complexity, what’s the point?

Complexity – what’s the point?
March 13 2011

“We make our own nature because we always see it in the way that suits us culturally. When we look on mountains as beautiful, although they’re nothing but stupid and obstructive rock piles: these are just our own projections.” Gerhard Richter

My good friend, Ian Talbot, fine art photographer, recently created a blog responding to the above quote by Gerhard Richter in which he (Ian) expressed concepts of process that enabled his work to encompass simplicity and elegance as well as discussing aspects of cultural influences in the way art is both created and experienced.

out of the dead land_ guitar_0016


This discourse encouraged me to respond and expound a little about the motivations, processes and concepts behind my own work as a composer and painter.
Ian and Richter are correct! What we perceive isn’t necessarily what we see. Indeed, it seldom is. Cultural influences, visual and aural languages all play their part in how we filter and realise our thoughts and construct realities around us. Nature is one of these ‘realities’ and for me as an individual and an artist (one who interprets and re-constructs reality – perhaps?) the joy of untangling romance, fiction, ‘reality’, natural forces such as erosion, fractals and chaos theory, and the actual ‘joy of perception’ -what ever that may actually be, drive me forwards to engage with the world around me in a way that we have grown to accept as a creative response.

Simplicity and elegance are wonderful things and have, from time to time, concerned me in my own work as an artist and composer. However, as I have grown older, far from wishing to simplify my reality and bring elegance to image and sound, I have become increasingly fascinated by flux, chaos, complexity and multidimensional perception as in an object or sound construction that operates on many interwoven layers simultaneously. I’m not so concerned about line and order; I’m concerned about energies, densities, colour and textures.

Perhaps the strong relationship between my work as a visual artist and composer has driven these preoccupations. These two creative forms are closely linked by techniques and constructions developed over many years of practice. My compositions often influence new approaches to painting, just as techniques in painting have influenced my musical development.


Although I am interested in surfaces represented in sound, colour, form and texture, my work is further influenced by a fascination with layering, geology and erosion. The work, both sound based and visual, is primarily inspired by landscape (or my perceptions of it) – but this fascination gravitates around representing landscape in terms of molecular and primal energies rather than recreating what is seen or what I ‘think’ I am seeing.

Many of the acoustic pieces I write find their starting point from within other pieces of music I’ve already written. I am fascinated how altered contexts can radically redefine the way musical material feels and sounds. Transplanting different layers, voices or strands of music from one piece to another, altering tempi, small details and dynamics, transposing, inverting, and then letting those strands sound out together; all of these methods (and many others) – a sort of genetic recycling – fascinate me.

These connected works are like sons and daughters, cousins, five times removed. And with this ‘genetic’ material comes history, characteristics and content. In music, as with people, the way this genetic material is ‘lived out’ determines the character and make-up of the person or piece. This can lead to very individual and complex outcomes – fights, arguments, battles for dominance, deaths, betrayals, harmonies, solace and feud.

And in relation to the above, I’m also interested in music that operates more freely within itself. This is especially true with ensemble music where there are several instruments. I wish to investigate the simultaneous use of tempi where the musicians play in an independent manner, allowing serendipity to come into play and ever changing relationships of line and colour to manifest with each performance. These chance elements will be sufficiently organised to prevent total chaos but free enough to allow spontaneity and complex musical lines to be performed without the psychological stresses of finding the downbeat in every bar (with un-conducted music) as each performer will follow their own downbeat.

An example of ‘gentle complexity and bringing together ‘genetic material’ in music:

“We make our own nature because we always see it in the way that suits us culturally. When we look on mountains as beautiful, although they’re nothing but stupid and obstructive rock piles: these are just our own projections.” Gerhard Richter

and also

“Did motion come into being at some time
or did it neither come-to-be nor is it destroyed,
but did it always exist and will it go on for ever,
and is it immortal and unceasing for existing things,
being like a kind of life for all natural objects?”



“A number of fragments imply that it needs both faith and persistence to find the underlying truth.“


and still:

“Things taken together are whole and not whole,
something which is being brought together and brought apart,
which is in tune and out of tune;
out of all things there comes a unity,
and out of a unity all things.”


and, finally:

“all things are flux”


Complexity can exist on many levels. Sometimes, work with the most ‘simple’ surface can overlay much complexity in its realisation and production. And further to this, simplicity and complexity are points on a continuum. They are points that rely again on our perceptions, intellectual understanding and emotional, gut-reaction to creative work and the world around us. How much the artist puts into a work bears no relation to how much any one person gets out of it. An artist has his intention and the viewer or listener their perception and understanding. As was quoted from Richter, we see, hear, what we want to.

But I believe that like the complexity of nature, weather systems, the surface of water, light on leaves, the soil – you name it, we are capable of rendering simplicity and some degree of understanding and attachment to forms in nature that exist in complex fractal patterns and their limited but limitless array of variation around a single thematic or schematic. We are also capable of reading simple messages (correctly or incorrectly) from complex human behaviours and nuances.

Whilst the strength of many works of art in all media is to break through complexity and give a ‘reading’ or interpretation of something from our experience that has been delivered with elegance and clarity, such clarity can also come through an interaction with complexity. Think how we already interpret our extremely complex world, with varying degrees of success. We are capable of such.
Perhaps the artist sees their role as simplifying life to help others ‘see it’ (more clearly), perhaps as they themselves do? Perhaps this approach is more human, as it is closer to producing artifice? More human because it filters out what is considered unnecessary thereby producing something that is further removed from the real, further translated through the human condition, made more artificial and thereby resulting in what we understand to be art?
I conjecture my interest in the complex is more to do with trying to capture the mechanisms of nature, life and experience in all its mess, distractions and craggy chaos. I believe that when Heraclitus said this:

Many lines of music brought together simultaneously in orchestral music:

“Things taken together are whole and not whole,
something which is being brought together and brought apart,
which is in tune and out of tune;
out of all things there comes a unity,
and out of a unity all things.”

He was saying that complexity, creation and de-creation (destruction) and all the cycles between create chaos and dis-unity, but through this process comes unity, even if it is only transitory. When we perceive anything, it is in a state of flux, of movement from one state or place to another on its complex, interwoven journey. We think we see things fixed and static, but we do not. We can perceive beauty, elegance and simplicity against a backdrop of the raging forces of chaos, of nature, the universe and of our individual and communal lives.

With this in mind, I attempt to create work both visual and aural that operates in this flux, and sometimes chaos, and relays on the perceptive skills of the viewer to create their own order, their own simplicity against the many layers of activity they are presented with.

The surface of the earth, the landscapes we know, detailed corners we have explored are all very complex, detailed, interconnected and, to some degree, chaotic and ever-changing. From three miles up, out in space, that surface becomes something completely different; we see it all in new, larger shapes and configurations.

Simplicity is as much about a perceptual position and perspective as it is about content.