Complexity Wars: Competition Time!

I’ve fallen out of the loop on this – so it’s time to get facetious.

A baked potato with Kraft cheese and a glass of Coke are available for anyone who can convince me in the comments why simple music is, de facto, preferable to complex music.

The losers will receive a plate of asparagus in bearnaise sauce and a glass of Dom Perignon.

26 thoughts on “Complexity Wars: Competition Time!

  1. One might as well ask for an argument for the proposition that complex music is, de facto, preferable to simple music. It won’t fly either because there is no direct and inevitable relationship between complexity (by whatever measure) and quality, and that a rich musical life affords us both music which favors the most elegant solutions to problems, with possible distractions removed, and music which enjoys the abandonment of quantitative constraints. Moreover there is plenty of music in which a complex/simple dichotomy is positively — if paradoxically — defeated: minimal music, for example, which allows the listener to better perceive a richness of acoustic detail, or music so dense in detail that only the most coarse of contours are exposed.

    During an earlier stage of the uptown/downtown debate (ca 1980), I insisted that the problem was not too many or too few notes, it was the wrong notes. I don’t think that the debate has much usefully moved forward from there.

  2. And this, too: why are Kraft cheese and Coca-Cola held up as prizes for the simple among us? Aren’t they the very emblems of high modern synthesis and complexity? The losers’ plate here definitely has more of the ring of minimalism, with its intense relationship to the natural and respect for the most elegant of cultural achievements — carefullly cultivated, distilled, mixed but not so that the individual ingredients are lost to perception.

  3. I agree with you Daniel – good or bad notes should be the only criterion; however, the issue of simplicity over complexity has become such a rallying cry I thought it worth offering a corrective. Bland commercial homogenisation contributed to my choice of Kraft cheese and Coke – I hadn’t seen the synthetic complexity vs natural minimalism angle (which just shows the folly of trying to make analogies, I guess).

  4. I thought that the Coke worked as a pairing for minimalism b/c they are both cited as example of postmodernism, with their concepts of mass production, globalization, exact copies/repetition. Can any music really be simple? Martin Scherzinger has written about the inherent complexity in Steve Reich’s music and in minimalism in general, for example.

  5. 1) Currently listening to JSB Art of the Fugue = insanely, bafflingly complex. also 250 years old.

    2) I’d like to lose and have the asparagus and Don P, please. Especially if you still have some 1999 laying around. Please?

  6. I’m not going to try to convince you – an impossible task, I am sure, and I am also sure that I don’t buy the concept. The reasoning I’ve heard, and I’ll dig out the liner notes for Paul Moravec’s Tempest Fantasy, if you like, is along the lines of “overly complex music turns the general public off classical music.”

  7. John – I’m always suspicious of arguments that push the complexity of minimalism etc. First of all, the idea of complexity in those works seems to derive from the idea that an array of musical implications might be find lying behind those notes, bringing complexity through the addition of an extra dimension of memory, postmodern association and so on. I would simply ask: if Steve Reich’s notes can be privileged in such a way, why can’t the same be said of Ferneyhough’s? Why are those notes discussed in terms of how they look on the page, but Reich’s in terms of how they sound to the ear? But, more importantly, I think it’s wrong to accept the terms of the argument. Why, if you’re looking to promote minimalism’s cause, talk about in the terms of mid-century modernism – complexity etc. It sounds like you’re looking for a way to legitimise your music in terms defined by modernism rather find your own language.

    (I’ve not read Scherzinger on minimalism, btw, this is more a comment on a general tendency that I’ve observed that he may or may not subscribe to.)

    Sator – I’ll have a look and see what I’ve got at the back of the shed.

  8. Tim : one initial impulse shared by many of the Bay area radical composers was identified by La Monte Young as wanting to “get inside” a sound, revealing the complexity of an apparently simple entity as it changes over time. In order to do this, there were two major consequences: the turn to electronics and the use of musical framing devices — repetition and sustained tones — in both electronic and acoustical environments in order to amplify and remove distractions from the perception of acoustical detail.

    The turn to electronics includes the music Young and Riley made for the choreographer Ann Halprin, work in the San Francisco Tape Music Center (especially, Reich, Riley, Oliveros, Sender, Subotnick) and its successors and satellites (Mills and UCSD under Oliveros, and, for a time, at UCLA under Leedy) and Richard Maxfield in New York, who taught at the New School, succeeding Cage. Electronics increased the possibilities for amplifying, sustaining, and repeating sounds, and the increasingly vivid details found in the development of single sounds had, for several composers, material and procedural consequences, whether in electronic or acoustical media, including both the use, on one extreme, of found sounds and, on the other, a reapproach to the materials of tonal music and the platonic ideals of just intonation, and, formally speaking, the replacement of classical musical development with either strict processes or a maximum ergodic state.

    Although all of the musicians associated with these early activities had or have intense relationships to traditional musics — classical western, jazz, or non-western traditions — with the opening to tonality, the complexities of the inevitable relationship to those traditions were an unintended but increasingly central concern, and were played out more explicitly by the next generation of musicians.

    Of course, the definition of minimalism that I favor here, as the elimination of distractions, applies less and less to this later repertoire, beginning in the mid-seventies, which followed this radical orientation to sound as a phenomena with a more positive (in the dialectical sense) relationship to tonal practice in classical and popular music. (There is, of course, a parallel history in English minimalism, with, however, the turn to tonality perhaps more intimately associated with social concerns thematic to the local radical music tration rather than the acoustical interests of the US West Coasters). That later music certainly does begin to imply, or even directly, ask, questions about mass production and globalization, but the initial impulses seem to me to be highly individualized production and localization. Not coke, but Terry Riley at Sri Moonshine Ranch, milking his own goat.


    Also this: to your questions: “if Steve Reich’s notes can be privileged in such a way, why can’t the same be said of Ferneyhough’s? Why are those notes discussed in terms of how they look on the page, but Reich’s in terms of how they sound to the ear?” I’m perfectly happy to discuss Ferneyhough’s music on these terms, but isn’t it the composer himself who has continuously brought the discussion back to (a) notation, and (b) the physicality of sound production, rather that the sound in and of itself? Moreover, for most “new complexity” composers, their work is finished when the ink dries on a score, but it is almost impossible to think of the music of Young, Riley, Reich, Oliveros, etc. without the composer himself or herself taking part in the realization of the piece, which may not even involve notation on paper.

    This music has many origins, but one of them is that 1950’s set of recording of the complete Webern under Robert Craft, produced in a high modern style that de-emphasized any Viennese expressive elements in favor of a cool and analytic style. But it was through hearing those recording, not analysing the score that Young, Reich, and other started to focus on acoustical aspects — like the repetition of PCs in particular registers — that are reflected again and again in their music.


    And this, too: Would that be green or white asparagus?

  9. I don’t know much about Ferneyhough or his music, so I can’t say what the rationales may be, but Daniel’s comment seems plausible. I was refering to Scherzinger’s article in Current Musicology, “Curious intersections, uncommon magic: Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain” in which he observes:
    At this point it is worth mentioning how a minimalist motif falsifies an aesthetic experience of the musical work; how, whatever else might be said of it, [Steve Reich’s] Drumming simply cannot be construed as a rhythmically static piece. With the gradually expanding and contracting rhythmic configurations, the constantly changing relationships between parts, the irrational rhythms produced when one player speeds up against the fixed tempo of another player, the irregular resultant patterns produced by the interaction of parts when they lock back into a shared pulse, and the constantly shifting sense of downbeat, Drumming counts as one of the most, if not the most vibrant explorations of rhythmic complexity in the history of Western music. (Scherzinger, 2005).

    Obviously minimalism can be considered simple, as many people do so, but Scherzinger takes a different perspective. I would also point out that, in agreement with a number of scholars (Gertz, McClary, Blacking, and Feld), I don’t believe that any music can be said to be essentially simple or complex. All music is complex. The very perception that a particular music is simple requires an intimate understanding of signs and values.

    Within a cultural context, the view of minimalism as simpler than other styles demonstrates what signs are highly valued. The emphasis of structure required is one of the major tenets of new music culture. Simple vs complex (perhaps accessible vs. long lasting?) strikes me as part of a negotiation between broad appeal and unique individualism.

    Does that sound reasonable? BTW, I definitely prefer asparagus to baked potatoes, b/c potatoes make my chest feel weird and heavy. Is that heartburn?

  10. Once music is in the air, on your ears, it’s problematic unto pointless to even talk about complexity, I think. So much of how music sounds to us depends on what we’ve decided about it before we listen.

    Want to be mad at Ferneyhough/Young/the guy with the lawnmower next door? It will sound all the same, one big undifferentiated block of stupid — in terms of information in your brain, as simple as simple can be.
    Desperately want to love him? The detail will astound.

    Complex and simple are often, I think, code for something else.

  11. This is gonna sound like it came directly from a shoddy Darwin look-alike, but here’s my try:

    If we can agree that music is, at least, a socio-evolutionary necessity–that it either has biological benefits or social–it follows that the main reason for music-making, in the first place, probably grew out of a need for group cohesiveness (remember that if we are indeed products of evolution, then we are tribal; we prefer to live in small groups). And this makes some sense. It is more beneficial for a small group to be of like mind and sentiment; it increases the probability of survival.

    That said, our brains, from a neurological vantage point, haven’t changed all that much over the past million years. The majority of functions–or better, the level of function–hasn’t drastically improved. On a primitive level, our auditory capacities are geared toward things other than music. That is, hearing is primarily a spacial location and spectral recognition tool. “Where did that sound come from? Was that a tiger or my wife?” More advanced is communication. “I’m over here, honey.”

    Music is certainly special, because it fits into all three categories. But as we know it, music does have the power to communicate. Take for instance a war chant. It’s a perfect group-think mechanism. Or how about a bugle’s “charge.” It’s simple. Effective. Communicative. Or a mother’s singing to a child. It’s comforting. Soothing. The child learns to recognize its mother’s voice.

    It’s in this sense that I would posit we’re not very different from our ancestors. The auditory information we receive, like a lion’s roar, is treated similarly. “What is it? Where is it? Do I fight or flee?” Because music strengthens human relationships, it would follow that everyone in a tight knit group needs to have the ability to recognize and understand it.

    From a cognitive neuroscience perspective, we have certain innate and easily learned musical abilities–chiefly, pattern recognition. The simpler the pattern, the higher the probability it’s recognized as a pattern. The more complex the pattern, it becomes less recognizable. This is perhaps why most music shares certain preferences for similar scales structures. Also, most music resembles speech to some degree. We also prefer simple rhythms, which are easily divisible. Simplicity, then, is more socio-evolutionarily beneficial, because it is understood by more people. It’s more beneficial to our little minds. That’s why it’s “naturally,” de facto, preferable.

    Aesthetically, ethically, artistically…complexity can be cool, but the probability that it’ll be understood diminishes.

    I’m also a good cherades player.

  12. Since my post showed up here in that baffling trackback kind of way, I may as well add something… Building off of Sator Arepo’s theme on Bach and complexity, I seems to me that the biggest problem in this whole debate (besides prescribing what style young composers should write in – I do think that most of us will do a good enough job of figuring that out for ourselves, thank you, even if it requires the hubris that at least one of us is as good as Stockhausen), and the one nobody seems to want to face (Dan Johnson almost did obliquely, but ended up running off in another direction), is that we’re not talking about “complexity” at all. “Complexity” is a euphemism. We’re talking about triads. The pitch relationships in most of our favorite tonal music is incredibly complex, but somehow we don’t have a problem with that. By contrast, an awful lot of the “komplexity kids,” to use Alex Ross’s term, actually use incredibly simple pitch relationships and formal structures – precisely to counteract the relative difficulty of understanding music without triads or pulse. It’s just that those relationships and structures are not built around triads. Whether you like music without triads is a question of taste (I do), but let’s please not confuse it with some other thing…

  13. I can’t hope to cram all these worms back into the can, but I’ll try…

    Daniel – I know what you mean with respect to Ferneyhough, but in many ways he’s not a typical “complexity composer” these days. (I’m also disinclined to take what the composer says about his or her music as gospel – there’s no reason why we should listen to what they say beyond the notes they write, and taking their own interpretations of what they’ve written invariably leads to trouble.) And I understand the temptation to say that for such composers their work finishes when the ink dries – but that would be to ignore the performers in that group: Michael Finnissy, Roger Redgate, Richard Barrett, Frank Cox; to say nothing of the performers and ensembles who specialise in such music. I know Redgate and Barrett, for example, work closely with individual performers as part of their compositional processes. Ferneyhough (perhaps) didn’t so much simply because there weren’t so many performers around with the chops to play what he wrote.

    John – thanks for the Scherzinger ref. I’ll follow that up. From what you quote, it sounds like a matter of depth: up close, Reich is complex, but at the middle – or background levels it would be pretty hard to argue for complexity in the abstract analytical sense in which S finds it in Reich’s foreground. This isn’t to say that one couldn’t construct an argument for there being a cultural complexity implicit in Reich’s conflation of Western high classical procedure and indigenous African drumming, say, but that would be to take our musical interpretation in a direction quite different from that of the Scherzinger quotation you provide.

    And, as I understand it and listen to it, the complexity of a La Monte Young piece lies in the the even greater close-up on the internal structure of individual notes – blown up to such a scale, in fact, that the idea of middle or background form essential evaporates. And I’m fine with that.

    What seems different to me is a sort of complexity that operates not only on the level of the sound of an individual note or collection of notes, like Reich or Young, but incorporates that complexity – which, after minimalism, we can all take as a given – into structures and forms that are themselves complex. Sure, aspects of Drumming are complex, but to suggest that the work as a whole is of a similar sort of complexity to Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet, say, is plain silly. At most they each privilege different aspects of musical complexity; but what is complex in Reich may found in its way in Ferneyhough, and I don’t think you can say the reverse. But it’s also missing the point, surely, since Bone Alphabet uses complexity and extreme difficulty as part of its expressive language, whereas Drumming plainly does not – its expression comes from elsewhere.

    Empiricus – you may be right on the evolutionary front. Perhaps there is a point at which pattern recognition is no longer possible. I’ve read complexity composers on similar ideas. There is more to life than that which can be simply ‘understood’, even given enough chances to listen and learn a piece. Life is about the irrational as much as it is about the ordered and comprehensible. Complex music – music that deliberately skirts around the edges of what our experience tells us is sensible, music that is highly wasteful in terms of the energies required to notate, reproduce and listen to it, music that our head tells us is impossible – is about constructing such irrational spaces in order to see what happens and to effect musical communication. Yes, it does run contrary to what we rationally think is the right way to do things, but I’m always baffled that people find this such an offensive ambition for art.

    Nissim – I’m sorry, I’m not sure I follow you…

  14. Wow. So much good stuff here.

    Nissim: I think you’re largely right, that we’re talking about atonality and not “complexity” per se. The objection comes when people are asked to learn or at least appreciate another language.

    That said, ever looked at a Ferneyhough score (I assume most of us have). I dare the composer, or anyone, to clap the rhythm of 13:7 under a quintuplet of sixteenth notes. WTF?

    Empiricus: Oh, you and your brain-science arguments! I blame your (lovely) wife.

    Also, LaMonte Young (and other minimalists’) music is as complex as anything, in its own way. Check out “Drift Study”

    it only works on speakers if you walk around the room!

    Fun discussion y’all!


  15. Sator – you’re right, I realized after I posted that I was talking about a previous generation (Boulez, Ligeti, Berio, etc, all those guys who “killed classical music”), and not Ferneyhough, whose music I admit with some shame to not being especially familiar with. But, anyway, at first glance, “13:7 under a quintuplet of sixteenth notes” sounds like a surface feature rather than an underlying structural device – but that’s all speculation.

  16. Rhythms like that are very often the product of underlying structural devices (or at least I know they are in Ferneyhough and Redgate’s music – you can check the writings of the former for confirmation). Finding the line between deep structure and surface feature is of course part of the game.

  17. In response to Sator Arepo said,
    13 August 2008 @ 6:13 pm

    “That said, ever looked at a Ferneyhough score (I assume most of us have). I dare the composer, or anyone, to clap the rhythm of 13:7 under a quintuplet of sixteenth notes. WTF?”

    Sator, I will take your dare. What is the prize if I can perform this rhythm? Tell me the piece, the instrument, the measure number, and so on.

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