Report: The New Complexity

Pavasiya for solo oboe, by Michael Finnissy
Source: oboeclassics.com

Musician and writer Tom Hancox attended a session at the Institute of Contemporary Arts discussing the “New Complexity,” and came away disappointed:  

‘They’ve clipped our claws and we’re on the margins, rather than the Royal Festival Hall,’ complained grand-patriarch of the so-called ‘New Complexity’, Michael Finnissy. He obviously missed the irony. Pierre Boulez, the enfant terrible of post-war modernism has produced and refined his demanding and challenging works without compromise; and this weekend, the RFH was filled with the man, his music, and plenty of punters.

Although the origin of the term ‘New Complexity’ is uncertain, it was first popularised in the 1980s by Australian musicologist, Richard Toop. It refers to works that seek to individuate and control every element within a broader musical gesture. The resulting scores drip with ink: dense webs of ‘nested rhythms’ and the furthest reaching of ‘extended’ instrumental techniques.

Unfortunately, they’re not too happy with the term. Such definitions are a little too superficial, according to Finnissy: their music is not complex because of the surface – as terrifying as that may be – but in its conceit. But then so too is Bach. Instead, Finnissy describes his music as an ‘elaborate evocation of improvisation’. If this is the case, the ‘New Complexity’ rests upon a paradox: in seeking to conjure up the magic of the ultimate of creative freedoms, it is actually necessary to assert control over the minutiae of the score.

Yet surely what is attractive in improvisation is its poetic quality – the feeling of chancing upon the intimate moment of musical creation – rather than its content. The panellists were quick to point out that their notes weren’t all-important. Just as well. But then, if the score becomes the basis for some form of free improvisation, it begs the question as to why such (suggested) control is exerted upon the music, for it provokes similarly angular musical outcomes.

One of the examples performed was Aaron Cassidy’s the green is or, for solo oboe, performed by the indefatigable Christopher Redgate. It seeks to deconstruct not only the molecules of the musical phrase, but the instrumentalist’s technique too. As such, the score is set on two staves, one for the fingerings, and the other for instructions for the embouchure. Unsurprisingly uncoordinated sounds result, as the player fingers one note and blows another. And the work is thick with modernist dust, tired through its no longer original intellectual position.

More profitable was the discussion concerning the compositional process. All too often the act of composition is understood as a simple transcription: a symphony in the mind, falling onto the page. It is better seen as a trilateral synthesis of hand, eye, and ear, with one always informing the other. This then is akin to a more improvisational creation of the work, free of the autocratic primacy of the ‘inner ear’, leaving a colourful impression on the page.

And so, whilst Finnissy should be commended for his original position and artistic integrity, he’s essentially in a small, artistic cul-de-sac – a depleted mine, exhausted by a confusing aesthetic (as the talk demonstrated) and unrewarding listening.

Events at the ICA

Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. Interesting take on the 'genre' – I strongly disagree with your assessment of it though. That the outcome of this kind of music is often very similar to some free improvisation is probably what endears it to the people who are prepared to put in the effort required to get one's ears around either; the fact that I have repeatedly bumped into the same people that frequent improv gigs in London at concerts of Birtwistle and Ferneyhough would bear this out. Also, while scored music might not admit some of the magical phenomena made possible through group improvisation, what it does have is a score, which, when pushed to this extreme, can be a very beautiful visual guide – other musicians have written at length about complex scores being pieces of art in themselves.
    Might also the fact that Finnissy himself is dissatisfied with being pigeonholed by this term suggest that it isn't the only musical avenue he is currently exploring..?

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