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COMPLEXITY, CLARITY AND CONTEMPORARY BRITISH ORCHESTRAL MUSIC

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Abstract

This article discusses how normative perceptions of British contemporary orchestral music can be underpinned by a residual binary of ‘clarity’ versus ‘complexity’ as positive and negative value judgements respectively, informing public discourse around the orchestra by reviewers, audiences and performers alike. A post-war valorisation of ‘clarity’ is traceable to the transparent neo-tonal harmony, melodic invention and approaches to orchestration characteristic of the post-Britten tradition. The adoption of such a valorisation by ‘mainstream’ contemporary British composers, exemplified by Faber Music, has generalised an aesthetically specific compositional approach. Using the examples of Thomas Adès and George Benjamin, the article shows how certain residual normative approaches to material and notation are defined against the tendencies of ‘complexism’ as exemplified by Brian Ferneyhough. This binary has engendered conservatism towards traditions of radical new orchestral music that do not conform to normative expectations of ‘clarity’, as the immediately perceptible separation and identification of musical elements.

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12 The original members of the BMIC New Voices (and Contemporary Voices) scheme included Joanna Bailie, Joe Cutler, Tansy Davies, Sam Hayden, Bryn Harrison, Morgan Hayes, Ed Hughes, Paul Newland, Gwyn Pritchard, James Saunders, Matthew Shlomowitz, Jo Thomas, Andrew Toovey, James Weeks and Paul Whitty.

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15 I heard of Barrett's use of the term from Belgian guitarist, Nico Couk, in a personal conversation of 14 November 2015.

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70 Lois Fitch, Brian Ferneyhough (Bristol: Intellect, 2013), p. 312.

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72 Cummings, Ferneyhough Week – La terre est un homme.

73 Cummings, Ferneyhough Week – La terre est un homme.

74 Frank Cox, ‘Notes Toward a Performance Practice for Complex Music’, in Polyphony and Complexity, ed. Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox and Wolfram Schurig, New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century, 1 (Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 2002), p. 103.

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76 Mahnkopf, ‘Complex Music: An Attempt at a Definition’, p. 55.

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Tempo
  • ISSN: 0040-2982
  • EISSN: 1478-2286
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