In the past few months, I’ve finished three or four new pieces, and I had to think up names for all of them. I used not to put any effort into titles (here’s an example). At some point during college, I had a two-part epiphany. Part one was: would I want to read a book called Bildungsroman, Op. 4? (OK, actually that sounds interesting, but not terribly evocative). Part two was: I suddenly realized that many composers give their really great pieces really bad titles. Bad titles, especially ones that sound vaguely new-age, make my spine crawl. And I can’t understand why composers, all in all a pretty smart bunch, are allowed to get away with them.
On a related note, the pluralized-abstract-noun + number thing is just not working anymore. That’s a major cop-out. My friend Alex (who has some great titles, by the way) once made a list of all the plural-noun titles he could think of off the top of his head, and there were something like 400 of them.
I find Sufjan Stevens’s paragraph-long song titles a bit self-conscious, though I like the general language of them.
Here are some titles I love: Before and After Science. Hallelujah Junction. It Takes Twelve to Tango. All the pieces on Lost and Safe. Schumann’s Kinderszenen, which are incredibly abstract musically, yet have perfect titles. Most of the songs on Mr. Bungle’s California. The Boards of Canada have a lot of very similar titles, but I think they are pretty ideal. Here is Julius Eastman CD that costs $54 and is full of really memorable titles (I especially like If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?).
So how do I think up titles? I like phrases and combinations of words that are easy to pronounce, and feel like something I would say in conversation. There’s something prepossessing about a title that’s in regular, everyday English, rather than one that forces you to step back and regard it as Art.
Naming a piece is like how I imagine naming a fictional character would be; you can decide to make it really significant and symbolic, or you can just choose something that sounds more or less suitable. I keep a list of phrases I think would make good titles, some of which are preposterous and will probably never find a complementary piece (example: Everything Seems Edible). I play around with different variations on a title as I’m working on a piece. Usually the most streamlined version ends up working best, and it’s often the one I thought of first.
All this goes to show that titles are less meaningful than you think (and than program notes would have you believe). People often ask me what Shy and Mighty means. The answer is "not much". It’s just the first thing that popped into my head.