My mother, who is a non-musician but an avid listener, made an interesting comment to me after hearing us play Clamber Music on Saturday, something along the lines of “I like the parts where there are so many rhythms going on at once that you can’t hear which one is the actual rhythm”. I thought this was particularly astute because those are the parts I like best, too.
If music is ultimately about repetition or the lack thereof, then it’s important to keep in mind that listeners’ perception of tempo and rhythm is relative. They have to be able to perceive something in the first place in order for it to be distorted. This exactly why the first movement of Adés’s Concerto Conciso is such visceral fun to listen to, despite its surface complexity:
The same thing is going on in this passage from Schumann’s Fantasia in C, in the middle of the first movement, only the other way around: the music starts out shifted forward by an eighth note, and keeps shifting back and forth every couple of seconds, giving the whole passage a stumbling forward momentum, like someone excitedly trying to say too many words at once:
At the root of the issue is that you can write music that’s as clever (or as dumb) as you want, but people like to be able to hear at least some of what’s going on. In art, it doesn’t matter how smart you are if you lack the capacity to express yourself clearly. At least that’s what my mother always told me.