The motivation for writing (and playing) fiendishly difficult music is….
Right now I’m practicing a lot of contemporary music (which can happen). And sometimes – when I try to decipher another one of these over-complicated bars with 20 different dynamics on 20 different notes, notated on 5 staves and with lots of the typical quirks of contemporary music notation – my mind wanders….why do I actually bother?
Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing to be said against complicated or difficult music. There is a lot of great music which is hard to play and hard to learn (and sometimes even hard to listen to, until you know how great it actually is). There is nothing wrong with that. Great thoughts don’t always come in easy listening packages. And then there is the theme of virtuosity, where the performer somehow makes the impossible seem possible, like an act of magic.
Virtuosity is a key element in the communication between performer and listener. By introducing an element of risk (the performer can fail!) it creates an atmosphere of tension that can emotionally engage the listener. Like applauding when a circus artist does something that seems impossible the listener feels a strange kind of relief if the musical performer can overcome the limits of his instrument. Virtuosity came to the fore in the romantic period, but it existed before that. There is some music that is so dependent on virtuosity that very little remains when you take the virtuosity out of the music, like some of Liszt (although one might rightfully defend the impression that the „non-virtuoso“ Liszt of his late years is actually the more interesting one).
But is virtuosity always the same?
We all know that there is a difference between „contemporary music“ virtuosity and „classical“ virtuosity. „Classical“ virtuosity often works with quite simple methods – something is played very fast or very loud for example. Or there is a physical element of „showmanship“, like crossing hands in a crazy way or jumping up and down with your hands on the keyboard.
Modern Music has abandoned many of these tropes (they were getting old anyway) and a different kind of virtuosity has evolved. It is a virtuosity of a sometimes darker nature. In certain works the performer is not necessarily meant to succesfully overcome all the challenges if he practices, but instead is supposed to fail and sweat, and this failure to accomplish everything is meant to create a certain kind of extreme expression that seems desireable to some composers. Or the virtuosity is somehow going „inward“, by creating elaborate puzzles of notation and polyphony that only the most assured and hard-working performers can „solve“ in a satisfying manner. The problem with both methods is that it is not always clear for the listener if these varieties of „virtuosity“ are at work – it might sound like some free-jazzy impro in the former case, or simply very generically „complex“ in the latter.
A lot of contemporary music is therefore in a „virtuoso“ style without actually reaping the benefits of its own bravura. A contemporary pianist might for example learn a really tricky piece perfectly, but to the layman it just sounds generic and perhaps even lame. I once practiced a piece in which the lifting of fingers after pressing a chord was extremely elaborate and difficult to learn, but the effect is – as everyone knows – extremely subtle.
So what is the motivation if the (admittedly shallow) motivation of applause of the audience is not the main motif for practicing something like that?
I know that to please the audience is dubious by many of today’s aesthetic standards. But I don’t buy that composers don’t want to please anybody anymore. I think they most certainly want to please themselves somehow, and the idea that a performer has to practice their stuff turns them on.
And endorphines DO play a role: the composer is getting his happiness hormones because he has written something that looks really complicated on paper and which will impress the few experts taking a look at it. The performer is overcoming a really, really difficult riddle and „solves“ it by practising it, in a process which is not much different than solving a Sudoku riddle. He feels „better“ than his peers who fail to overcome the task.
Art doesn’t play a role in both points of view, I fear, it’s a much more basic thing, as basic as craving food or being addicted to cigarettes. Or Sex.
Perhaps there should be a new virtuosity – a true virtuosity of the mind that overcomes everything that constrains, because overtly pleasing the audience or secretly pleasing yourself have both become quite uninteresting.
The virtuosity of true freedom – I would certainly be interested in that.
Excellent article. It made me think of the story an English friend of mine heard from his niece who got it from the neighbour of the housekeeper of Brian Ferneyhough, revealing the work method of the well-known composer of ’new complexity‘: instead of patiently inserting his many notes with Sibelius on an initially blank page, he takes a black sheet of paper and organizes the spaces in the texture with a little typ-ex whitening brush, scans the result and drives it through the Arcadi Modern Music Notation Programme which translates the black surfaces into a more or less performable score.
@Moritz: Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this delicate topic :-)