Drowning By Numbers

I must confess that my listening proclivities are driven by a quixotic desire for completeness perhaps even more than by my insatiable desire for new experiences. Quixotic, because I know deep down that completeness is not only impossible, but also that it’s not desirable—if I actually was able to listen to everything, then there would be nothing new left to hear. It would be the end of music, certainly the end of new music. But that’s a rationalization, and most human drives operate on levels that transcend reason.

There are few things that gnaw at me more than partial experiences of something. I want to experience it all. So I am still extremely frustrated that I only got to sit through three hours of Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which means I only saw one eighth of the footage, even though I know the work is not meant to be experienced for a full 24 hours and even were I to sit through it all, it is a continuous loop with no intended beginning or ending point. I actually tried to see more of it right before the end of its Lincoln Center Festival run. But on the afternoon I showed up, the line was around the block. I was told that it would be at least 2 1/2 hours before I could get in (which is almost as long as the time I had spent experiencing The Clock). It’s hard to believe: some New Yorkers are actually willing to wait that long; this one isn’t.

On a somewhat more mundane level, it is perhaps even more frustrating for me to listen to a piece of music whose title declares it to be part of a sequence of works and then not be able to hear the rest of the works in the sequence. For example, when I encounter, say, someone’s third symphony, my immediate reaction after hearing it (and sometimes even before hearing it), is to seek out that composer’s first and second symphonies, etc. It gets to be quite a listening project with very prolific composers like Joseph Haydn, who wrote 104 numbered symphonies. (Actually a total of either 106 or 107 Haydn symphonies survive, depending on whether or not one considers his Sinfonia Concertante to be a bona fide symphony.) There have now been several complete recorded cycles of Haydn’s symphonies, so hearing the whole lot is a possible–albeit extremely time-consuming—listening project. (I’ve done it.) However, there have yet to be recorded cycles of the complete symphonies of some of our own most prolific contributors to the genre: Roy Harris (13), Gloria Coates (15), Henry Cowell (21), or Alan Hovhaness (67!). Worse still, though William Schuman composed a total of ten symphonies, he withdrew the first two. There is an archival recording of a radio broadcast of Schuman’s Second Symphony with extremely poor audio fidelity lurking in a private collection, which I’ve actually heard, but I probably will never get to hear his First Symphony.

Despite my interest being immediately piqued by this numbers game, I do find it somewhat puzzling that a composer would want to title a composition in a way that immediately refers back to earlier compositions, especially a work the composer has disavowed. With the exception of a Second Piano Concerto written as a teen (it and its predecessor are now pieces I don’t think very much of) and a Piano Sonata No. 2 (even though I never completely finalized my Piano Sonata No. 1), I have never titled works this way and I doubt I ever will in the future. Employing such a titling scheme doesn’t allow a work to be heard on its own terms. It also implies a kind of evolution: a composer’s seventh string quartet should somehow be better than his or her sixth. I’ve long eschewed such evaluative notions, yet it still irks me to hear a work so numbered by someone else before hearing its predecessors. Again, I’m fully aware that this is not completely sane on my part.

Perhaps titling works this way is a form of promotion. If someone likes your No. 5, there will probably be four other works they will like as well. The folks in the publishing and record business have certainly capitalized on such a mindset when they’ve issued multiple volumes over time. In fact, legend has it that some record labels in the 1950s issued their “volume two” of a product before issuing “volume one,” thus insuring sales for the first volume upon its eventual release. After all, how many fans are capable of possessing volume two of something without also acquiring the first volume?

7 thoughts on “Drowning By Numbers

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    One thing is to have numbered pieces in a certain genre, and the other is that several pieces are linked as part of a bigger whole.

    There is an abyss of difference between Penderecki’s Symphonies 1 & 2 (and his number 3 is very different to number 2 already). There’s also the fact that the are symphonies withdrawn (like Schuman’s two earliest efforts, and Antheil’s original No.5 which was dubbed “Tragic” instead of our well-known “Joyous”, the official No.5.

    As always, Frank, thanks for sharing your listening experiences. It’s always inspiring to read them.

    PS: In fact, Haydn’s symphonies are a whole WORLD on their own!

  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Thanks for bringing up this interesting topic. It probably appeals to only a few folks, but I’m one of them.

    As you know, I’ve written a lot — not 67 symphonies, but a lot of stuff, some 634 pieces in 1045 independently playable sections. Much of it might be described as quartets or trios or sonatas or variations or preludes if a traditional name were interesting to me at all. But aside from a few very early pieces (Symphonies No. 1 and 2, Electronic Construction No. 1 and 2) and some actual sets (Glossolalia #1-22 using the same source material), almost nothing is called by a generic name and then numbered. And none past juvenilia is given that kind of minimal, white-box, 1960s-style name like “Piece No. 3″. Some are bracketed with numbers “[String Quartet No. 3]” merely as finding aids, as in “Hey, my third string quartet is pretty cool. Want to give it a try?”.

    Yet I love numbers and maybe that’s why I don’t waste them. I count everything (see pieces & sections above) and categorize and recategorize and keep detailed organization of my material and of the four archives that I maintain in my house.

    Pieces that could be given generic titles aren’t, such as my six organ preludes on early American tunes. Part of that absence is because I like titles. Some make reference to sources, others to a state of mind, others are just interesting to me. The other part is exactly what you say — that there’s an implication of past and future association made by such numberedness.

    Your point about a number being a kind of promotional tool is actually inspiring, though. I might go back and number those the organ pieces as Preludes No. 1-6 or those chamber works as Sonata No. 1 through 400-whatever. (The late Gilles Yves Bonneau whom I’ve mentioned for his huge piece “Timesweep” listed every composition with Opus and Number.)

    And now that I’m tell you that my 1973 String Quartet (No. 1!) is lost — and it was a darn good piece, with a huge 20×28-inch color graphical score and parts — you’ll be thinking about hunting it down….

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  3. JAH

    On the one hand I find generic titles boring, but on the other I find that they create a useful axis with which to keep track of my personal progress. If I’ve written ten string quartets, and I kinda-sorta like the first three, really dislike number four, really like number five, and see a steady improvement from numbers six to ten, that gives a shape to my development as a composer (which is important to me). If I were to use colorful titles, I might not even be able to keep track of which one I wrote when (without checking), and have only a vague sense of progress from piece to piece. That’s a little messy for me, and in the past I preferred generic titles, but these days I go for the colorful ones.

    I had a minor epiphany browsing through a large score library and seeing so many obscure “String Quartet No. 2″s and “Piano Sonata No. 5″s that I had zero desire to flip through. The obvious appeal of such titles is the parallel they draw with the classics, and talented composers may feel confident in being judged by that standard, but the difference is that people care about Beethoven’s Fifth, not some no-name’s, and drawing a nominal parallel with such works isn’t helping because it’s so commonplace.

  4. Brian Pfeifer

    I’ll take a number over, “Questions arising from philosophical contemplation on a dark night under the starry sky of a dark universe on a 55 degree night in October on the Arabian peninsula while sipping a nice pinot”, any day of the week. It’s a good point about expectations but over descriptive titles are the worse abuses.

  5. mclaren

    I empathize with your compulsion to hear the rest of a composer’s oeuvre. Often, a later or earlier piece only snaps into focus in the context of hi/r other work. “Oh, that’s why s/he did that!”

    As to the reason why some composers write numbered pieces…some composers seem to work best when producing sequences of similar forms, in the manner of an artist producing a mosaic. Each tiny tile forms part of a larger coherent whole.

    Other composers prefer not to work that way, particularly post-1945. As Taruskin remarks in volume 5 of his Oxford History of Music, the single greatest unsolved problem in post-1945 music is the lack of widely shared common musical forms. As opposed to the multitude of earlier widely shared musical forms like pavanes, gavottes, estampies, fugues, rondos, passacaglias, overtures, lieder, tone poems, masses, motets, and so on that earlier composers who use to generate large sequences of similar works, post-1945 composers had only a handful of viable widely-shared musical forms to work with. The ones that come to mind are the prelude, the symphony, variations, the suite, the concerto (can you think of any others?) — with all other compositions one-offs generated as unique new forms by the composer (usually with a quasi-mathematical or quasiscientific title like “projections IX” or “extensions 3.0.2″ or “sound map 27″ or what-have-you).

    So you’d expect that post-1945 composers just don’t tend to work as much as composers in previous centuries in large-scale cycles of similar compositions, which necessarily require numbers. Hard to think of a paost-1945 equivalent of Muffat’s Apparatus Musico-Organisticus, for example, or Scarlatti’s 500 keyboard sonatas.

  6. Robert Bonotto

    I agree with a lot of what you and Dennis said and written, though I have a few additional takes on it. By the numbers:

    1) One thing not much noted here is how much the numbering of *some* works benefits not only the listener, but someone trying to help a person who wants to know about a composer remember which one is his friend’s favorite. I can say to whosiz when he says he heard, say, Hanson’s overplayed “Romantic” symphony, to try the Fourth or the Sixth. I can say to someone who heard Piston’s 1st and 5th — to my mind among his weakest works– to try the Sixth.

    2) In talking to someone who *does* know something about the composer, but wants to know more, you can pinpoint for them: that the slow movement of Haydn’s 65th in A sounds like Haydn was prechanneling Stravinsky. (It’s a very odd four minutes.)

    3) Which brings us to something else: Vaughan-Williams didn’t number his first symphonies until he composed another symphony in the same key. His natural reluctance with numbering (the Norfolk Rhapsodies and the String Quartets are the only other ones I remember his numbering), worked well in his case, because he was a good ‘titler.’ Dennis B-K’s titles for his pieces are another good example of imagination put to excellent use.

    4) I ‘have’ to use numbers myself –and I still use opus numbers, egad!– because I jump back and forth between my music career, my painting/cartooning career, my acting career, and my so-called ‘real’ job. Music I’ve dropped can be picked up again later partially because my mind is better at saying “Oh, yes, I was doing #3 when I was acting in this play” than it would be at thinking ‘Sinfonietta de la Belle Dame Sans Merci’ was being written about the time I was sketching a cartoon with misbehaving babies.

    Too, many of the 17th-19th century composers were also doing two jobs — conducting, concertizing, keeping track of commissions (I know: happy days), etc., and half the composers in history were habitually disorganized. (Satie and Borodin, for example.)


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