View From The West: Simplicity vs. Complexity

Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

I would like to suggest that we may have a skewed notion of the criteria for what it good or great in the music and the arts. Guided by our Western philosophies, aesthetics, and sensibilities, many of us have decided (or someone has decided for us) that great music, great art must be complex if not convoluted, monumental, epic, or otherwise intricate and grandiose. Dazzling, even mannerist and Byzantine structures tout the composer’s ability to construct incredibly sophisticated monuments to human achievement in music, but might there be another and equally meaningful way? Might not virtuosic displays of compositional daring be considered merely bombastic, as least in some instances? The answer, of course, is “yes,” as there is always plenty of bad music, but the question is at least food for thought.

The well known, oft quoted adage “less is more” is tossed about freely, but in our heart of hearts, we really do not believe it. Instead, we tend to believe that more is more and less is less. We may concede that a Zen ink and brush rendering of a stalk of bamboo with a bird perched on a branch executed with a handful of brush strokes is masterful, but deep down inside we believe that Michaelangelo‘s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel must be better, if nothing more than by virtue of the technical skill, virtuosity and complexity of the work. Even closer to home, we may agree that Schubert‘s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” is a fine piece, but Wagner‘s Ring Cycle or Stravinsky‘s Le sacre du printemps must be the better works by dint of sheer size and intricacy. Of course, size and complexity alone is never the standard for excellence. I doubt that any of us would compare a Bruckner symphony to one of Beethoven‘s or a Sammartini symphony to one by Haydn. Still, cannot a haiku be as profound as an epic poem by Dante? Cannot a little character piece by Schumann be as significant as a sprawling tone poem by Strauss? If not, why not?

Of course there are also works that are relatively long, even very long, where not much happens, at least compositionally. Whether it is the Dies Irae from the Requiem (one of the longer chants in the repertoire) or La Monte Young‘s The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys, how are we to evaluate them?

Béla Bartók recognized that very simple, indigenous folk musics were the artistic equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Authentic Hungarian folk songs were often monophonic or heterophonic, or comprised of simple modal melodies accompanied by the simplest, even crudest of harmonic schemes. Indeed, in our own Western European heritage, medieval Gregorian chant and organum were often quite Spartan and simple, yet few would deny the profundity of these musics of the Middle Ages. That being said, few seem to place them on the same plane as Bach, Brahms, or Boulez.

Perhaps we too need to reassess. Consider Satie‘s Vexations, a simple 2-page piano piece comprised largely of augmented chords which is to be played very softly and slowly with the cryptic instruction that it is also to be repeated 840 times. Upon discovering the work in the late 1950s, John Cage came to the conclusion that Satie’s little musical trifle was unperformable, clocking in at over eighteen hours and unlistenable. While there is likely a humorous element intended by the composer in Vexations, it is not known if Satie actually expected the instructions to repeat 840 times to be taken seriously. However, very concrete, unexpected, and even profound effects can result when listening to this work when performed according to the instructions.

After embarking on the premiere performance of Vexations which he organized in 1963, Cage came to realize that something powerful was underway that dramatically eclipsed his wildest expectations. Cage recalls, “After about an hour and a half we all realized that something had been set in motion that went far beyond what any of us had anticipated.’” [Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde, expanded ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1976), p. 104.] By the time the performance was completed, he came to the conclusion that “Vexations was of profound religious significance.” [Peter Dickinson, "Erik Satie (1866-1925)," Music Review, 28, No. 2 (1967), p. 146.]

Concerning extensive repetition in Satie’s music, Dick Higgins pointed out:

“In performance the satirical intent of this repetition comes through very clearly, but at the same time other very interesting results begin to appear. The music first becomes so familiar that it seems extremely offensive and objectionable. But after that the mind slowly becomes incapable of taking further offense, and a very strange, euphoric acceptance and enjoyment begin to set in… Is it boring? Only at first. After a while . . . [it] begins to intensify. By the time the piece is over, the silence is absolutely numbing, so much of an environment has the piece become.” [Dick Higgins, "Boredom and Danger," Source, 3, No. 1 (Jan. 1969), 15, rpt. originally in The Something Else Newsletter, 1, No. 9 (Dec. 1968), pp. 1-4, 6, 15]

At least one early musicologist saw the value of long durations and extensive repetition in Satie’s work. In referring to examples of musique d’ameublement or “furniture music,” Rudhyar Chenneviere (a.k.a. Dane Rudhyar) proposed:

“There seems to be no reason why these chords might not continue for hours…One feels that for hours at a stretch he has caressed the ivory keys, sounding them softly, then, little by little, with greater force…One feels that the composer’s sense of hearing, his nerves, vibrate sensuously, lulled by these infinite undulations of sound.” [Rudhyar D. Chenneviere, "Erik Satie and the Music of Irony," trans. Frederick H. Martens, Musical Quarterly, 5 (1919), p. 470.]

According to Roger Shattuck, “Satie seems to combine experiment with inertia… The simplest of Satie’s pieces…built out of a handful of notes and rhythms have no beginning, middle, and end. They exist simultaneously. Form ceases to be an ordering in time like ABA and reduces to a single brief image, an instantaneous whole both fixed and

moving. Satie’s form can be extended only by reiteration or ‘endurance.’. . . Satie frequently scrutinizes a very simple musical object . . . Out of this sameness comes subtle variety.” [Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France 1885 to World War I, rev. ed. (New York: Vintage, 1968), p. 142.]

The following can be found in Cage’s Silence:

“In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.” [John Cage, Silence (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), p. 93.]

I in no way mean to suggest that complicated music and art is merely bombastic. Rather, simplicity in music and the arts, even radical simplicity can be as powerful, meaningful, and profound as complex work. Simplicity can communicate ideas in ways that complexity cannot and vice versa. Neither is inherently better than the other; they are simply different. Each has a role to play if only we will let them do their work. We would to well to judge the content of the music rather than the means by which it was constructed.