Is Simplicity the New Complexity?

Paper presented at the meeting of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in Fort Wayne, Indiana on April 17, 2009.


Inspiration for the following remarks comes from two places. The first was a conference organized in December, 2008 in honor of Jean-Claude Risset's 70th birthday organized by the French musicologist Nicolas Darbon. Darbon is the author of a book on the British composer Brian Ferneyhough who himself is considered by many to be the best known proponent of what was once called "the new complexity." The second source for my observations is the work of another musicologist, the brilliant Richard Taruskin, whom I have known since we were fellow students in Vladimir Ussachevsky's electronic music course in the mid-1960s at Columbia University. Taruskin's most recent work, The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays contains two, prescient pieces: Calling All Pundits: No More Predictions and How Talented Composers Become Useless.

In the former essay Taruskin describes the "cyclic" or "pendulum" theory of musical style in which "periods of great complexity of music [are] often succeeded by periods of simplicity. The fiendishly polyrhythmic courtly chansons of the late fourteenth century were followed by Guillaume Du Fay's limpid hymns in "fauxbourdon" (chordal) style."

Those of us who have followed the stylistic trends in electro-acoustic music have seen a similar cycle. In this case it was American composers who first challenged the accepted view that electro-acoustic music needed to be complex in order to engage a musically educated public. There was an aura of scientific prestige that surrounded composers who believed that complexity justified exclusivity. This, however, existed only within academia. Steve Reich and Terry Riley did not seek nor accept academic approbation as a justification for their electro-acoustic music. On the other hand, both would deny any significant connection to the world of electro-acoustic music. In fact, in the 1960s, Reich predicted that electronic music would disappear into the fabric of musical pluralism. Why is it still here?

Complex phenomena have been a continuing source of fascination for inquiring minds. The development of sophisticated technology for musical purposes has frequently attracted composers of various aesthetic persuasions both because of its utility and its novelty. Some composers saw it as a way to use new sonic resources in traditional musical contexts. I should probably include my own work here. A small number completely rejected any connection with any aspect of music, as it had been known, for example Alvin Lucier. Wannabes, often computer programmers and audio engineers, sought to use technology as an entrée into the realm of musical creativity.

The history of electro-acoustic music has been pluralistic since its beginnings. French, German, Russian, Swedish, Italian and American composers developed their own approaches and influenced each other from the first days. One need only read the Boulez-Cage correspondence of the 1950s to see how these two radically different musical personalities saw a new age of music that they thought would be created through the use of technology. Troglodytes aside, scientific applications have been linked to optimism except, perhaps, in the case of weapons.

If complexity was a legacy of 20th century music, what of simplicity? I believe it was also there from the beginning of the 20th century in a less obvious way. Simplicity exists in compositions as diverse as those of Debussy and Webern. It is an egregious mistake to equate tonality with simplicity. Simplicity has mostly to do with texture and limited musical choices. Simplicity is also defined by cultural norms associated with the rate at which musical events occur in time.

Whereas the early hardware for electro-acoustic music looked intimidating, e.g. the RCA Mark II synthesizer, in fact the design and user instructions were quite simple. Today we are look back at the early work of Hiller, Köenig and Risset and marvel at the courage it took to address simple musical ideas with primitive software tools. Simple hardware, on the other hand, did not equal significant creative results; and to carry the thought forward, neither has complex software. Simplicity or complexity or the spectrum of ideas in between is only a compositional choice.

For many years I was frequently plagued by the question, "when will the Beethoven of electronic music appear?" Aside from the fact that Karlheinz Stockhausen once claimed he was the reincarnation of Beethoven, it is a very stupid question posed only by our enemies. There are what I consider to be many masterpieces of electro-acoustic music and I would like to consider two in connection with the concepts of simplicity and complexity.

Horaccio Vaggione's Octour was composed in the 1980s. A lengthy article about the piece by the composer appeared in the Computer Music Journal at the same time. The analysis described the software Vaggione wrote to generate the piece. It says nothing about how the music sounds. In some ways Octour's arch form is stereotypical of much electro-acoustic music. It begins quietly, develops a simple gesture into a clamorous din and returns to its roots. However, the question of predictability never arises because of the moment-to-moment curiosity it instills in the listener. The work, seemingly complex from its description, is simplicity at its best. Knowing how Octour was made will not enhance the experience nor will it detract from it. Elegant simplicity is also a characteristic of Paul Lansky's electro-acoustic music. Pieces like Idle Chatter absorb the listener without being simple minded.

Paul Koonce's Hothouse has the surface of complexity and for the novice perhaps even confusion. The rapid-fire barrage of recognizable sounds is so complex that at first the listener might conclude he or she is listening to an updated version of John Cage's Variations IV. Koonce's genius is the way he gets from one sound to another. Sometimes this is done with clever acoustic logic and at other times it seems extraordinarily intuitive. The techniques Koonce uses are part and parcel of his musical style. They infer transformation rather than collage.

Popular music is often invoked in discussions of simplicity vs. complexity. In the mid-twentieth century popular music was thought of as entertainment and classical music as art. However, many, then young composers of electro-acoustic music came to the medium through its use by popular groups such as the Beatles, Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, etc. As I discovered teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz this last Fall quarter, undergraduates composing electro-acoustic music no longer understand the art vs. entertainment dichotomy. While I was raised before the era of rock and roll, I often wonder why composers of "pure" electro-acoustic music seem to reject its appeal as much as they do the harmonic language of early 20th century classical music?

One convincing answer to this question is that electro-acoustic music explores new territory. Often it does. But how many times do we need to hear a solo instrumentalist explore "extended" techniques to the accompaniment of the same timbres processed through novel software?

In the days when concertgoers tolerated "new" music, composers of electro-acoustic music hoped that they could hop on that bandwagon. It was the wrong bandwagon. As Taruskin has observed, "the cultural prestige of an art medium can be calculated according to the extent to which there is perceived social advantage in claiming (or feigning) an appreciation of it." To my knowledge electro-acoustic music has rarely garnered respect or admiration from the general public except in the astonishment one notices at the appearance of new scientific and technological accomplishments. However, if Barak Obama announced he frequently enjoyed the music of Scott Wyatt, the popularity of electro-acoustic music would temporarily be astounding.

I often describe electro-acoustic music as a minority art form. It has yet to become a niche market. Not too many people in the world know about it but neither do they know Bantu chant. When electro-acoustic music is good, like all good music as Taruskin observed, it keeps "your mind's ear ringing [and] your ear's mind reeling.