparkly.  If you’re going to call a piece “Sparkle,” you need to sparkle my pants off and make me do jazz-hands at the end.

Thoughts? Favorite titles? Worst?


Nikk says

Some of my favourites:

A Child's Garden of Dreams (Maslanka). Fits the music well, of course, since he tried to portray the little girl's dreams through the music.

The Leaves are Falling (Benson). The music just fits. Perfectly. At least in my mind.

In evening's stillness... (Schwantner). Despite the fact that the piece is never still, I think it does fit. Call me crazy.

Sword and the Crown (Gregson). Self-explanatory. Very regal sounding.

Some titles that don't fit the piece:

Dawn's Early Light (Bremer). I like the piece, but when I think of dawn's early light, I don't think of the rhythms and tempo she used.

Galactic Empires (Gillingham). Um. Yeah.

Praise Jerusalem! (Reed). I used to really like this piece when I was in high school. But over the years, I keep asking myself just what exactly sounds "jerusalemy" about it.

Samurai (Clarke). It's like Awayday Part II, and doesn't remind me of Samurai, it reminds me of traffic or industry, for some odd reason.

Dude, I'm not going to Midwest this year...I'm bummed. But I'll see you at CBDNA.

Fosco! says

Nice question!

Some other great Adams titles:
--On the Transmigration of Souls
--the "Hail Bop" movement from Century Rolls
--Naive and Sentimental Music
--Slonimsky's Earbox

Other faves:
Frankenstein!! (HK Gruber)
Asyla (Ades)
100 Greatest Dance Hits (Kernis)
The Viola in my Life (Feldman)
Three Screaming Popes (Turnage)
Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Bryars)

Less favorites:
almost any title by Wuorinen (either too banal or too clever)
Why Patterns? (Feldman)
A Toltec Symphony (Glass) (oh, the multiculti pretension!)
almost any title by Arvo Part (they are entirely interchangeable)

Steve says

Thanks for the shout-out!

In regard to the original essay, I've never considered calling a piece "Symphony No. 1" - that, to me, is far more presumptuous than an evocative, poetic title. Which was why it was a big deal for me to call something "Concerto for Wind Ensemble."

And I think you *should* write "My Father Knew Grover Washington, Jr." That would be smooth.

I would go on, but that picture has fouled my brain.

Mark S. says

Symphony in Bb was an awful title.

there was maybe 5 measures in the key of Bb.

Andrew Hackard says

Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, "Coral," really never worked for me. It's just a lot of German singing and nothing at all that evokes diatomacious undersea format...


with an H? really? where?




jim says

Good blog.

Besides coming up with endings, there is nothing, absolutely nothing I find more soul-crushing than coming up with titles. I would pay good money if someone else would come up with titles for me. Every time I've thought I've come up with a good one, within no time I'm quite convinced it's totally stinko.

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