Music and Complexity

Last week was a very cultured week for me. I hardly ever go out to live events these days, but accidentally, I found myself at two in a week. It started on Monday evening, with a Musica Viva Chamber music concert in the Angel Place Recital Hall for 1,200 people from The Tokyo Quartet. And it finished on Saturday afternoon with a performance from the Lounge Quintet – a performance for 70 people in someone’s lounge room for a singer and string quartet.

The Tokyo Quartet is world famous. They played Haydn, Brahams, and a new(ish) piece written by an Australian composer, Carl Vine. I’m a big fan of Haydn, having played some of his sonatas on the piano, and studied his quartets at school. But I found myself reacting by drifting off and thinking about other things – nice to have some time to myself, but the music was background.

The Lounge Quintet, by contrast, is a niche group. They played 70s, 80s and 90s music that had been specially arranged for their group, mostly by Stuart Davis, the singer. I spent the whole afternoon concert intently engaged with the music, listening to the parts, loving the contrasting arrangements that brought out the different musical styles of the Buena Vista Social Club, Rufus Wainwright, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello….

It felt odd to be directly comparing the two experiences, but I couldn’t help it, given how close they were together. And particularly because you would expect the Tokyo Quartet to be “better”, more cultured, therefore more worthy of enjoyment.

The Lounge Quintet worked because everything came together. The atmosphere was wonderful. Stuart introduced each song in a witty and interesting way. But most of all the music was engaging to me. A combination of familiarity and interest.

It set me to thinking again about Flow, the book, and concept, from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – we are at our most content when we are presented with just enough complexity and challenge to engage with – not so much that it is too hard for us, and becomes difficult, but not so simple that we find it boring. The Lounge Quintet’s concert had enough familiarity (from the original songs) to get me hooked, and enough complexity in the arrangements and ebb and flow between the instruments – even in the many different styles involved – to keep me completely engaged for the whole concert.

When I first came across Csikszentmihalyi’s book, it made me realise how misguided much snobbishness about music (and other arts) can be. People can find enjoyment at all levels of complexity. Some musical forms have the wonderful characteristic of being able to be enjoyed at increasing levels of complexity. While others (and I think some of the Tokyo Quartet’s music fit this category) can only be enjoyed by someone who has spent a long time getting more and more involved in the complexities of the musical style. And some styles tend to run out of interest fairly quickly.

But if you want to be snobbish, be snobbish about the person who isn’t challenging themselves to engage with music in a more and more complex way. It doesn’t matter where that complexity comes from (rhythm, harmony, words, melody), or what its absolute level is. But it does matter for our ultimate happiness and engagement with the world that we are challenging ourselves with something a little more complex (in some direction) every time we engage with music, and maybe even the world.

  2 comments for “Music and Complexity

  1. July 4, 2009 at 8:19 am

    This is fascinating, thank you, as was your earlier post on flow. I still play my old favourite CDs, but of late, I’ve been playing more and more opera and art song, pushing my tastes in a new direction. It has been very rewarding.

  2. July 12, 2009 at 6:37 am

    I must dig into flow a little more deeply (I’ve encountered it in other contexts). And I so buy into complexity – or difference. Whenever I go to concerts of artists I’ve admired for a long, long time, it’s the new stuff that engages me – I don’t want to hear the hits. I also seem to have more patience for music with a completely different vocabulary these days (e.g. dubstep – perhaps its time I engaged with opera?)

    Odd how familiarity can be a real barrier to a flow experience – the most immersive theatre experience I’ve had was three hours of Kabuki at Sadlers Wells.

Comments are closed.