“Complexity”, one last time

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Paul Celan: “La po├ęsie ne s’impose pas, elle s’expose”.

The imposition is that of explicitness, of explanation. So much contemporary art still suffers from the “explanation disease”, art as (failed) explanation, in which works are smothered in “instructions”, both within themselves and without, in what often seems like a desperate attempt to lead their audience by the nose through an obstacle-course of the artists’s (or some bureaucrat’s) devising. Is this all we can do, to “programme” the emotional / intellectual response of (in this case) listeners as if they were so many automata? Surely if we have any respect for the dignity of the listener, this is the last thing we should be aiming at (consciously or otherwise).

So in Celan’s words what remains is the work as exposure, as a “laying bare” from which the listener may construct her own experience instead of passively receiving one at second hand. What is laid bare is one’s (active) response to existence, inward and outward, from the depths of individual isolation through an infinity of depths of focus to the historical processes of society and whatever even “larger” issues one chooses to believe in. The “work” is a proposition (not a pronouncement) arising from this response, the troubled area of “self- (or whatever) expression” at most a byproduct of it.

Obviously if we are to be serious about this response, the question of its innate complexity (surely beyond question) will arise. For example, how far is it possible to simplify one’s actions before the reason for acting is simplified out of existence? How far is it possible to take the virtually continuous processes of musical (and / or any other) thought and parcel them up into “compositions” (or “issues”, such as “complexity”) without falsifying the nature of those processes? Is there any point in “talking down” to one’s audience? How much prior knowledge (of what?) may be assumed / requested / desired? and of whom?

What seems to be the problem with large quantities of music is an inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that a listener is a living, thinking being with the ability to assimilate and interpret experiences for herself. Of course, all music is (or could be seen / heard as) “complex” in that it sets up resonances in the strange area between communicability and incommunicability, offers differing perspectives to the (active) listener according to her own past and present situation (to speak only of these) and so on. (Perception itself is a complex phenomenon; “complexity in music” is not, I think, meaningfully reducible to no more than a high (higher than what?) degree of proliferation / differentiation of constituent elements or of their interrelationships - such a categorisation depends on a pseudo-linguistic analytical approach and ignores the musical / perceptual process.

The question is whether one is committed to composing with that complexity, in the interests of what might be called “realism” (or at least a proposed fusion of theory and practice, to realise the phenomenon of musical forming in all its convolutedness), not only to acknowledge but to engage with the inevitable perspectival multiplicity (to speak only of this), to bring it within the zone of one’s musical activities. (Complexity is not a forbidding exterior but an endlessly attractive interior, a strange attractor).

But “complexity” is all too often used, in certain musical (musicological) circles at least, as a comparative term, as something whose magnitude in a given context may be measured with what passes (none too convincingly) for scientific precision. (And, by extension, commodified and purchased by the pound.) This seems to me no more than a symptom of the kind of fear of perception which takes refuge in contorted quasi-rationalisations when faced with the potential perturbation of a musical experience. Sadly there are not a few composers to whom this stamp-collecting mentality is an equally seductive invitation to reduce musical activity to the sum of its (arbitrarily classified) parts.

If I had been called upon to comment specifically on my own musical practice, the word “complexity” would in all probability not arise, certainly not as an aesthetic determinant. Having in fact been called upon to contribute to a forum on complexity, I find perhaps unsurprisingly that I have little to say in this context regarding my compositional work. As in previous symposia on the “subject” (in Rotterdam and Darmstadt, for example), pronouncements beginning “In my music...” must seem at best out of place, at worst mere narcissism.

Is the point being missed here? Or is there no point?

London 23 September 1991 / 16 August 1992

This essay was solicited for and submitted to a symposium on “complexity” in the American journal Perspectives of New Music, and rejected.