What’s In A Name? (Part Two)

by 5:4

In my post Style and Idea: What’s In A Name?, i said that i’d been provoked to consider genres “and more besides”; here, then, is the more. Our determination to classify things – as a means of containing them, thereby reducing them and making them (or so we believe) more “understandable” – extends further, into quite subtle areas. What, for example, is going on in the title of a work? In the world of contemporary art music (for want of a better term), it has become de rigeur for a composition to require some kind of vaguely poetic/pithy title, preferably not a generic one (e.g. “symphony”), to avoid undesirable, often anachronistic, associations. It goes deeper though, and wider; programme notes are typically provided to supplement the title, no doubt seeking to aide the audience further in their engagement of the work. Serving a seemingly different end, the tracks on a CD nonetheless also seek to “contain” a piece (or part thereof) with the same aim of helping to reduce a work to small, “manageable” bits. Let me say immediately that i myself am a part of all this, and have never detracted from it – indeed, the title of my most recent composition, ‘unredeemed’ self-)portrait (in the form of a calf, although abstruse, could be cited as an extreme example of it – but it seems appropriate to question the practice from the perspective of both artist (in terms of intention) and audience (in terms of desire).

During my first degree (a very worrying 11 years ago), i wrote a paper entitled Extra-Musical Facets of the Complete Work of Art, which examined, among other things, the rôle of a title and programme notes, emphasising their importance and value for the artist. This was something of a reaction to seeing composers presenting works with absolutely nothing to say (a fact they seemed to celebrate), which i found deeply irritating. Perhaps i thought that encouraging composers to use these “facets” would cause them, de facto, to have something to say in their work. But i saw the relationship between artist and audience very differently back then, in terms – dare i admit it – of telling the audience what they should be listening to/for in my work. i now wonder whether facets like a title and notes do the work – and the audience – a disservice. Well, to be clear, i still feel that they are potentially useful, but only if a fresh approach is taken to how they are used. i think it was Brian Ferneyhough who said once that he used programme notes to cause “creative disorientation” in the audience, the purpose being that they did not so much talk “about” the piece, as work in the same (or, at least, a sympathetic) manner as the piece itself. In other words, the notes do not provide “answers” so much as pose similar questions as the work they accompany. But i think, too, there’s a real value to be gained from presenting the audience with nothing whatsoever: no title (this does not mean the dreaded “Untitled”, which is as much a title as anything else), no notes – nothing but the work itself. At least, then, it would speak on its own terms. Despite the fact i want to reach out to the audience in my work (to be met, ideally, by the audience reaching out in return), i want neither to pander to them nor spoon-feed them things i or they think they “need” to know. i’m not sure how/when this might manifest itself in my work; i’m thinking reasonably soon.

CD tracks can be useful too, whether this means coding a single piece as a single track (i often feel it would send out a powerful signal to the listener by coding, say, a complete symphony as a single track, rather than dividing it into a track per movement), or by using tracks in a way that is not obviously related to the perceived “parts” of the music. The final track of Andrew Liles’ Black End, entitled “Kay-loong-meu-tuk (The Begining [sic] of the End of the End of the Begining [sic] of the End)” is, audibly, a single piece lasting a little under 40 minutes. In practice, this piece is divided into 94 tracks, which bear no obvious relation to anything going on (it’s the only time Liles does this in the entire 12-disc “Vortex Vault” series). This could be Liles being typically Quixotic; it could be a snub to those who persist in using mp3 which is extremely poor at gapless playback; or, it could be saying something about the relationship between tracks and pieces. Last year, i posted about the wonderful collaboration of irr. app. (ext.) and Stilluppsteypa, tpith or tetapth, which features 7 listed track titles, while the CD contains 11 tracks. This anomaly was immediately apparent when i put the CD into the player, and at first, dogged my listening. But the effect was valuable; it felt as though my most basic assumption – that there should be one track per piece – couldn’t be relied upon, and the result was that i was liberated from thinking about track titles, numbers of tracks, and just listened to the music. In other words, it highlighted the amount of potentially redundant stuff going on in my head while i listened. To someone who aims to be a rather more engaging and critical listener, this was a humbling revelation. As it turned out, this wasn’t at all deliberate on the part of the artists, but a technical mistake when making the master CD, but all the same, it was a valuable challenge to one’s (often unconscious) assumptions.

Maybe an “ascetic æsthetic” of this kind – dispensing with titles, notes, tracks, etc. (and avoiding genres too!) – could be the most liberating thing of all for music?

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