Monday, October 29, 2012

The titles of new works: inviting or deterring?

So, this rift we are reading, writing, talking about: how enjoyable it is to inquire upon its origins in our harmonic languages, in our audience etiquette, in our ticket prices, in our concert hall lighting, in our notation. All valid and integral, and the importance of each variant depends on the people in the conversation. After last night, however, I'd like to offer up another item of discussion that became blatantly obvious as I sat, in the ornate, intimate recital room of Boston's Goethe-Institut (itself laden with social connotations, although perhaps only to the obsessed), thumbing through my program of the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble's 10th Annual Young Composer's Concert. What we title our compositions has an extraordinary effect on the widening rift.

The whole of the evening was lusciously tied to our readings and class discussions - from the pre-concert talk, the concept of which is odd to an outsider, and asserts the evening's identity as a forum for intellectual and philosophical discovery, to the post-concert reception, replete with high-end cheese and salted caramels. But because it was a "young" composer's concert - the works programmed were either commissions or premieres by composers at the cusp of their professional careers throughout the US - there was an element of, "please save us from our fate - what can you offer?" But despite the potentially haughty vibe, there in the ostentatious, moulded and sensually lit corner of the Germanically decorated Goethe-Institut, I found the discussion absolutely engaging and relevant to any human, classically oriented or not. My favorite question posed to the composers: "how do you explain your career to your family members at the Thanksgiving table?" One responded that he simply told them he wrote music for the concert hall, an answer to which two or three of the others responded enthusiastically, saying they would repeat that answer. One of the composers (who's piece ultimately resonated with me the most) said that he would never tell his family such a thing, because it wasn't necessarily true, since he was struggling with finding a path for his electric guitar and Gamelan passions into his work. It seemed as if every answer reached a certainty with one composer, only to be entirely rejected and replaced with an opposite certainty from another.

This philosophy can be explored in one idea, not new to our time, rooted in the Beethovenian and Brahmsian fascination with absolute music: how we title our compositions. The title of a work of art is our invitation to enjoy it. But I fear that, today, the title of a work of art is a method of deterring the non-curious or the literal. Personally, I wrestle with titles - how many times have I over-considered my audience when building a title? If I know that a piece I'm writing will be presented to a group of Boston elite-intellectual composers, I would be lying if I didn't admit to a subconscious force pushing me towards an enigmatic, seemingly non-musical, thesaurus-y title, which in its best form is one or two bizarre syllables. Such a title suggests familiarity with the inhuman, non-social aspect of intellectual "art" music. It removes us from social and personal resonance, instead grouping our music with mathematical theories, scientific concepts; it, in essence, teaches the audience something, placing the composer in an even more authoritarian light. We expect the music to be non-social, inhuman, dry, overstimulating, dissonant. A brilliant example of this is Joseph Tydings Mannarino's piece Petrichor, which had its world premiere at last night's concert. The lengthy (albeit engaging) program note begins with a definition, etymological background, and cultural implication of this word, the very nature of which assumes the audience is unfamiliar. In a sense, the piece depends on the audience's new acquisition of this word. The absorption of the word becomes a part of the musical experience. Every other work on the program contained similar elements of linguistic imperialism, which was fascinating considering the stylistic differences among the works: the first was Shadow by Wang Jie, which also included an explanation and justification for the title in the program note; the second was Narrow Apogee by James Borchers, which included no explanation or definition in the program note for the title, a rather haughty move on the part of the composer, who, either depends on the audience knowing what an "apogee" is or assumes they will discover the definition through the work; third was Geometries by Roger Zare, with movements "Fractals" and "Tangents", this one obviously depending on the audiences general relationship with mathematics; Conveyance by Carolyn O'brien, a stunning piece, whose title becomes at once superficial and profound, considering one purpose of art is to convey, yet the actual idea conveyed is ultimately up to the audience; and Alter Ego by James VanHassel, who was the young man wrestling with electric guitars and Gamelans in the pre-concert talk. This piece had the most relevant and universally engaging title, in my opinion, as the piece was an exploration of two musical forces - one dense, lengthy, harmonic and minimalist, the other angled, rushed, chaotic, "modern." The piece presented two opposing and current musical philosophies - the lush/pleasant/emotive/harmonic and the engineered/angular/dissonant/academic. The concept of alter ego abounds in this work and, from what I gathered, in the identity of the composer and others like him.

For me as composer and performer of new music, I understand these titles, I find them humorous and interesting, judging by my above analysis and overall engagement in the idea. But my life is an endless conversation with non-musician friends and family members who scoff at such things; the concept is not limited to contemporary concert music, as I've had many a loved one be bored or confused by a work titled Sonata No. X in W Major. My young students are reliably confused when I assign them their first Mozart piece - "what's it called?" Me: "Um, Sonata K. 333 in B-flat Major." Confusion ensues. What's it about? Why did he name it that? Why is he so boring? The task of getting a child interested in classical piano pieces is a rather important one, and much of it has to do with titling. Thankfully for Debussy and Schumann there are always tasty nuggets of program music; and for my voice students, I relish in the opportunity to assign songs with colorful, folksy, poetic titles, regardless of the era of composition. It seems that instrumental chamber, orchestral and solo instrumental music experience the worst of the titling conundrum.

Last night, I realized that, no matter what harmonic language or aesthetic philosophy is expounded by a work, its title will ultimately color my perception of it as pretentious or inviting. The reverse is true as well. If I heard a dissonant, twelve-tone piece for computer and bagpipe entitled The Story of the Mouse and the Hippopotamus I would be likely be much more engaged than I would be in a neo-romantic piece for piano, voice, and cello entitled Matrices. (Side-note: I will now attempt to write both of these pieces.) Upon considering all of this in light of Healing the Rift and Cook's philosophies, I became grounded and convinced in my own philosophy as performer and composer: as soon as music becomes divorced from its social, cathartic, inviting function, it struggles to be music. Of course this is a commonly held and widely disputed philosophy, perhaps the central discussion of our musical time, but to me it is blatantly obvious. Despite my above consideration of the narrative title becoming the dissonant piece and the pretentious title becoming the consonant piece, it appears that in todays world, the opposite is the norm - pieces that are sonically "difficult" for most audiences will bear the more distant titles, and pieces that are more universally received (i.e., across genres and venues) tend to have more inviting titles. We must never forget that many people - in fact, I would argue, most people - are not interested in attending a difficult lecture when engaging in a musical event with others. Music has the responsibility to be communal, cathartic. Otherwise, in my philosophy, it becomes performance art. Still art - still valid and important - but not essentially music. How we deal with this in concert programming, in listening, in outreach, I have no idea. But our composers could start by considering their titles as an invitation rather than a declaration.

For now, I'm reflecting on some of my titles - perhaps the most controversial is Cluster@#$@ for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. I don't particularly like this instrumentation and, to be honest, I don't particularly like my piece, but it is certainly a clusterfuck, and it certainly received some laughs and quizzical looks when it was played in the final round of the Radius competition last year. I chose this title because I was subconsciously upset with the instrumentation and, maybe, the idea of a competition. For the most part, I've tried to title my works sensitively; the most difficult piece of mine to title was a string quartet chamber ballet I wrote last year with a choreographer. She had a beautiful narrative, and the work I created was one of which I am very proud. Consonant, cathartic, like a warm hug, but modern in parts and ultimately catered well to the idea of choreography and physical gesture. But what to call it? The title conundrum is rampant in the dance world, and luckily the choreographer and I share similar principles when it comes to invitation or exclusion. We settled on Eva and Emmy, since the story was about two characters, Eva and Emmy. I do fear, however, that this work receives skeptical looks, simply by its femininity, its simple title, its inherently emotional character, when examined by the fancy composers that judge summer program applications and competition submissions. Most of my other works include inviting but somewhat enigmatic titles; and some were even composed based on the concept of a title itself, such as my latest work Red, White, and Black, which is a song cycle examining the social and racial situation of the United States. I will continue to contemplate this notion as I compose, and even as I select works to perform in vocal recital.

If you make it to the end of this post, I would love to hear some stand-out titles of works you've heard, written, or performed, recently or in the past!!


1 comment:

Brittney Balkcom said...

Nice post, Kaley. In a poetry workshop I did during my undergraduate study, we spent a lot of time discussing the importance of a work's title, and how it impacts the written work. In many ways, the titles provides you with a filter through which you view the work. We talked about how it's especially important to direct your readers when the poem is of an abstract nature - when the given words don't necessarily provide their context or meaning. A poem about the color red would be read entirely differently if entitled "The Apple I Had At Lunch" than if it were "The Drag Queen's Lipstick." When we talk about music as the medium, I think the titles of work become even more important in guiding and directing the listener: there are no words to grab onto; there is no explicit meaning to certain notes or harmonies. In a sense, everything is up in the air. Anyway, thanks for writing about this and jogging my memory!