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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

The youngest composers working in styles and media comparable to those of the grand old men were around forty by the time Babbitt wrote his fulminations. Two of them, Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1943) and Michael Finnissy (b. 1946), were English composers associated with the Darmstadt Summer Courses, where Ferneyhough coordinated the composition program between 1984 and 1994. They formed the nucleus of a group identified with “the New Complexity,” a term coined by the Australian music theorist Richard Toop in direct and embattled reaction against the advancing tide.

Their manifestos, many of them unprintable in a book like this, were worthy successors to the original Darmstadt blasts surveyed in chapter 1. And their music was, at least in appearance, even more complicated. To speak of the appearance of the music is in this case not trivial, because composers associated with the New Complexity put much of their effort into finding notations for virtually impalpable microtones, ever-changing rhythmic divisions and tiny gradations of timbre and loudness in an effort to realize their ideal of infinite musical evolution under infinitely fine control and presented with infinite precision, with absolutely no concession to “cognitive constraints.” As a result, to quote Christopher Fox (another British composer who has worked at Darmstadt), their scores “pushed the prescriptive capacity of traditional staff notation to its limits, with a hitherto unprecedented detailing of articulation.”11

The claim displays a familiar sort of bravado, but it is probably true: see Fig. 10-2, from Ferneyhough's String Quartet no. 2 (1980). It is not an unusually complicated page for Ferneyhough, but it shows clearly his device of “nested rhythms” (tiny sextolets in the time of five sixteenths within medium triplets inside of big quintolets, etc.) that motivated the notational extremities, plus the individual editorial attention given every single note (each with its own articulation mark and, usually, its own dynamic) and the “extended” playing techniques (trilled artificial harmonics, microtonal glissandos, etc.) that reflect the composer's determination to diversify at all costs. “It is imperative,” the composer wrote, “that the ideology of the holistic gesture be dethroned in favor of a type of patterning which takes greater account of the transformatory and energetic potential of the sub-components of which the gesture is composed.”12 Nothing is too small to be individuated, or given a distinctive written shape. The “late, late Romantic” implications are familiar enough: the notes are rugged individuals whose rights must be respected.

But despite the evident progress it fostered in notational technology the movement was too obviously a rear-guard action to inspire much interest. Nobody took the “new” in New Complexity seriously, not even its coiner. “Still complex” is what he really meant, wrote Toop, “but who uses labels like that?: they don't sell well!”13 Even its sympathizers kidded it: Barry Truax (b. 1947), a Canadian composer and acoustician, good-naturedly undermined Ferneyhough's ideology of endless differentiation with the remark that, after all, the New Complexity was “a lotta notes.”14 That could be a selling point: Michael Finnissy proudly billed his 5½ -hour History of Photography in Sound as being (in pointed comparison with the minimalists) “the longest non-repetitive piano piece to be performed.”15 But Eric Ulman, a former pupil of Ferneyhough, aired some tough objections of a kind that had always dogged modernist art, but now seemed especially relevant. “Sometimes,” he warned,

the “complex” score becomes an intimidation mechanism, staving off critical scrutiny by cultivating incomprehension, substituting colorful notational and verbal detail for musical detail, and depending on an inevitable inaccuracy of interpretation for either a genuinely improvisatory performative power or a final excuse for the failure of the material to present itself audibly.16

The notational detail was significant, even if the music was not; for its intricacy set a benchmark that is never likely to be equaled, let alone surpassed. The primary concern of this final chapter will be to show why this is so.


(11) Christopher Fox, “New Complexity,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XVII (2nd ed., New York: Grove, 2000), p. 802.

(12) Brian Ferneyhough, “Form—Figure—Style: An Intermediate Assessment,” Perspectives of New Music XXXI, no. 1 (winter 1993): 37.

(13) Richard Toop, “On Complexity,” Perspectives of New Music XXXI, no. 1 (winter 1993): 54.

(14) Barry Truax, “The Inner and Outer Complexity of Music,” Perspectives of New Music XXXII, no. 1 (winter 1994): 176.

(15) Ian Pace website (www.ianpace.com/text/history2.htm).

(16) Eric Ulman, “Some Thoughts on the New Complexity,” Perspectives of New Music XXXII, no. 1 (winter 1994): 204–5.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Millennium's End. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010003.xml