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Effective Complexity in Music: Tones, noise and Avant-Rock

Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Murrey Gell-Mann examines the very nature of complexity in his book, The Quark and the Jaguar. He draws a distinction between complexity in general and effective complexity. While systems can be very complex in term of their constituent parts, these fragments may form patterns that reduce the effective complexity of the system as a whole. Conversely, even if a system is entirely disorganized, it still has low effective complexity because everything is then homogeneously, albeit randomly, distributed. Thus, the combination of algorithmic (organized) and stochastic (random) data forms the basis of systems with the highest effective complexity.

What does this have to do with music in general, and avant-rock in particular? Western music, and especially triadic, or so called common-practice harmony, comprises a system that is highly organized; every dissonance must be approached and resolved in a predetermined fashion, and the relationships between chords tend to follow the Tonic-Predominant-Dominant-Tonic structure. While this type of music can be very complex, such as the music of Bach, the effective complexity remains low due to the rigid organization of data.

Composers such as Schoenberg attempted to make a new musical language that we call atonal. This type of arrangement of tones, while it destabilizes our notions of harmony, still mobilizes its own form of internal grammar that is more or less consistent in its organization. Although this music may seem, and indeed may in fact be, more complex than common-practice, tonal harmony, it still forms patterns that are not random and that serve again to lower the effective complexity of the music.

John Cage was instrumental in changing how western musicians and composers think about sound, music, and what distinguishes a musical sound from “noise.” With pieces like “Water Walk” we find traditionally non-musical sounds being heard as musical events. While this music is complex in terms of the varied noises and discrete, random “pitches,” the effective complexity is still low due to the fact that the noises created still form patterns based on their sound type and origin.

The difference between “noise” and the arrangement of tones that we call music is the same as the difference between random and organized sound. This means that music with the highest effective complexity combines elements of organized tones with random noise.

This discussion leads to the topic of avant-garde music, but in particular, Avant-Rock, which utilizes these types of sound combinations. The Velvet Underground are a perfect example. Their music merges simple, repetitive song forms with noise as an element of music. Their song, “Heroin,” for instance, comprises only a few triadic harmonies, but they are combined with electronic feedback “noise,” or quasi-random sound to create a mixture with very high effective complexity.

Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” takes this idea to the other extreme, where the entire track is composed of multi-tracked guitar feedback. With only disorganized sound as the basis for the song, the effective complexity remains low.

This push for noise-as-music propelled composers of classical music to search for new ways of producing musical (or quasi-musical) sounds on traditional musical instruments. Known as extended techniques, these new methods such as playing very close the bridge on a string instrument, slowing the bow down to make a pitchless crunching noise, playing on the opposite side of the bridge, and even bowing on the tailpiece, became tools for some composers in the twentieth-century. Composers such as Penderecki and Crumb used extended techniques and atonal clusters of notes to create different kinds of sounds not traditionally associated with classical music. In terms of effective complexity, this music ranks fairly high, as some of the noises form disorganized ensembles of tones, while some patterns remained discernible.

Brian Eno had a particular talent for listening and hearing things in musical ways that others might not even notice. An experience that inspired Eno to make his own ambient music involved hearing 18th century harp music from another room and listening as it commingled with the atmospheric noises around him.

Distinguishing a moment of sound as a musical happening is a very postmodern idea, having lead to some of the most interesting combinations of sound in the 20th century. The combination of highly organized, tonal music with totally random environmental, non-musical noise produces an effect that would be nearly impossible to breakdown into simpler patterns or algorithmic forms, and would thus correspond with a high level of effective complexity

One method of analysing music in this way would be to divide a piece up into constituent systems and use the sum of the complexity of each subsystem to define the effective complexity. For instance, criteria that might be examined would include: form, instrumentation, timbre, sound/noise origin, etc. Music such as that of Beethoven, which both satisfies and disrupts conventional expectations with regard to harmony and form, ranks highly on this list. His occasional deviations from the traditional “norms” distinguish his music as being of particular genius.

Conversely, the music of the Beatles on albums such as Sergeant Pepper’s or those released subsequently, both meets and rejects standard elements of pop-rock from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Their complete break from blues orthodoxy in terms of form, instrumentation, meter, and other studio effects, sets the Beatles apart from other bands. Yet they retain some aspects, such as the vocal driven music with electric guitar and drums. “A day in the life” provides an excellent example of this. Being as it is comprised of two different songs mashed together, the track totally eschews any semblance of traditional song form. Even the expectation that the material from the beginning will return at the end is foiled by an orchestral-noise transition into a tutti C major chord.

Both songs of the mashup are so different, mainly due to the fact they they were written and sung by John Lennon and Paul McCartney respectively. The timbral and instrumental differences notwithstanding, the bizarre transition between songs takes the cake for effective complexity in terms of random noise and pitched, musical tones. The full orchestra gliss is patterned in that all the notes of the glissandi are traditional musical sounds, and they are all moving in more or less the same direction; however, the context of the atonal “noise” in the midst of two pop/rock singles is totally unexpected. To go even further the end of the track contains a strange repeating audio recording of a human voice in reverse. All of these elements combine to make a system of relatively high effective complexity;

The idea of complexity in music can be broken down in many different ways. Most commonly perhaps, complexity refers to the difference between a piece that uses only whole-notes and C major scales, versus a piece that uses thirty-second note runs of F# mixolydian scales. While these are simplistic examples, they paint a general picture of complexity in terms of written music. This examination sought to explore complexity at a higher level of analysis by implementing theories of complexity in terms of physical systems. Because music is a physical phenomena, this type of analysis seems particularly apt. Of course, complexity in music does not necessarily correspond with artistic success, but it does seem that avant-garde music has typically strayed into more complex territory (other than minimalism), and avant-rock in particular has found conspicuous use for combinations of sounds that correspond to systems of higher effective complexity. Given its tendency to mix disparate elements in new and interesting ways, Avant-Rock has a particular bent for this type of complexity. I would go so far as to say that music in the Avant-Rock genre shares these types of complexity as common denominators, and as features that set the music apart from any other genre.

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