Complex Music

A few weeks ago I was sitting next to a friend for a performance of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Capriccio Espagnol. I love that piece. It is a successful piece on many levels and I find a lot of subtlety and nuance in the work. It is a public piece, not the same as, say, Elliott Carter’s music, but that doesn’t make it a less valuable work to me.

My friend clearly felt differently. He was visibly agitated, writhing around in his chair and muttering under his breath something about “this lousy music. . . ” I was a little annoyed at this, but willing to forgive him as he’s one of the most brilliant people I know. I know his tastes and I suspected that the public nature of the piece bothered him. Still, I couldn’t help but be taken back to my negative experience at June in Buffalo 12 years ago, in 1998.

June in Buffalo is a summer music festival that always features at least five “well-known” composers. Each of them gives a two-hour presentation throughout the five days, talking about their music. They all played some recordings, but only two of them really talked about their work. The other three spent the rest of their time complaining about Steve Reich and Philip Glass and what a horrible state classical music was in. It is etched in my mind for all time the moment one of them said that ” . . . Steve Reich and Philip Glass are ruining classical music the way Aaron Copland ruined it a generation before.” There were clearly issues of professional jealousy involved, but mostly the composers seemed bothered by the apparent lack of musical complexity in the music of Glass and Reich and others.

The problem with “musical complexity” is that it usually means various sorts of games and hidden architecture buried in the construction of a piece of music, a Glass Bead Game, if you will, played with notes and rhythms and notational devices. This approach to composing is certainly alluring for bookish intellectuals, and especially for graduate students with a lot of time on their hands, but it rarely reaches a broader audience.

And for good reason. I will shout this from the rooftops until the day I die: the most important elements of any musical composition are STORY and/or FUNCTION and/or RITUAL. Is there a story? If it doesn’t tell a story does it serve a function (e.g. dance music)? Or does it create a ritual experience? Sometimes it can be both a story and a game, as in the music of J.S. Bach, but that’s a happy coincidence of grammar and intent and genius that only happens every few hundred years. But the nature of storytelling is so hardwired into the human psyche that without it people literally can not comprehend what they’re hearing. Ritual is just as important. Rituals define us by marking off the major points in our life, moving us through liminal states to places of stability. This is why early minimalism, though so bare and uncompromising (and actually intensely modernist), gained such a big audience. Those concerts were ritual experiences, putting listeners on a journey through their psyche into new realms of being. And in that sense, the music was quite complex.

The notion of complexity goes far beyond the notes and rhythms. Music is a social activity, and one in which the production of the sounds is as important as the notes on the page. When one considers the interplay of all of those dynamics, a work like Capriccio Espagnol becomes quite complex indeed.

As my friend Caleb Burhans once so perfectly put it: “There’s a big difference between a piece of music theory, and a piece of music.” (Those two areas aren’t mutually exclusive, but that’s yet another conversation.) I’ve seen some composers labor and sweat over their composing for years and hardly write anything at all because they’re working so hard to build an elaborate piece of musical architecture, hoping it will cement their fame in the annals of music history. I imagine them sitting at their desks with a huge poster of Beethoven looming in the background. Sweat pouring down their faces, pencil in a death grip. “Must write masterpiece . . . must write masterpiece . . .” That must be a frustrating way to write music.

For the life of a composer the process is everything. You wake up, you write. If there’s a commission, you fulfill it. If not, then you design your own projects. Some pieces turn out amazing, some don’t, but you just keep writing. Sometimes you get paid, sometimes you don’t. And there are other ways to be creative, too. Maybe you curate events or teach students or play concerts, but one way or another you are actively involved in a life of creating music, not passively playing games with notes and rhythms and notation devices, hoping someone will write an article about you for a music theory journal.

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