Kyle Gann and Alex Ross both noted this past weekend that younger composers (I'm thinking they mean student age composers) may be turning to complexity in their music. I think it's safe to say that neither Mr. Gann nor Mr. Ross is entirely happy about the nascent trend. It is interesting to me to note that their misgivings seem to revolve around the simplicity/complexity axis than around the more tired and in reality moot tonality/pantonality axis of the style wars.

Mr. Gann:

Maybe I had gotten into musical complexity too early. If I hadn’t discovered the Concord [Sonata of Charles Ives] and Variations IV [John Cage] until college, like most music students, maybe incomprehensibility wouldn’t have lost its freshness so easily. But at 19, minimalism suddenly made all that complexity seem old hat. Having used so many dozens of chromatic tone clusters by my freshman year of college, it had already become painfully apparent that there is a ceiling to meaningful dissonance. I had piled up as many minor 9ths as human hands and lips could play. The idea that I could go back to the major scale as a starting point - and still seem avant-garde and special - came as a relief.
Mr. Ross:

Composers who came of age in the sixties and seventies rebelled against their elders by rejecting dissonant modernism in favor of minimalism, neo-romanticism, and other reaffirmations of simplicity. Now the world has turned upside down. The composers of the sixties and seventies generations have become the establishment; they are, to their own distress, figures of authority. Perhaps it's not surprising that some of the youngsters are headed in a different direction. As Kyle suggests, the raucous underside of the pop world — noise punk, hardcore metal, and so on — is pushing them along. And if middle-aged composers of a tonal persuasion tell them they're on the wrong path, they will surely keep on going.
Critics like Mr. Ross and composer/critics like Mr. Gann have written for some time about what they hear as the "dead-end" of highly complex music. I note for the record that both writers have repeatedly praised works that are undeniably pantonal, so that's not the issue. (Mr. Gann's love for the music of, for example, Morton Feldman, gainsays that notion.) Serious listeners naturally (and rightly) have a desire to have a feeling that they are comprehending what is going on in a piece of music, and there are unquestionably a number of pieces where it is damn hard to ever hear everything that is going on. Is it possible, though, that 1) there are pieces where the musical/poetic strategy is such that trying to hear everything that's going on is counterproductive or really just beside the point, and/or 2) that full comprehension may come with multiple hearings?

We live in a musical culture ("pop" and concert-notational) where audiences expect the music to appeal to them immediately and in a personal way that is new in the postmodern era--they want the music to be part of the "soundtrack" of their lives. That is, the music should derive what meaning it has from life and musical experience of the audience, and for this to happen, simplicity or transparency are key.

Another reason, which Mr. Gann cites in his post, for younger composers (and listeners?) being drawn to complexity, is that in such a user-friendly, soundtrackofmylife musical environment, hearing music with a high degree of complexity and, to use a decidedly non-postmodern idea, authorial presence (from living authors even) is a new and bracing experience for many young people, and it is powerfully attractive. Having to delve into complex works with repeated listening and study to find the meaning can be as new and as liberating an experience as simplicity was for many when it was embodied in the minimalism of the sixties.

Here's an optimistic prediction for the near future of our music--composers now beginning to come of age will find a balance between the simplicity of much of today's music and the complexity of Modernism and create a music that is rich in challenge as well as accessibility.


  1. I don't have the music they're commenting on or thinking of at hand, and so it's difficult for me to know what exactly to make of concerns regarding a return to complexity.

    For most people, "Tristan und Isolde" is too complex to take in meaningfully with one or two or ten hearings. As a seasoned opera-goer with a music degree, it took me about 50 hearings, some with score in hand, to feel like I knew "Tristan" well enough to start thinking about it and asking intelligent questions about it. I expect it is an everyday listening experience for both Mr. Ross and Mr. Gann, as it is now for me. I have my own ideas about what makes a good performance and why, and I can judge a performance or recording pretty well on the fly - or I can take time with the score and analyze a single page or phrase to death.

    So, who is the audience for the comments on complexity? Listeners or composers? I'm willing to put the time for repeated listening into any work that seems worth listening to, whether it's Boulez or Feldman or Wagner or one of the younger composers I've never heard. I think it is reasonable for composers to figure out what demands they're willing to make on listeners.

    To use a literary parallel, there are people who read with pleasure writers whose prose is as complex as Joyce's and people who prefer Hemingway. There's room for a whole spectrum here because there is a spectrum of listeners and because there is the possibility of making complex music available on record for repeating hearings.

  2. I'm curious what they think about music of, say, Oliver Knussen or Judith Weir. That music is both rooted in tonality and uncompromisingly complex, and I've heard music by composers of my vintage (I don't know if born in 1976 is young enough to qualify for their "younger composers" designation) that achieves the same. Again, they seem to want to group "complexity" into difficult to listen to, when this certainly isn't and never has been true. The finale of Mozart 41 is about as complex as music had gotten in the Classical period and it's certainly easy to listen to. Janacek's music likewise. Add Jacob Druckman and George Crumb to the living composers cited above. Even Michael Torke's music contains much *subtle* complexity. I think we're teetering again on the brink of a dangerous binary system.

  3. I agree that taking complex/simple axis to the extreme of a binary is not a good idea. However, I think there is some use in exploring it, because that is one of the ways listeners approach new music.

    I think a better continuum to explore is between transparency and opacity. I'm cogitating accordingly.

  4. A further thought on the matter of complexity -

    Complexity means different things to different people, *at different times*. I can only imagine how incomprehensible "Tristan" was in 1865, to audiences that had quite literally never heard anything like it. (I'll mention that my mother quite enjoyed seeing it at the Met a few years ago. She doesn't play an instrument and has no musical education beyond knowing what the notes on a treble staff are. It's safe to assume that her experience of hearing the music was different from mine.)

    I remember reading about the very large number of rehearsals required to get together what was evidently a pretty ragged first performance of "Le sacre du printemps" nearly a hundred years ago - today, lots of college orchestras in the US have players skilled enough to perform it.

    Complexity isn't necessarily the problem.