Isaac Schankler
Fear of Simplicity

Fear of Simplicity

The recent death of British composer John Tavener has got me thinking, again, about simplicity and the way we talk about simple music. There’s a weird combination of admiration, envy, and condescension that often comes into play when composers talk about simplicity. We can admire its bravery, its unabashed unembellished-ness. But maybe we’re unsure how to judge it when there isn’t as much on the surface to analyze. And maybe we want to protest, “But I could just as easily have done that,” even though of course we didn’t. Maybe we resent someone calling “dibs” on that idea before we got around to it.

Maybe simplicity is complicated because the difference between a simple idea that is banal and a simple idea that has depth can be extremely subtle. Maybe we can’t tell, at first, which is which. But then, why should this be any different than complexity? Complexity can contain hidden depths, but it can also obscure a lack of substance at its core.

There’s no way to tell, then, on first listen. We can only trust our prejudices or our instincts, and what’s more, we may not even be able to distinguish prejudices from instincts. And maybe the prejudices have rewired the instincts, so that, while being drawn to the immediately attractive idea, we immediately distrust it, because we have been burned too many times by charlatans.

Maybe the non-composer is more likely to trust the naked idea and its fearless charms, while the composer prefers the idea with clothes, with armor. Complexity as a kind of modesty, as shyness, as parasocial anxiety. Maybe this petty yet fundamental disconnect is the source of countless tragicomic misunderstandings between artist and audience.

Then again, maybe I am overgeneralizing (or over-equivocating). There is room in the world for both simple and complex music and for all kinds of interactions between the two, and mapping this strange, non-linear territory is one of the things that new music has gotten pretty good at. The trick is to view it without judging—or to judge anyway while knowing your judgment is wrong. Creation unfortunately demands a perpetual, genocidal sacrifice of possibilities, so we might as well get it over with.

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6 thoughts on “Fear of Simplicity

  1. Cooper Ottum

    “Complexity can contain hidden depths, but it can also obscure a lack of substance at its core.”

    Perhaps the follow-up question is whether or not simplicity is a product of complexity, a slow whittling-down of an idea until all that’s left is the essential core. The misconception may be that simplicity in music is easier to create than complexity.

  2. Fullycomposed

    Great article! I think it helps to view it as a continuum between simplicity and complexity, with lots of grey in between. The singular vs. the multiple. Both have their place is creativity, and both are capable of being “high” art.

    For those who shun “simple” or singular art, I’d say they are confusing the idea of effort with artistic or creative merit.

  3. Jon

    “Simplicity” and “complexity” in music can be very misleading terms. When we say music is “complex” we are almost invariably referring to its texture or its structure. But such music can be (and often is) extremely simplistic in its emotional affect. On the other hand, much texturally and/or structurally “simple” music contains deep emotional or spiritual complexity and richness. In my opinion, new music tends to be way too preoccupied with this first technical definition of complexity and has far too little concern for the other, to me far more meaningful kind.

  4. Gregory Kyle Klug

    Well said, Isaac. It makes me think of Mozart, perhaps one of the most brilliant musical minds, yet he was chided for being too complex, and adapted his work to the prevailing tastes in his culture (I would love to see what he would have produced in a culture that celebrated the complex in art. ‘Have at it, Mozart!’ Mindblowing). Anyway, I think his best music is so good because it has as much or as little depth as the listener is willing to explore in it. To me, that is the highest ideal of composition, if it an appeal to both a broad, musically “uneducated” audience and a narrow trained audience…in CPE Bach’s terms, to connoisseurs and amateurs. Maybe that’s the ultimate quality in all good art…like Shakespeare. It succeeds because the “vulgar” get their sword fights–appealing directly to the emotions without guile–and the intellectuals get their iambic pentameter.

    1. Scott McKenzie

      Gregory–Perfect comment! The best music works on all levels: the uninitiated might hear tunes they like, and the more thoughtful listener may dissect how material is developed. The “intellectuals” can understand deep, complex compositional techniques and apply historical context to truly understand composer’s intent. All are valid approaches to music enjoyment, but of course the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.


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