New Music’s Swinging Scythe

Maybe since Kyle Gann is at summer camp this week I can get away with revisiting a comment from his blog that Frank J. Oteri noted a while back on NewMusicBox—specifically, Gann’s “dissociat[ion of...] complexity and quality.” Frank and his respondents have already done the heavy lifting here; there isn’t much more to say about Gann’s assertion that complex things are not necessarily good unless we try to dismantle his language a bit. This may seem like sophistry, but bear with me—I think Gann has revealed, perhaps accidentally, a stratum of rhetoric that undergirds much of today’s new music discourse, a stratum whose continued presence owes to its mutually beneficial hooks.

Imagine a concert program, a piano recital, featuring John Adams’s China Gates and Milton Babbitt’s Semi-Simple Variations. An imaginary continuum of simplicity and complexity might offer a satisfying thought-model for assessing how these pieces relate to one another. Moreover, if you know that Babbitt is much older than Adams, such a continuum could be mapped, loosely, to the last few decades. In Babbitt’s day, one might surmise, new music was complex, but now that it’s Adams’s era, new music is simple (and wait—remember Copland and Barber? Simple!). You might as well tie a bow over the whole thing: Assuming you don’t have advanced degrees in music, and maybe even if you do, the “simple-complex” continuum is a very tidy way to understand developments in contemporary music: They become the swingings of a pendulum from creamy to crunchy and, mercifully, back again.

This reactionary gesture is important, but it’s only a precondition for the real selling point of the simplicity-complexity continuum. “Simple” and “complex” are value-laden terms, but their value depends on the user: Identifying and lionizing “simple” music allows you to present yourself as a populist defending das Volk from academic snobbery. Identifying and lionizing “complex” music allows you to impute to it the merit of Bach, Beethoven, and Berg, thereby scoring points among a different crowd altogether. The mental shortcuts offered by “simple” and “complex” not only help both sides but also establish them as “sides” to begin with.

Over the past few years I’ve been collecting terms that I want to stop using when it comes to describing music. “Postmodern” is at the top of the list, followed closely by “atonal” and “expressive”; I think they’re about to be joined by “simple” and “complex.” The continuum is specious, it tells you nothing about the actual music at hand, and I promise not to use it anymore.

6 thoughts on “New Music’s Swinging Scythe

  1. philmusic

    “..the “simple-complex” continuum is a very tidy way to understand developments in contemporary music:..”

    Art, like life, is never tidy.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  2. Kyle Gann

    For what it’s worth, I don’t see the complex-simple “continuum” as in any way unidirectional, monolinear, or tidy, and I would hate to forfeit such usefully broad and vague descriptives. Also, it was a deliberate rhetorical strategy that I almost invariably (to the point of maniacal repetition) paired complex with opaque, to try to clarify that I wasn’t referring “simply” to complexity per se. For instance, The Rite of Spring and The Art of Fugue can be both described as complex, but not opaque. But perhaps that’s a blog entry for another day.

    Reply
  3. Kyle Gann

    Called on account of rain
    …and I got back from summer camp early, sorry. During Alex Ross’s hiatuses, I’m on 24-hour blog call.

    Reply
  4. composerguy

    “…swingings of a pendulum from creamy to crunchy…”

    Makes me want a PB sandwich.

    But seriously, I for one have always learned infinitely more (as a curious composer) from listening to music than I ever have by reading about it, whether those writings be by critic or musicologist.

    Reply
  5. dheila

    I think Debussy hit the nail on the head when he said (if indeed he said it):

    “There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law.”

    As far as the continuum, I try to stay within the law (a hard judge to please). I also understand that some folks like a little pain with their pleasure.

    Respectfully, good night.

    Reply
  6. PKWnice

    I think for this perhaps we can go back to the genesis of ” difficult” music–

    Even in this day and age.. there are still many New Music champions who will critcize a a new piece if it’s not constantly chock-full of .. call it what you will ” weirdness, complexity, freaky sh*t, stuff that confounds even the ears of the most advanced and open-minded listener etc. ” — of course we aren’t in the quagmire of this as of 30 years ago.. but sadly this still exists.

    It’s not this KIND of music still isn’t valid or if that’s someone’s milieu, then of course that’s what they should be writing and damn the consquences if anyone from blue-hairs to people who do normal-order puzzles from Xenakis motives for fun and games doesn’t ” GET ” their work– HOWEVER.. this still warps MANY younger composers into being terrified to not self-consciously THROW ” odd” things in a piece that they don’t sincerely think belong.

    Yours truly has had many of my works totally summarily dissed for ” OMG He has a triad. OMG there’s a scale. This dude is completely out of touch.” A rather renown NM group flat out TOLD me ” We love you dude and happy your successful, but our management would never let us play anything like yours, it’s not weird enough.” —

    My point of all of this is ( and I know it’s sort of sideline to the subject at hand.. apologies but I think my rambling here has SOME sense of relevance to the topic at hand.. heh ) — that EVERYONE needs to remember two of my favorite quotes ( pardon my perhaps misremembering the exact wordings) on the subject of compositional learning technique and on ” simplicity versus complexity”

    — FAURE :
    Do not try to be a genius in every single measure.

    SCHOENBERG:
    There are still a great many pieces to be written in C Major.

    End of my 2 cents for this. :)

    — There are still a great deal of worthy piece

    Reply

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