On Titles

For me, one of the hardest parts of composing has always been coming up with a title. I’m not good at it.

When I first started my official training in music composition, I studied Mozart, and I was taught to emulate Mozart, so, understandably, the title of one of my first compositions was “Piano Sonata, No. 1.” Mozart didn’t come up with clever, catchy names for his works, so why should I? (Off the top of my head, I can only think of a few example of Mozart titling a work, like his “Alla Turca” Rondo.) At that time, I was mostly composing for class assignments, so I would label things “Assignment 1” or “Exercise 5,” without giving them actual titles. I recall one occasion when my Music Theory IV class was told to write a short minimalist piece. I titled my piece “An Experiment in Minimalism” — because that’s what it was. But, I received the comment that the piece should have a more interesting title. Since then, I have struggled to come up with interesting, catchy, creative titles for my compositions.

I recently read Richard Hansen’s The American Wind Band: A Cultural History, in which Hansen spends about 120 pages detailing the history of American band music in bullet-point form. While this was, at times, tedious, I noticed a definite shift in titles that came around the middle of the 20th century. While the first half of the 1900s was dominated by pieces with titles like “Second Suite in F for Military Band” (1922), from about the 1940s onward, pieces in the wind band repertoire had much more artsy names, like “The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart” (1953). Now, I’m not saying one of these titles is “better” than the other, but I definitely read one of them in a stereotypical hippie flower-child voice.

My main criterion I strive for when naming my pieces is that it be un-pretentious. To me, a title like “Folk Song Suite” is perfectly un-pretentious because it’s simply telling you what the piece is. You might disagree — that title could definitely come across as snobby. Other simple, explanatory titles like “Allegro” or “Rondo” are even snobbier.

Despite all my struggles with titles, I’ve actually been told a few times that I’m “good at coming up with titles.” I think this is because of my jazz suite Jazzburger, which includes titles like “Made To Order,” “Pretzel Bread,” and “To Go.” I didn’t put a lot of creativity into those titles. I came up with “Made To Order” first (because I wrote it for a specific group of players), and the rest logically followed the burger theme.

Most of the time, I figure out a title only after the entire piece has been written. That was the case with “The Old Main March.” I’m fairly happy with that title. “Old Main” is the name of one of the buildings on the campus of Bethany Lutheran College (and I’m guessing that’s not an uncommon building name at other schools too), but the title has a subtle dual meaning. I intended for the piece to sound “old” (in the style of 1900-era concert bands), and I thought if I called it “main” that would make it seem important, significant, and singular. So, the title can be understood both as “the march of the Old Main building” and “the march that is old and main.” I don’t always have the luxury of coming up with a title at the end. If you’ve ever used GarageBand, you know that the first thing the program asks you is the title of the piece. How can I have a title if I don’t have any music?

There’s just something about titles. Maybe I’m alone in my feelings, but Abbey Road is a way better title than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There’s something about the length of titles and the number of words. There’s something about the initials — again, maybe this is just me, but some letters have clunky connotations (P, H, C), and some letters are smoother (A, R). I think many of the best titles refer to a place: Abbey Road, Highway 61 Revisited, “Sweet Home Alabama.” I don’t like titles that are lists — don’t tell my Jazz piece “American, Swiss, and Blue” — but I’m not sure why. I don’t like titles that are complete thoughts, with a subject and a predicate, like some of Fiona Apple’s albums, and even Let It Be irks me a little bit, even though the understood subject “you” isn’t in the title. I know this is an irrational, insane list of thoughts that are probably specific to me and me alone, but we haven’t quite reached the end…

The ultimate pinnacle of pretentiousness in titling is to specifically give an “anti-title.” A whoooole lot of things have bee named “Untitled” over the years, and, listen, I’m a big fan of irony, but titling a piece “Untitled” has officially become hackneyed, over-done, and un-creative. The musical [title of show] is really pushing it’s luck by being cloyingly meta. Still, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve considered slapping the word “Untitled” at the top of a score and calling it good.

My newest composition is an experimental piece for Saxophone Quartet. I created it by writing a simple piece in sonatina form and then (literally) chopping up the score into six pieces. My intention is that performers rearrange the six segments to create unique performances each time. Rather than create a piece where the six segments flow naturally between each other in any order, I intentionally created changes in texture and style that occur during line breaks. This constant interruption gives the piece an interesting back-and-forth, manic quality, just about any way you decide to perform it.

Why am I bringing up this new piece in an essay about titles? Well, the six segments of this piece can be arranged 720 different ways, so as far as I’m concerned, this piece should have 720 different titles. As I’ve established, I do not enjoy coming up with titles, so I’ve decided to let the performers of this piece come up with their own titles. The six segments of the piece are officially numbered here:

  1. Part1

2. Part2

3. Part3

4. Part4

5. Part5

6. Part6

So, for example, the order 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 would have one title, the order 4, 2, 1, 6, 5, 3 would have another, and so on and so forth through all 720 permutations. I’m not concerned with keeping track of all 720 different titles myself — this is an experimental piece by a non-famous composer, so if even one version was performed, I’d be shocked and honored. (If you know an experimental sax quartet that would want to perform this, I just ask that I be credited as the composer, next to whatever name has been given to the piece, and together we can make the confusing world of copyrights even more confusing.)

Make no mistake — just because I haven’t come up with a title for this work doesn’t mean it is untitled. The piece has a title. You just haven’t thought of it yet.

This piece is the last project I will complete as an undergraduate student at Bethany Lutheran College. I will be graduating on May 13, 2016.

One thought on “On Titles

  1. Jacob:

    Hi! I’m connected with your dad from way-back-when and he directed me to go to your site to check it out. First of all: you write well! I do this gig professionally (freelance writing) and it’s refreshing to see a person sit down at a keyboard and produce something that’s both easily digestible and also complex enough to convey what direction you want the piece to go. Kudos.

    “There’s just something about titles. Maybe I’m alone in my feelings, but Abbey Road is a way better title than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band…”

    Titles for blog posts, books, essays, and other written fabrications are just as tough for me. Often I find a title I initially liked ends up souring on me one or two days later. And yes! Abbey Road is a MUCH better title than SPLHCB . . . (see? I didn’t even want to type it out!)

    Great to have visited your blog. Keep writing (music and blog posts). PEACE! – DDM

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