Complexity in the music or the writing?

This year in CNM we saw a work rejected by a distinguished CNM composer over issues of playability and practicality. Naturally the composer was rather disappointed but unrepentant quoting

“If theres one thing Im not going to do its write simple little tunes that anyone can play!”

Fine, but don’t expect anyone to play it accurately within a short time frame and two rehearsals! The musicians are highly skilled and have complex music from Donatoni, Marc Yeats, Thomas Simaku in their repertoire, among others. Their issue with the score wasnt so much about playability, but the work required to play it accurately, to the point they were happy with, in the available timeframe, in a programme with 6 other new works!

The problem with complexity is its intent and how its communicated- music can be extremely difficult to play but easy to read whats intended but there is also a cult of making scores look more difficult to read than they actually need be- and this score fits into the latter. There is stuff written out in a way that could be a lot clearer and a lot more efficient both for the music and the score. So in this case the complexity lies within the musics communication rather than its concept. I asked the composer about this and his reply was “he likes to push the performers in order to get a certain tension”, and argument I’ve heard before normally (perhaps unfairly) aimed at the New School of Complexity. The issue I have with this is written score is not music, its instructions of what to do. Is this not trying to mystify the instructions in the belief that by doing so, something special will be created? I cant, for instance, imagine this approach working with a blueprint of a design to be realised…

There is, of course, the approach that the score is nearly if not impossible and the art is the attempt at creating it, rather than a stable piece. If he intended that he should have made it clear. He did comment to me that this is the first time in about 30 years anyone has said anything, however I am aware that other performers in the past have just winged it, taken the money and ran!

I think that composers need to be aware that those who practice this form of overly-complex scoring are big names, often deeply settled in establishments who have partnered performance depts who can make these complex works specific projects then build rehearsals around it. Im by no means advocating simplicity but practicality- whatever one writes must fit the project’s restrictions, normally time and money.

Also does tension require complexity? And can complexity be in musical content rather than in its instructions?

I have a collection of scores, among them Ligetis Piano etudes. They are fearsomely difficult to do well, but very clear to sightread- almost beguiling, until one actually tries it! Now this to me is legitimate use of complexity; its there for musical reasons rather than setting the performers puzzles.

By way of showing opposites I known lots of tensions created by simple means, Arvo Part, is very good at this, as are others. Im by no means advocating an orthodoxy of simplistic music but a call to realise practical considerations.

Would it be appropriate in Drama to create tension by making the script overly difficult to read?

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About stuartrussellcomposer

Composer/ sound artist. Electronic musician. Modern classical composer
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One Response to Complexity in the music or the writing?

  1. slateone says:

    You get exactly the same problem with a few screenwriters and directors. They think difficulty, complexity equals quality. It doesn’t.

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