Thanks, Jerry, for the Front-Page Cheerio.

Kyle Gann has written another one of his excellent assessments of the contemporary music landscape. This time the topic is complexity vs. simplicity.

He covers a lot of ground in 4700 words, but he still leaves a few little peninsulas for the rest of us to explore. Here’s one for me, and I’ll start with a few sweeping generalizations:

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.

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