Progress?

Soho the Dog on musical progress and late period style. “Quick: name a composer whose “late period” music is less complex and adventurous than their “early period” music. Not many.” Matthew’s broadly onto something here, but I think his argument is a better demonstration for why this is such a tricky issue. Take Górecki’s career, for example. Yes, there is a decent argument to be made about why Górecki’s Third Symphony is actually much more complex than his First, despite the contradictory evidence of your ears. The difference depends upon where you place the horizon of your analysis: one side of the argument is based solely upon the written score (First beats Third for complexity here), the other on the cultural, personal and phenomenological circumstances of the work’s genesis (Third wins the bout). Whether the first is more adventurous, however, is trickier. Does it count as adventurous because it’s a large-scale slab of uncompromising serialism? Is it more adventurous by virtue of being composed in recently-thawing Communist Poland? Or is it, compared to what was going on in Darmstadt, Paris and Cologne at the time, pretty old hat? (You’d have to say, at this stage, that the Third is perhaps the more adventurous piece; it certainly flew more in the face of expectations.) In any case, ‘adventurousness’ and ‘complexity’ are extremely difficult to quantify, and impossible without some acknowledgement of one’s cultural and historical premisses.

It’s an interesting point too that outside of classical music (or outside music that would assert some sort of historical legitimacy for itself, as in most jazz these days, ‘classic’ rock, etc), the notion of historical progress is anathema, and resisted in much reception. It’s not hard, for example, to find examples of artists – who mostly originated from outside the dominant cultural paradigms, even if they didn’t remain outside – whose works are critically reviewed as a descent from greatness into simpler forms and lack of adventure. Off the top of my head, I can think of Dizzee Rascal, Oasis, Ride, the Stone Roses and Aphex Twin who are often regarded in this way. There’s presumably a line to be drawn here between such reception and counter-cultural ideology, but it just goes to show how slippery these things are. Myself, more often than not I find myself drawn to early works over later ones (I like flaws, experiments), but in the end you’ve got to acknoledge that the later ones tend to be richer in some way.

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