lundi 18 février 2013

Titles and the art of allusion

Titles and the art of allusion:

Giving works neutral titles or calling them “Untitled” does not precisely destroy, only distorts the sort of connection here. […] “Untitled” at least implies it is an artwork, which it leaves us to find our way about in it. As a final implication of the practice, since the title itself is given by a painter, it presumably implies what he intends by way of structuring of the work.
Arthur C Danto
Giving a piece of artwork the title “Untitled” is a common enough practice and from the start it should be noted that this is not the same thing as “no title”. So, as far as that goes, the quote by Danto is correct. It is a practice, however, that infuriates some. Notably the “general public” whose attitude can, perhaps, be summed up by the suspicion that an artist “just couldn’t be bothered to think up a title.” This is a largely unsustainable argument, though at this point I maybe should add that the use of “Untitled” as a title is largely restricted to the visual arts. Imagine, for example, if “Untitled” were applied to, say, a novel (or a piece of music for that matter); most likely examples do exist but, if they do, the effect, aesthetically that is, would be entirely different. Some artists, however, have made it their general practice to use “Untitled” as the title of many (even the majority) of their works. Two such artists are Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly. Contemporaries of each other, the overall tenor of their respective oeuvres and work practices differ greatly but are alike in this one respect. Alike, too, in that they each make enough use of lengthy and highly allusive titles for some of their work that one suspects that such titles represent a “special case”; if nothing else I think one can safely assume that when they do use an allusive title they really mean it. In their case it seems a way of “flagging” certain pieces for special attention (in relation to meaning) as opposed to the accustomed “Untitled”. A simplistic notion no doubt, both artists are far more complex than that, yet I suspect there is an element of truth here.
Before I go on and analyse the practices of my co-contributors here when it comes to titling their work, a quick word about my own: As I said in the previous post, I rarely title individual pieces, preferring to give an overall title to the series of which they are a part, an exception is the piece shown above which actually is titled “Untitled”. However, this is due not to any notion of mine, but rather the fact that, as part of my series, “Figuring Jasper” (an exploration of the work of Jasper Johns but equally a kind of homage too) the use of the title acknowledges the direct reference to a Johns piece of that name, which by way of illustration, can be seen directly below my piece.
So to my co-contributors… starting with Tim (see here) because, of the three, he is the most consistent and, method-wise at least, the most straightforward. His practice invariably consists of either the descriptive (e.g. “Drawing in Paint” – the title refers to the method or process) or are largely allusive (but normally in a way that refers to the visual effect of the piece). Seldom do they seem fanciful or allusively obscure. Of course, even the descriptive titles can be seen as partially allusive in the issues they might raise in conjunction with the artworks themselves but as an overall description of Tim’s practice this at least seems serviceable enough. Or seems to me… which of course may not be the same thing! In Anna’s case (see here), in a recent discussion on the subject she observed to me that she tends to “flip flop” between giving her pieces “no titles” or highly allusive titles. Some could be said to be somewhat obscurely allusive and this may or may not be intentional. In any case, the offhand nature of her comment also may or may not be totally illuminating, intentional or not… Here she has, thus far, used “Untitled” as the title of her pieces. Or maybe not… as “Untitled” could be interpreted as different to “untitled”. Were there to be a different intent here it would be effectively masked by Anna’s custom of always using lower case to the virtual exclusion of any upper case text. Once again, this coupled with the often playfully allusive nature of some of her titles, may indicate a wish to mask a deeper meaning, personal meaning, that is? Or it could be that, well, she is just being playful. You would have to ask her, I guess. An answer may or may not be forthcoming, however…
It is Marc’s practice as a composer I would like to turn to now; both because the criteria for naming a musical piece, while in some ways the same as for purely visual pieces, may also differ and because, quite simply, he has himself written about the titles of individual pieces which while not entirely explaining his reasons at least hint at them (see here). To do this I intend to look at three separate pieces of his music. First, “Paternoster”, a particular favourite of mine. This is perhaps one of the more straightforward examples: the piece was composed using an actual recording of a ride on a “paternoster” (a cyclic elevator, much like a dumb waiter but large enough to carry people) and the title is therefore straightforwardly descriptive… it does “what it says on the tin”. Although a hint of caution here as Marc, in his own description of the piece, quotes this meaning of Paternoster from Wikipedia: “Cyclic Elevator, the name paternoster (“Our Father”, the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin) was originally applied to the device because the elevator is in the form of a loop and is thus similar to rosary beads used as an aid in reciting prayers.” So maybe not quite as straightforward as first appears.
The second piece in question is “Songs from the Abbatoir” which at first sight, and in relation to Marc’s own description, might also appear to be “descriptive” in nature. Here is what he says: “This is a dark, desolate piece that explores a personal perspective on the nature and activities of food processing plants and abattoirs. There are no songs as such – more a continuous plaintive cry…” And indeed on listening to the piece one can here musical references to “plaintive cries”. However, one needs to be careful here. The notion of a plaintive cry, even if successfully represented or rather “evoked by” the music itself, in and of itself evokes no particular concept of an abbatoir. In sound there are arguably always too few indicators to be that specific. It is the title alone that serves this purpose, that alone guarantees that a listener “interprets” the musical “cries” thus. An example: listening to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (the Pastoral) does one “hear” the countryside in the music or does one see that the piece has been subtitled “Pastoral” and then hears the musical allusions? Of course, once seen the title cannot be “un-seen” as it were and any “state of innocence” is immediately compromised, making it difficult if not impossible to decide which. I, myself, am by no means certain exactly how “cause and effect” may work here…
Now for our third and final example: “Prorrhesis”. In his description of the piece Marc first describes the technical difficulties inherent in performing it. For the purposes of this article these are of no concern. Later he goes on to give a definition of “prorrhesis”: “Prorrhesis was part of the ancient Greek Eleusinian Mysteries. prorrhesis was the official announcement of the start of the rites.” On listening to the actual piece itself one (or for me at least!) finds nothing in the music that could be said to allude to the title. Conversely there is nothing in the title that offers a clue as to the nature of the music. It could be said, therefore, that the title is a case of pure caprice on the composer’s part. No less valid as a title, it should be noted, but caprice nonetheless. It is of course possible that there is a connection. Maybe a highly personal one for Marc. But if so it’s not clear. It could be that, in Marc’s imagination, the one (title) clearly evokes the other (music), or vice versa. If that’s so it’s most likely the case that such evocation comes from the “sound image” of the word and not because the word itself is in any way descriptive. I shall leave the final word to Marc himself, of course. But I am here reminded of soemthing Roland Barthes wrote about the paintings of Cy Twombly, “This is why Twombly’s titles do not lead to analogy. If a canvas is called “The Italians”, do not seek the Italians anywhere except, precisely, in their name.”
You can hear the three pieces in question below and read what Marc says himself about his work here…
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