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New Complexity

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Title: New Complexity  
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Subject: Brian Ferneyhough, Avant-garde, Michael Edward Edgerton, 21st-century classical music, Drop Art
Collection: Atonal Compositions, British Music
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New Complexity

In music, the New Complexity is a term dating from the 1980s, principally applied to composers seeking a "complex, multi-layered interplay of evolutionary processes occurring simultaneously within every dimension of the musical material" (Fox 2001).


  • Origins of New Complexity 1
  • International spread 2
  • Other notable composers 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6

Origins of New Complexity

Though often atonal, highly abstract, and dissonant in sound, New Complexity music is most readily characterized by the use of techniques which require complex musical notation. This includes extended techniques, complex and often unstable textures, microtonality, highly disjunct melodic contour, complex layered rhythms, abrupt changes in texture, and so on. It is also characterized, in contradistinction to the music of the immediate post–World War II serialists, by the frequent reliance of its composers on poetic conceptions, very often implied in the titles of individual works and work-cycles.

The origin of the name "New Complexity" is uncertain; amongst the candidates suggested for having coined it are the composer Nigel Osborne, the Belgian musicologist Harry Halbreich, and the British/Australian musicologist Richard Toop, who gave currency to the concept of a movement with his article "Four Facets of the New Complexity" (Toop 1988), an article that nevertheless emphasized the individuality of four composers (Richard Barrett, Chris Dench, James Dillon, and Michael Finnissy), both in terms of their working methods and the sound of their compositions, and which demonstrated they did not constitute a unified "school of thought" (Boros 1994, 92–93).

In the UK, particularly at the instigation of ensembles Suoraan and later Ensemble Exposé, works by "New Complexity" composers were for some time frequently programmed together with then unfashionable non-UK composers including Xenakis and Feldman, but also such diverse figures as Clarence Barlow, Hans-Joachim Hespos, and Heinz Holliger.

Although the British influence, via the teaching efforts of Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Finnissy, was decisive in the origins of this movement, initial support came not from British institutions but rather from performers and promoters of new music in continental Europe, particularly at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse between 1982 and 1996, where Ferneyhough was in charge of the composition programme.

Ferneyhough's Etudes Transcendentales, a song cycle for soprano and chamber ensemble, demonstrates many traits found in New Complexity music. In addition to being generally difficult to learn and perform, the pitch vocabulary makes heavy use of microtones—in this case, equal-tempered quarter tones. It also contains many tuplets of unusual ratios which are nested in multiple layers. Rapid changes, sometimes from note to note, happen in dynamics, articulation, and playing technique, including techniques such as multiphonics on the oboe, glottal stops for the voice, and key-clicking for the flute. According to Richard Toop, the rhythm for the oboe part in the first song is almost totally determined by a strict system with five stages of complexity, each governed by its own cycle of numbers.

International spread

By 1997, the composers associated with the New Complexity had become an international and geographically disjunct movement, spread across North America, Europe, and Australia, many of them with little connection to the Darmstadt courses, and with considerable divergence amongst themselves in styles and techniques (Fox 2001). This can be seen in the range of nationalities of composers interested in this aesthetic direction, the international interest of ensembles in this music, and the impact of teachers such as James Dillon, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, and Brian Ferneyhough in both Germany and the United States.

One example of the international spread of the movement can be found in the Bludenzer Tage (Bludenz, Austria) during the leadership of the composer Wolfram Schurig from 1995 to 2006. Although numerous other compositional directions were represented as well, this festival was prominent during this decade for its support of composers associated with the New Complexity, in many respects replacing the Darmstadter Ferienkurse in leadership in this compositional direction. The international nature of its programming is clear from the large number of composers invited from North America; these included Ignacio Baca-Lobera from Mexico and Aaron Cassidy, Franklin Cox, Chris Mercer, Steven Takasugi, and Mark Osborn from the United States.

There are various individual performers who have become to varying degrees closely associated with the movement, among them flautists Nancy Ruffer and Lisa Cella, oboists Christopher Redgate and Peter Veale, clarinettists Carl Rosman, Andrew Sparling and Michael Norsworthy, pianists Augustus Arnone, James Clapperton, Nicolas Hodges, Mark Knoop, Marilyn Nonken, Mark Gasser, Ermis Theodorakis, and Ian Pace, violinists Mieko Kanno and Mark Menzies, cellists Franklin Cox, Arne Deforce and Friedrich Gauwerky. A number of ensembles are also known for performing New Complexity works, such as the Arditti Quartet, JACK Quartet, Ensemble Exposé, Thallein Ensemble, Ensemble 21, Ensemble SurPlus, and ELISION Ensemble. Works by Ferneyhough and Dillon in particular has been taken on by a wider range of European ensembles, including ensemble recherche, Ensemble Accroche-Note, the Nieuw Ensemble, and Ensemble Contrechamps.

One could speak of a second wave in this movement that greatly influenced by the early music of German composer Klaus K. Hübler. Hübler's music focused far less on the creation of elaborate pitch structures than did that of Ferneyhough or Finnissy, instead creating a precisely-notated polyphony of sound-producing actions for each instrument. In Hübler's solo cello piece Opus breve, for example, the cellist performs from a score consisting of three primary layers of action, each notated with independent rhythms: one for the left hand (fingerings) and two for the right hand (string changes and bow changes/dynamics/bow speed), with ancillary indications attached to these primary ones. This results in unstable and constantly mutating timbres and textures, with pitches blurred and a high degree of noise content. Composers such as Wieland Hoban, Cassidy, and Cox have been strongly influenced by Hübler's music, as evidenced in most of Cassidy's and Hoban's compositions and Cox's solo cello work Recoil.

Other notable composers

See also


  • Boros, James. 1994. "Why Complexity? (Part Two) (Guest Editor's Introduction)". Perspectives of New Music 32, no. 1 (Winter): 90-101.
  • Fox, Christopher. 2001. "New Complexity." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Mahnkopf, Claus-Steffen, Franklin Cox, and Wolfram Schurig (eds.). 2002– . Series, New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century. Hofheim: Wolke Verlag. [Numerous essays by and about composers associated with the New Complexity.]
    • Vol. 1: Polyphony & Complexity (2002) ISBN 3-936000-10-7.
    • Vol. 2: Musical Morphology (2004) Published in collaboration with the Bludenzer Tage Zeitgemässer Musik. ISBN 3-936000-13-1.
    • Vol. 3: The Foundations of Contemporary Composing (2004). ISBN 3-936000-14-X.
    • Vol. 4: Electronics in New Music (2006). ISBN 3-936000-15-8.
    • Vol. 5: Critical Composition Today (2006). ISBN 3-936000-16-6.
    • Vol. 6: Facets of the Second Modernity (2008). ISBN 978-3-936000-17-7.
    • Toop, Richard. 1988. "Four Facets of the 'New Complexity'". Contact no. 32:4–8.
    • Toop, Richard. 1991. "Brian Ferneyhough's Etudes Transcendantales: A Composer's Diary (Part 1)". Eonta 1, no. 1:55–89.

Further reading

A collection of articles on most of the British members of the movement can be found in the issue "Aspects of Complexity in Recent British Music", edited Tom Morgan, Contemporary Music Review 13, no. 1 (1995). The journal Perspectives of New Music also published a two-part "Complexity Forum," edited by James Boros, in volumes 31, no. 1 (Winter 1993): 6–85, and 32, no.1 (Winter 1994): 90–227 which included some contributions by and about composers associated with the New Complexity.

  • Baranski, Sandrine. 2010a. "La musique en réseau, une musique de la complexité ?". Editions universitaires européennes. May, 210. ISBN 978-613-1-50744-1 Book
  • Baranski, Sandrine. 2010b. "Musique et complexité: la voix du réseau selon Chris Brown" Paper
  • Cassidy, Aaron. 2004. "Performative Physicality and Choreography as Morphological Determinants". In Musical Morphology, edited by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox, and William Schurig, 34–51. New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century 2. Hofheim: Wolke-Verlag. ISBN 3-936000-13-1.
  • Cox, Frank. 2002. "Notes toward a Performance Practice for Complex Music" and "'Virtual' Polyphony: Clairvoyance, for solo violin". In Polyphony and Complexity, edited by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox, and William Schurig, 70–132; 162–79. New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century 1. Hofheim: Wolke-Verlag. ISBN 3-936000-10-7.
  • Cox, Frank. 2008 "Recoil, for Solo Cello: Background and Analysis". In Facets of the Second Modernity, edited by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox, and William Schurig, 57-98. New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century 6. Hofheim: Wolke-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-936000-17-7.
  • Duncan, Stuart Paul. 2010a. "Re-Complexifying the Function(s) of Notation in the Music of Brian Ferneyhough and the 'New Complexity'". Perspectives of New Music 48, no. 1 (Winter): 136–72.
  • Duncan, Stuart Paul. 2010b. "The Concept of New Complexity: Notation, Interpretation, and Analysis". D.M.A. diss.. Ithaca: Cornell University.
  • Duncan, Stuart Paul. 2010c. " To Infinity and Beyond: A Reflection on Notation, 1980s Darmstadt, and Interpretational Approaches to the Music of New Complexity". Search, Journal for New Music and Culture 7. Online Journal:
  • Friedl, Reinhold. 2002. "Some Sadomasochistic Aspects of Musical Pleasure". Leonardo Musical Journal 12:29-30.
  • Hoban, Wieland 2004. "Morphological Boundaries and Their Dissolution: Hedone for String Quintet". In Musical Morphology, edited by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox, and William Schurig, 132–46. New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century 2. Hofheim: Wolke-Verlag. ISBN 3-936000-13-1.
  • Mahnkopf, Claus-Steffen. 2002. "Theory of Polyphony," "Complex Music: Attempt at a Definition," "Theses Concerning Harmony Today," and "Medusa: Concerning Conception, Poetics, and Technique". In Polyphony and Complexity, edited by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox, and William Schurig, 38–53, 54–64, 65–69, and 245–65. Hofheim: Wolke-Verlag. ISBN 3-936000-10-7.
  • Mahnkopf, Claus-Steffen. 2008. "Second Modernity—An Attempted Assessment". In Facets of the Second Modernity, edited by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox, and William Schurig, 9-16. New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century 6. Hofheim: Wolke-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-936000-17-7.
  • Marsh, Roger. 1994. "Heroic Motives. Roger Marsh Considers the Relation between Sign and Sound in 'Complex' Music". The Musical Times 135, no. 1812 (February): 83–86.
  • Redgate, Christopher. 2007. "A Discussion of Practices Used in Learning Complex Music with Specific Reference to Roger Redgate's Ausgangspunkte". Contemporary Music Review 26, no. 2 (April): 141–49.
  • Schurig, Wolfram. 2008. "Formal Strategies in the Works hot powdery snow..., Ultima Thule, and blick: verzaubert." In Facets of the Second Modernity, edited by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox, and William Schurig, 205–16. Hofheim: Wolke-Verlag. New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century 6. ISBN 978-3-936000-17-7.
  • Toop, Richard. 1993. "On Complexity". Perspectives of New Music 31, no. 1 (Winter): 42–57.
  • Truax, Barry. 1994. "The Inner and Outer Complexity of Music". Perspectives of New Music 32, no. 1 (Winter): 176–93.
  • Ulman, Erik. 1994. "Some Thoughts on the New Complexity". Perspectives of New Music 32, no. 1 (Winter): 202-206.
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