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On the joy and anguish of titles

March 5, 2013

In my book titles are a good thing. I mean titles offering some specific, memorable, poetic or visual image. Whenever I can, I like to give a piece this kind of title: it can be a valuable catalyst for the listener’s imagination. Occasionally, the phrase or image of the title was actually my own starting point when I wrote the piece: I found the phrase or image and decided that I would try to write a piece in response to it. More often what happens is that I start writing a piece, gradually its musical character coalesces, and then, either part-way into the process or sometimes right at the end when it’s finished, I think of a title that feels apt and helps to crystallize some aspect of what I’m doing.

fern unfurlingBut what I’m doing remains, ultimately, a musical thing. The title may help to fire a listener’s imagination, but what that imagination really works with is the experience of listening to the music. If the imagination works with that experience in a direction entirely different from what the title seemed to suggest, that’s fine. And sometimes the axis of musical ideas, relations and sensations of a given piece doesn’t suggest to me any particular image or phrase, so I reach for a generic title, which might situate the piece within the particular history and expectations of a genre – Nocturne, Fantasia – or merely delineates the ensemble it is written for – Trio.
The piece I wrote last month is one of these. It is a Piano Trio – for violin, cello and piano – and I wrote it for two musicians with whom I’ll be giving the first performance in Valenciennes, France later this month. Perhaps the preceding paragraph suggests that it’s completely abstract, but it’s not really. I can find words which hint at what the piece seems to mean to me, but they’re not words that I’ve been able to develop into a convincing title.

I started with an idea, or perhaps a gesture might be a better way to describe it. For a while this gesture repeats, unfurls, expands, before quite soon leading to something quite different, which has a definitive, summarising, conclusive quality. It does not unfurl, it asserts and stops, and that left me, only one minute into the piece, in an odd place. From the beginning up to this point the flow of events seemed right, necessary, but the place this led me was one which for a long time I could not escape. Or rather, I could escape – I wrote one draft of the following section quite quickly, at some length, and then another, quite different – but in both cases, I found that having escaped I could find nowhere compelling or worthwhile to go next; all the escape routes seemed to run into the sand. It took quite a while of being stuck before I found a way out that seemed to pick up the narrative energy of the piece and tempt me (and the listener too, I hope) to go on. (In the end it turned out to be a version of the second of my two failed escape routes, whose beginning I had always liked – it was the continuation which proved tricky.) The continuation works with the new idea (the ‘escape’) for some long time before eventually arriving at back the opening gesture, changed of course by its new context. And from there on all three of the main ideas continue to reappear, with an increasing sense of ‘unfurling’, opening out.

All this could be applied quite precisely to my trio, although I admit that in a general way it could probably be applied to thousands of other pieces of music, too! So the ideas that I would have liked to encapsulate in a title included the idea of unfurling, but also of leaving something alone and chancing upon it later, and and finding that it has unfurled in the meantime, without our being aware of it. And also, the feelings of implication and causality that can so quickly spring up between two or three initially quite unrelated ideas, and the endless possibilities of play that they offer. You can see how I failed to find a short phrase that would hint at all this.

Often, when looking for a title, I leaf through poetry, and look at paintings and pictures. When I had finished this trio I read through some poems by John Burnside, a favourite poet of mine, whose language is so clear and translucent, and yet finds an extraordinary weight in the simplest things. And I did find something that seemed relevant in a way – the opening line of the wonderful poem Koi, and in fact, the first line of the whole book: ‘The trick is to create a world from nothing.’ This is a lovely poetic encapsulation of both the idea of unfurling, and of the endless possible relations that can be teased out between two or three simple ideas. But it seemed too grandiose to take as either a title or an epigram for the trio – to create a world: one can claim that of the Ring cycle, of a Mahler symphony, but the unfurling in my trio, all 8 minutes of it, is rather more modest.

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