Saturday, 14 January 2012


After the peak of the post-Webern avant-garde (Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Babbitt et al), there were various reactions. Beginning in the 1970s and flourishing in the 1980s, one was labelled 'New Complexity' and another 'New Simplicity'. Both labels pretty much tell you what the composers involved were aiming at!

The New Complexity folk - figures including Michael Finnissy, James Dillon and Brian Ferneyhough - sought to take the 'progressive' serial mission of Boulez & Co. much further. The New Simplicity folk - including Walter Zimmermann, Christopher Fox and Kevin Volans - sought to rebel against that serial mission. The New Complexity crowd favoured elaborate, microscopically-planned scores that would challenge both players and audiences. The New Simplicity crowd wanted to create an impulsive music that would speak directly to audiences. New Complexity scores were aimed primarily at sympathetic new music audiences  while New Simplicity scores hoped to appeal to a general audience. New Complexity was to make the most 'advanced' playing techniques and virtuosity a hallmark of its style. New Simplicity was much less interested in such things. The New Complexity composers wanted to make as few concessions to the dreaded 19th century tradition as humanly possible, whereas the New Simplicity composers often courted its forms and the tonal language. New Complexity was to be full of tension, dissonance, effects of fragmentation and avoid old-fashioned tunes at all costs. New Simplicity was to allow consonance, coherence and even some old-fashioned tunes. Whereas the New Complexity movement embraced the aim of objectivity found in the old avant-garde the New Simplicity movement sought to restore subjectivity to music. Most obviously, the world of New Complexity music exulted in textural complexity while the textures of New Simplicity music are much simpler. New Complexity scores are a thicket of notes covered in dynamic markings while New Simplicity scores are far sparser and far less fussed about markings. New Complexity works are ultra-sophisticated and intellectual while New Simplicity pieces aim for an impression of spontaneity and naivety.

Now this overview has entailed a lot of simplification and generalisation - so much so that it could be described as Extreme Simplicity music writing! - but hopefully contains enough grains of truth to help make sense of why the two pieces of music I'm about to link to - as examples from each encampment - are so very different.

I swooped on the Ferneyhough piece because (a) it's a useful example, (b) it's short and therefore easier to grasp and (c) it's actually one his most approachable pieces. I chose the Volans because it's his most popular work and shows the distinction between his and Ferneyhough's music clearly and because I like it! (I suppose to have really shown the contrast it might have been better to have chose a longer, more fiendishly complex piece from Ferneyhough!)

There's a score on the video for Adagissimo that shows that the string quartet is divided into two parts, with the two violins playing one kind of music and the viola and cello playing another. (The image above shows a page from the score). The violins play fast music and, even if you don't read music, you'll be able to see just how complicated their parts are, especially compared to the comparatively spare parts for viola and cello. Those violin parts are New Complexity instrumental writing - and its notation - in another nutshell! Though the viola and cello parts with their many sustained notes and far slower movement aren't really what you expect from Ferneyhough and help give the piece its uncharacteristically easier-on-the-ear feel, they do underline the serialist roots of Ferneyhough's writing. 

There's no score on the White Man Sleeping video, but then you don't really need it. (Still, there's an image of a page from the first violin part above). The piece is Kevin Volans's first string quartet and is in five movements. The energetic first movement has a folk-like character, with an unusual and engaging 13/4 time metre. The materials are, however, simple and the music's closeness to minimalism is clear to hear. Repetition is an important element. (Ferneyhough tries to avoid repetition like the plague.) In the piece the composer attempted to fuse the folk music of his native South Africa with Western music traditions, like a contemporary Bartok (in that sense at least)! The second movement, called 'Panpipes', is also mostly fast and rhythmic. No constant changing of dynamics, you will note - so unlike the Ferneyhough. Also unlike Ferneyhough are the catchy melodies that appear in the middle of the movement. There is also a lovely passage though where sustained notes overlap and where time seems to stop for a short while. The central movement uses some extended playing techniques, but the old kind of extended playing techniques (harmonics, pizzicato, col legno) to delightfully fresh effect. The fourth movement is a magical ethereal lullaby, quietly, quietly singing to us in long, overlapping notes before turning into a lilting, lulling dance. The uniformity of technique in this movement would not appeal to Ferneyhough, not its soothing immediacy. The Finale sounds a little like a hundred drums heard from afar and is full of gently seething energy. 

We live in what people call a post-modern age where 'pluralism' reigns supreme. We can have Ferneyhough and Volans, Tavener and Carter, Birtwistle and Rutter, John Williams and Helmut Lachenmann. The once powerful enforcers are now ignored when they speak of music having to do such and such. Some disapprove of this, others rejoice. I rejoice. 

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