Thursday, September 01, 2011

Across the river, they also sing by the campfire light

Tim Rutherford-Johnson reviews two concerts — by complexity specialists ELISION and by the experimentalists at Music We'd Like To Hear — and observes:

On paper, they were two very contrasting concerts from opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum. In actual fact, not so much, both marked by seriousness of intent, skill in execution, and musical intelligence from performers, programmers and composers alike. I’m calling time on new complexity, new simplicity, new complicity; it’s old-fashioned doing it right.

I believe that this complexity/simplicity opposition was always something of a distraction, and in terms of musical politics, an unfortunate one, with parties on either side not always behaving well.

(From an old post here: Tragic but true: when the smoke had cleared, the new music wars had been won not by towners up or down or coasters east or left, but by a rear guard of trained symphonic band composers from big state universities in the middle of the country. The surviving rebels were exiled, retrained, or forced into dayjobs in data processing and direct telephone sales.)

There are real and productive (or at least potentially productive) commonalities between the complexists and experimentalists, with differences of degree and style, not of technique or ambition. This was made most vivid for me when, during a lecture by Brian Ferneyhough at Darmstadt — to which I had gone ready to be an opponent — I had a sudden déjà vu moment, transported in memory to a lesson I had had with Lou Harrison. Harrison had described how he worked with formal phrase systems, a sequence of measures with shifting metres and numbers of icti, for example, that was permutated systematically, and on each permutation received some kind of transformation — interpolated beats, ornaments, diminutions, etc.. Although Mr. Harrison's model composition was sweetly pentatonic and clear in content, Ferneyhough, with his own favored set of materials and characteristic density of activity was executing precisely the same kind of transformations in terms of rhythm and form.

I don't want to diminish the differences here. These can be very great, particularly with regard to expressive intent and what might be called a virtuosity of surface, and I will not hide my own preference for a kind of clarity (or even honesty) and pragmatism in notational practice as well as acoustical and psychoacoustical qualities. But these differences ought to be the beginnings of discussions rather than ends and our musical lives are definitely more lively for the variety.

There has always been music which has flourished in the stylistic and technical space between these extremes, even if their work hangs between some hardened conventional programming categories like a tightrope between tall buildings perilously swinging in a strong wind. I am thinking now of Clarence Barlow, Christopher Fox and Gordon Mumma as technically distinguished and provocative yet always musical composers whose work might be so characterized.

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