I’m going to try to clarify the musical complexity issue. What we have now, left over from the previous post, is what I’ll call the Byrne argument: that a lot of incomprehensible, audience-alienating music has been written out of a kind of reverse elitism – and what I’ll call the Nonken argument (after superb pianist Marilyn Nonken, who wrote in): that there’s a lot of difficult, complex music that will never appeal to a wide audience, but it has its admirers, and they should be allowed to have it. On the face of it, these assertions both seem obviously true, and you’ll notice they don’t even contradict each other. But each of them comes with an assumed, unstated backside, a flipside, that is more questionable, and I’m going to see if I can dissociate those flip sides from the assertions themselves. I assure you I do this with malice toward none and charity toward all, so please don’t write in with the intention of taking me down a peg for some supposed partisan advocacy on my part.
If we can agree on two propositions, I have some faith that all the rest will fall into place. Let’s posit a musical idiom that I think most of you have heard or can imagine: thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand. Proposition 1: not every thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand piece that’s been written is a masterpiece, worth listening to over and over again. Some pieces in that late-20th-century idiom are merely tedious and unclear, confusing rather than profound. I hope everyone concerned (except for Frank Oteri, who prides himself on a Zenlike appreciation for every piece that’s ever come into existence, simply for existing) can agree on this much.
The second proposition may be a little more difficult to get universal agreement on among non-musicians. Proposition 2: at least some thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand pieces are beautiful and profound, and those listeners who come to know them well derive immense pleasure from them. In short, within the wide world of thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand music, we’re going to draw a theoretical line. On the profound side of this line, for instance, I would place Bruno Maderna’s Grande Aulodia, which is like ear-candy for me, and also Luigi Nono’s late string quartet Fragmente: Stille, an Diotima. On the confused and unrewarding side of that line I might place as example Charles Wuorinen’s Concerto for Cello and Ten Instruments, which I excitedly bought a score of as a teenager, and which ever since has served me as an emblem of pretentious musical gobbledygook. But it doesn’t matter which pieces, or even which percentage of pieces, you put on which side of that line – as long as you’ll simply agree with me that there’s a line, we can continue.
All I’m asking you to do is dissociate the qualities complexity and quality. Complexity does not guarantee that a piece of music is great, nor does it guarantee that a piece of music is bad. Put that way, I don’t think even our friend Frank can disagree.
(Already now, though, two people have written to express suspicion that if I think some complex music is no good, then I must secretly think that all simple music, or all tonal music is good. Aside from such assertions being patently ridiculous, there would be no logic whatever in such a leap of thought. Like, “You don’t like some kinds of chocolate? Then you must love everything that’s vanilla!” But in general musicians are not very good at logic, and this is the kind of fallacy that these arguments of musical style get caught up in.) [UPDATE: Darcy James Argue, in commenting on the above, makes a welcome clarifying point: “In practice, in certain circles… it is effectively impossible for anyone to make an argument that flows from Proposition 1 (especially: “this piece of thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand music is in fact a piece of shit”) without people assuming that you are in fact launching a full-bore assault on Proposition 2 (“so you’re saying that all my favorite thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand music is worthless???”)”]
As is pretty clear, the Nonken argument does its level best to ignore Proposition 1 (“Vote NO on Proposition 1!”), and the Byrne argument ignores, or even disputes or refuses to acknowledge, Proposition 2. Yet to ignore either of them negates the deeply-felt experiences of large swaths of people. Of course there are thousands of musicians who have been deeply and positively affected by some thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand music that would have seemed opaque and unpleasant to my grandmother. Byrne’s view (as he expressed it, and perhaps he doesn’t believe it as simplistically as he said it, but he gave voice to a common formulation) is a cliché, the cliché of Evil Modern Music, but it is not a cliché that was made up out of whole cloth. Clearly a lot of people think music went off some kind of deep end in the 20th-century, and became (temporarily) self-delusional. As a critic, as a composer, as a person, I have an obligation to acknowledge both sets of opinions; I can’t tell either my composing colleagues nor the musical audience I used to write for that their perceptions are totally neurotic – at least without losing credibility with one set or the other. Much of my life has been spent on this dividing line.
Let’s take that opinion that classical music went off some kind of deep end in the 20th-century, and became self-delusional. There is absolutely no way to assess the sanity of this assertion without dividing the music alluded to into several repertoires with different reception histories:
Pre-WWII Modernism (early Stravinsky, Varèse, Schoenberg, Webern, Bartok, Ives, Messiaen, etc): This music certainly disturbed older members of the audiences who first heard it, and it became the first repertoire of music shunned by orchestras. It definitely represents a split, apparently irrevocable, in the classical repertoire. That music exploded into a lot of musical areas that had been previously off-limits, using dissonance, complex rhythms, and atonality to express violence, anxiety, machinism, and anger. Of course, as is widely documented, today when orchestras play that music, the older crowd who loves their Brahms and Dvorak get irritated or stay away, but thousands of new, younger listeners pour in. The movies have done a lot to inure the modern ear to dissonance and arrhythmia, and also to associate it with analogous emotional states. For my students in general, the traditional relationship is now reversed: 19th-century symphonies seem tedious and unthinkingly conventional, while early modernism is entertaining and energizing, like the audio analogue of a video game. Reception history suggests to me that the jury is in on early modernism: arguing that it was a wrong turn seems as pointless an argument as any Luddite could make. Let us say no more about it in this context.
European avant-garde of the 1950s and ’60s: This, as the rainbow of reactions to Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten shows, is more problematic territory. That music hit the recording world when I was in high school, primed and ready for it, and I glommed it up with hungry ears, reading everything about it I could get my hands on – and even to me, some of it doesn’t make sense. That music, too, used dissonance, atonality, and arrhythmia – but not always to express violence or anguish, often just to play with sound forms. My students get a perennial kick from Stockhausen’s Gruppen, but whether its fragmented textures could ever cease to suggest anxiety to the untrained ear is something I would not want to speculate about. A lot of that music’s drive was theoretical, and it trailed off into a thousand dead ends, a thousand pieces more remarkable for the pompous psychology of their program notes than for their sonic aura. Nevertheless, a core repertoire of tremendously beautiful and original works emerged from all that experimentation: Boulez’s Pli selon pli and Rituel, Zimmermann’s Photoptosis and Monologe, Berio’s Sinfonia and Corale, and, you can make up your own list. If I were called upon to justify Darmstadt serialism to a general audience, I’d say, “Wait a minute – which pieces am I justifying here? Because I’m sure as hell not going to go out on a limb for all of them.” I insist that there are pieces on both sides of the line in that repertoire, some gorgeous and some merely confused, but they are so unified by idiom that a general audience has to be forgiven for finding it difficult to make distinctions.
Comparing the reception history of this music with that of the next category is complicated by the fact that Europe and the U.S. have such different musical cultures. In Europe an immense festival culture grew up around serialism, which gave a convincing appearance that there was more public support for the music over there. Some Americans, like Rzewski, came to write more opaque music after expatriating to Europe, as though that had more success there, and it probably did. Nevertheless, I always think of the parents I once met of an exchange student at my son’s elementary school. They were from Graz, Austria, and I mentioned that I was aware of a prestigious contemporary music festival there. They said, “Oh, the music they play there is terrible, all this horrible modern stuff. We go every year.”
Academic 12-tone music of the 1970s and ’80s: You may deny, if you wish, that in the period in question, thousands of student composers were encouraged by their professors, or perhaps pressured simply by their peers or the environment, to write abstract music of exploded textures in a 12-tone idiom, or something resembling it. Go ahead and deny it: an army of survivors will rise up to contradict you. Dissonance, arrhythmia, complexity, had, if you wanted, become completely dissociated from any specific emotional expression; it was often all just about pitch sets and sound structures. There is no need to demonize this period, which simply resulted from the collision of European serialism with an explosive expansion (in both size and influence) of academia in the directions of composition and analysis. But neither let us whitewash the fact that the “contemporary music concert” nurtured by academic culture became, for awhile, something of a chore. Even my fellow students and I, thoroughly indoctrinated into this culture, couldn’t believe how bad most of the music was, semester after semester. Something was clearly wrong, and later that something got fixed to a certain extent. Just to take one example, student composer concerts I’ve heard in the last ten years are so infinitely better than student composer concerts of the ’70s that someone should write a book about that phenomenon alone.
Whether you agree with my characterizations here is really not important. What’s important is that contemporary classical music got a terrible public reputation in the mid-20th century, and while composers at first defended the music, at some point, even many of us began to concede that something had gone wrong. Where one draws the line that got crossed over (1945, 1970, serialized rhythm, pitch-set analysis) is immaterial. Certainly recent reception history suggests that some of that bad rep was unfair – and some, Frank, will argue that all of it is unfair, but many composers of my generation, myself included, cannot not go that far. Camus wisely said, “You are what other people think you are,” and Morton Feldman’s grandmother used to tell him, “When three people tell you you’re drunk, lie down.” There is a factual basis to the Byrne argument that it simply does not do us any good to ignore. At the same time, we need the Nonken argument so that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. In fact, those two arguments complete each other. We can’t accurately describe the 20th century without both of them.
One of the arguments that composers bring up over and over again to buttress the Nonken argument is that all composers write the way they do from deep inner compulsion, and so there’s nothing they (or you) can do about it. I simply don’t buy this. It does not accord with my experience. It’s true of some composers, and maybe they’re the ones saying it, or perhaps it is a romanticization of the creative artist by their enablers. I’ve seen too much evidence to the contrary. I had a brilliant, ambitious student once who studied scores by composers who won prizes – thinking that if he could write the way they did, maybe he could win prizes too. I’ve known composition teachers who told their students, “Here’s how you write a piece of music,” and the student followed instructions and got in the habit of composing that way – often being well rewarded for doing so because the teacher, pleased with their obedience, afterward helped them get awards and commissions. Even I myself have been known to depart from my usual stylistic inclinations in order to accommodate the sensibilities of the people who gave the commission, who might want something more “classical-sounding” and emotive (or possibly just easier to perform) than my usual fare.
Much music, much good music, is written the way it is because the composer has gotten so excited about hitherto underused ramifications of the musical structures she’s found in other people’s music that she sees a wonderful creative opportunity to take music in a new direction based on those ramifications. That’s probably the core paradigm (or at least, it’s the more professionally realistic version of the composer “having something deep within her soul to express”). But a composer’s idiom is influenced by a hundred forces, some unconscious, some carefully calculated, some financial, some vain, some noble, some inspired, some in habitual response to academic training. And the superficial impulses are no more guaranteed to produce bad music than the noble ones are to produce good music. The audience’s reflexive skepticism toward new music is, in itself, no more unjust than the skepticism with which you are approaching this article right now – waiting for me to show my hand, waiting to catch me in some fallacy.
It seems to me that I haven’t said a controversial or non-commonsensical thing here yet, though I will. To create a healthy musical culture, we need a shared reality. The Nonkens need to admit to the Byrnes that upon occasion a composer has wasted the audience’s time with a pompous, confused piece written in ambitious but misguided imitation of earlier works; the Byrnes need to admit to the Nonkens that music may be capable of wonderful large-scale effects that one needs experience and a well-conditioned ear to hear. Where audiences and where composers will tend to draw the line will always differ, and that’s good: it gives us a big gray area to argue about, and art is always furthered by being argued about. But nothing is to be gained by claiming that the composers have never, ever been at fault, nor by denying that audience members could gain something from extending their listening capacities.
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So far so good, I hope.
I read the first three chapters of Finnegans Wake once. I laughed, I cried, it was marvelous. For years I thought at some point I’d go back and finish the book, but with each passing year it looks a little more doubtful. It’s an incredible, heady pleasure, like nothing else in the world, but fully absorbing that pleasure takes considerable time and energy. Maybe when I’m retired.
What if there were dozens of books like Finnegans Wake? I hear that there are. I haven’t read any William Gaddis, I never finished a Thomas Pynchon novel, and I bought Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil because of its connection with the composer Jean Barraqué, but didn’t get very far into it. And I’m a voracious reader, always have a couple of books going at least. I’m sure all those books are very good. If I were a literature professor or reviewer of books, I would have dutifully taken the time to get through all that stuff. But I’m just a pleasure reader, except for when I’m reading things for my own scholarship.
As a music aficionado and writer, I did do all that for many behemoths of 20th-century music. I combed Sinfonia for quotations, analyzed the entire tempo structure of Gruppen, listened repeatedly to Barraqué’s Sonata and looked at the score, went through Carter’s Double Concerto countless times, devoured Boulez’s On Music Today and painstakingly compared its prescriptions to Le Marteau, read Babbitt’s articles and book, and did my homework. I sometimes notice, though, that the big, complex pieces that I’ve really gotten to know well were ones I studied back between 1973 and 1986, when I was in school and just afterward, before I started at the Village Voice, before my son was born, when I had plenty of time on my hands. The crazes for Helmut Lachenmann and Gerard Grisey came along later in my career. I’ve listened to their CDs at times and thought, “Well, if I had time to listen to this over and over, maybe I’d start to get more out of it.” And, a couple years later, I’ve listened again – and put the CDs back with exactly the same thought. That today’s grad students find Lachenmann and Grisey as exciting as I once found Wolpe and Maderna, and consider me something of an old fogey for not hopping on the bandwagon, makes perfect sense. They’ve got the time, and the available memory. New experiences make a deeper and quicker impression on them, as they once did on me.
The qualities of complexity and opacity do not guarantee that a piece is good, as we’ve established above, nor do they guarantee that a piece is bad, as we’ve also established. It takes time, working one’s way slowly into each piece, work by work, to judge how good something is. The question is, of course: how much complex, opaque music can the world afford? How many more complex, opaque pieces can I be expected to internalize in my life than the couple hundred or so I’ve already absorbed? New CDs arrive in the mail every week. According to the paradigm by which musicians usually talk about music, when a CD contains simple music, I probably listen to it once, say “That’s nice,” and then put it on the shelf; and when the CD is of complex music, I listen to it over and over, getting more from each new exposure. But what actually happens is closer to the opposite: when the music is relatively simple, it has a visceral impact on me, and soon I want to hear it again, and it starts becoming part of my mental audio furniture, and I start writing about it and recommending it to people. And when the music is complex, I’m more likely to say, “Well, if I had time to listen to this over and over, maybe I’d start to get more out of it.” Some of those CDs never get listened to again. For others, the second and third listenings are much like the first.
The defenders of musical complexity already have their angry fingers on the “comments” button, but wait – musical complexity needs no defense from me. I love Pli selon pli, remember? I bet I know more of Maderna’s music than you do. That, at this point in my life, composers who can get their main musical ideas across in a listening or two get more of my attention than those who demand 12 or more listenings plus some reading and analysis is not a sign that I am superficial of soul. It is a sign that I am no longer a grad student, and that I am swamped with responsibilities. (I remember, when I studied with him in 1975, Morton Feldman being particularly caustic on this point. He’d criticize a student’s piece as unclear, and the student would protest, “But you have to listen to the piece more than once,” and Feldman would sneer, “Kid’s 21, and he thinks I’m going to listen to his fuckin’ piece twice.”) (Maybe he didn’t say fuckin’, but it was clearly implied.) You can say, because it is one’s duty to say so, that the pleasures that come from complex music run much deeper than those that come from simple music, and that the time spent getting familiar with a difficult masterpiece will pay off much more than the ten easier pieces I might have studied in the same span. But this hasn’t uniformly been my experience. In my imagination, I think of Nono’s Stille, an Diotima and Bill Duckworth’s relatively simple Time Curve Preludes as being about equally great pieces; but the truth is, I haven’t listened to the Nono in ten years, and I feel a need for the Preludes at least a couple of times a year.
Another popular escape hatch: “You don’t need to understand complex music to enjoy it, just sit back and experience it.” Yet something tells me that if I simply listened to Ferneyhough’s [Ha! I mentioned him] Transcendental Etudes as passively as I do to Cage’s Winter Music, I would miss many of the crucial things Ferneyhough put into it. (I actually heard Ferneyhough lecture about that piece at the U. of Chicago, so I know something of how it works. I like it OK. Don’t listen to it often.) I think, too, that had I taken that Cagean approach years ago to Boulez and Stockhausen (or hell, Cage, for that matter), I wouldn’t today enjoy their music on as many levels as I do. I’m not opposed to the idea that a repertoire might necessitate score analysis and book reading to fully appreciate it. I just don’t know how many more composers I’m going to have time to do that with in my life, nor how many the avid lay music lover ought to be expected to study similarly. Nor do I, as a result, find composers I’ve done that with – like Boulez and Stockhausen – deeper or more appealing than composers like Virgil Thomson or William Schuman who never necessitated any such study.
Allow me a brief detour. There is an ancient tradition in aesthetics, and a wise one, I think, that simplicity in art is a virtue. I insist that one of the things we proved in the 20th century is that it is not a necessary virtue, that it may not be the best virtue – but it remains a virtue. Some will recognize the following quotations from my writing:
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…. 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…. – Friedrich von Schiller, “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry”)
Simplicity is the most difficult thing to achieve in this world: it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius. – George Sand
In products of the human mind, simplicity marks the end of a process of refining, while complexity marks a primitive stage. Michelangelo’s definition of art as the purgation of superfluities suggests that the creative effort consists largely in the elimination of that which complicates and confuses a pattern. – Eric Hoffer
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. – Leonardo Da Vinci
And allow me to add one more quote which will haunt you forever, my fellow Americans, a quotation that has appeared in countless books, and that will live as long as American music itself lives:
I began to feel an increasing dissatisfaction with the relations of the music-loving public and the living composer…. It seemed to me that composers were in danger of working in a vacuum… I felt it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.
Aaron Copland, of course, about the time he wrote El Salon Mexico. “I felt it was worth the effort,” he says. Modernists draw a narrative around Copland that his thorny Variations for piano was a great, forward-looking work, while Billy the Kid was a terrible backsliding into mindless populism. But as Copland expert Larry Starr has aptly and truly written, “not only is this ballet score as sterling an illustration of Copland’s basic methods as either the Piano Variations or Music for the Theatre; it also reveals these methods at a stage of greater maturity and refinement.” Starr’s right: study the scores, and you’ll see that Billy the Kid is a more sophisticated score, gunfight and all, than the Variations. Copland did not weaken his music in simplifying it – he sharpened it.
You’ll think, reader, that I’ve now shown my hand, and my discountable bias, at last, but not so fast. You may recall that Ives’s Concord Sonata – a rather complex piece and not easy of approach by the novice – remains my favorite work, and I wouldn’t for all the gold in the world subtract a note from it. Even now in late middle age I occasionally come across a complex, impenetrable piece that blows me away, such as the symphonies of Matthijs Vermeulen, and even more notably the Fourth Piano Sonata of Kaikhosru Sorabji, whose gorgeous and complexly multilayered Adagio came to obsess me before I’d ever read a word about the piece. I listen to it often, trying to capture its tricks, because if I ever untangle them, I have every intention of stealing them. Here’s another quote, from Samuel Johnson: “The first duty of a book is to make us want to read it through” – which can easily be transposed to, “The first duty of a piece of music is to make us want to hear it through.” Complex as Sorabji’s Fourth Sonata is, it made me determined to hear it through. Simplicity is a virtue, but it is not a necessary virtue, and if a piece has compensatory virtues that are dazzling enough, it can get by without simplicity.
Here’s that escape hatch: Anyone who’s an obsessed fan of a particular complex, opaque piece can always claim that what that piece expresses couldn’t possibly be expressed any more simply, and it’s a claim pretty much impervious to opposing rhetoric. Thank god for the ambiguity and subjectivity of art, and there will be no Q.E.D. at the end of this article. What he cannot claim, though, I think, is that music generally improves with complexity and opacity, nor that simplifying can’t sometimes sharpen a composer’s art. At the very least, complexity and opacity tend to withdraw a piece of music from the public sphere, while simplifying increases its public availablility. Ives’s most public image, after all, is one of his simplest and (yet) most powerful pieces, The Unanswered Question.<
Simplicity, Copland reminds us, requires effort. It is, for me, a sign of courtesy in a composer, of his urgency in wanting to reach me, that he is willing to work to sharpen his musical argument by simplifying it as far as he can without falsifying it. And before someone assumes that I am carrying arround some boneheaded, dumbass notion of simplicity, I do not mean reduction to quarter-notes and eighth-notes, but rather the streamlining and agreement of all elements of a piece to create a unified, singular impression. I hear now and then that some stranger thinks my Private Dances is my best piece; it is certainly my simplest piece, though there are some pretty hairy rhythms in it (including a dance in 29/4 meter). Like Copland, I sometimes take great pains to simplify what I try to say in my music for maximum public effect, and those pieces seem to get across well; other times, I want to do something that just won’t reduce to simpler terms, and only my fellow composers realize what I’ve done. I’ve always thought Beethoven got the proportions right: he wrote an Eroica Symphony and a Ninth Symphony that showed the masses exactly what he was about, then a Grosse Fuge and an Op. 111 Sonata that made most of his contemporaries think he was mad. Had all of Beethoven’s music been as dense and counterintuitive as his last sonatas and string quartets, we would still consider him a genius today, but he would have come down to us as a much smaller, more eccentric figure.
What does this portend for the would-be composer of complex, opaque music? Of course he is free to write what he wants, keeping aware that as the amount of complex, opaque music in the world grows, the time available for the dramatic needs of his own contribution shrink in proportion. He is content, of course – naturally! – to settle for a very small, very serious audience. Perhaps he is ambitious enough to think he can knock Gruppen off its pedestal, so that next year he’ll be in the curriculum instead of Stockhausen. If such a composer wants his music to reach an avid but beleaguered music lover in middle age such as myself, the want of the virtue of simplicity will need to be made up for by some pretty dazzling compensatory virtues. Failing that, he will always have for his audience the grad students – who have time and incentive to decipher his intricacies, and who may well continue to love his music into their dotage for the intellectual challenges it provided them in youth.