Name That Tune

I recently had three premieres of On The Day The World Ends, a new piece commissioned by the San Francisco-based Volti choir. The texts consist of three poems: A Song On the End of the World by Czeslaw Milosz, Life's Tragedy by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Do not stand at my grave and weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye. The title came from the first line of the Milosz poem. I find coming up with titles one of the most difficult parts of the compositional process. Sometimes I give pieces abstract names, like Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, or String Quartet No. 1, but more often than not, I try to come up with something creative, compelling, and less pretentious-sounding. However, I like coupling abstract titles with movement titles that are more evocative. To me, it's like opening a present wrapped in plain paper: you may not have a clue as to what is inside, but when you open it, you are pleasantly surprised—hopefully by the music, but also by the titles of the movements.

(That aside, I like to think that I will have an opportunity to write at least one more violin sonata, and hopefully a few more string quartets. Implying that there will be a Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano and String Quartet No. 2 may be a little presumptuous, but I am hopeful that I won't die too soon.)

Back to this piece: I borrowed the title On The Day The World Ends from the first line of the Milosz poem, but I was never happy with it. As my lovely wife Victoria puts it, it sounds like the title of a bad B movie—or, perhaps like The Day The Earth Stood Still—and it also really only reflects the first poem, not the other two. When I received a couple of mixed comments from audience members, including a gentleman named J'Carlin, that did it: I was convinced; I had to change it.

This isn't my first time trashing a title: a work I wrote called Symphony in Three Movements used to be called Chamber Symphony, until I decided that there's really nothing chamber about it, and it even uses spatially-placed trumpets. Since this technique is not that effective in a small space, and since the ensemble is really more a Mozart-sized orchestra than a chamber group, I changed the title.

The new title I finally settled on for On The Day The World Ends is Eternal Reflections. The word 'eternal' implies forever, which I like (birth and death being a continuous cycle), and each poem reflects a different take on finality. The Milosz poem supposes that the final day of the world will be like any other; the Dunbar poem describes how we judge what we have achieved by what we haven't achieved; the Frye poem is a meditation on how life springs eternal.

Finally, Eternal Reflections just sounds like a choral title. It's not Bang on a Canned (no offense meant, I admire all three of them)—there's nothing living, breathing lying, stealing, cheating, sweating or anything else with "ing" in the title—and it's definitely not hip, sexual, confessional or  world-music-y, but it makes me think of something grand—like a beautiful choir in a large, resonant space. This time around, that's all I wanted.

My composer friend Jonathan Newman wrote a blog entry about this subject. Here's a formula he came up with for how composers come up with titles:

some descriptive word or phrase +  a) "Music"  b) "Dance(s)"  c) some specific kind of music or dance (i.e., "Gavotte" or "March") 

I think composers use processes like this without even thinking about it. It's like a genetic defect, or maybe an unspoken marketing plan. "If I title it like he/she did, maybe people will like it." Some composers get around this by using funny symbols, dashes, no caps and so on, but I think we all run into the same problem: how to come up with a convincing title that means something, looks cool, sounds compelling, and doggone it, will make people like you.

Maybe all those dead composers who wrote blandly titled symphonies and sonatas had it right: it's the music that matters, not the title. As with any great piece, you should be able to appreciate it on it's own merits, stripped of program notes, venue, the level of performance, and, dare say it? Even a cool title.