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My peers and I spent our schooling attempting to get away from the academic exercise of “Symphony No. 2″-type titling — and with some success. Interesting and evocative titles are very common in the concert music world now. But only up to a point:

Sure, it can be interesting — but not TOO interesting. This drives me crazy. Crazy I tell you. In a way, the “absolute music” titling of the past (“Woodwind Quintet No. 2″) is a better deal, in that the music itself is never judged by the title. That’s a plus. Try not pre-judging what something called OK Feel Good will sound like…

(NOTE: my string quartet, Wapwallopen, was subtitled “String Quartet No. 1″ for this very reason. An interesting title only brings questions. Adding the absolute-music title on for good measure tempers it to normalcy…)

The result of this evocative-but-not-too-interesting-so-as-to-alienate-anybody titling is the predominance of “adjective-noun” titling, which to me is a frequently lazy way out, and often insulting to the audience. If your piece is called “Red Heat” you might as well name the thing “Orchestra Potboiler No. 2″. (for examples of this, see any title written by New York composers between 1990-1996…)

Mostly what I’m talking about here is a mostly a problem of the orchestra and chamber music world. Things are a little less tight-*** in the wind world…where Uncle Sid doesn’t really cause anyone to blink twice. But I got a refresher recently in the politics of titling with my orchestra piece, originally titled Hip+Now. After hearing quite a dramatic response against the irony of the title (despite the good response to the music itself), I eventually threw my hands up and renamed the piece to (the still cool, however much less interesting) Metropolitan.

What might be described as “Band-music titles” are a whole other category for me, and honestly, they’re just too easy a target. The ridiculousness of bastardizing a latin word or celebrating some suburban subdivision speaks for itself. And despite what the entire industry seems to believe, adding an exclamation point on the end does not make the title, or the piece, more exciting.

Another common cop-out titling system which drives me bananas (and yes I’ve been guilty of employing this one more than once):

some descriptive word or phrase +

a) “Music”

b) “Dance(s)”

c) some specific kind of music or dance (ie. “Gavotte” or “March”)

At its best, this yields titles like John Adams‘ NAIVE AND SENTIMENTAL MUSIC.

At its worst, one gets CHELSEA TANGO or WACKY WALTZ (not making those up).

Despite my railing against the ones I perceive as terrible, I wholeheartedly admit, titles are hard. They are personal and subjective. One (wo)man’s great title is another (wo)man’s self-indulgent claptrap. I’m sure people hate my titles just as much as I hate theirs. That being said, one of my favorite pastimes every year is going through the “new issues” section of the Midwest Clinic catalog and making fun of all of the titles. Exclamation-pointed titles get set aside for especially cruel derisive laughter.

So for me, a self-proclaimed snob of the highest order, bad titles are the norm. In music, in dance (by far the biggest instigator of the adjective-noun epidemic), and in the visual arts. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in an art gallery, looking at new works, and instantly and viscerally enjoyed a piece until I glanced at its title. Honestly, I just don’t look at the little cards to the left anymore.

I wish I could do the same on concert programs…

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