After seeing some great responses from my last column on something as basic as what time of the day composers prefer to write, I thought I’d look at one of the other more mundane issues I’ve been asking composers about in their work—titles. Not so much on the types of titles they use—for a great discussion of that, check out David Rakowski’s excellent essay on the subject—but leaning more towards when each composer came up with them during their process and what effect, if any, they had on the piece itself. So far I haven’t run into anything earth-shattering, but the method and manner by which each of these artists end up assigning a moniker to their work will be, I hope, a window into who they are and how we can understand their music.
As far as when a composer decides on what the title of the work is, it’s been all over the map. I’ll admit, I usually come up with mine when I’m getting started planning the piece, and there were several others that did the same thing; most tended to do this when a piece was based on a program or had a narrative of some fashion. What really surprised me was not how many composers waited until they finished their piece before selecting a title, but how hard it was for me to imagine writing an entire work without knowing what it was called (and, not surprisingly, how hard it was for those who did wait till the end to imagine otherwise). It was intriguing to discover how the title can be seen as both a hindrance (for those who want to wait) or as a catalyst (for those who prefer early selection), depending on each composer’s own work habits and creative process.
For those who come up with the title early, the effect that the title can have on the final product can vary widely. For some, it’s an obvious choice of the name of a thing, place, or idea, in which case the title has much less of an impact on the musical material in the work than the thing/place/idea after which it takes its name. For others, however, the selection of a word or phrase early on can assist the composer in determining what material fits with the title and, subsequently, the overall concept of the piece. Up till now I haven’t seen a great emphasis on any one method—there have been several who gave examples of titles that occurred to them right in the middle of creating the work—and that in and of itself says something about the variety of composers out there today.
Might as well ask…when do you title your work and does the title have any effect on the music itself?