Historian Richard Taruskin captures some important aspects of modernism in music by referring to it as "maximalism". More and more, once the traditional structures were broken down and cast aside, the one sure path to the future for most composers was greater and greater and greater complexity. I'm not talking so much about length or the sheer size of the orchestra, both those were well under way in the 19th century with the operas of Wagner and symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. No, the complexity extended to the saturation of harmonic space with acceptable harmonies containing not just three or four notes, but seven or even ten! The degree of dissonance was constantly being increased. When Schoenberg finally came upon a way of setting aside the entire concept of consonance, new ways of structuring music had to be found. Again, it was always in the direction of greater and greater complexity and ways were found to structure tone rows, those building blocks of twelve-tone music, that involved complex kinds of symmetry. New and complex vocabulary was also invented so that we can talk about mysterious things like "hexachordal combinatoriality" and be talking about a piece of music, not mathematics!
These trends just went on and on to ever higher and higher levels of complexity. That wasn't the only thing that was happening, there was also the greater inclusion of new kinds of sounds, more percussion instruments and the use of new performing techniques. But the basic trend was always toward greater complexity. You start to see the problem, I think? Just as if you throw all the colors on the canvas and mix them together, you always end up with greyish-brown, if you constantly have a high level of dissonance combined with great rhythmic complexity, all orchestral music starts to sound a bit the same. Then what do you do? People like Karlheinz Stockhausen just kept adding more: by the late 1950s and early 60s he was writing enormously complex and dissonant music for three and four separate orchestras.
Ok, that's the back story. Now I will tell you how I ran across what I think is the most audacious piece of the 20th century. As an undergraduate at McGill in the mid-70s I would sometimes go to the listening library during a free period and just try and listen to some new stuff. I would wander randomly down the shelves and grab a few discs that looked like they might be interesting. Usually they would be pieces of newer music because that was a special interest of mine at the time. I don't recall much of what I would listen to, but this would be pretty typical:
As I only had forty minutes or so, I would often just put on the beginning and if something didn't grab me pretty quickly, I would move on to the next disc. Let's recreate the experience. First some Ligeti, Continuum for harpsichord:
Not a well-known piece, but one I was listening to at the time. Next is an excerpt from Le Marteau sans Maitre by Pierre Boulez:
Here is Gruppen for three orchestras and three conductors by Stockhausen:
Notice that the complexity level is very high for all these pieces--and if you study the scores, you will just see more complexity! But this complexity was not just restricted to big orchestral music, as we saw with the harpsichord piece. One composer managed to find a way to create music for piano that was simply too complex to be performed and he did it by directly cutting piano rolls. Here is a piece by Conlon Nancarrow:
So imagine me in the library, listening to some or part of various pieces and then, I put this on, Drumming by Steve Reich:
In a context where EVERYTHING is designed for a great degree of complexity, this is simply astonishing. I was bracing myself for -- what? And then this, a single beat on a drum? Honestly, I nearly fell off my chair. You see, doing just what everyone else is doing, but just a little more, or doing it in a different medium is just not all that audacious, now is it? But if everyone else is writing fiendishly difficult music using hexachordal combinatoriality and you go out there and hit a little drum with a little stick, well, that's audacious! I'm sorry I can't put up the version I was listening to, on Deutsche Grammophon, but it is not on YouTube. Another audacious thing is that the whole piece is one hour and twenty-four minutes long, divided in four parts. The first part is nothing but those little drums and the development of one simple rhythm. Then he does it all over again with marimbas, then with xylophones and then puts them all together. Simple. And, to my mind, absolutely devastating to the musical aesthetic that says that the only road forward is to keep adding layers of complexity.
There are rare times in music history when all should be swept aside and composers need to return to the absolute fundamental basis of music. That was what Steve Reich was doing in 1970 when he wrote this piece, the most audacious composition of the 20th century.