New Complexity

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).


Music of the "New Complexity"

Though often atonal, highly abstract, and dissonant in sound, the "New Complexity" is most readily characterized by the use of techniques which require complex musical notation. This includes extended techniques, microtonality, odd tunings, highly disjunct melodic contour, innovative timbres, complex polyrhythms, unconventional instrumentations, abrupt changes in loudness and intensity, and so on.

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 (the latter begun by composers Roger Redgate and Richard Barrett), 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. 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 is clearly evidenced by range of nationalities of the composers interested in this aesthetic direction (for example, in the book series New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century (Mahnkopf, Cox, and Schurig 2002– ) one finds a clear international focus), 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.

There are various performers who have become to varying degrees closely associated with the movement: these include flautist Nancy Ruffer, oboist Christopher Redgate, clarinettists Carl Rosman and Michael Norsworthy, pianists James Clapperton, Nicolas Hodges, Mark Knoop, Marilyn Nonken, Mark Gasser, and Ian Pace, the Arditti Quartet, violinist Mieko Kanno, cellists Franklin Cox, Arne Deforce and Friedrich Gauwerky, as well as Ensemble Exposé, Thallein Ensemble, Suoraan, Ensemble 21 (USA), Surplus (Germany), Noise (USA), and ELISION Ensemble. The work of Ferneyhough and Dillon in particular has been taken by a wider range of European ensembles, including Ensemble Recherche, Ensemble Accroche-Note, the Nieuw Ensemble, Ensemble SurPlus and Ensemble Contrechamps.

One example of a piece by Brian Ferneyhough may serve to demonstrate certain traits found in some of the music of New Complexity. Like many other works by Ferneyhough and other New Complexity composers, Etudes Transcendantales is infamously difficult to perform and is extremely complicated. Pitch-wise, the notes are freely sampled from all 12 tones and the quarter tones in between. Rhythmically, Ferneyhough is known for his nested irregular tuplets, and there is no exception here. Almost each individual note also has its own unique dynamics and articulation, including extended techniques such as multiphonics on the oboe, glottal stops for the voice, and key-clicking for the flute.

Throughout the nine songs, the process of composition transitions from a Serialist-type systematic approach in the first song to an intuitive and free approach by the last song. While Ferneyhough thought this system is important, the practical effects are not discernable to the listener, as his intuitive composition produces music like that produced by his automation methods

First measure of movement 1 of Etudes Transcendantales, oboe part.

For example, for the oboe part in the first song, the rhythm is almost totally determined by a strict system, with five stages of complexity, each determined by another cycle of numbers:

  1. dividing each measure into a number of notes
  2. subdividing chunks of those notes into another layer
  3. adding dots so that 4 notes fit where 3 did previously
  4. tie some notes with each other and replace others with rests
  5. replace two consecutive notes with a triplet in which one beat is a rest
(Toop 1991)

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.]
  • 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.

  • 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; 162-179. New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century 1. Hofheim: Wolke-Verlag. ISBN 3936000107.
  • 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 9783936000177.
  • Friedl, Reinhold. 2002. "Some Sadomasochistic Aspects of Musical Pleasure". Leonardo Musical Journal 12:29-30.
  • 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 245-265. Hofheim: Wolke-Verlag. ISBN 3936000107.
  • 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 9783936000177.
  • Marsh, Roger. 1994. "Heroic Motives. Roger Marsh Considers the Relation between Sign and Sound in 'Complex' Music". The Musical Times 135, no. 1812 (February), pp. 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 9783936000177.
  • 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): 176-193.
  • Ulman, Erik. 1994. "Some Thoughts on the New Complexity". Perspectives of New Music 32, no. 1 (Winter): 202-206.

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