July 20, 2005


There have been a couple posts (no permalink, see post "Quotes") made recently on complexity. One of the defenses of yer complex high modernism is that life is complicated, so we must make music to match its complications. This is a weak defense because it entangles two unrelated issues: complexity of language and complexity of expression. Consider Milton Babbitt's extremely florid prose. His baroque diction takes some adjusting to when you sit down to read one of his articles, but after you become acclimated to it, it reads fairly smoothly. One of the reasons, I think, is that what he's saying isn't all that complicated. His style sets your mind on the defensive, ready to receive a long stream of thorny thoughts. There's some confusion when you realize that stream's not going to show up, but afterwards you can almost coast through his text. The elaborate constructions provide a kind of cushioning for your eyes. On the other end of the spectrum is Morton Feldman's prose style, where the nonchalant delivery belies the knottiness of his thoughts.

The danger is assuming that these two elements, language and expression, are tied. While the type of language you use does indeed express something, it is not the core of the expression. My perspective is that it provides a context for the expression itself. Having to acclimate to a foreign language puts your mind in a certain state, which can assist in the ultimate expression sought by the composer. I would hesitate to say that all of yer complex high modernism needs to slim down a little, because the overall expression would change significantly.

The rotten side to this is when language replaces expression. It's rotten not because nothing is expressed ("We have nothing to say and we are saying it - that's poetry."), but because it veers away from art into mere intellectual flattery. Listening can too easily become a game of connecting syntactic dots, picking out allusions, and affirming coherency. An overly complex language can, ironically, encourage intellectualizing and simplifying. While these are certainly elements in the modern world, whether they are elements that one wishes to express is a question left to the composer.

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