What’s in a name?

A composer emailed me via Facebook the other day with the following question:

How do you go about coming up with such interesting titles for your pieces (i.e. Asphalt Cocktail – I’m not even sure what that means, but it’s a great title)? This is something I’ve struggled with this for many years, and certainly do not want to be that composer that gives forms names to all of his titles (concerto, sonata, etc.).

Honestly, and I don’t think this is a secret for anybody who reads this blog, but I don’t come up with my own titles. I used to, but I ended up with titles like “Star Rockin’ Dance.” (Seriously, that’s the real title of a piece I wrote at Juilliard for drum set and piano.  Steve Bryant mistakenly called it “Superstar Piano Rockin,” which is even better/worse.) When I worked with choreographers like Robert Battle (Artistic Director Designate of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company — woot!), Robert would come up with the titles for the dance, and that would also become the name of the music.  Rush Hour, Strange Humors, Mass, Damn, and Juba are all pieces that I wrote in collaboration with Robert, and those pieces retained the titles he created.

The title “Redline Tango” came from a partial rip-off of a title of Steve Bryant’s, “RedLine.”  His work was a piano piece at the time that I wrote my original orchestral version of my piece, but both his piano work and my orchestral work eventually became band pieces, making the title similarity a little more awkward.  (One of my few claims to fame is that composer John Adams once told me that “Redline Tango” was a really good title.  So, um, thanks, Steve.)

One title, “Asphalt Cocktail,” was of course stolen (well, given, after much coaxing) from composer Jonathan Newman.

I have come up with my own titles on occasion over the past few years, the last one that I can recall being “Turning.”  (Is that why nobody plays “Turning” — because of the title?  Sigh.)  90% of the time, starting with Sasparilla, the titles have come from my wife, AEJ.

(Speaking of Sasparilla, a piece that was almost never played up until now, why are there 11 performances scheduled already for this season?  It even has three — THREE! — performances in Norway!  WTF.  Is there some big cowboy cartoon convention happening in Norway this winter?  It’s great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a little surprising that a 5-year old piece would go almost unnoticed until now, and suddenly be all over the place.  Maybe that will happen to Turning next year.  Hint.  Hint.)

Sometimes, AEJ comes up with the title before I write the piece.  That happened with “Turbine.”  We were looking up at a ceiling fan, and she suggested a piece that would ramp up like a jet turbine.  I took that idea, combined it with my fear of flying, and wrote the piece.

Usually, though, I write a piece, play it for her, and she tells me what it’s called.  I don’t know how she does this so effectively, but her titles are pretty damn good — perfect, even.  I asked her once what makes a good title, and she said that a good title should be “an invitation.”  It’s like somebody is throwing a party, and they send you an invitation — in this case, an invitation to listen to a piece of music.  If I invite you to come to my “Sonata in Eb” party, I doubt you’d come.  First off, what the hell is that party about?  I mean, it’s in Eb, and it probably goes to Bb or something super damn exciting like that, but I don’t have perfect pitch, so I don’t care about your stupid Sonata in Eb party.  That sounds boring as shit.  I bet that party is dry.  Screw that.

But if I get an invitation to an “Asphalt Cocktail” party, hell yeah, I’m going to that party, ’cause that party is going to rock.

The invitation needs to be accurate, though.  If you get an invitation to a costume party, and you dress up like a pimp (and why wouldn’t you?), and you show up to the party and in fact it’s not a costume party but an evangelical family’s bible study party, you’d be surprised and annoyed.

I bitched on here once before about pieces with titles that aren’t accurate — a piece called “Sparkle” that has no sparkle, and a piece called “Espresso” that is more about the thick goo at the bottom of the cup than the caffeine jolt you get from espresso — and that stuff annoys me.  If I get an invitation, and it says, “Sparkle,” you damn well better show me some crazy-ass sparkling.  That piece needs to be all loaded with crotales and glock and shit like that.  I came here for some damn sparkle.  If I don’t need sunglasses to listen to your piece, then you’re wasting my time and pissing me off.  And you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

So to answer the question, how do I come up with titles? I ask AEJ to do it for me. Wow, that is not remotely helpful for anybody else. The best advice I can give, though, is to make your title an invitation, don’t be too literal or cheesy (“Pretty Flowers” may be your inspiration, but that is one lame-ass literal, cheesy title, and I would kick that title’s ass and steal its milk money if I ever saw it alone in an alley), and make your title accurate. And if all else fails, find yourself an AEJ.


Kirk Gay says

The book "Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You'll Even Need" by Blake Snyder takes the opposite view on names. He says you should name your script before you start because if you start to loose your way in the story, the name will bring you back. That has helped me in composing but I don't have anything as cool sounding as "Asphalt Cocktail"!

PS - My wife has helped me name some pieces too!

Travis Taylor says

Get hot wife? I'm out of luck on that one.


Jennifer Jolley says

Excellent post! I hate inventing titles and I also have resorted to having friends (and writer friends) come up with them.

dm says

A+ !!!

Logan Rutledge says

I think I need to write a piece entitled "John Mackey."

Courtney says

Thanks a lot, John. My insides hurt from supressing so much laughter while reading this blog. It should come with a warning: "Do not read while holding a sleeping baby."

Mary Medrick says

I read aloud to my husband the part about Sparkle and the expectations that the title implies. Great stuff! I would like to get you to come up to Dallas in the spring to talk to my composition class at UTD.

Kevin Howlett says

I can totally see you thumbing through someone's score and then asking to no one in particular, "where are all the crotales 'n shit???"

Natalie says

I teach middle school band. While I'm a little ashamed to admit this, the first thing I consider when choosing pieces is the title. No 13-year-old wants to learn something called "Pretty Flowers." I won't pull out anything with a cheesy title, not even for sight reading.

Steven Bryant says

Finally catching up on my internets. Good post, and..you're welcome. ;)

Rock the house tonight! (Well, let UT and Alessi rock it on your behalf).

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