What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
What am I doing when I give a title to a piece of music? Back in 2015 Nicholas Diak1 wrote a review of Waffenruhe’s Stuka on the sadly defunct Heathen Harvest website. There was a paragraph in it that stuck in my head, and I’ve been trying to work out since then what I think about it.
The onus is now on the listener, with only the names of the tracks to assign any given meaning to the songs. Depending on the type of listener, this might make the song more enjoyable, much like listening to an ambient album where the atmosphere is the element that takes hold. For a martial-industrial album like Stuka though, this comes off as shallow. For example, the song “Sturzkampfflieger” is about fighter pilots, not because any lyrics or other particular contents hint at that, but only because the title of the track said so. In theory, the music of this track could have been paired to any title and therefore could have been about any other topic.
As someone who makes instrumental music, this is something that has bothered me for a long time. After all, given that there are no words in it, in what sense is Empire and Dust about empires? In what sense is Schism about schisms?
The truth is that I didn’t sit down to make music while thinking about schisms. The music came first and the titles came later. With my earlier music, much inspired by bands like Autechre, I would just make up words for track titles. And I’ve often considered just numbering them, or not having titles at all. But for Hands of Ruin that’s never seemed appropriate, and I couldn’t say why not.
But recently I think I’ve got closer to an idea of what I’m doing when I give a track a title. In Beyond Order, Jordan Peterson writes:
Art bears the same relationship to society that the dream bears to mental life. […] Like art, the dream mediates between order and chaos. So, it is half chaos. That is why it is not comprehensible. It is a vision, not a fully fledged articulated production. Those who actualize those half-born visions into artistic productions are those who begin to transform what we do not understand into what we can at least start to see.
When you have a dream, a lot of strange images come into your mind. These images are coming from some sort of unconscious process within you, and they have associations and even meanings that are non-verbal, or at least pre-verbal. You can explore this sometimes by thinking of something strange that happened in a dream and simply asking yourself, what was that all about? Sometimes an answer will spring up that surprises you. Somehow you’re just sure that an image in the dream represents something in your life, but you wouldn’t be able to explain why. There are strange and unjustifiable metaphors and equivalences. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you can make sense of everything that occurs in a dream in that way, but it’s at least clear that there are some concepts that have no clear relationship in the world and yet are nonetheless joined up in your head.
What you’re doing as an artist is similar, I think, to what you’re doing in a dream. You’re groping around in the dark, in things that you’re not entirely conscious of.2 Sometimes you come across things that make some sort of sense to you. There are an infinite number of possibilities that you could assemble as an artist, but you only keep what resonates with you. And, as with dreams, what resonates with you is not something that you can necessarily explain. The best you can do often is just report the things that seem significant to you.
Philosophers from Plato onwards have wrestled with the problem of meaning, and for the most part they were concerned with the meanings of words and sentences. The question of how a piece of instrumental music can be about anything seems like an extraordinarily difficult problem. But even without solving that problem exactly, it is clear that there are meanings to music. A soundtrack that would work for a slapstick comedy would not be suitable for a horror film. Just as the images presented in a dream have meanings, even if you can’t precisely articulate them, music has meanings too.
And that means that the title to a piece of music can be right or wrong too. Or at least it can fit or not fit. I’ve come to see the title as part of the work. It may come last, but it wouldn’t be fair to say that it’s merely tacked on at the end. For me, the title and work form a whole. It isn’t totally arbitrary and is constrained by how I understand the music. Whether what makes sense to the artist will translate to the listener is a different question, of course.
1. Disagreeing with Nicholas Diak is apparently one of my hobbies. ↩
2. This, incidentally, is part of why I have such frustrations with people who want art to be politically correct and unproblematic. The artist, like your dreams, is telling you something. If you push it away and demand that the artist only tells you the things that you want to hear, you are like a king with no jester, and you will miss out on hearing important but unpalatable things. ↩