Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Age of Complexity

Kyle Gann has a recent thought-provoking post on complexity in music. After outlining two complementary attitudes commonly found for new music (1. complex new music is incomprehensible, and 2. complex new music has its admirers, who should be permitted to do so), he asks the key question, "how much complex, opaque music can the world afford? How many more complex, opaque pieces can I be expected to internalize in my life than the couple hundred or so I've already absorbed?" He points out that he acquired a taste for a lot of the complex music he admires in his younger days, and no longer feels compelled to listen to a new piece multiple times as he might have done thirty years ago. Rather, he finds great virtue in simplicity, in composers who make their ideas as appealing as possible on first listen, so that listeners want to keep returning to the piece to learn it better. I'm greatly simplifying his points, so interested parties should of course read the whole thing.

I nodded in recognition during most of his points. I too have a greater fondness for the Stockhausen and Boulez pieces that I had on vinyl back in the day, whose scores I own and have studied (although not to the degree of Professor Gann). I want very much to admire the spectralist composers such as Murail, Grisey and Radulescu, but have found them fairly challenging and difficult to approach (not to mention that their scores are hard to locate and very expensive). I listen to a great deal more music now than in most of my adult life, and I still have a fairly large stack of CDs in shrinkwrap sitting on my desk.

Perhaps this article resonates so well because I've been listening to a new Xenakis CD (about which more in a future post). Gann describes the process for digesting a new CD which mirrors my own, which is that music that has an immediate and visceral impact is the music I want to hear again. If I like it enough, I import it into iTunes and it goes in the rotation on my iPod. Most of the CDs that I've written about on this blog are in this category (although there are a couple that were sent to me for review). I truly believe that everybody has their own criteria for a visceral impact. I get it from drones, ambient music, electroacoustics, and a couple of other genres. I don't get it from ultra-complex music like Xenakis' instrumental works (although I love most of his electronic pieces). My new Xenakis CD had a harpsichord piece on it, and my reaction was immediate and visceral — I guess I should have said "positive" as well. The fact is, there is so much new music out there that nobody can hear it all, much less listen to it. There is no reason anybody should subject him or herself to music they find unattractive more than once.


startlingmoniker said...

Sometimes I wonder at our ability as listeners to even absorb (or be cognizant of) some of the most complex works-- especially in dense electronic pieces. At what point in time do we have to shift our view from "trees" to "forest"?

Brian Olewnick said...

Caleb, is the Xenakis recording the one for keyboard works realized by computer? (on Neos). That one does raise a few questions involving the limits of human pattern recognition (my limits, anyway).

Caleb Deupree said...

Hi Brian,

Yes, that's the one. I've got all three piano pieces played by humans, which makes for an interesting comparison. The Neos recital raises all kinds of questions for me, but there's the bonus that it's gotten me to dust off some of my other Xenakis disks.