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.