Modern Prejudices

Picking up on my entry about Europe, Art Jarvinen tells an anecdote about the Dutch composer Joep Franssens:

I met him at an E.A.R. Unit concert at the Icebreaker in Amsterdam, where we played that piece of mine you like so much, Murphy-Nights. Afterwards Joep said “That’s the kind of piece a lot of us here would like to be writing, but we can’t yet. The pressure is still too strong to do what’s expected.”

Murphy-Nights, by the way, is a brilliant, jazzy piece in which three instruments play a crazily syncopated line in unison while the electric keyboard and bass play ostinatos going out of phase, one 32 16th-notes long and the other 33 16th-notes. Very lean, surprising yet logical, based in minimalist techniques but wacky and angular, humorous, very American.

I get a lot of contradictory mail on topics like this. Some aver that the hegemony of complex atonal music was over years ago; some find it very much alive, but more in Europe these days, it seems, than in America. Personally I find it sad and anachronistic that in 2004 any composer still takes the tonal/atonal distinction or the consonance/dissonance distinction as being crucial, or feels that complexity is a necessary musical attribute. As Charles Ives so wisely wrote, “Why tonality should be done away with completely, I can’t see. Why it should be always present, I can’t see.” Isn”t it obvious that there is too much great tonal music for anyone to think music should always be atonal, and too much great atonal music for anyone to dismiss atonality? And yet a student of mine recently applied to grad school and was asked by a professor, “I see you’ve used a key signature – don’t you find that awfully limiting?” Did Bach find it limiting? Has anyone ever proved that limitations on creative work were a bad thing? Nietzsche wrote that “one should remember the compulsion under which every language so far has achieved strength and freedom – the metrical compulsion, the tyranny of rhyme and rhythm.” As for those convinced that a certain historical period necessitates a specific kind of music, defined by superficial qualities such as consonance, dissonance, tonality, complexity – can they prove their assertion? prove that it is more than a personal preference or received professorial mandate turned around into a weapon to blast away at the careers of others?

Of all the despicable follies of modern music, the most despicable is the devaluation of simplicity. Simplicity has always been an artistic virtue, and it remains one still – not an essential virtue, for there is too much enjoyable complex music to believe that. But other things being equal, one remembers simple music far better than complex music, and I come back to the simple pieces that have impressed me far more consistently than I do the complex ones. Beethoven’s sketches reveal that his first ideas were rarely simple and rarely good, and that in revising them he invariably simplified them and made them infinitely more powerful in so doing. To get your music to where it is simple, and therefore memorable, and therefore powerful, takes tremendous effort, and many composers lie about that fact because they don’t want to put forth the effort. It is just over 200 years since Friedrich von Schiller wrote that

True genius is of necessity simple, or it is not genius…. The most intricate problems must be solved by genius with simplicity, without pretension, with ease; the egg of Christopher Columbus is the emblem of all the discoveries of genius. It only justifies its character as genius by triumphing through simplicity over all the complications of art…. Simplicity in our mode of thinking brings with it of necessity simplicity in our mode of expression, simplicity in terms as well as movement; and it is in this that grace especially consists. Genius expresses its most sublime and its deepest thoughts with this simple grace; they are the divine oracles that issue from the lips of a child; while the scholastic spirit, always anxious to avoid error, tortures all its words, all its ideas, and makes them pass through the crucible of grammar and logic, hard and rigid…. (“On Naive and Sentimental Poetry”)

That last sentence sounds like a definition of grad school to me. More compellingly (because more simply), George Sand wrote that

Simplicity is the most difficult thing to achieve in this world: it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.

And even more simply still:

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

– Leonardo Da Vinci

Has European music forgotten? Have we?