Wednesday, May 09, 2007

More on labels (in which things get complicated)

In a previous post, I discussed a problem with a group of related labels (minimal/minimalism/minimalist) which has come to define, on the one hand, a material quality shared by a broad swathe of compositional activity but, on the other hand, work by a specific grouping of composers. A similar problematic lies with the label "complex" (and its cognates).

The difficulty here is that complexity in itself is not really a useful distinguishing label. All of the music in which I am interested is, in some way, audibly complex, even music which has been produced with means that are modest, clear, even simple. Moreover, most of the music I love is also complex in the way in which it makes connections to other musics (whether from here, there, or then) or to the world around the music. The more interesting question to me as a musician is how a music is heard as more or less complex, and, to a lesser extent, how a particular music is made to be more or less complex. AFAIC, musical complexity is more immediately an issue of perception than of composition.

(As long as we're at it, let's throw out any claims for an inevitable progression in musical history from less to more complex -- it didn't happen as we left antiquity, with its now-lost enharmonic genus and wealth of modal melodic types, it didn't happen in the way from the late 14th through the early 16th centuries, it didn't happen from the late Baroque to classicism -- successive musics focused on different issues, and the location of audible or associative complexity in musical textures moved as well. We need a more complex view of musical complexity.)

My personal preference is for scores in which complexity is achieved by the most elegant of means. Scores, which would appear to harbor the most simple of all possible pieces -- La Monte Young's Composition 1960 #7 (a perfect fifth, b-f#' is "to be held for a long time") , Philip Corner's One Note Once (the title is the score), Cage's Inlets (which features the contingent sounds of water moving inside conch shells) and Alvin Lucier's A Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra (for solo triangle) -- reveal, in realization, extreme complexities of musical sound because the frame of observation is so focused that usually-unattended details become vivid. In contrast, many scores of so-called New Complexity composers require a realization in which the notated details are lost or neglected in the production of a broader gestalt.

(Another term often bandied about is "rigor"; I find its usage to often be ironic, in that notationally complex composers -- waving either the Princeton or Darmstadt banners --, no matter which pre-compositional exercises are in play, are ultimately improvising on paper, while experimentalists rigorously follow the consequences of a process. Reich and Young are profoundly rigorous composers.)

A realization of Corner's One Note Once, requires a series of non-trivial decisions about form and materials in order to establish an optimal projection of the idea at the heart of the piece. Beginning with the existential question of "What is a note?, we move on to practical questions: Which note should I play? When, and in which time frame should I play it? And how should it be articulated so as to emphasize the singularity and non-repetitive character of the note? I'll go out on a limb and suggest that a player realizing a work of Ferneyhough enters into a decision-making process that precisely parallels that of the player realizing One Note Once. In Mnemosyne or Terrain or the Third Quartet, the score cannot be realized precisely as notated due to the density and internally contradictory character of the notation but the player must instead determine and project some version of the essence of the score.

(To his credit, Ferneyhough's strongest piece, Bone Alphabet (for solo percussionist), makes more than a nod towards the experimental tradition in that the instrumentation is not determined (although a studied realization might reveal an ever-narrowing set of possibilities); likewise Cage's two virtuosic sets of Etudes, the Freeman and the Australes, share something with the Ferneyhough performance ethic with the provision that impossible-to-play notes may be omitted in order to maintain a tempo.)

1 comment:

Ben.H said...

There's lots of points to pick up on here, but your remarks about interpreting Ferneyhough reminded me of something I read in a newsgroup years ago, by the clarinettist Carl Rosman. He gives some fascinating insights into playing "complex" music, so the whole thing is worth reading:

"You know the amazing thing about Brian's music? The more you get right, the better it sounds!... The thought that a rhythm you play has to be able to be transcribed to be of musical significance is really not a very productive one..."

This got me thinking about Morton Feldman's late music: precisely notated to give ambiguous results. The most wildly "inaccurate" performances of Feldman that I've heard, have been by musicians who worked with him.