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.