Complexity Wars

Complexity Wars

Submitted for your perusal: at least 6% of the American population thinks NASA faked the moon landings. (And in Britain it’s one in four.) Also: the Complexity Wars flared up again this summer—that seemingly annual outbreak of the opinion that various types of atonal modernism are just too complicated for proper musical consumption. This time it was Terry Teachout stirring the pot, and while, truth be told, the provocation only generated a couple of ripples this time around, the trope is so deathless that I started thinking about what could be underneath this need to periodically go through the motions. And I’m pretty sure it has something to do with all those people who think NASA faked the moon landings. And it starts with the idea, as Teachout puts it, that

a fair amount of classical music written in the past century is too complicated for ordinary listeners to grasp

—which begs the question: why do we feel the need to “grasp” a piece of music at all?

The Romantics, for instance, regarded musical graspability as a fault. Here’s E.T.A. Hoffmann, in his famous 1810 Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung review of Beethoven’s Fifth:

Music reveals an unknown kingdom to mankind: a world that has nothing in common with the outward, material world that surrounds it, and in which we leave behind all predetermined, conceptual feelings in order to give ourselves up to the inexpressible.

This is, of course, the quintessential musical definition of that most quintessential of Romantic concepts, the sublime. The Romantics tried to put their finger on just what it was that was so awesome about music, only to discover that what was so awesome about music was that you can’t put your finger on it.

As entrenched as the Romantic aesthetic became—genetically expressed in every variation of the idea that music takes up where language leaves off—it hasn’t always sat easy in the era of atonal complexity: for example, Teachout’s jumping-off point, Fred Lerdahl’s 1988 paper “Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems,” a consummate attempt to pin down the Romantics’ fugitive enthusiasm. Lerdahl lays out 17 “psychologically plausible constraints on compositional grammar”, after which “we are in a position to see why serial organizations are inaccessible to mental representation.” Full disclosure: I don’t find a lot of Lerdahl’s constraints as plausible as he does. (“The musical surface must be capable of being parsed into a sequence of discrete events.” Must be? Really?) But that’s because my own personal critical assumptions are, on balance, closer to those of the Romantics. And that’s all aesthetics is: a rather noble form of rationalizing critical assumptions. We use art to try and make sense of the human condition, and we use aesthetics to justify the sense that we make. What Lerdahl is rationalizing, what his 17 constraints are designed around, is his critical opinion that a listener should be able to mentally represent the music’s compositional grammar. What Hoffmann was rationalizing is just the opposite, that music is valuable precisely inasmuch as it is beyond mental representation, holding “the spirit firmly in an unnameable longing.” And there’s your goalposts for the past 200 years’ worth of aesthetic tension: the virtues of comprehensibility vs. the virtues of transcending your comprehension.

Conceivably, that could have been the end of it—like what you like, ignore what you don’t. But, especially since the advent of atonality, the argument has never stopped there. Instead, we get the sort of thing Teachout is doing: trying to prove that complicated art is, in fact impossible to comprehend in any meaningful way. It’s not enough to point out that people don’t like it; one has to demonstrate that people can’t like it—with the implicit or explicit corollary that those of us who do claim to like it are only doing so because we want to be part of an artistic elite, or we have a politico-academic axe to grind, or what have you. (Useful point of comparison: when I was in high school, I got a fair amount of grief for admitting that I enjoyed the pop stylings of Wham!. In the eyes of the masses, this made me an incurable dweeb, and probably gay, but as best I remember, no one projected their differing opinion so strongly that they thought the only possible explanation was that I was merely pretending to like them.) The question is why there’s this modern need to assert the necessity of a comprehensibility the Romantics were only too happy to bypass.

Here’s a thought: the Romantics were living through an era of unprecedented change-the Napoleonic wars, the Industrial Revolution, the 1848 uprisings. To those in the middle of it, the course of an individual life must have seemed more dangerously capricious than ever previously imaginable. (Example: in the two years before he wrote his review, Hoffmann’s Prussian civil service job evaporated in the face of Napoleonic occupation, and he bounced from Warsaw to Posen to Berlin to Bamberg, a refugee of war.) In all those Romantic reveries about giving oneself up to the infinite, surrendering to the inexpressible, there’s an inescapable sense of owning your own surrender, of being in control of one of the most defining conditions of the era: vulnerability.

Nowadays, living in an era of constant change is, paradoxically, kind of old hat—the difference is how we try to master it: where the Romantics applied philosophy, we apply technology, to govern our time, to engineer our health, to manage the flow of information. In the 19th century, technology was part of the upheaval—now it’s part of the solution. Except we never seem to get quite out in front of the solution, do we? Meltdowns, blackouts, oil spills, even (in what has got to be one of history’s greatest accidental allegories) unintended acceleration—recurrent glimpses of that perennial science-fiction trope, a dystopian future where humanity can no longer control the technology it’s created. And suddenly all that stuff about mental representation and comprehensibility and grasping a complex piece of music takes on a very Romantic-like agency: it’s asserting control, over that part of modern life we feel the least control over.

But what about those moon landing conspiracy theories? Like all conspiracy theories, it’s another way of asserting control over something that overwhelms comprehension. It’s a classic modern defense mechanism—if the sales pitch gets too complicated and intricate, we start to get the feeling that we’re being fleeced, and we resist. And this country had never seen a technological sales pitch as complicated and intricate as the Apollo project. For those 6%, people walking on the moon was so mind-boggling that they thought someone was putting one over on them. In 1972, NASA invited Charlie Smith, a 130-year-old ex-slave, to watch Apollo 17 lift off. Smith didn’t buy it. “I don’t believe that stuff about men walking around on the moon,” he said. “I see they goin’ somewhere, but that don’t mean nothin’.” (Smith himself was a hoax: not an ex-slave at all, he was born in 1874, not 1842 as he claimed.)

This is not to say that you’re crazy if you find atonal modernism incomprehensible. (Unless you also believe that the moon landing was a hoax: then you are crazy.) But the persistence of the argument that it ought to be comprehensible is coming from the same place. It’s why that whole twelve-tone music as Nazi espionage code hoax from a while back was so spot-on funny. It’s why the reaction against the new—which, in the Romantic era, most often was couched in terms of compositional incompetence—is now more likely to introduce an emperor’s-new-clothes aspect. It’s why criticism of the complex and the complicated is so often laced with accusations of deliberate obfuscation: if it can’t be completely grasped, it must be a con.

It is a con. But only because all music is a con. Music is constantly conning us into mind-bogglingly vivid emotional reactions even though it’s communicating practically nothing at all, qualifying as a language-game only on terms so rudimentary as to be a caricature. It presents us with timbres and pitches and rhythms that we turn around and project whole worlds onto, worlds so intricate that we can’t even fully map them. It’s all impossible to grasp—and it’s all true, as true as you want or need it to be. The difference between music and the historical, contingent world it exists in is this: if music seems to be trying to sell you a bridge to the moon, then somewhere, there’s a bridge to the moon to be had. You might not want to bother looking for it. That doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t.


Matthew Guerrieri is… well, it’s complicated.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.