One of the pieces I’m working on this summer is a composition for nine instruments, about nine minutes long, that’s scheduled for a premiere in November. The scoring is odd: two flutes, baritone sax, trumpet, violin, viola, cello, bass and piano. The unusual combination came about because the piece combines the instrumentation of two other pieces I’m working on: one is for two flutes, violin, viola and cello, and the other is for saxophone, trumpet, bass and piano, each about 8 minutes long. The three pieces will all be premiered on the same concert: one to start the concert, one to conclude, and this nonet, which will come at the end of the first half.

I’ve written before about coming up with titles. I have, generally speaking, two scenarios: either I have the title before I begin working, or I come up with the title when I’m close to finishing.

(There used to be a third scenario: some titles didn’t come until years after I’d written the piece. In this third scenario, an old piece would be running through my head and I’d suddenly understand exactly what it was about, and the title that would best convey its meaning. One of the benefits of growing older is that scenario three has just about vanished.)

This nonet is following scenario two: I began working on it about a month ago, and now that I’m coming down the home stretch, I’ve come up with a title: it will be called Dark Circles. The title seems apt for several reasons. First, the scoring, with the prominent bari sax and the double bass, is pretty dark. Second, the material keeps circling back on itself. Third, much of the music has a hallucinatory quality to it, which works well with the sleeplessness alluded to in the title – the dark circles found under the eyes after a night of insomnia. And finally, I like the way the title Dark Circles manages to sound both menacing and slightly comical, which is certainly true of the piece.

The fun thing about scenario two is watching musical materials gradually take shape in an anything-goes atmosphere, then suddenly seeing them coalesce into a very specific entity. When I have the title ahead of time, composing is a matter of heading toward a known destination. Scenario two is more like wandering off into the wilderness, then suddenly recognizing some familiar features that point you in a specific direction. Now that I have the title, which arrived two days ago, I can pin down all of the details with the central idea in mind, and that’s a great feeling.

But here’s the frustrating thing about titles: Listeners often put a too much stock in them, thinking they “get” the piece if they’ve understood why it has the name it has. I know that people will come up to me after the premiere and ask why I called it Dark Circles, and I’ll do my best to accommodate them with some kind of an answer, when what I’ll really want to say is, “Can we please talk about anything besides the title?”

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