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Friday, April 5, 2013

In Praise of Complex Music

Previously I've been critical on this blog of music that is unnecessarily complex, music that is complex for its own sake, more concerned with demonstrating its own rhythmic technique than with delivering a message through music. And I'm still critical of that kind of technical posturing, but recently an incident set me off thinking about this idea of complexity and what value there is in it.

I recently underwent some acupuncture treatment, and having been needled up like a porcupine, I was lying there waiting for the needles to work their magic. I wanted to listen to some music while I was lying there and was going to listen to it on my iPod through headphones, but the Acupuncturist asked me if I'd like the music played through the stereo in the room. So she turned off the 'relaxation' music she usually plays, (which does anything but relax me!), turned on the iPod and left the room, leaving me to my music for about 20 minutes. When she returned to check the needles, a Dave Binney track was playing, in which Dave was taking on two drummers, and winning. She stopped, listened for a moment, and asked me incredulously, 'you find that relaxing!?' I said that yes, I did indeed find that relaxing - she shook her head, adjusted the needles and left the room. On my own again I started to think about this exchange and began to try to observe myself listening to the music in a bid to identify what it was I was listening to, and what kind of effect it had on me. What was I hearing that I found relaxing, but that to the therapist sounded like chaos?

As I lay there listening, I began to identify how I was listening to the music, what effect it was having on me, and what, if anything, was going on in my head. A lot of non-musicians at this point, (if any non-musicians read this blog!), are probably thinking that I was working out the technical details of the music, the time signatures, the harmony, the structure etc. But this was not actually the case - it's true I used to do that, but I gave it up a long time ago and only now do it if I need to analyse something for some particular purpose. It's true that as a musician one can find it hard to switch off the analytical machine completely, but as far as possible, when listening to recordings or concerts, I try to let the music wash over me.

So, there I was, listening to the music and trying to get a sense of what it was I was hearing and how it was affecting me. And I began to realise that what I was hearing was quite multi-layered - a sound here, a rhythm there, combinations of things, twists and turns in the lines, the rhythm section firing things up, a particular colour from the harmony. I tried to find a non-technical way to explain how I was hearing the music, and the best I could do was imagining being on a Gondola in Venice, (without the obligatory 'O Sole Mio' being sung in the background by a licensed bandit, otherwise known as the Gondolier), and floating down the canal and looking at the architecture of the buildings as I, (or they), floated past. In such a situation, you can see more than just the outline of the buildings; you can see the materials they're built from, the various indentations of windows and doors, lights behind curtains, shapes, proportion, half-glimpsed interiors, sunlight on the different surfaces - and all changing slowly as you float by. It's a complex collage of images which un-spools in front of you, but at the end of it you have a sense of what you've seen in a very rich and multi-layered way.

But this rich visual experience needs two factors in order for it to happen - the observed object needs to be multi-faceted, and the observer needs to have faculties to appreciate the different aspects of what's being seen.

And the same holds true for music.

Before I get into that, let me first qualify what I'm about to say - in all cases I'm talking about good complex music.  I'm not saying that complex is by definition good, or simple music is bad. I'm talking about good music which happens to be complex.

Complex music is different to simple music - it is multi-layered, it has a lot going on, the message it conveys is often ambiguous. A complex piece of music is analogous to a complex novel, play or film - its story may in itself tell a different story, what's on the surface may represent a deeper meaning, it may be structurally complex with many twists and turns, the ending may be very different to the expected one etc. In order for the music to have this multi-faceted quality, it must be complex.

In order to tell a more complex story the music must use more complex materials. More use of harmonic colour, more compositional structure, rhythms that are possibly polyrhythmic, more virtuosic playing from the performers. All of this, (and more), is necessary for the music to operate on more than one simple level. It will have a story to tell, but one which requires more narrative tools than the broad brush of the typical pop song. It may be a love song for example, but it will not be in the 'Yeah, I Love You Baby' mode of thousands of quick hits. Human life is complex and multi-faceted and this complex and multi-faceted music is required at times in order to tell these stories.

And in order to tell these stories you need listeners who are equipped to appreciate the intricacies of what unfolds in front of them. If the only buildings you'd ever seen in your life were one-room Portakabins, then Gaudi's Cathedral or a Calatrava structure may be beyond your comprehension. If the only kind of books you've ever read are holiday romances, you're unlikely to get very far with Joyce's 'Ulysses'. If the only movies you've watched were the Police Academy series, you're probably going to have trouble getting the inner meaning of Kurosawa's movies. Art on this level is unlikely to be immediately understood - it's not meant to be consumed immediately and discarded. It's meant to be thought about and experienced on many different levels and in order to be able to do that you will likely need some kind of development over a period of time in order to be able to appreciate all the subtleties.

In the same way that you can't leap from 'Janet and John Go To The Beach' to 'Finnegan's Wake', if you've been raised on a diet of Justin Bieber and Rihanna you're unlikely to be able to jump straight into 'The Rite of Spring'. You need time to develop the tools that will allow you to decode complex music. The usual way is through listening over a period of time to music of growing complexity, attuning your ear to the sheer variety of sound that is evident in this kind of music. You need to develop an ear where dissonance is not in itself automatically painful, where a wide range of dynamics within a single piece is intriguing rather than unsettling, where you can pay close attention to a piece of music that is over 5 minutes long and not get distracted. These are the kinds of tools you need to get the fullest experience from complex music.

And to get the fullest rewards - because rewards there are - good complex music is tremendously enriching for the mind, the body and the spirit. It is multifaceted and can be enjoyed on several different levels. You will get an experience from complex music that you won't get from one-dimensional music - that's what makes the journey and the effort worthwhile.

Now it could be that you couldn't be bothered engaging in the kind of long term investment that appreciating complex music requires, and that's fair enough. If you don't require more from music than what simple music can give you, then great. No problem. But don't try and tell people who do get enjoyment from complex music that they are snobs and elitist. There is a difference between those who enjoy complex music for itself, and those who might use it as a cultural stick to beat others with. If you choose not to go down the route of enjoying multi-layered music, don't make the mistake of condemning others who do. I feel no need to apologise for liking complex music, and I've written about it before here. I enjoy simple music too, but like complex music, it has to be what I would consider to be good before I can enjoy it. In the same way that I don't think complex music is automatically good, I don't think simple music is either.

And in many cases complex music can be enjoyed on a simple level too. I think of this as being like a tree; a tree can be seen as one large beautiful entity, but if you look closer you will see that this one large entity is in fact made of of a very complex series of smaller entities, and the tree can be visually enjoyed on both levels. The same could be said for a complex building like the aforementioned Gaudi Cathedral or the Taj Mahal.

And good complex music can encompass many forms and atmospheres, as in these three examples:

Here is Miles' great 'lost' quintet playing with complex abandon

And Yuja Wang playing two of Ligeti's extraordinary piano ├ętudes

And finally the joy of Hermeto Pascoal's music - simple to appreciate yet very complex in construction

Miles, Ligeti, Hermeto - Coltrane, Bach, Weather Report, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Stravinsky, Ravel, Monk, Ellington, Steve Coleman, Dave Liebman, Mozart, Keith Jarrett - hundreds of other great artists could be added to that list -  all artists who have produced sublime music in many different styles and atmospheres. With their music you can have the kind of wonderful multidimensional experience that you can only get from complex music. For the unfamiliar listener it can be puzzling and maybe daunting, but for the listener who is curious and prepared to meet it half way, its rewards are unending.

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