One of the more true truisms of music history is that the most recognizably American style of classical music, the neo-Classical tonal populism invented by Aaron Copland, was a reaction to the economic crisis of the Great Depression, that Copland wanted to write music that would be more simply perceived by a mass audience. This is not to pick at the scab of the Complexity Wars (which is simpler—Appalachian Spring or Webern’s op. 24? Conduct through the Copland before you answer) but to note that the idea of simplicity as a solution to societal problems is, I think, a particularly American thing, one no doubt ingrained in each of our psyches by a steady flow of subtle agrarian, back-to-the-land mythology in American culture. Think of it this way: in reporting about the current economic crisis, the number of stories I’ve read implicitly based around this narrative—
Due to technology, financial instruments became too complicated for investors to truly understand what they were investing in
—have far outnumbered those based on this narrative—
Due to deregulation, greedy bastards acquired the legal cover to be even greedier bastards
—a narrative that, on one level, implies that the problem was too much simplicity.
In fact, you might be able to make the case that all societies react to crisis by attempting to simplify, but that the peculiarly American quirk is that the perception of simplicity is more important that the substance. To use another musical example, the 12-tone method, historically contemporary with post-WWI European crises, can be read as a conceptual simplification of the late-Romantic dissolution of tonality that was already underway before the war.
I was thinking about this today because at the historical moment, that penchant for a movement towards simplicity in the face of crisis seems to be on a collision course with that other sure-fire historical pattern, artists tending to react against whatever style is prevalent during their formative years. In other words, the current lets-pretend-its-not-a-Depression would predict a musical shift towards more simply-perceived populist styles, but those styles have been ascendant for some years now (consider Steve Reich’s Pulitzer in light of that prize’s stylistically slow reflexes). Since the generation of composers that were in rebellion against modernist complexity are now The Establishment, one might expect their disrespectful youngers, crisis or no crisis, to swing the pendulum in a different direction.
It’s fun to try and decide if a faster musical evolution has lapped a historical cycle, or the other way around—or if artistic and societal patterns are really on parallel tracks, and we only perceive a connection between them because, well, as human beings, that’s what we like to do. Maybe we’re due for a resurgence of chance music and aleatoricism—not bringing order out of chaos, but getting used to the idea that chaos is the only order we’ve got.