Putting The Name Before The Work

Richard Brautigan has remained one of my favorite writers since first reading Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar more than thirty years ago. One of the great joys of reading Brautigan is for his titles, not just the names of his novels, but individual chapters. Brautigan even admitted that he frequently came up with titles before the actual content so named. E.g. The last chapter of Trout Fishing in America is called “The Mayonnaise Chapter”, which is explained by the preceding chapter in which he explained that he always wanted to end a book with the word mayonnaise (I hate mayonnaise, but I love the book!). And four of the poems in Rommel Drives on Deep Into Egypt are completely blank, either because once he came up with the title he had nothing left to say or he couldn’t come up with a poem to match the title.

As a writer of both music and words, I have also found that coming up with a great title can sometimes be a barrier to creating something worthwhile to go with it. Years ago I came up with a title that I really liked—until all dreams are gone—but have yet to find the music for it. And last week, I was struggling with making sense of the intro essay I wrote to accompany our Spotlight feature on Christopher Campbell, partially because I was so attached to the title “Breaths That Groove on Grooves That Breathe.” Although that title seemed to perfectly capture what both his music and aesthetics are about, it proved to be a roadblock. As soon as I rechristened it with the far less poetic, but perfectly workable “For The Record”, I was finally able to get the job done.

Ironically not naming something at all can be even more problematic. I’m currently struggling to focus on a Brass Quintet that’s been ruminating in the back of my mind for a couple of years now. I have loads of ideas, but because I haven’t locked into a title, even one that’s just a placeholder, I can’t seem to find a narrative for it and, as a result, I have yet to be able to shape something that sounds right to me. I know that music is abstract and exists beyond language, etc. and I don’t really write program music. But just as specific verbal prods can become a straitjacket, a lack of them can sometimes just keep you in limbo.

In the science fiction novel Babel 17, Samuel R. Delany posits a world where people could build anything if only they had the words to describe it. But settling on those words can also be a point of no return. I’ve known prospective parents who have entire sets of names worked out, both male and female, before confirming their future offspring’s gender, but I’ve also known many others who refused to name their child before he or she was born in order to make sure that the name fit the newborn. Admittedly, all of these things seem much larger than a struggle to name a poem, an essay, or a piece of music. But perhaps the struggle to grapple with how something is identified and how that identification helps to shape what is created, both for the person creating it and hopefully for its eventual audience, is a key to inspiration. That said, Jackson Pollock did just fine calling paintings by numbers, just as numerous composers have done in the past with their numbered symphonies, string quartets, and piano sonatas. Yet somehow giving an abstract work—whether a painting or a musical composition—a name that’s less generic seems a better way to engage in dialogue with the eventual spectators or listeners of the work.

5 thoughts on “Putting The Name Before The Work

  1. jeidson

    Finding a title is, for me, one of the most difficult parts of the entire compositional process. There are seldom times that I have a snappy title ready before the piece begins, and several times I have had to ditch my idea when a Google search comes back with seven other pieces of the same name. Duplicating titles may be fine for your everyday Piano Sonata, but there should really be only one Purple Monkey Dishwasher…

    A composition professor once mentioned keeping spare titles handy, so I tried that and have filled 2 pages of my sketchbook with ideas. I haven’t used a single one yet – perhaps like the Brautigan poetry you mentioned they will remain titles without pieces.

    -Joseph Eidson

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  2. mschoendorff

    Titles can, indeed, be tricky and difficult. My good friend and fellow composer, Patrick Gullo, ran into the inevitable problem of finding an appropriate title for his latest opus. He finally decided to crowdsource the issue, which he details on his blog:

    http://patrickgullo.com/help-me-pick-the-title-of-my-masters-thesis/

    (On a side note, it appears that Dolphin Safe Tunage lost his crowdsourcing poll, so I’m calling dibs on it here and now.)

    - Matt Schoendorff

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  3. davidwolfson

    I tried that when I recently finished a piece for solo bassoon which had been completely composed while on mass transit. I got one witty suggestion (“Fagott To Go”) and several well-meaning but unmemorable phrases; one gentleman, with whom I was working at the time, actually got quite testy that I wasn’t using his suggestion.

    I eventually named the piece Sic Transit, which I thought of myself. (You can listen to it here if you’re so inclined.) But that cured me of crowdsourcing titles…

    David Wolfson

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