Performance Perspectives Blog

An argument for simplicity

by | Jun 27, 2010

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout provides a very interesting series of observations on complexity, as it relates to writing and music: “Too Complicated for Words.” He cites a paper by Fred Lerdahl, which speaks directly on complexity and music: “Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems.”  I confess that I haven’t yet read Lerdahl’s piece, but I did fine Teachout’s article quite good.

He quotes Lerdahl who wrote “Much contemporary music pursues complicatedness [sic] as compensation for a lack of complexity.” Might a similar statement be tossed at some of the models we run into in the world of performance, attribution and risk? Do some authors or developers of models make things more complicated than necessary?

At times I believe this is the case, as I’ve heard lectures on certain models which made them quite difficult to comprehend. However, after investing the time to fully grasp them, I concluded that the lecturer might be accused of engaging in some obfuscation, to what ends one can only guess at.

I often spend a lot of time learning a model, so that I can attempt to present it in a more simplified manner, as I’d prefer that others understand it. We should not be like James Joyce; consider the following conversation between Joyce and H.G. Wells, as reported by Teachout:

  • Wells: “You have turned your back on common men, on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence.
  • Joyce: “The demand that I make on my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” 

As one who has attempted to make it through Ulysses, I can attest to the challenge Joyce provides the reader. We should strive in our profession to simplify, whenever possible. 

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