There’s an office dynamic unique here in “The Box” which goes something like this: Frank and I disagree on everything, Molly falls somewhere in the middle, and Trevor Hunter is the dark horse—nobody can predict what his stance will be until it’s declared, except when it comes to microtonality which he’s gung-ho about. By the way, our office really is a box—an open space that the four of us share—so impromptu discussions easily erupt throughout the workday. It’s our inimitable way to come up with new content and ideas for the publication. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s really a collective procrastination tactic.

Yesterday, something rare occurred while Molly was out dealing with Counterstream Radio issues: Frank and I agreed on something with Trevor playing dissenter. Apparently our coworker is indifferent when it comes to titling his compositions, an idea that Frank and I adamantly deplored. I went so far as to say that I can’t even begin working on a new piece until I have a title in mind. Frank seconded the motion. We chalked it up to our tendencies to approach our work conceptually. In my case, I try to provide listeners with some insight as to how the piece was put together—not via expansive program notes, which I hate and often don’t read, but with a few choice words strung together and slapped onto the cover page of the score. A good title can be like the shiny bits on a fishing lure, attracting unsuspecting passersby and potentially converting them into listeners.

I understand the rationale of skipping the title all together so—as is often cited—the music can speak for itself, but titling is one of the greatest joys known to man. Sometimes I wonder if I only compose for the sole reason to beget that awesome title I just came up with. I know I’ve been riding this title-your-work high horse for a while now, but I do think it’s an important part of doing the work. Without a title, a composition is somehow incomplete in my book. For those of you out there who get stumped when it comes to titling, I’ll gladly offer my expertise pro bono. Your next brilliant, life-changing title is only an email away.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

11 thoughts on “Untitled

  1. rtanaka

    Most jazz musicians I know put little to no effort into their title names…to them, it’s about the music, not the paper. I think titles can be pretty useful for some things, but I just thought that the difference in attitude towards it was pretty interesting.

  2. mdwcomposer

    One of my “vices” is that I keep lists of titles ready for use. I think they number 4 or 5 pages in one of my notebooks, some stretching back 15 years or more. Not that I always use ones from the list. And I’m all over the map: titles come at just about any point in the composing process. Probably more frequently when I start / plan a piece, but not always.

    But I do like titles. Not only for their relation to the music, but because I also like playing with words.

    Anyone else keep lists of titles handy?

        — Mark Winges

  3. dalgas

    Mark wrote: Anyone else keep lists of titles handy?

    My painter wife has done just that for years now. I on the other hand almost always title the piece after completion, generally by opening a book and skimming until a word or phrase connects (however tangentially) with some vague notions the piece calls to mind while running through my ear. Often the connection is more surreal than causal, but there’s still a definite “click” that happens, and from then on that’s what the piece is “about”.

    Steve Layton

  4. maestro58

    David Rakowski’s article on titles (to be found in these webpages if you dig closely enough) covers most everything, including the ubiquitus Untitled. I believe the word Untitled was used to designate works by abstract or expressionist painters. It carried over to abstract or expressionist composers. If you are still writting abstract or expressionist music, go ahead and use that word. I for one think it’s boring.

    I was working on a set of poems that I wanted to have something intangible and unfathonable to. Instead of Untitled, I gave imaginary page numbers to each poem Page 3, Page 15, Page 47, etc… It implied a daily effort of work and yet it was different. Instead of Untitled, why don’t composers go with Three Pages for Piano and Voice or something like that.

  5. atizzo

    Dalgas wrote:

    I on the other hand almost always title the piece after completion, generally by opening a book and skimming until a word or phrase connects (however tangentially) with some vague notions the piece calls to mind while running through my ear.

    Steve, I go about finding titles in the same way which does bear fruit although it can sometimes take a while.

    Of course, I haven’t written a note in months so maybe it’s time to change my methods and think of a title first and write
    a piece around it…

    Alphonse Izzo

  6. Trevor

    As the dark horse in question here, I’ll explain my position a little more: I make absolutely no connections between words and music; its completely foreign to me. The reason that I hate titling any given work is because no matter what I name it, it’s completely arbitrary, since it’s virtually guaranteed the words had no meaning to me as I actually wrote the music… which is probably why most of my works have been titled by other people. Also, as someone who doesn’t believe that music has any concrete, literal meaning, providing titles strikes me as forced.

    Obviously its different for any given person, and I can appreciate that Frank and Randy put so much emphasis on it in their conception. They’re welcome to come up with a name for my still untitled electronic work I recently finished. “Just Intonation Lawnmower Piece” doesn’t really advertise well.

  7. JJeffers

    ‘Arbitrary Music No. X’ sounds pretty good to me.

    I once formed a very short piece using a tone row for solo instrument, every 4 bars of the 16-bar piece being the original row, inversion, retrograde and retrograde inversion respectively. I called it “Horses Peeing in a Field” because that’s about how much I thought it mattered.

  8. A.C. Douglas

    I’m no composer, and so what I have to say is from the perspective of a listener exclusively. And what I have to say to composers contemplating what clever or evocative title to give their latest masterpiece is: Don’t. By doing so you accomplish nothing beyond circumscribing what the music itself has to say.

    I last year was thoroughly taken with an absolutely gorgeous new string quintet which the composer (who here shall remain nameless) had chosen to title evocatively rather than straightforwardly as in, say, “Quintet No. nn, Op. No. nn”. This composer not only gave the work itself an evocative title, but supplied as well an evocative subtitle for each movement. In an eMail of appreciation of the work, I wrote to the composer,

    “I’ve now listen through the complete quintet twice, and I’m thoroughly taken with it. Its rich, dark-textured — a texture whose presence is discernable even in the brighter Allegro of the third movement — polytonal chromaticism is wonderfully and unabashedly expressive, and the whole deeply affecting; characteristics too rarely encountered in current-day classical-concert music. The only quarrel I have with the quintet is the descriptive titles — of each movement and of the quintet itself — which are not only entirely unnecessary, but tend to circumscribe both approach and affective response, and which I tried mightily (and fairly but not entirely successfully) to wipe from my mind as I listened to the work. The music speaks most eloquently and persuasively for and by itself on any number of levels, and needs no help whatsoever from the English language which here serves only as intrusive limiter.”

    Enough said.


  9. Colin Holter

    Yeah, really.

    I suppose you can write an email like that.

    You can even post an email like that online, if you really want.

    But you can’t expect us to take it seriously.

  10. pgblu

    Stranger things have been written on NewMusicBox Chatter. Remember “I have some slave in me… I can feel it!” ?

    I like this creative use of the word “circumscribe,” though.


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