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The composer's dilemma - what to call the piece

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 15:46 UK Time, Wednesday, 20 July 2011


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Composer Michael Zev Gordon is writing a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In the coming months he'll let readers get inside his head, with regular insights into the actual process of composition. In his second dispatch, he reflects on the implications of naming the music ...

Music is wonderfully complex as to its meaning; it's been argued about for centuries. Is it essentially abstract, or is it a container of emotions or ideas - or can it conjure these up in the listener? Actually, it seems to me the moment one generalises, definitions are bound to fail  - that some music just cannot be pinned down as to its content, that other music could quite easily translate into an idea or mood. At the same time, I think you can have a small but important influence on how a piece is perceived by what it's called: you can  'frame' the listening in a particular way. It can appear to be left entirely open - by give the piece an abstract title: sonata, symphony, bagatelle. But even here the very fact of invoking those genres actually carries all sorts of implications to do with form and past history. Or you can be much more poetic and directed - La seduisante - Couperin; Rain Coming - Takemitsu - giving the listener an image or notion through which to hear the music. And there are titles in between that give some sort of location but not too much, or deliberately play with the listener: Derive - Boulez; Bob - Barry.

For some composers these locators come as a backward glance after composition, for others they have to be in place before a note is written. I've swung back and forth about this, but am happier when a title at least evolves during composition - and that's what I'm trying to do now with this new work. It's not coming so easily!

Partly that's the result of writing a piece in many movements - 7 - and wanting to give titles to all the movements. But it's also because I want to find titles that do direct the listener into the expressive orbit of the piece, but not so closely that they might limit listening.

So what have I come up with so far? Well, for a while I thought the general title of the piece should be quite neutral, with specific titles only for the movements. So I thought '7 Orchestral Pieces' or '7 Pieces for Orchestra'. But these do have connotations - at least for me! - of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, who each called orchestral works in this manner, and I don't want to get too close to them. So then I tried to think of more poetic titles that might have to do with the content of the piece - 7 Fragments, 7 Windows, 7 Places, Broken Pieces, The Passing of Things, something with Time in the title. But each of these has seemed either too 'dry' or too limiting. Nothing quite right!

So I've started on the titles of the pieces themselves.

Here are my alternatives:
1) lost worlds, a lost world, times lost
2) fractured, broken pieces, found objects
3) ancora Venezia, once again Venice
4) still centre, snow on snow (Folgarida), still small voice
5) on gossamer wings, utsuroi, a butterfly's wing
6) elegies, an astonished angel, terrifying angel
7) deep time, still time, Bohortha

I know with each the kind of world I want to conjure, the kind of time, the kind of emotion, or filigree of changing moods, the kind of motion. That remains the most important thing as the composer. But for the listener to No.5 for example, 'utsuroi', a Japanese term to do with the slippage of time, will lead to a different - drier, purer? - experience than 'a butterfly's wing'. In No.7, if I use the word 'time', I will be clear about an underlying aspect of the piece, but will I limit it too much? 'Bohortha', instead, when I reveal it as a tiny hamlet on the Cornish coast, with no roads going on from it - the end of the line - may be a beautiful image of open-endedness that as much points towards content. But standing alone as a title, is it too obscure? To 'suggest', not to 'state', said Mallarmé.

So when will I decide for sure? I think that as each movement is completed, the final titles will emerge. What's good is that the expression of each is clear to me. And by the end of the whole piece, the thing that heads it - the overall title - will come! It has to.

Next time - Time.




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