Is complex … art?

I read a rather provocative blog entry by Phillip Cooke, composer, last week that was critical of Whitacre’s “success” as a choral composer. He proceeded to analyse – reductively – the harmonic content of Lux aurumque to propose that such ‘simplicity’ did not deserve the public recognition it received. Why do we criticise those artists who achieve such celebrity? Is ‘mass art’ really art? Does envy fuel our criticisms or are there genuine concerns for the artistic integrity of works that are clearly too ‘simple’ for scholars to pull-apart but are readable by a mass-audience?

I saw the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s first opera last night. Though I didn’t stay for the complete performance the first half part had some interesting musical material – it was the chorus writing that was exciting and perhaps displayed Muhly’s real talents. As another reviewer – a review for an American newspaper, the name of the reviewer escapes me now – remarked, much of his music lacked ‘the brutality’ the nature of the story demanded. It was clearly shrouded in post-minimalism, Howells and Britten – an interesting mix for an American born composer, though he clearly has roots in church music. The vocal writing was lyrical, and there were some poignant expressive passages. The visual elements were beauitiful and suited the nature of the internet-based libretto well. The animations were stunning and perhaps the less-complex music coloured these designs with aplomb. I wouldn’t have said anything I heard in the first half was ‘complex’ – certainly not the musical rhetoric of the operas of Birtwistle and others – but there was a clarity of text and a firm post-tonal framework that made this work appealing. Though the music was not able to persuade me, emotionally, it was very much appropriate for the pace of the action – perhaps a little too slow during the part I saw. Does this mean that a lack of complexity in this work makes this opera not ‘art’, or certainly if it indeed becomes ‘successful’ – how we measure that I am unsure – does that mean it transcends – or descends – from the label of ‘art’?

Complex can never really be a suitable aim for art. Certainly not for the sake of it. Or perhaps even discussing complexity is irrelevant. As composers surely we are manipulating/combining sounds to fit the needs of our required expression – if we can communicate that with efficiency then we have succeeded. Such complexity is but a vehicle. Perhaps composers who have a heirachy in their minds where complex music is at the top of such a pile with music that can be analysed – reductively – in ‘simple’ means at the bottom are really ones who are insecure and troubled by a lack of interest in their music. Music should be heard. We write music for others to hear – if they do not ‘hear’ our music then that is our fault. We cannot blame the listener for poor reception, we can only blame the creator. Teaching is a similar role – if a pupil fails to understand a concept it is the teacher who has failed to communicate it and not the fault of the pupil. Once we recognise our accountability we can ensure our reception success through careful creation of works that truly fit the needs of their purpose. This need not mean writing music that is appreciated by ‘all’ – but we should try not fight against the listener and devalue their input in the process by calling them ‘teenagers’. Everyone has a vested interest in music, not only the ‘chosen ones’ who have studied it in tertiary education. Music is for all.

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