We’ve argued back and forth about whether or not our music has or even should have a name so many times; far be it from me to return to the U.S. this week and start up that old hobbyhorse again. However, a similar pet peeve of mine has never quite made it to this debating stage: Namely, why do so many composers still insist on numbering their works rather than naming them?
Sure, we’re no longer living in the era of Haydn, Beethoven, and the gang where everything was either Piano Sonata No. 28 or Symphony No. 6, but this strangest of naming games has yet to completely disappear from our collective reflexes. For the record, I don’t intend to criticize folks who write piano sonatas or symphonies—I’ve even penned a couple of piano sonatas myself, though I’ve yet to attempt a symphony—but why must they be named as if they were volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica?
There are even folks around who aren’t writing in centuries-old forms who feel the need to create series of pieces and number them: Synchronisms, Extensions, etc. Why? Music seems to be the biggest offender of all the arts in this regard, perhaps because it’s the most abstract. There are abstract painters who coyly use names like Untitled No. 35—names which leave me equally cold—but when is the last time you read someone’s Novel No. 11?
Mind you, I love all this music, but I can’t quite love the names we sometimes give it, and I wonder if those names keep other people from loving it. Ironically, my favorite pieces by John Cage are the so-called “number” pieces he wrote at the end of his life. These works are simply titled after the number of people required to perform them. If there is more than one requiring the same number, Cage simply added a second number in superscript to the original number, connoting the order in which the piece was written a la the rest of the classical music tradition. But somehow these number titles, left completely by themselves, seem more elegant. Yet I still wish, especially since he was such an accomplished poet and prose stylist, he had taken the opportunity to come up with something more verbally compelling.
In Imperial China, families named their sons and daughters by number in the order in which they were born, but how many people besides George Foreman would do that to their kids these days?