The recent death of British composer John Tavener has got me thinking, again, about simplicity and the way we talk about simple music. There’s a weird combination of admiration, envy, and condescension that often comes into play when composers talk about simplicity. We can admire its bravery, its unabashed unembellished-ness. But maybe we’re unsure how to judge it when there isn’t as much on the surface to analyze. And maybe we want to protest, “But I could just as easily have done that,” even though of course we didn’t. Maybe we resent someone calling “dibs” on that idea before we got around to it.
Maybe simplicity is complicated because the difference between a simple idea that is banal and a simple idea that has depth can be extremely subtle. Maybe we can’t tell, at first, which is which. But then, why should this be any different than complexity? Complexity can contain hidden depths, but it can also obscure a lack of substance at its core.
There’s no way to tell, then, on first listen. We can only trust our prejudices or our instincts, and what’s more, we may not even be able to distinguish prejudices from instincts. And maybe the prejudices have rewired the instincts, so that, while being drawn to the immediately attractive idea, we immediately distrust it, because we have been burned too many times by charlatans.
Maybe the non-composer is more likely to trust the naked idea and its fearless charms, while the composer prefers the idea with clothes, with armor. Complexity as a kind of modesty, as shyness, as parasocial anxiety. Maybe this petty yet fundamental disconnect is the source of countless tragicomic misunderstandings between artist and audience.
Then again, maybe I am overgeneralizing (or over-equivocating). There is room in the world for both simple and complex music and for all kinds of interactions between the two, and mapping this strange, non-linear territory is one of the things that new music has gotten pretty good at. The trick is to view it without judging—or to judge anyway while knowing your judgment is wrong. Creation unfortunately demands a perpetual, genocidal sacrifice of possibilities, so we might as well get it over with.