Sunday, February 28, 2010

Complexity and Value

Every year, a panel of individuals updates and revises a list of music for American middle and high school solo and ensemble competitions. There are actually several different organizations that oversee these contests, but the process is the same. Their selections comprise a long list of pieces considered to be "standard repertoire" and of appropriate brevity to fit in the contest schedule, which means that sometimes only one movement of a longer work winds up on the list. And each piece is rated by its complexity on a five-point scale.

There is a distinct difference between a "Grade 1" piece and a "Grade 5" piece, but judges in these contests are really judging how well a student plays whatever piece they have selected. Musicians that want to progress to a state-level competition usually have to play a piece of a certain complexity from memory, and they have to play it well. But a student can receive high marks for performing a piece that is appropriate for their level of experience, even if it isn't one of the most difficult pieces on the list. As an accompanist, I am playing for some talented students who have worked hard and play challenging pieces very, very well. I have also been rehearsing well-prepared "easy" pieces that are more musically compelling and enjoyable than some thrown together "difficult" pieces, and I have realized something about how I hold my own music.

Certainly, there are many pieces that are off the chart for what a high school musician is expected to be able to play well. In fact, there aren't very many serial or avant-garde pieces on the contest lists I've seen, and with good reason. Most high-schoolers don't have the experience with their instrument or with music theory to play such pieces convincingly. Or even musically. And yet I have been accompanying some beautiful, fun, and exciting pieces of music. Somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that "more difficult" equates with "better," and that belief had some deep roots.

Perhaps it comes from a desire to be taken seriously as a composer, or even a healthy appreciation for overcoming a challenge, but the thought that difficulty and worthiness run in proportion with one another has been something of a prison that I trapped my creative energies inside. Virtuosity has its place, but so does simplicity. I often criticize my musical ideas as unimpressive, when the sound would otherwise be ideal for what I want to express. Judging the value of my creative expression by how difficult it will be for a performer to reproduce... well, even writing it out in those terms seems silly.

Some of the most profound and compelling ideas have been simple ideas. In fact, I find immense humor in Rube Goldberg contrivances that accomplish the most mundane tasks in the most complicated ways possible. Many of the musical innovations of the 20th Century were not necessarily born out of interest in accessibility or beauty, but rather to form an intellectual argument about the future of art music. It was an aesthetic choice toward the complex, with a clear understanding that such music was not being written for the masses. Whether I enjoyed or criticized individual pieces, learning about and becoming intimately familiar with so much of that "intellectual" music likely had an impact on my beliefs about musical value.

That doesn't have to determine what I do from here on, however. I honestly want to compose music that expresses something beyond how hard a performer had to work. Whether the ideal sounds for what I am creating in a particular piece are "easy" or "complicated" is actually low on my list of conscious musical priorities. So, I am ready to stop limiting the possibilities of what I can create based on its complexity and start allowing for the full breadth of my ideas to take shape, no matter how simple they may seem.

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