A Word on Titling Conventions

Until the early 20th century, the vast majority of non-operatic and non-balletic music titles were usually defined by the type of group of instruments or solo instrument for which the piece was composed, followed by the number of that specific genre by that composer. Often the title included the harmonic key or tonal center of the piece, and the title was completed with the inclusion of the opus number. For example, the fourth symphonic work composed in 1885 by Johannes Brahms is titled, "Symphony No. 4 in e minor, Op. 98." For the sake of brevity, I'll refer to this as the 19th century titling convention, although this titling system had been in place long before that.  At the dawn of the 20th century, composers were still using this well-established system. For example, Igor Stravinsky subscribed to this model as late as 1907, when in that year his first symphonic work was completed and bore the title, "Symphony No. 1 in E-flat Major; Op. 1." But by the following year, Stravinsky had discarded this titling convention, as witnessed by two compositions from 1908: "Scherzo Fantastique for Orchestra, Op. 3," and "Chant Funebre for Wind Orchestra, Op. 5."  The mention of the tonal center was discarded as compositions became less diatonic and more chromatic and pantonal. This trend can be witnessed in many other composers of the early 20th century.  Within the oeuvre of the piano sonatas of Alexander Scriabin, 1907 saw the completion of his "Piano Sonata No. 5 in F#; Op. 53," but by 1911, the next sonata was entitled, "Piano Sonata No. 6; Op. 62." Clearly, the titles were changing with the forward momentum of the expansion of music. Many of the most abstract compositions still retained, and even reflected this artistic evolution. Some very abstract works used the accepted titling conventions; a particularly salient example would be Charles Ives' trailblazing 1916 work, "Symphony No. 4."

As the 20th century progressed, titling practices began to expand beyond the conventional and the accepted. The Second Viennese School, comprised of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern, composed several very progressive orchestral works, but only Webern's 1928 composition, "Symphony," bore any conventional titling resemblance. An example of Alban Berg's titles range from 1915's "Three Pieces," composed for full orchestra, to the 1926 string quartet composition, "Lyric Suite." Ironically, Berg's final composition, 1935's "Violin Concerto," saw a return to 19th century titling conventions. John Cage expanded the range of titling conventions even further with such works as 1940's "Living Room Music," 1942's "The City Wears a Slouch Hat," 1943's "Tossed As It Is Untroubled," 1945's "Mysterious Adventure," 1947's "Music for Marcel Duchamp," 1975's "Lecture on the Weather," 1979's "Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegan’s Wake," 1985's "But What About the Noise of Crumpling Paper," and even 1978's "A Dip in the Lake: Ten  Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago and Vicinity."

While this manner of titling is arguably more interesting and creative on their own than something like "Symphony No. 2," these titles may tend to pre-condition the listener. In other words, it's possible that if a person hears a composition with a title such as "North American Songbirds: Music for Wind Quintet," the danger could be that instead of hearing the music with no preconceived notions, even as a sui generis, and thus gleaning the purest meaning from the work, the listener will instead be told that this piece contains bird sounds, or may tend to resemble birdsong, and as such, listen for these familiar elements instead of hearing the composition as a singular and unique work. Hence, the true musical and artistic content may be diluted or completely obscured, and the opportunity for the listener to ascribe personal interpretation, meaning and visualization to the music is lost. With no hints as to the composer's intent, inspiration, or attributes, it's probable that the listener will bring no preconceptions into their hearing and interpreting of the work. This allows for at least two phenomena to occur: 1. with no preconditioning, a purer concept of the music can be experienced, and 2., the listener can interpret the piece through their own experience and allow the music to take on meanings which may only be apparent to that specific listener. To title a composition "String Quartet No. 4" may assist the listener in hearing the music for what it is, and the listener may in fact hear or interpret the work entirely differently than another listener; thus making the experience a very unique and personal one for each listener, with no preconceptions.

Concurrently in the 20th century, we see a similar titling convention materialize in the world of painting. Instead of a painting bearing a title of what the painting represents, or its subject, the 20th century began to see paintings with titles similar to the 19th century music titling conventions. Examples would be the Jackson Pollock drip paintings with such titles as "Number 1, 1950," and "Number 8, 1949." While Pollock's drip paintings were some of the most abstract examples of the abstract expressionist school, these kind of neutral titles allowed the observer to see in the paintings whatever they might. This process has the potential to draw the observer into the painting in such a way that they cease to be an observer, and almost become a contributor. While more challenging and demanding of the observer than a self-explanatory portrait from the Dutch Masters school, it may offer a much richer and artistically expanding experience.

As the 20th century progressed, there were some composers who titled their compositions in a manner which was almost skeletal in its austerity; what might be considered a minimalist version of the 19th century titling practices. Whereas composers were previously supplying such information as group and/or orchestration, the number of that type of work, the harmonic key or tonal center, and opus number, a few of the mid-to-late 20th century composers stripped their titles down to nothing more than a bare list of the instruments involved. One such composer was Morton Feldman, the creator of works with such titles as 1976's "Orchestra," 1981's "Bass Clarinet and Percussion," and 1987's "Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello."

To put it another way: an acquaintance of mine grew up with a father who was an abstract artist. When he was a young child, there was a day when a friend was visiting, and my friend was proudly showing off his father's paintings. His friend grew bewildered at the unfamiliar shapes and unknown artistic language, and asked him, "What is it?" My friend didn't know how to answer, and the next day, asked his father the same question. His father wisely replied, "It's whatever you want it to be." In my opinion, this should be the ultimate goal of any musical listening experience: it should be whatever the listener wants it to be. As in the example of modern paintings with neutral titles, this kind of listening, while more demanding of the listener, may tend to place the listener in more of the role of contributor rather than that of inert observer. Hence, the opportunity for a richer, more artistically expanding experience.

This is my reasoning for adherence to the 19th-century titling conventions (without the inclusion of harmonic key / tonal center or opus numbers) for the vast majority of my own works.  There will be a few exceptions; e.g., the Bilateral Asymmetries series (see above), et. al.   Nevertheless, it is my contention that the 19th-century composition titling convention presents the music to the listener in its purest form, with a minimum of preconceptions.



Program Notes for String Quartet No. 5 - Kevin Kastning

My fifth string quartet is a composition which is polyrhythmically dense. On first exposure, this density seemingly forms aggregate textures which seem to eschew conventional elements of harmony and melody. Yet these elements are indeed present. Instead of the compositionally orthodox manner of harmony supporting melody, both harmony and melody occur simultaneously. This is a concept which has found its way into many of my compositions; however, it seems to be the principle element in the fifth quartet. This, along with such complex polyrhythms, produces a dense, singular texture which I came to refer to as a "strand." When I was making the preliminary sketches for this quartet, I could hear and visualize on paper lines weaving in and out of each other; wrapping and twisting around and through each other. I could only hear it; I couldn't verbally describe it. The composing of the piece was well underway when the word "strand" occurred to me; this strand effect was a definition of what I was hearing; harmony, melody, rhythms, and polyrhythms intertwined. A series of ropes meeting in space and wrapping around and entwining, with each individual rope comprised of many threads. In this manner, a singular strand comprised of many strands is formed. All the while moving forward in time. Each instrument receives its own voice; its own line. No voice works in support of another voice; four independent lines are moving forward at all times. Each line is equal in weight. Therefore, no voice is ever in the forefront; yet all voices are in the forefront. This produces a complex singular texture.

About halfway through the compositional process of this quartet, I was out for a drive on a heavily forested road. There had been a recent snow, so the contrast of tree against snow was very pronounced. As I looked out the window and saw the forest rushing by, I instantly had the thought, "I've heard this before." I had to think for a few seconds to determine why I had thought "heard" instead of "seen." Then it came to me. This was a visual representation of the strand texture in the fifth quartet. Imagine a fixed cursor or visual point sweeping past the forest. Then imagine that each tree has a fixed tonal pitch assigned to it; the pitch being determined by how close or distant the tree to the visual point. Farther away produces a lower pitch, while closer would result in a higher pitched note. As the cursor sweeps past the forest, each tree sounds its note. The rhythm is determined by the distance between trees. As difficult as it is to try to define and concretize something as ephemeral as the creative process, I believe that the strand concept was in place prior to the audible forest concept. I leave it to the listener to determine which description seems to most accurately represent this piece. Or better yet, to discover one (or more) of their own.


Program Notes for The London Chamber Players concert of July 11, 2004: London, England

Arborescence for Quartet (World Premiere) – Kevin Kastning

I live in the northern New England countryside. It is an area which is very hilly and wooded, with much in the way of old-growth forests. Many of these forested areas are protected as nature preserves or conservation land, and are traversed by narrow and winding hiking trails. One windy and blustery day, I found myself out on one of the trails. The wind was made audible by the movement of the trees and leaves, which produced a range of sounds from whispers to roars, punctuated by brief moments of silence and stillness. I began to imagine these periods of sound within the context of a compositional framework, and this had the effect of altering my sonic perception as I listened to the wind and trees. A composition began to take shape. I imagined the varying gusts of wind as chordal and harmonic elements; as clouds of tonality blowing in. I listened to the rising and falling; both in pitch and dynamics, and imagined this transcribed for instruments. I envisioned instruments playing the parts of the wind and the trees. Arborescence for Quartet was the product of this interaction with the forest.

Program Notes for The London Chamber Players concert of June 15, 2003: London, England

Bilateral Asymmetries No. 9 (World Premiere) – Kevin Kastning

It seems the defacto standard for aesthetic perfection is perfect symmetry; whether it be in the form of a flower, a tree, a leaf, or in architecture. But is an identical mirror image of half of something always the most interesting version of it? Several years ago, I began to notice non-symmetry in architecture; beginning with the architecture of the Bauhaus school and continuing to take note of non-symmetrical design through and into the International style of architecture. It was as if a symmetrical pattern or design just dissolved into the background of its setting; never making its own statement or placing any onus on the observer to consider a non-symmetrical design on its own terms as a separate element. I found myself drawn to non-symmetrical architectural forms, and soon thereafter began to seek out more organic examples of asymmetries. I began to notice examples of non-symmetrical shapes and patterns in nature. To me, this seemed to be a far more attention-grabbing aesthetic than that of a perfectly symmetrical shape. Because of the non-symmetrical nature of any given organic form (e.g., a flower, a tree, a landscape, growth patterns in a forest), a singular uniqueness was ascribed to that object, thus causing the observer to experience it on it’s own unparagoned level.

It wasn’t long until I began to internally hear musical structures which seemed to be born out of settings in or elements of nature which bore a singular uniqueness based upon their lack of symmetry. These compositional structures did not fit into any prescribed or pre-existing form or mold, but instead began to take on their own shape. A structural shape which was anything but symmetrical. This was the genesis of the Bilateral Asymmetries series.

Bilateral Asymmetries No. 9 is constructed for a time-honored instrumental grouping: the wind quintet. But there all similarities to most compositions for wind quintet end, as each instrument is treated as an equal voice; each becoming its own bilaterally asymmetrical element in this setting.

The Chalkboard
In my studio, I have a large chalkboard where I keep track of current compositional and recording projects.  At times, it also serves as a notepad where I will store random thoughts and reminders to myself.  I have started a webpage where I can retain some of the random thoughts and reminders long after they're erased from the chalkboard.