Monday, April 27, 2009

Complexity Wars, revisited

Very often, the comments to blog posts are where the really interesting activity happens but, hidden away behind an additional click in the archives, they often turn into lost bloggage.  

I think  this thread on the complexity wars at Tim Rutherford-Johnson's The Rambler is well worth revisiting.   There is a lot of red meat here from every side of the issues, and I think the dialogue between experimentalists and complexists has more common ground and is much more fruitful than that with the quietists who control much of the musical status quo.  Both of our parties are uncomfortable with music, as it is, and are willing to rock the boat so that it, and life around music, might be something different.

I probably should have pushed one of my points in this thread more: not only is Drumming damn hard to play and an authentically complex musical experience for the listener, part of the difficulty and, yeah, complexity of Drumming lies in the fact that the accuracy of the players is verifiable — by player and listener alike — to a degree both unimaginable and irrelevant to, say, Bone Alphabet.   Consequently, this leaves the player in an exposed position with precious little room to fake her way through it.   The one disappointing aspect of the thread is that it ends with the almost inevitable one-upmanship that characterizes a lot of the macho talk which prevails in the complexity scene: "name the time and place, Buster, and I'll play you a 13-against-7"; I personally prefer the attitude, found more often in the radical music community, in which greater performative or perceptual accuity is most immediately and optimistically adressed as a compositional problem, that is to say, making a music that more clearly makes the nature of its material articulate for the listener seems to be about inviting the listener to hear more rather than less and not simply witness virtuosity for its own sake.   


Lisa Hirsch said...

Startled as hell to find myself in that thread, quoting something I don't buy.

Daniel Wolf said...


Don't be too startled. Your sarcasm in quoting Moravec comes through clear enough!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ohhh...I was quoting Terry Teachout, the author of the release notes, er, program notes for the Tempest Fantasy CD. Terry is a smart guy and a delightful human, but he is wrong wrong wrong about this.

Lisa Hirsch said...

P. S. The last time I saw him, Terry asserted that Carter's music would be forgotten shortly after the composer's death. I have been trying ever since to persuade Terry to set the terms of a $100 bet on that point, but he has evidently been too busy with The Letter to think about it.

Have also deeply wanted to take out a bet with Greg Sandow on his ridiculous assertion that classical music will die unless we [ allow Twitter during concerts | change the musician dress code | fill in the blank ]. I certainly think that during the current economic crisis, some musical institutions will die - a few already have - but it's because their endowments plunged with the stock market and donations dried up too, not because the musicians wore tails instead of chinos.

Daniel Wolf said...


it's always shocking to encounter the viewpoint that "x is dying" simply because a particular institution or set of institutions associated with x are at the end of their activity. We have gone through an astonishing phase in musical history in which a number of institutions has lived long lives, but that is far from the norm. Institutions change radically (how about the Henry Wood Concerts?) and do die (the Opera House in Neu-Strelitz, for a recent example, but how about the Kroll Opera in Berlin, Klemperer's house?) and new institutions come in to being with new purposes, ideas, repertoire.

Daniel Wolf said...

Also this:

Teachout is completely wrong when it comes to late Stravinsky: Agon, Movements, the Requiem Canticles, In Memoriam, and The Owl and the Pussy Cat are all masterpieces and works that hold their audiences as well as any other by the composer.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I wonder if Terry would include late Stravinsky in his assertion about complex music driving audiences away. He was certainly thinking about Carter and Boulez; I wonder if meant Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg as well.

Yes, about the idea that X is dying, but if you read Greg Sandow's blog over the few years, while he's talking about the finances of specific institutions, he is also talking about marginalia like concert dress.

I agree with you about the tremendous vitality of musical institutions, new and old. There's been opera at Covent Garden and La Scala for how many years? And 125 at the Met. And there are 50 new music ensembles in NYC, up from 2 (two) in the early 70s.

Tim R-J said...

Thanks for the revive, Daniel. A couple of quick things:

1 - I completely agree that dialogue between experimentalists and complexistists is to be encouraged, and is very fruitful (and the number of composers who straddle that divide suggests that it is a musically productive way to be, too).

2 - verifiability is a central issue, but it is something I see in degrees, rather than absolutely. So you can't normally tell whether that 13:7 collection is correct, but you should be able to distinguish it subtly from the 12:8 group that follows it.

3 - yes, there is something macho (even fetishistic) underlying the way some of this music is written and performed, but there is also a massive amount of cultural resistance to it too, which its advocates feel they have to defend with force. To some extent experimental music had to fight similar battles of its own in the 50s and 60s. I think one has to view the posturing as necessary polemics for the moment, rather than as desired image for the future.