Is New Music Too Simple?

Is new music too simple?

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This may seem like a strange question, because we mostly associate New Music with an increased level of complexity and information density, whereas we consider a typical tonal harmonic/melodic progression without advanced playing techniques or special compositional concepts as rather “simple” from the perspective of advanced art music.

One could argue for a long time about whether “simple” or “complex” are also quality features. In an academic context or in competition with an „avant-garde“ self definition, complexity is more likely to impress, even if it doesn’t have to be the decisive quality feature, of course.

In a typical „art music“ composition, are really all levels as complex as the composers think? Or is their effect often much simpler than we  hope?

For this one has to grasp the concept that the „understanding“ of music runs on several levels, of which the sound level is only one. The music is not only perceived as sound, but also how it corresponds to a certain situation and, if necessary, fulfills certain expectations (or not).

Visitors to a club would quickly become uneasy if the music didn’t meet the requirement of being „danceable“. But they are quite used to the fact that the „danceability“ is occasionally interrupted by the DJ for dramaturgical reasons with more ambient-like passages. The visitors of the club „read“ this situation, they understand the simple grammar used from „danceable“ and „not danceable“ and the different musical styles that lead to one state or another, for example a „bass drop“. A good DJane can play with these expectations and communicate with the audience, this is also expected. A DJ without empathy, who doesn’t care about the atmosphere in the hall, will fail in the long run.

All types of music are “read” in a similar way, with previous musical experience and the influence of the cultural environment playing a major role. Contemporary music has long completely underestimated this cultural imprint and has always assumed that „normal listeners“ have a lack of tolerance or education towards „unfamiliar sounds“. But that is a fatal fallacy.

There is nothing universal or overridingly „true“ about the grammatical „reading rules“ of Western culture, as evidenced by the completely different musical concepts of other cultures on this planet (eg the music of Central African pygmies, who have a very different concept of time). But unfortunately these „reading rules“ of the so-called „tonal“ music are very dominant and have spread worldwide – partly due to forced colonization. This imprint cannot be changed overnight. But just as language is changing, the “traditional hearing” of today is no longer what it was 100 years ago. So there is a development in that too.

However, the majority of listeners in our country will have been shaped in one way or another by tonal “reading rules”, so they will intuitively try to decode music they have just heard according to these rules.

Are these reading rules basically “simple”? In fact not. What we today rather awkwardly call „tonal“ music is the result of centuries of development and has gone through the most diverse concepts of aesthetics and polyphony. A typical criterion of this music (the „reading rule“ so to speak) is the relationship between „tension“ and „resolution“ that results from the concepts of „dissonance“ and „consonance“.

It’s actually not that trivial. Namely, the listener shaped by “tonal music” subconsciously understands that certain chords mostly resolve in a certain way (dominant seventh to tonic for example), understands the concept of “neutral” chords that can resolve into anything (diminished chords) , understands the idea of ​​a melodic suspension, understands an astonishingly rich variety of „dissonances“ and „consonances“ (both equally important for the effect of this music), knows several scales and modes at once and also grasps the idea of ​​a „modulation“ as well as more complex ones like independent voice leading or rhythmic anticipation.

I could continue this list endlessly – the rules of this language are actually infinitely complex, just as language is complex. But just as we never learn rules when learning language as children, we also learn the rules of this music intuitively. We understand the language of our culture, even if we never learn music notation or music theory. Just as an illiterate person can still speak their own language, even if they can neither read nor write it.

I repeat: the attributes of „tonal“ music are by no means „more correct“ or „better“ than other musical concepts. But they prevail in the cultural space with which we communicate, whether we like it or not.

If you ask laypeople about the effect of modern music, the terms “too weird” or “too dissonant” usually come up. In reality, however, the right words are missing here. Because most new music is neither “dissonant” nor “weird”. „Dissonant“ can only exist if there is a theoretical concept of „consonance“, but this does not exist, for example, in 12-tone music or the serial music that follows from it. Tones and sounds are ordered, but the resulting hierarchies are completely abstract and consciously avoid concepts of „tension“ and „dissolution“ just as they consciously avoid traditional harmonic concepts. Laypeople are usually surprised when I try to explain to them that I don’t perceive a piece they reject ia as „dissonant“ since „dissonance“ as a concept does not exist in it.

A piece like Boulez’s „Structures“ knows no dissonance – it is a long sequence of musical gestures that are as unique and unrepeatable as possible, in which no hierarchy plays a role except the aesthetic idea that it should sound as „nothing before“ and should not have any associations with „conventional“ music.

As we know, while Boulez’s musical methods are complex, the actual sounding surface of the piece is incredibly simple, even compared to a simple nursery rhyme like „All My Little Ducklings“. There is nothing to decipher, gestures hang in the air and are never resolved, supposed tensions are actually non-tensions, there is deliberately no musical logic that reminds of what the typical listener has learned so far as “rules of language”.

This creates the paradoxical situation that something intellectually very ambitious like Boulez’s piece has to fail at the very simple level of linguistic decoding by, for example, lay people. It is actually the case that the sounding surface of „Structures“ is not too complex, but too banal for listeners who are not specially trained.

It is absolutely smooth, offering no clue at all, like a perfectly blank book page that one tries in vain to read as braille. In other words: the music is “too monotonous” to listen to, it gets boring quickly. It’s like someone babbling endlessly in a fantasy language that’s only of limited interest in the long run. This misunderstanding needs to be understood by the composers, and if possible without ignoring the listeners, who can do nothing but fail.

For a listener who has been socialized with new music, this music of Boulez has a completely different effect. He/she doesn’t even try to decode this music with the traditional rules, but understands it as a statement of a new, unprecedented musical concept. Whether this also manifests itself in a really „exciting“ listening experience may remain an open question, but from the expanded knowledge of the background of the composition, an appreciation of the same arises, and that is crucial.

Many other pieces are constructed just like this piece – they are the result of compositional concepts that lie behind the sounding surface. Without knowledge of these concepts, the surface remains undecipherable. As experienced connoisseurs of new music, however, we have learned to guess the concepts behind them on the basis of sounding surfaces, but that is actually a very advanced ability of appreciation.

Unfortunately, we always underestimate that this appreciation is the result of long academic studies. It all seems familiar to us, but it is insider knowledge that is not learned by itself – like a mother tongue – but that you have to acquire proactively and against a lot of resistance.

It’s true: if what we call „contemporary“ music were the only thing heard in our culture, an intuitive „understanding“ of it would emerge naturally. This is always the case with children who are confronted with new music for the first time in an open and unprejudiced situation. They find a way to decipher it on their own terms if nobody tells them that it is „ugly“ music.

But such a vision always remains utopian – and if it were enforced by force, New Music would no longer be free art, but indoctrination.

So I’m afraid that we have to compose again with more complexity on the plane on which most listeners try to read our music. We need to better understand their intuitively learned rules of language, because then we can circumvent them at any time and engage with them in new ways. This must not and should not result in „conventional“ music at all. It does also not mean that we have to go back to 19th century ideals of music or scrounge lame harmonic concepts like most of „neo-classical“ music.

Just as there is a trivial use of language, there is also a particularly creative and artful use of language. This is also possible in music, but only if we better understand the intuitively learned “rules of reading” of the majority of our listeners. You can only really renew what you understand.

Ignoring this is: too simplistic.

Moritz Eggert

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