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.