The paradoxes of simplicity
October 1, 1998
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The Romantics’s and Modernists’ tendency to split the composer into the double figure of the craftsman and the intellectual of music has been increasing in the last decades notwithstanding the end of the artistic avant-gardes and the renunciation by philosophy to every pretense to a “strong”, exhaustive and systematic thought.

An artificial separation has thus been created between two functions that should be united in every creative activity. Composing and thinking about one’s own composing appear to be two activities led by two different people. When a composer writes about his music, he behaves like a musicologist, almost forgetting the inner creative processes that gave it birth. He assumes the neutral tone of someone who talks about things he has only acquired a successive knowledge of, and has not himself generated. He borrows the generalizing languages of science and philosophy. Rather than talking about his music, he talks about what other people have said about his music.

Most composers seem to suffer from a peculiar inferiority complex that hinders them from acknowledging the cognitive power of music and of the craft of composing. Thus, having to make their ideas known to the public, they end up with vaunting a generical intellectual dignity. This, though, causes them a frustrating feeling, which they absorb in snobbish private deliriums in praise of inspiration and irrationality.
In writing this article, which gathers same of the ideas I expounded in my Seminar at 1998 Darmstadt Ferienkurse, I have realized that a honest discourse on my music has necessarily to become a discourse on the difficulties in - and sometimes the impossibility of - making known my meditations on the thinking processes underlying each composing act.


The activity of a composer is twofold: composing and thinking about his own composing. Eventually, this can involve spreading his ideas about his composing or his compositions. Certain composers can talk about their music, while others cannot. Personally I tend to believe I am one of those who cannot do it so easily, and that is probably the reason why I keep on stubbornly attempting to do it properly.

In my experience, the achievement of a complete knowledge of one’s own composing processes and the deriving possibility to conceive a totally formalized and self-conscious system can be a limitation. This achievement would reduce composition to a handy know-how set of techniques that would be applied in the same way every time a new piece is being written. I regard a complete self-consciousness in composing as a symptom that a composer is at the end of a phase in his production, and time has come for him to question his own composition habits. A composer should not only write new pieces: he should also device new techniques.

I believe it is as in life, when you fall in love with someone. Why do you fall in love with someone? What makes a relationship work? These questions can hardly be answered, and if they can, it often means that the relationship is coming to an end. Love is a continuos never-ending process of knowledge and a perpetual quest. It is nourished by a constant attempt to understand its own motivations, whose revelation - should it be possible - would probably leave one with nothing to look for or to question.
In relation to composition, there are several factors that are not usually taken into consideration as influencing or determining composing choices: personal taste, inclinations, memory, habits, feelings, intuition, imagination, psycho-physical conditions, etc. This evidently happens because it is impossible to give an account of all these factors and of their cross-relations. Why do I like aItamura bread? I do not know. This is as mysterious to me as the fact that I am more attracted to color transformations than to rhythm developments.

I am not particularly interested in theorizing about my music, or in providing a theoretical support for it. Moreover, I think that musical coherence cannot be compared to theoretical consistency. Music coherence is built on a different logic from the rational logic of Western thought or the consistency of a linguistic structure. The thinking processes that are required in a composing act cannot be equaled to those required by logic-hypothetical-deductive thinking, that is, by formal logic. The idea of time which is inscribed in music, for instance, is different. It does not simply consist of a chronological succession of units, but of a more complex articulation of events. The way we experience time in music is very close, in a certain way, to our thinking processes. At the moment of taking a decision, for example, or having an insight - or a perception, or an emotion -, the elapsing of time can be abolished, or reversed, or totally distorted. The same happens when we remember something or imagine something.
The other thing I cannot do is thinking of music in terms of the translation of ideas - of the realization, or embodiment, of a pre-conceived idea. To me, a piece of music is an idea forming itself, being generated at the moment when music unfolds itself. Music says what it has to say as it originates. It is never the opposite - that is, music never originates in the need of expressing an idea. The idea is what a piece of music conveys while it is being heard - both by the audience and the composer. It is not what the composer wants it to say as he composes a piece according to an idea. This is proved by two obvious and paradoxical facts. The first is that a beautiful piece can come out of a trivial idea; the second, that the same idea - however simple, trivial, or genial it is - can generate several pieces, characterized by very different degrees of beauty. The quality of a piece, in fact, has nothing to do with the quality of its initial, triggering idea.

Two last remarks about this particular delicate topic are necessary in order to avoid any misunderstanding. I do not deny the possibility of there being a scientific or rational or theoretical approach to composition. This kind of approach can surely provide structures or materials that can become part of the piece, but which do not guarantee its musical coherence. What I mean is that if they can be functional to composition, it is especially on the basis of their suggestive power. In this sense they can be ranked among the other elements I have already pointed at as the constituents of the composing process (i. e. personal taste, inclinations, memory, habits, feelings, intuition, imagination, psychophysical conditions).


The focus of my self-questioning about my activity as a composer is simplicity and its paradoxes. My conception of simplicity has nothing to do with the amount of information included in a piece. A musical object can appear simple and hide extraordinarily complex relationships with other objects, belonging either to the same piece, or to other pieces (written by the same composer or by other composers) - or even to the listeners’ personal or historical memory.

In art, it is impossible to reduce the issue of complexity versus simplicity to the mere presence of data which can be objectively gathered. A simple piece (i. e. a piece which has a simple construction) can be listened to in a refined - that is, sensitive and intelligent - way. It can be explored in its structure and constituents until one reaches the level of the smallest components of every single sound. It can be made “complex” through the subjectivity of the listener. On the contrary, a piece whose writing appears to be very complex - a “new complexity” piece, for instance - can be listened to with a conscious or unconscious simplifying intention - of the kind that ends up with likening a piece by Ferneyough to a piece by Schönberg, distorted or somehow exaggerated in its expression. Rather than “simple” or “complex” music, there can be said to be “simplifying” or “complexifying” listeners.

To continue this series of paradoxes, on one hand, each lapse of time one spends in whatever surroundings can be listened to with a musical intention, thus revealing allusions to existing sounds and structures that belong to the musical language. On the other hand, one could listen to a piece of music with a purely acoustic intention, thus discovering striking affinities between the sound forms and manifestations of nature and those of music, which have cultural origins.
In sum, a composer works not only with a group of parameters he combines, multiplies, and transforms, but also with the memory, skill and perceptive orientation of each potential listener. He must take into consideration the variable and unpredictable associative and imaginative suggestions his music engenders in each individual. In my mind, the idea of a listener is always singular. I honestly cannot conceive of a “collective listener” - that is, of a group of listeners all reacting to a piece in the same way. Such conception of an audience is implied in the conception of a composing system as made by objective elements that can be homogeneously received.
It is not the quantity of information a piece contains, then, to determine its degree of complexity, but the quantity of the manifold relations that are established in the following ways:

  * among bits of information;
  * between the information and the listener’s consciousness; these are influenced by the memory, the competence, the education, the psycho-physical conditions, and the taste that characterize each listener and define his personality;
  * between the information and cultural history; these consist of past influences, possible anticipations, relationships to other music or to other musical forms or figures;
  * between the information and other forms of cultural expression.
If the evocative power of an object is determined by the possibility to establish relations with other objects - and not by the quantity of information that create this object, - its value increases together with the increasing quantity of the relations that can be established and with the increasing degree of their invisibility. One could say that the more the net of relations is implicit and unthinkable (or, rather, revealed only at the suitable moment), the more the objects’ evocative power is heightened.


The way I conceive simplicity, it always involves ambiguity. Moreover, the simpler an object is (in the sense I have described), the more ambiguous it becomes. Thus, for me, suggestive power does not come from the “total amount of information” conveyed in a piece, but from simplicity coupled with ambiguity. The aesthetic device I charge with the highest potential of this mixture of simplicity and ambiguity is the “anomalous detail”. The “anomalous detail” is the occasional and unforeseen appearance of an event that had previously gone unnoticed, and that despite its smallness or apparent triviality pushes the listener to reorganize his perception either of the entire aesthetic form or of that part of the aesthetic form that had taken shape in his mind. The listener is thus forced to change his usual way of listening to a piece, and to acquire a new perspective. In a metaphoric, extra-musical formulation, the effect which interests me is the discovery of the unthought (what has not yet been thought) within the thinkable (what can be thought). This device, which I have drawn from my personal experience of aesthetic perception, is the one I try to exploit most in my composition. I would like now to focus on the different ways it operates in my music.

All the main features of composition refer to an idea of simplicity that cannot be grasped - which is apparently clear but actually indefinable. I will divide them in two groups:

group A
  * the restricting selection of the composing materials
  * the cyclicity, the repetition, the inexorability of a process

group B
  * the great value attached to the detail and its precise rendering
  * the continuous timbre transformations, the diversifying of colors.

The process that can be derived, then, is the following. A well-defined situation is established, or a situation has been defining itself gradually, up to the point where it seems not to allow for any contradiction in its development. This situation is nonetheless subtly transformed, without, though, showing any sign of its internal corrosion. In this way, the moment the smallest deviation from the rule takes place, the listener’s attention is immediately captured and his curiosity revived.
The resulting sense of a change is heightened by the surprise-effect produced by the rule exception. On one hand, in fact, our perceptions are reset after having been “hypnotized” by the musical context in which they had been immersed until that moment. It is a sort of a call to the acoustic dimension coming from the musical one, and which finally takes us to a further musical reality. On the other hand, the rule exception forces us to rearrange our perceptions, our memory, and the associations we had been building until that moment.

To state things in a simpler way, I could say that the features listed in the first group contribute to create an impression of simplicity, variously connoting clarity, stability, linearity, and bareness. The features in the second group help belie this appearance. They incline the listener to an active fruition, and alert him to the detection of the smallest changes. They reveal a hidden complexity that surprises him, not only because the change had seemed impossible, but also because this potential of multiplicity, instability and mutability had always been there.

The unity of simplicity and ambiguity, then, originates some paradoxes that turn the listening experience into an experience of discovery. It makes it possible, for example, to discover movement within a situation that seems to deny all possibilities of movement (i. e. stasis, cyclicity, repetition, inexorability). A small detail can suddenly draw the listener’s attention. This detail can be a color effect, or a gesture that is revealed either by a new color or by the continuous changing of a color. In any case, it shifts our usual point of view and creates new points of view, thus making the vision unstable and the listening mobile. In this way, repetition changes its nature and is no longer a repetition of the identical. An identity is acquired through the constant transformation of preceding identities.

It is also possible to discover an acoustic dimension suddenly emerging from the properly musical one. This can happen thanks to a sharpening of the microcomponents of sound, thanks to the deconstruction of sound, or to its continuous, alternating de-and-reconstruction. It is a search for something that comes earlier, that is behind or within or around the sound, and which is not merely a musical parameter, or figure, or form. In a reversed manner, it is possible to discover a musical dimension within a purely acoustic one.

A piece of music is always born from the encounter-clash between acoustics and language, or from a sort of twisting or misunderstanding of the psycho-acoustic perception by the imagination, the memory, and the interpretive drives of the listener. Acoustics is the estranging presence in a musical context. In a reversed sense, though, we could say that music is the weird presence in a context of noises and sound gestures. The surfacing of an estranging dimension within another obliges the listener to question his fruition. It invalidates the patterns through which a musical piece had been read, and prompts the listener to rearrange the whole disposition of the data he has perceived and interpreted.

Another paradoxical phenomenon is the discovery of a space dimension - of depth or of a multiplicity of planes - within music itself. This is revealed by the same resources offered by the musical language: the registers’ range, the dynamics planes, the phrasing articulation, the instrumental timbres and orchestration, that is, their blending and the blending of their deconstructed parts. Music has all these means at its disposal to give weight or take it away, to emphasize and hide in different degrees, to suggest a sense of space. This space dimension is virtual, and reaches well beyond the physical space - however arranged it is - in which the instruments of the musical representation are placed. It materializes in the listener’s mind, inducing in it further intimations of implicit space.

It should be evident, by now, that timbre is the principal means by which I create relations in an implicit way or I make the constituents of a piece relate to each other. The relations I create are between musical objects, or among their internal components. Establishing relations is, as I have said, my favorite way of creating ambiguity, that is, of taking away an apparent quality from an object to provide it with another or with others, thus making it similar or different (in different degrees) from the objects that in the first place were different from or similar to it.

An extremely subtle timbre treatment - one which is always apt to discover new relations between things - carries out the intuitions of traditional orchestration. Beside the possibility to create colors, and to mix colors in a seductive way, orchestral writing allows to create a structure of relations, that is, of references, allusions, associations, echoes, space projections, implications, focusing, lights and shadows. It is thanks to this net of relations that an illusion of sense can be born in music, a new suggestion offered to the listener’s imagination.

Stefano Gervasoni
(October 98)
in Dissonance, n.60, May 99, Lausanne – pages 20-23)
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