What Did You Just Call Me?

What Did You Just Call Me?

This past week I finally finished my Rome Prize project. I immediately rewarded myself by taking off for a weekend at the beach just north of Rome.

As I’ve been coming to a close with this piece, I have struggled with putting a title to it. A song cycle of five movements, it comprises texts in Latin (the 1555 papal bull condemning the Jews of Rome to a ghetto), Italian (Verrà la morte e avrà I tuoi occhi, by Cesare Pavese), Hebrew (various psalms and excerpts from the book of Lamentations) and English (Loan, by the American poet Jorie Graham).

At first, I wished to call the work Cum Nimis Absurdum (“Since it is Absurd”), referring to the papal bull. The work itself begins with this text and is ferociously set with vicious, fast, aggressive string writing immediately setting the tone for a work that begins angrily. But taken as a whole, the piece, at least as I see it, is one of reconciliation and hope. So I then considered calling it Verrà la morte e avrà I tuoi occhi (“Death will come and she shall have your eyes”). Still quite dramatic, I thought, but at least not in Latin (alienating).

I emailed the two choices to one of the foremost experts on Jewish history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He responded:

Since you asked me, I’ll give you an honest opinion:

I wouldn’t “fool around” with “Cum nimis absurdum” because it marks a tragic episode in Jewish history. As to Pavese’s poem, the title, in my opinion, is too long; moreover, its first three words are likely to scare off the audience before the piece gets started.


Of course I should have known better than to ask an academic for title advice. I asked one of the literature fellows at the American Academy. She also felt that at Latin title was off-putting. She liked the Pavese poem, though preferably in English.

Death will come and she shall have your eyes.

I liked it. But when I passed it by the director of the academy, she asked me—if I don’t wish to alienate my audience—why I would choose a title whose meaning is difficult to comprehend. What does this title have to do with my project?

Choosing a title can be difficult. We are not writing a doctoral thesis—our title doesn’t need to describe the meaning of a work. But what should a title do? What do the words scherzo or capriccio or impromptu do for Brahms, Schubert, Chopin? Are they at odds with the meaning of the pieces? Are they intentionally ambiguous? I often wonder if they are worse than calling a piece untitled. If untitled may not be helpful, at least it’s not misleading.

Daniel Mihalyo, a fellow in architecture at the academy, wrote to me:

In my opinion there are four types of titles:

  1. Titles that expand the meaning of an artwork by being open-ended and not too specific.

  2. Titles that are highly specific and that narrow the potential meanings of an artwork where the artist hopes to pin down a single definition.

  3. “No title” or “untitled” is always a safe option but it can be seen as evasive, expressing uncertainty or the best defense against any narrowing or specificity of meaning.

  4. Artsy titles that attempt to impart an intelligence beyond the value of the work….examples include word puns, smarty pant attempts to misdirect viewers or intentional references to better known artworks (like “The Thinker”).

I’ve also noticed that titles are also frequently indicative of the era and tend to by stylistically alike. Young Women on the Beach and The Sick Child are titles from a generation, as are titles from this year’s Whitney Biennial such as Museum of Failure: Collection of Impossible Subjects & Invisible Self-Portrait in my Studio and Crystal Chain Letter Complex (Dark Episode).

In the art world we have Piss Christ and Cremaster Cycle and of course lots and lots of Untitled. Does anyone get pissed off at works called Untitled? Does an abstract piece of art or music substantially gain power from its name?

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8 thoughts on “What Did You Just Call Me?

  1. Miss Mussel

    Sonata No.1 in F major works well because it tells you all about how the piece is structured but leaves the emotional connection up to the listener. This system doesn’t work so well in our time because form has broken down.

    A non-English title doesn’t seem like much of a problem because after the performance, the listener will associate the words you chose with the piece. In that sense, they come alive. For example, if I see Brahms: Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, the tune of the opening movement immediately comes to mind. It could be called Countermanding My Trousers for all I care.

    My pet peeve with titles is Number 4 on your list. For me the program notes are far more important than the title. If you’ll permit a suggestion, go with something simple that is relatively easy to pronounce and spell. This doesn’t necessarily mean English. In my view, Latin is perfectly acceptable for works dealing with religion, particularly the RC Church.

    Untitled seems to me to be a lack of effort because, well, untitled is a title.

  2. Colin Holter

    I think the title is part of the piece. It’s not just a wad of information that listeners are invited to use as a crowbar to better grasp a work’s meaning, although it can be that; I think it’s OK if a piece of music is problematized by its title.

  3. mryan

    A piece without a name would be like a child without a name. How could you possibly refer to it, introduce it to anyone without a name? Even an abstract title like 5 Songs or Cycle of 7 Songs is better than Untitled because it at least lets people know a little fact about your piece. These structure/instrumentation titles are the equivalent for Untitled in a song cycle, but I would urge you to give the piece a proper name.

    As concert musicians we cannot really get away with the lazy Untitled for a number of reasons. First of all, in the visual arts realm people usually only see the title after they have examined the painting, so the work is the introduction to itself. Here I am, it says. Then wanting to know more about the artist’s own ideas about the work, I turn to find the title. Even then, I am usually supremely dissapointed to find it labeled Untitled. I suddenly am left with the feeling that the artist didn’t care enough about the work to complete it. A title is part of the work.

    In concert music, you will rarely have the opportunity for the music to introduce itself. The concert posters, the programs, news releases, etc. will be the first introduction to the piece, not the music itself. A title doesn’t have to please everyone, but it should evoke something about the piece that will hook the listener’s attention and make them anticipate it. Would you anticipate a piece more if it was entitled Sonata No. 1 or Short Ride in a Fast Machine? Song Cycle #5 or Quartet for the End of Time? Hybrids like this last example are great. They tell you what kind of piece it is and evoke a definite feeling. Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs is another example of this.

    The audience is not the only group of people you’ve got to “sell” your work to emotionally. When I go through the stacks of art songs at the local university library (I am a singer as well as a composer), my eyes gloss over when reviewing the hundreds of cycles titled things like 6 songs and the like. There is no memory hook and nothing to make me even open the score. If that title indicates the level of creativity the composer wields, why should I bother? You have to get the singer interested from the title if you hope that they will perform your piece, it is your only introduction to them. Singers tend to think of themselves as artists, you must woo them. Singers who focus on art songs tend to like poetry as well, so be poetic.

    Lastly, when registering your works with a performing rights organization (ASCAP/BMI), it is just good business to give your work a distinct label, rather than Untitled #1, #2, #3 or so on.

    After listening to the advice of others, go with your own gut instinct. You should resonate with the title. Don’t let others cajole you into doing it their way. I have an electroacoustic piece that I entitle “Frogbot in Love.” I love this title, but I had an acquaintance who loved the piece but despised my title. I refuse to change it. That is what the piece is about to me and anything else would be false advertising.

    All the best,
    M Ryan Taylor

  4. pgblu

    claustrum corvi? thanks, but that sounds REALLY dubious. Are you sure that’s not a raven tavern?


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