The Complexity Paradox

These compositions are given rather as specimens of a determined spirit of patient perseverance, than as models [worthy] of imitation. In music, different from all other arts, learning and labor seem to have preceded taste and invention, from both which the times under consideration are still very remote. — Charles Burney in his A General History of Music (1776), referring to Ockeghem and his ilk

History has not been terribly kind to Johannes Ockeghem. From the 16th century until quite recently, this composer of profound gifts was branded with a reputation for “cold calculation,” and indeed many of his pieces present us with formidable challenges. Ockeghem delighted in extreme complexity, elaborate musical puzzles, and sophisticated conceptual contrivances. His “Missa cuiusvis toni,” a mass for four voices, was ingeniously designed to be sung in any of the modes, each with a different affective character; “Missa Prolationum” (Mass of the Time Signatures) plays with temporality in a mathematically dense web of interlocking periodicities. These pieces certainly aren’t easy; indeed, they bring to mind the ars subtilior compositions of the previous century. The pieces for which Ockeghem was best known for 400 years are tough nuts to crack, and this fact has led to an unfair if fascinating reception by historians. It appears Ockeghem committed the cardinal sin of too much complexity.

The notated western music tradition has an paradoxical relationship with technical complexity. On the one hand, complexity is fetishized as an ultimate conferrer of value and seriousness. Historically, big is better in the “classical” music tradition – large scale works like symphonies have found a privileged place above chamber music for generations of music historians, and long, formally sophisticated works usually win out over shorter, simpler, humbler varieties on the Grand Scale of Historical Importance. On the other hand, complexity is a sign of cold calculation, mannerism, anti-emotionalism, and artifice. At best, it’s an utter waste of time; at worst, a masturbatory fantasy. Our perception of musical complexity has always changed with the political tides; during the Cold War, for instance, academic composers in the US wore the mantle of total serialism as a mark of American freedom and intellectual curiosity, juxtaposing themselves with the Soviets’ kitschy functional music of massed choirs and brass bands. However, although such composers were granted tenure in their university gigs, most Americans would have preferred balalaika-accompanied paeans to Lenin than the latest offering by Milton Babbitt. Even when it was politically correct to embrace pure musical complexity, it didn’t mean people actually liked it.

This is the paradox of complexity: a composer can’t be a complete musical simpleton and get respect from historians – they need to show some level of mastery of complex forms. However, they can’t get too complex lest they cross the line into alienating abstraction. There are a raft of false dichotomies inherent in this paradox. As Burney suggested in the first major history of music written in English, “learning and labor” are in opposition to “taste and invention.” Is it possible to compose music that is both learned/laborious and tasteful/inventive? Could a cold and calculating 12-tone piece, in fact, be emotionally expressive as well? I don’t understand why not.

Cases like this are so fascinating in part because they reveal how deep a role taste plays in historiography. Burney, writing in the empirically-minded age of reason, saw no purpose to such extravagant musical games. Anton Webern, a product of the end-game of western music teleology, however, praised Heinrich Isaac (another composer famous for complexity and puzzles) as the subject of his 1908 doctoral dissertation. The times and the politics, to a large degree, determine the tastes.


  1. “Could a cold and calculating 12-tone piece, in fact, be emotionally expressive as well? I don’t understand why not.”

    I agree completely with you in this point. There is some undeniably gorgeous serial and 12-tone music that expresses a world of emotion. Look at Pärt’s _Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten_ for instance.

    That said, I see another question here, one of aesthetics. Why is emotional expressiveness our end goal in music. Why should complexity be an ends to a means. Ockeghem’s puzzle pieces are a joy just because they are complex to me. We don’t look to Will Shortz to give us an emotionally deep NYTimes crossword, we look for him to challenge us. Ockeghem strikes me in the same way. Perhaps he wasn’t writing for the same size/kind of audience, but he’s writing to keep the mind sharp.

    I hope I haven’t missed the mark on this one, but I’ve never understood why emotional expression is the end-all be-all of music. I love me some sappy Romanticism, but having a song tweak my mind is also an enjoyable event from time to time.

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Very good point – it is amazing how the quality of emotion is often upheld as the chief (only) mark of musical value. Needless to say, this perspective is a modern one that is deeply tied in to our notions of subjective selfhood. It’s hard to say that this would be a rubric at all for, say, the composers of these great mass cycles. They were making music as a functional component to ritual: it was less important how personally emotional the music was and more important how well it glorified God (and their noble sponsors).

      Nietzsche talked about history swinging back and forth between Dionysian (emotional, exuberant, etc.) and Apollonian (cool, rational, etc.) eras. It’s silly and reductionistic to make a statement like “the Romantic era was a Dionysian time” because, of course, there was a lot of music made in the 19th century that doesn’t fit this description at all. However, there does seem to be some sort of historical pendulum on this aesthetic question. Just as we have an axis of simplicity/complexity that every composer and era must contend with, there’s an axis of subjective/objective, rational/emotional, whatever you’d like to call it.

      Music has so many diverse functions, and it is perhaps a lingering mark of the influence of the Romantics that personal emotion is sometimes upheld as the sine qua non of musical value. Do you think that our era is “Dionysian” (or does Nietzsche’s schema make any sense at all)?

      Thanks for your thoughts, Robert – again, you have an open invitation to post your ideas on the blog.

    2. Where did you get the information that Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten is a 12-tone piece? It’s a simple A minor tonality.

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