If the purpose of American grad school, as I’ve long maintained, is to teach young people to write badly, then the function of intellectuals in American life is to paralyze discourse. Take the common and useful words subjective and objective. I used to give a lecture on how to write about music in which I would distribute the various types of journalism along a continuum from most subjective to most objective. And some young Turk who’d been in grad school would inevitably pipe up with, “There’s no such thing as objectivity, ultimately everything is subjective.” Well, OK, that’s true, Decartes Junior, physical reality is not utterly knowable or expressible in words, and ultimately the Encyclopedia Britannica is simply an outpouring of the human imagination, and we might as well all get into lotus position and become One with the Universe. But in everyday life, in which people do things for money and get paid and buy food, there are Grove Dictionary entries to write in which one does one’s best to avoid foregrounding his opinions, and record reviews ending in thumbs up or thumbs down, and objective and subjective are fine words for describing that quotidian difference. At least, if I were to ask an editor how objective she wanted me to be in an article, and she came back with, “There’s really no such thing as objectivity, you know, ultimately your subjective perceptions will reveal themselves in your word choices and emphases blah-de-blah-de-blah,” I would consider her something less than professional.
It’s much the same with musical uses of complex and simple. (I’m incited to write this byÂ Colin Holter’s responseÂ at New Music Box to myÂ recent complexity articleÂ – not particularly because he says anything I disagree with, but simply because he brings it up and I figured I would have to address this eventually anyway. Such are the obligations of blogging.) We have everyday things we mean when we say a piece of music is simple, or that it’s complex, but ahh, these meanings are never good enough for our musical intellectuals. What rings in my mind is a line from Richard Toop’s 1990 lecture “On Complexity,” published in Perspectives:
People sometimes ask, ingenuously or otherwise, “Why do composers today want to write complex music?” Looking at the broad history of Western music, I would be tempted to reply, equally simplistically yet not inappropriately [what a grad-school-induced useless phrase], “When have the talented ones ever wanted to do anything else?”
You can just see the smirk, can’t you? Well, OK, a Beethoven sonata is a complex thing. Lots and lots o’ nested relationships there, and you can tease them out forever, and people have. But back when I was 16 years old and had a memory, I could play through a Beethoven sonata movement twice from the score, and then play it the third time from memory – because its progression was so clear and logical, so honed down to a single elaborated thought, that my memory could grasp the thing as a whole. By contrast, a shorter Chopin nocturne took twice as much effort. So you can prove to me with Schenker diagrams and motivic derivations that a Beethoven sonata is complex, but boy, when I was 16, I certainly don’t remember experiencing it as complex. If anything, its simplicity was kind of overwhelming. Meanwhile, George Rochberg’s wonderful Sonata-Fantasia, a sprawling 12-tone piece I was also working on – no contrapuntally thicker than much Beethoven – was not something I was ever going to be able to commit to memory. Nor did I ever quite memorize “Thoreau” from the Concord Sonata, a piece I dearly love. Sophistry can make a case that those pieces were no more complex than Beethoven, but they sure seemed more complex to me.
I know, good lord I know from measureless experience, that the moment you describe a piece of music as complex, a raft of the grad-school boys, the Swift Boat Graduates for Obfuscation, rise up and say, “Welllll, nowwwww, ultimately all music is complex, and isn’t a Bach fugue complex, and isn’t the brain processing lots of information as a Debussy tone poem goes by, and so what’s the difference between the Carter Double Concerto and a Satie Gymnopedie, really?” So that cuts off discussion, which is its purpose – to prevent certain obvious issues from being talked about. And so in my blog entry, with great rhetorical deliberateness, I almost never used the word complex in isolation, but fused it into “thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand,” or “complex/opaque.” I was specifically trying to prevent the Swift Boat Graduates from playing Gotcha!, and I was pleased that there wasn’t much of that. (In the interest of refusing to discuss complexity as a monolithic concept, McLaren added aÂ long, revelatory commentÂ about the perceptual constraints on audio complexity that’s well worth reading. He’s a brainy guy, not academic. There’s a difference.)
The denotation I wanted for the word complex in that article was exactly the distinction I experienced at 16 between Beethoven and Rochberg: that some music gets stored in the mind very quickly and in great detail, and other music resists such storing. No value judgment intended – I was just as excited about working on Rochberg at 16, if not more, than I was on Beethoven. Nor – and this seems so bloody obvious that to have to mention it fills one with a certain despair about how pedestrian the level of our musical discourse is – nor is complexity level a monolinear continuum. Satie’s Pieces Froids are far simpler than Beethoven’s Appassionata in form and texture, but they are more complex in being less logical and therefore more difficult to memorize. There are a hundred or more types of musical complexity. I was trying to write about perhaps the most obvious of those types without writing a second article to clarify what I was referring to. Didn’t work.
Of course, the Swift Boat Graduates always have a point: a lot of complex things go on in the brain in response to a Satie Gymnopedie, and ultimately the Encyclopedia Britannica is just a record of billions of subjective impressions upon which doubt could be cast. Those are interesting, important issues to ponder, but they are rather divorced from everyday life, and few of us can afford to leave everyday life for long. Subjective, objective, complex, simple, are all comparative terms whose absolute endpoints lie outside human experience; and if you’re going to swallow up those words into their intellectually derived absolutes, then we still need other words for the everyday meanings those words hold in conversation. What’s wrong with the Swift Boat Graduates is that they sometimes wax fascistic about disallowing naive uses of their pet words, as though once you’ve discovered a more sophisticated concept for the word, what the naive use once referred to disappears. This tendency threatens to bring musical discourse down to a grad-school level. Part of intellectual maturity is knowing when the exalted meaning is appropriate and when the quotidian meaning is just fine.
As a philosophy student I spent years immersed in existentialism and Continental phenomenology, taking courses in Heidegger and Husserl and Merleau-Ponty and ranting about the ding-an-sich and the quasi-for-itself and the at-hand, and terrorizing my friends with this invented terminology everyone had to learn just to talk to me. At the end of grad school I learned about the ordinary language philosophy epitomized by John Wisdom (that’s his name, no kidding). Much like minimalism, it came as a breath of fresh air. One of my former Bucknell colleagues, Richard Fleming, does ordinary language philsophy, and gave a brilliant lecture once on the question, “Can computers think?” His rather Wittgensteinian strategy was to insert the word computer into common phrases using the word think:
Can a computer think again?
Can a computer think better of something?
Can a computer think badly of someone?
Can a computer think it’s right?
And so on, the upshot being that the word think in everday use has a hundred connotations, only a handful of which can be applied to a computer, so, of course, in any reasonable, public sense of the word, a computer can’t think. His argument was more elegant than my cursory reiteration of it, but the point is that I similarly refuse to restrict subjective, objective, complex, simple, to their elevated grad-school uses. It aggravates the Swift Boat Graduates, but if we’re going to connect the music we love with the world we live in, it’s not helpful to get in the habit of justifying ourselves with a special, circumscribed vocabulary. That way dishonesty lies.