I’m having a week of domesticity and editing: baking bread, doing laundry, and finishing up my piece for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. I’ve dragged out the state of being “nearly done” with this piece for months, somehow; it’s one of those creatures that you can’t leave alone, otherwise it’s suddenly in the corner doing something terribly risky with an electrical cord. Every page presents its own set of problems, some more easily remedied than others (why on earth are the clarinets marked ‘arco’? And how can this modulation feel totally earned?).
The other thing to worry about at this step is giving the piece a title. I’m finicky about what I call my pieces (and what other composers call theirs—let me know if you need some pointed criticism). I don’t think a title actually has to bear too much on the substance of the piece. It’s more about spurring a kind of process with a few words, because you can’t very well just change the title after everything’s done. It’s got to make an initial impression, perhaps be unique or memorable, but then you’ve got to be able to live with it. The best titles take on their own meaning over time, distinct from the meaning of the words themselves, more to do with the music. A side benefit of having a solid title is that it can contribute to the popularity of a piece (see: Short Ride in a Fast Machine, any of the “named” Beethoven sonatas, etc.).
The words I’m turning over in my head right now are “boulder pushing”. Titles can predate the pieces they suit, sometimes by years. “Boulder pushing” has been a sticky note on my desktop for at least that long; before that it was inexplicably a repeating event in my calendar; I think one of my brothers must have put it in there. It fits the musical substance of this piece, much of which has to do with a feeling of gravitational pull—gradually speeding up as it works its way from high to low, or vice versa. Sections almost never sit still, instead agitating to move on to the next thing. The themes are quite simple in themselves (one of them is an arpeggiated triad) but are constantly overlaid with copies of themselves, often at different tempi and in different keys, gradually accruing tension and momentum. These kind of gestures are rooted in my obsession with Ligeti’s music, one of the best at imbuing register with meaning.
Boulder Pushing sounds difficult, arduous, not like something to which one would willingly subject oneself (it’s no Tod und Verklärung, but still). That said, it’s a piano concerto we’re talking about. Is there any classical form more associated with struggle, weight, even heroism? Then again, isn’t all that a bit romantic, old-fashioned, Sturm und Drang for 2011? I’m going to be playing this thing, after all, and doesn’t it seem egomaniacal to cast oneself in such a role? Maybe I’m thinking about this entire thing too literally, too programmatically. It’s not as though this piece has a story. It’s abstract, about form, gesture, process…I’m a serious composer. Wait, did I really just say that out loud?
Thinking about titles can get you into these self-defeating knots. That’s why you sometimes have to surrender to the visceral, intuitive choice. Over-thought titles are the worst.