Are we there yet?

Quick: name a composer whose “late period” music is less complex and adventurous than their “early period” music. Not many. It’s easy to imagine why—the more music you write, the more fluent you get with music’s constituent elements, and the more comfortable you are experimenting with them. Often there’s a trade-off: the surface level becomes less active and dense, but the relationships between elements and the formal structures become more intricate and subtle (Brahms, Carter). In other instances, the style remains relatively constant, but the vocabulary becomes more challenging (Ravel, Copland). Sometimes the musical ideas are concentrated into utterances of great brevity and density (Webern, Stravinsky). And sometimes everything just gets really complicated (Beethoven).

This is such a common career arc for composers that I think it’s affected the way we look at the entire history of music. I’m talking about the idea of historical progress, the notion that an historical style of music supersedes another by virtue of its later chronology. There’s been no shortage of conscious debunking of this notion (Kyle Gann summed it up nicely a couple months back), but it still hangs around the subconscious, influencing musical value judgments all the time.

There’s an old trope (it made some guest appearances in a lot of the articles surrounding the recent Steve Reich birthday celebrations) that atonality was a “wrong turn” in the history of music and that, say, Reich et al. had returned music to its proper path. (Here’s a few examples.) What this implies is that there was a “right turn” that somehow everybody missed. That’s nonsense. In the first place, we only have one datum point for the evolution of Western music—for all we know, it happens this way, in this order, every time. (Compare a creationist’s anti-evolution argument based on the “improbability” of human existence.) But more importantly, the history we do have bears a lot more resemblance to a random walk than an goal-oriented path. Baroque to Classical, Romanticism to Impressionism, Serialism to Minimalism, music history is filled with sharp tacks and weird digressions. If there’s an ultimate goal to all this, we’ve certainly taken the roundabout way there.

Why is the chimera of musical progress so hard to let go of? I know why someone like Schoenberg would espouse it—the Fichte-Hegel idea of the Mind-as-Being inevitably progressing towards the Absolute must have been hard to escape in 19th-century Germany. But I also think it has to do with the similar artistic evolution of individual composers. We subconsciously assume that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: the development of the individual somehow mirrors the development of the entire species. If a particular composer’s music gradually becomes more advanced (and you can even see this happening today among the old-school minimalists) then, somehow, it must imply that music as a whole must somehow advance and progress. Haeckel’s recapitulation theory is largely discredited in biology, but its elegance and simplicity have made it a hard intellectual habit to break. Especially in this goal-oriented society: we can’t just be driving around aimlessly; we must be headed somewhere. At least as far as music is concerned, though, it’s better to sit back and enjoy the ride.


  1. I’ve always though that Mr. Reich’s career takes a reverse course from the composers you list as fitting that paradigm.His music hasn’t gotten less complicated, but I do think if you go backwards through his catalog you eventually get to the early works, that seems kind of stripped down to the essential expressive elements in pieces like <>Piano Phase<> and <>Come Out<>.Anyway, this continues to be a great blog.

  2. Funny, I had to read your opening gambit twice to make sure I’d got it right. I know it’s not <>quite<> the same thing, but almost every composer I can think of (20C at least) has retreated away from the adventurousness of their early works. That’s not to say they’ve got more or less complex (a very tricky thing to define in any case), but like Steve I tend to read the paradigm backwards to you.Since you ask :-), some examples:GoreckiPartLigetiPenderecki (and how)GlassStockhausenBoulezThis is not, by the way, to make any value judgements, but I think it’s tricky to claim Ligeti’s Horn Trio, say, as more adventurous than Atmospheres (although I concede it could be more complex).BTW, there’s an interesting counter argument to this from rock music, in that a band/artist’s best work is often taken to be amongst their first recordings – this is especially true amongst more obviously ‘counter-cultural’ stuff (punk, hip-hop, etc). A way of demolishing the ‘maturing artist’ paradigm?

  3. I almost limited the opening gambit to pre-WWI, but I decided to chance it; but you’re both right, 20th-century composers don’t fit the paradigm as neatly as their older counterparts. Gorecki, Part and Penderecki <>are<> exceptions (although Penderecki’s early music never sounded that complicated to me, just more <>outre<>), but I <>do<> think the rest have gotten more complex in a lot of ways. I hear Ligeti’s etudes as more complex than his big soundscapes, and Glass’s harmony was veering well into Wagnerian/Impressionistic harmonies in the last few pieces I’ve heard. Boulez and Stockhausen became, to my ear, much less schematic and more idiosyncratic, which to me is always less simple. I guess this probably says a lot more about how I personally listen to music—most people would probably say that Carter’s later music is more simple than, say, the 3rd quartet, but because there’s so much less technical apparatus to get in the way, the result sounds to my ear <>more<> complex and searching; kind of like late Liszt. Whereas Reich’s more stripped-down music sounds to me as if it’s just focused on a single idea. (Not that that’s bad—the point being, that something like <>The Cave<> is a long way from <>Clapping Music<>.)I like Tim’s idea about rock bands—it’s odd, thinking about it, I tend to really like the album a band releases just <>before<> the one that alienates their hardcore fans. There must be something about being on the verge of selling out that appeals to me.I need to check back and make sure I qualified my overgeneralization in the original post! (OK, I’m safe.) I’ve been burned enough that I’m usually more careful. (And thanks for reading, and contributing—everyone should go visit Steve and Tim, if you haven’t already.)

  4. Per Nørgård’s music has certainly gotten more complex as he gets older. He ushered in the so-called tone lakes after his 50th birthday, and his recent music is exploring hitherto-unused aspects of the infinity series and curiously experimenting with rhythm.George Benjamin has also come a long way from the imitation of Messiaen in his earliest works to the daring complexity of works like “Shadowlines”.

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