Kyle Gann has written another one of his excellent assessments of the contemporary music landscape. This time the topic is complexity vs. simplicity.
In the early-20th century, with the emancipation of the dissonance, the notion arose that all twelve tones should be equal, as opposed to the monarchist tyranny of the tonic.
In the mid-20th century, the next logical step was taken: all sounds should be treated equally. Any sound that occurred during a performance should be cherished, as opposed to the composer-as-dictator determining exactly which sounds belonged in the piece and which ones didn’t.
In the 1970s, when I was in school, another logical step had taken place, although I don’t believe anyone would have described it this way. People had begun to argue for the equality of all ideas – in other words, no one moment in a piece of music was supposed to attract attention to itself as being more important than any other moment.
“Doesn’t that violin passage stand out a bit?” a teacher would ask, and the sheepish student would dutifully crack the whip and pull the violin back into the pack of busy-ness from which it had momentarily emerged.
The underlying concept, although again I don’t believe it was ever expressed this way, was that the perfect piece should keep everything – notes, sounds, gestures – on a single, equal playing field, not showing favoritism to anything lest it be heard as somehow superior to its surroundings. It was a vague, unarticulated kind of political correctness. Unfortunately, it led to a lot of undistinguished composing, in which any moment could be mistaken for any other moment. I remember hearing professors criticize individual notes for sounding like leading tones; I remember hearing them criticize octave doublings. The underlying message was Don’t Emphasize Anything.
Elliott Carter wanted to create a new kind of concerto, in which the soloist was treated as part of the orchestra, rather than standing apart in a featured role. His efforts were emblematic of the time.
Roger Sessions, when asked about minimalism, quipped, “Well, of course, the absolute minimum is zero,” and in that witticism lay the crux of a generation’s thinking: their gazes were fixed firmly on the absolutes.