Monday, October 16, 2017

Naming Conventions

Haydn had it easy! He never had to worry about what to name a piece. Why? Because pieces were named according to their genre: Symphony no. 1 (or, in Haydn's case, Symphony no. 92!), Sonata for Piano op. 111, String Quartet in B flat, op. 130. It wasn't just Haydn that followed this scheme; it was the norm for instrumental music until at least the end of the 19th century. It started to break down with the advent of program music, i.e. music that had some kind of textural basis or inspiration. So we started to have pieces named "Symphonie fantastique" or orchestral music titled "Finlandia" or "Also Sprach Zarathustra." This reached some absurd lengths with Erik Satie who once named some piano pieces "Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear," which was a satire on the whole convention of naming pieces after their genre or form.

But composers nowadays are really in trouble. True, they can still follow the standard naming conventions and we do still get numbered symphonies and quartets. But if you want to be fashionable and maybe win a prize, then you have to come up with some nifty and fashionable name for your orchestral masterpiece. Here are some examples:
  • Short Ride in a Fast Machine (John Adams)
  • The Light, for orchestra (Philip Glass, but most of his music has genre or form titles)
  • Turangalîla-Symphonie (Olivier Messiaen)
  • L'Arbre des songes ("The Tree of Dreams," Henri Dutilleux, the French have a gift for poetic titles)
  • Le Marteau sans maître ("The Hammer without Master," Pierre Boulez)
There is almost a whole category of pieces making reference to the ocean:
  • The Oceanides (Jean Sibelius)
  • La Mer (Claude Debussy)
  • Become Ocean (John Luther Adams, it won a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize)
Young composers seem to avoid numbered and genre titles entirely so they end up with a lot of odd names for instrumental pieces:

  • 2001–2002 Fits & Bursts
  • 2003 Out of the Loop
  • 2004 By All Means
  • 2004 So to Speak
  • 2006 It Remains to Be Seen
  • 2006 Wish You Were Here
  • 2007 From Here on Out
  • 2007 Seeing is Believing

All by Nico Muhly!

I'm wrestling with this problem myself right now. I'm writing a piece for violin and guitar and am likely to call it something like "Concert Piece for Violin and Guitar," but I just know someone is going to come up to me afterwards and say, "couldn't you think of a better title than that?" I dunno, the alternative might be "Glissandi in Contrary Motion" à la Philip Glass or "Octatonic Fantasy." And are those titles any better? Honestly, the idea that the title needs to reveal the Inner Truth of the music or its Hidden Meaning is such a passé notion, isn't it? The only real need for a name or title is so that you can keep track of which piece it is. Sonata op. 111 works perfectly well.

This is Grigory Sokolov playing the Sonata, op. 111 by Beethoven in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1988:


Gene said...

I understand that student composers are advised to give especially careful thought to titles because a good title can help immensely with the work's reception. In other words, it helps sell the piece. A case in point is Penderecki's iconic "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" which got a lot of attention in the 1960s. His original title for it was 8'37". I doubt if the work would have attracted much attention with that title; on the other hand, linking it to nuclear annihilation (something on everyone's mind at the height of the Cold War) was very shrewd marketing.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a very good point! Maybe I should go with "Octatonic Fantasy."

Steven Watson said...

I second Octatonic Fantasy. It gives one an (admittedly vague) idea of its harmony and structure, and doesn't whiff of pretentiousness and cliche (*cough cough* Nico Muhly, 'Seeing is Believing'). You could use an early English spelling for added peculiarity -- fantasie, or fancy even.

Bryan Townsend said...

You might be right! I will certainly consider it, because, frankly, Concert Piece is rather dull.

Nicky Z said...

After skimming Thomas Adès's Wikipedia page recently, I too have been wondering about the names used by contemporary composers, names that could belong to either a sci-fi B movie, or...a violin concerto. Hmm.

As a listener, I expect the name to convey some kind of information that will prepare me to understand what I'm about to hear. Given how I listen, that's usually structural information.

When a piece is actually program music, and the name declares the program, then a fancy name seems appropriate. If a piece is absolute music, then a name denoting its structure, classification, chronology, etc. seems appropriate.

Of the names you gave, I feel most prepared by 'Octatonic Fantasy'. :)

Giving literary names to pieces of absolute music is insidious. The very last thing I want is to be infected by the germ of a retroactive or superficial interpretation.

Asides -

1. My first thought on encountering 'Threnody' was, "Is this sympathy or cynicism?" I will never be able to regard that piece in terms of its music alone, because of its name. To me, text adds to music a separate cultural dependency, constraining to whom it and it what ways it can be relevant. Political text is an exchange of credibility for popularity - which, if you're hungry, is a fair trade, but otherwise suspect in the extreme. (I like Penderecki, too, but...nope.)

2. Sort of apples and oranges, but on the idea of external ideas infecting music: The person who introduced me to Beethoven's third string quartet advised to forget that first theme of the fourth movement sounded like the Mexican hat dance. It took weeks for that suggestion to be undone.

Bryan Townsend said...

Nicky, welcome to the Music Salon and thanks for the interesting comment.

I think you nail the biggest problem with the "literary" or "interpretive" titles. They prejudice the listener's reception of the piece to a significant extent. Did any of the reviewers/audiences of the Penderecki piece just approach it for its musical content? With you, I suspect not.

Octatonic Fantasy it is! Why didn't anyone like "Glissandi in Contrary Motion"? I thought it sounded very Philip Glass...

Will Wilkin said...

I mourn the loss of sonatas and symphonies and concertos in the contemporary lot of highly individualized titles and forms. Fantasy is at least a pretty traditional title with some real sense of what is to come, so Octatonic Fantasy seems a very nice title. Might it alternatively be a Fantasy on an Octatonic Theme? Or an Octatonic Fantasy on a [descriptive] Theme?

Bryan Townsend said...

I might wait until the piece is finished before I decide on a title.