What is (or was) experimental music?
Experimental music has arguably become a meaningless term in the 21st century, despite some musicians and sound artists (the present author included) still identifying with it to varying degrees. It is generally understood now as just another musical genre (akin to noise or ambient music), or as a signpost on the fringes of established genres: experimental rock, experimental dance music, experimental jazz.
It wasn’t always this way. For a time, in the twentieth century, experimental music was something altogether different from just another genre or sub-genre. Beyond the music itself, it was a politically, socially and philosophically-orientated movement that framed itself as a new way of composing, performing, and even listening to music. From a historical perspective, it is arguable that the rise of the twentieth century experimental music movement, along with its modern day state of either irrelevance or genrefication, demonstrates it was a modernist phenomena who’s demise (or perhaps transformation) was an inevitable part of the processes of formalism and analysis inherent in many other twentieth century modernist art movements. Was experimental music (along with modernist literature, surrealism, avant garde cinema and performance art) simply part of the twentieth century modernist experience, and thus struggles for relevance today? Is the ‘process’ complete? If all the ‘experiments’ have been conducted, is there a point in exploring them again? This article looks at these questions, casting a critical eye over the historical development of experimental music as a movement, rather than an in-depth discussion of its key pioneers.
To arrive at some understanding of what experimental music is (or was), we need to explore its history, and in particular its context, within twentieth century modernism. But what was (or is) modernism?
Modernism as a descriptive term has had a wide range of uses and subsequent definitions, from the very broad (anything arising from the ‘modern’, or as a synonym for the avant garde) to an umbrella term for more identifiable art movements of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, such as Symbolism, Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, and Dada. Essentially, modernism is a general catch-all phrase that refers to the great upheavals that occurred in Western (largely European and Anglo) society from the late 19th century to the end of either the First or Second World War (there is some dispute about the endpoint of modernism, and where the postmodern era begins), to which the aforementioned art movements formed in response. The changes this period rendered upon Western society were largely centred around the accelerated breakdown of the moral authority of the Church and rapid advances in technology, culminating in the unprecedented horror of the First World War. Existentialist thinkers like Nietzsche and Satre captured the mood in their questioning of Western values of God, Beauty and Truth. It was no longer certain that God existed or that the pious went to heaven. Intellectual enquiry coupled with scientific and technological advances chipped away at the certainty of previous centuries; from Nietzsche to Einstein, the nature of the reality was no longer obvious. In the art world, modernist movements questioned the purpose and goals of art, exploring modes of expression that were previously discarded as aesthetically unappealing or even ugly. The world may have been outraged when Nietzsche proclaimed God to be dead, but by the end of the First World War with Europe in ruins and a generation devastated, this seemed to some modernist thinkers and artists to be self-evident.
The modernist project in the music world began in the 19th century, and can be traced back to as early as Wagner with his new expression of musical languages and reinvention of opera. Musicologists generally hold that the modernist music era began in 1890 with the emergence of composers such as Debussy, Mahler and Strauss, and their exploration of new concepts of rhythm, melody and structure. Certainly the beginnings of modern music were sown in this period, but the great upheavals occurred in the early 20th century with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913), with its radical take on meter, tonality and rhythm, and Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School’s development of twelve tone music (from 1908), where musical key centres were abandoned (atonality). Schoenberg is particularly important to understanding experimental music as a result of modernism, not only for his influence as a teacher on a young John Cage (although he refused to teach or even discuss his twelve tone method by this stage), but for the idea of using process to compose. Twelve tone music (and later integral serialism, as further developed by the Darmstadt composers and Pierre Boulez, post-Second World War) used a series of procedures to select which pitch would occur next in the composition via a set of pitches or “tone rows”. This is an important characteristic by which to understand modernism: the use of objective procedures to create art . Previous artists had understood their creative processes to have been guided by aesthetic goals and values; the idea of art being created by a mathematical process would be anathema to them. Yet modernism’s use of process questioned these pre-conceived ideas of creative process; weren’t pre-modernist composers simply complying to systems and procedures of harmony, melody and the tempered scale? And as for the music created by Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, it was astounding and strange. Deviations from tonality had been employed for effect before, but never had tonality been completely discarded. As alien as twelve tone music sounded to the Western musical ear tempered by Bach and Mozart, it was an appropriate soundtrack for the chaotic blood-soaked world of the early twentieth century. It is arguable that twelve tone music and the serial techniques that followed became the dominant characteristics of twentieth century orchestral and chamber music.
Glenn Gould performs Schoenberg’s Op. 25, Salzberg, 1959.
Musicologists generally view the modernist era to have ended either at the First World War or the 1930s; the great upheavals took place in this time and the rest of twentieth century music was built on these. But outside the concert hall, modernism spread amongst a range of music/sound-related art movements, as early as the Futurists (Rusollo’s 1913 manifesto “The Art of Noises” is a foundation stone of later twentieth century music movements such as noise and industrial music) and the sound poetry of Kurt Schwitters, through to the music of the Weimer Republic where folk musics and non-Western traditions became influential. Yet even if the modernist music project was over by the time Hitler took power in Germany as far as musicologists are concerned, the cataclysm of the Second World War was to have a profound effect upon twentieth century music. Again, the key drivers of change were technology, and the failure of the Church and morality.
The development of magnetic tape recorders accelerated rapidly in Germany during the Second World War as a communications technique. Post-war, tape recorders changed musical paradigms by freeing sound from the restrictions of performers and orchestras; composers could now directly interact with sound (other methods of electronic music had been explored by a handful of composers and artists between the wars, including the use of optical sound on film stock, rudimentary electronic keyboards/organs, and the development of the theremin, but none of these techniques coalesced into a dedicated movement like the post-Second World War advances did). Musique concrete thrived in post-war France with the use of magnetic tape, and the role of tape in the burgeoning electronic music emerging from Darmstadt, Germany, was central (along with Messiaen and Boulez in France) to the development of integral serialism (which applied the principles of twelve tone music not only to pitch, but to meter, dynamics, and all components of music). The devastating after-effects of the war as the Holocaust and other atrocities were uncovered led to further existentialist thoughts about the end of God, religion and morality. The Nazis were not cultural barbarians; Mozart, Beethoven, and particularly Wagner were held up as symbols of Aryan supremacy, and Strauss was a firm supporter of Hitler, at least in the beginning (Ross 2007). The SS instigated the creation of prisoner orchestras in Auschwitz, Birkenau and other concentration camps, who’s repertoire included Mozart, Greig, and Beethoven. Primo Levi saw the use of these bands as another aspect of terror in the camps. At the end of the Nazi nightmare, how could we listen to Mozart or Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” again? The Nazis had dismissed atonality as an aspect of Jewish decadence, and many Jewish artists fled Germany and Austria (including Schoenberg, who settled in the US); others like Viennese violinist and conductor, Alma Rose (niece of Mahler) were not so lucky, and perished in concentration camps. Throughout Europe, we can identify several concerted attempts to “start again” in terms of music. Integral serialism is the most readily-identifiable of these movements, and it is no coincidence that this emerged from the ruins of post-war Germany and a new generation of composers (that included the Darmstadt wunderkind, Karlheinz Stockhausen).
There were tensions and points of difference between different exponents of this new avant garde music in Europe, but it was in the United States that the key differentiation amongst new twentieth century music would emerge, no better exemplified than through the composer, John Cage. The son of an inventor, Cage had studied under Schoenberg and began to emerge as an American composer of note in the late 1930s, initially writing scores for dance and percussion ensembles. He pioneered the prepared piano as a kind of automated percussion ensemble, and by the 1950s became immersed in Eastern philosophies, particularly Zen. These ideas he applied to his music in a radical fashion, incorporating chance operations into the composition process, most famously consulting the ancient oracle, the I Ching, to make compositional choices. Throughout the 1950s, Cage completed several works that Alex Ross calls ‘the most startling events and nonevents in musical history’, including the somewhat infamous 4’33” (perhaps the foundation piece for the experimental music movement, and arguably an important milestone in twentieth century music more broadly). Cage drew his lineage from not only Schoenberg, but equally from Russolo, Satie and the American composer, Henry Cowell. He was also profoundly influenced by modern artists outside music, particularly Duchamp, and rubbed shoulders in downtown New York with visual artists like De Kooning, Rothko, Rauschenberg and Pollock in the early 1950s when he first began developing his chance procedures. Ross (2009) classifies Pollocks drip painting as ‘semi-chance process’ in drawing comparisons between Cage and his visual art associates, and says that Cage was ‘the original ultra-bohemian artist – in advance of the Beats and the Hippies. He had his lineage...but he really came from nowhere’.
Cage’s Music of Changes (Book 1), performed by David Tudor
Perhaps the simplest yet least-discussed contribution from Cage is his legitimisation of the phrase ‘experimental music’ as a musical movement. There is no argument that ‘experimental’ had been used as an adjective to describe music previously, but it was Cage who used it to describe a modern musical movement that differed from the European avant garde. As early as 1940, Cage was using the phrase, as an (unsuccessful) grant application to the Guggenheim Foundation in that year from Cage shows. Cage wanted to set up a Center for Experimental Music. The application shows how Cage foresaw electronic music as the way forward in experimental music, and outlined what he saw as the lineage for this nascent experimental music movement, beginning with Russolo through to Henry Cowell and Edgar Varese’s experiments with electronic music in the US. Cage’s application predicts that these electronic methods of creating new sounds bear a relation to Schoenberg’s twelve tone method, and includes a summary that could be seen as an embryonic manifesto of Cage and the nascent experimental music movement:
My ultimate purpose as a worker in the field of music is to make available and use sounds and rhythms which are either not yet available or not yet used; that is, I intend to push forward the frontiers of music
Cage wrote several times during the 1950s on the topic of experimental music. In ‘Experimental Music’ (1957) and ‘The History of Experimental Music in the United States’(1959), Cage distinguishes experimental music from the European avant garde and novelty in American music by what he calls ‘the ending of continuity’, whereby indeterminacy in a composition results in it being a collection of parts who’s order can be determined by performers rather than a linear set of instructions that a musical score had been traditionally understood as. Cage scores from the 1950s often came in ‘open form’, where their parts could be arranged in whatever order the performers desired, or by chance procedures, or even overlaid on top of each other on transparent sheets, such as in 1958’s Fontana Mix. He wrote of composers needing to give up the desire to ‘control sound’, and of devising compositional systems to do so. The idea of ‘freeing music’ was not new, if not in this libertarian context; Australian pianist and composer, Percy Grainger, had conceptualised a ‘gliding tone’ beyond the intonation of traditional instruments and composition earlier in the century (essentially a form of microtonality), that he called Free Music. He worked with Leon Theremin in the 1930s, and later constructed his own Free Music machines with engineer, Burnett Cross, in the late 1940s/early 1950s.
Cage also saw the arrival of magnetic tape (and more broadly, electronic music) as vital in ending continuity, in eliminating the need for meter, timing and rhythm. Ross writes (2007, p.365-6), ‘In place of the term “avant garde” [associated with Boulez], which implied a quasi-military forward drive, Cage preferred “experimental”, which, he said, was ‘inclusive rather than exclusive’...For Cage, the classical tradition was worn-out kitsch ripe for deconstruction, in the manner his intellectual hero Duchamp’. Cage and Boulez were actually on friendly terms for a time and were interested in the other’s compositional ideas, before their later much-publicised (and perhaps over-hyped) break. Ross says (p.371) that Cage and Boulez’s music ended up sounding oddly similar. The Hungarian composer, Gyrgi Ligeti, pointed out the resemblance between the two composers’ work in analytical articles he wrote in 1958 and 1960, concluding ‘that Boulez and other serialist composers were not fully responsible for the outcome of their works’. Their method obeyed a ‘compulsion neurosis that effectively randomized their musical material’. This raises a vital point in discerning the difference between the avant garde and experimental music movements: wasn’t Boulez and Stockhausen’s integral serialism just chance composition in the guise of order? And vice versa, wasn’t Cage’s I-Ching just another method at arriving at a tone row? Integral serialism and the use of aleatoric tools like the I-Ching are both closed systems (i.e. – the number of possible outcomes is fixed and known). Nyman identified ‘people’ and ‘contextual’ processes as key points of differentiation between experimental music and the avant garde; performer interpretation of open scores and notation along with unpredictable performance conditions (often encouraged) meant experimental music outcomes were less predictable. Although it is arguable that non-traditional notation and scoring methods used by someone like Stockhausen also left performer interpretation just as open. And lest we forget that it was Stockhausen who wrote a string quartet to be performed with each string player in separate helicopters! (Helikopter-Streichquartett (1993)).
Despite, or perhaps because of these commonalities, by the 1970s the Eurocentric avant garde and Anglo/American experimental movements had coalesced into opposing camps. Boulez belittled indeterminacy (the use of chance operations and open form scores) by likening Cage to a ‘performing monkey’ whose methods betrayed ‘fascist tendencies’ (Ross 2007, p.370); the ultimate insult from a post-war European avant garde composer. These attacks on the experimental music movement, along with their own sorties launched back into Europe, bought the movement’s identity into sharper relief. Nyman’s 1974 book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond was essentially a rallying cry to the experimental music cause, and defined the experimental music movement in political and social terms, as well as compositional. He categorised the post-war modernist music split into the avant garde and experimental music camps, labelling the avant garde as music under the authoritarian rule of the dictatorial composer and his integral serialist procedures, whilst experimental music sought to subvert, or even displace altogether, the role of the composer through open form and chance procedures. Ross (p. 370) is more circumspect with history in identifying the Cage/Boulez divide, saying it was indicative of the ‘sociological differences between the avant-garde cultures of America and Europe.’ Cage’s audience was ‘bohemian...Greenwich Village eccentrics...outsiders...Boulez’s audience...overlapped with traditional circles of connoisseurship and art appreciation’. Essentially, it was an Old World versus New World divide that disagreed on how to approach the modernist problem of achieving a ‘pure art’, ostensibly unaffected by social or political circumstance. Integral serialism sought to create such a music through rigorous procedures, and experimental music’s reliance on chance demonstrated the impossibility of such a premise.
Whatever their differences, beyond Cage’s early electronic music-aligned hopes for the experimental music movement, the post-war split demonstrates that experimental music increasingly defined itself by what it was not; i.e. – the European avant garde. With the benefit of hindsight, many of these purported differences do not hold up well to scrutiny; composers subverting the ‘role of the composer’ is inherently problematic, for example. Nyman’s virtual demonisation of Stockhausen created a convenient enemy figure in the Germanic authoritarian control of performers and rigid compositional systems. The English composer, Cornelius Cardew, worked as an assistant to Stockhausen before a split between the two in 1960 over the extent of Stockhausen’s control of performers in Cardew’s realisation of Stockhausen’s Carre for four orchestras. The split became more pronounced (at least from Cardew’s viewpoint) four years later over a realisation by Cardew and Frederic Rzewski of Stockhausen’s graphic notation work Plus-Minus, where Cardew and Rzewski tried to ‘manipulate Stockhausen’s instructions to their own ends...as they resented Stockhausen’s control’ (Stockhausen didn’t bite, though, claiming he was fascinated by the performance). Plus-Minus had similar treatment in other performances by experimentally-aligned performers later in the decade, with John Tilbury using a tape ‘from London Zoo of an elephant pissing’ to interpret particular symbology in the score (Anderson, pp.299-300). Cardew’s main point of difference in regard to graphic notation was that Stockhausen provided instructions on how the score should be interpreted by performers, whereas Cardew saw the score as the responsibility of performer; once the score was written, the composer should have no say in the music; a concrete example of Cage’s idea of freeing music from the composer’s control.
Cardew’s ‘defection’ to the experimental music movement became a fable to the Nyman camp. Through the 1960s, Cardew became a pioneer in graphic scores and notation himself under the influence of Cage, and with improvisation groups including AMM. His graphic score for Treatise (1963-7) was in many ways a response to Plus-Minus in that it provided absolutely no instructions for performers. ‘What I hope is that in playing this piece each musician will give of his own music – he will give it as his response to my music, which is the score itself’ (Anderson, p.301). The scores of Cage and Cardew are starting points for the creation of music, nothing more. In 1969, Cardew formed the Scratch Orchestra out of his experimental music class at Morely College. The Orchestra was born out of the dissatisfaction of young composers with the musical establishment and also included self-taught and non-musicians. In line with Cardew’s political evolution, the Orchestra became increasingly Marxist-Leninist in its focus, seeking to integrate with the working classes and pursue revolutionary aims. Initially, the enemy was Stockhausen and the avant garde, and Cardew and Scratch hoped to find some politically-acceptable salvation in Cage and experimental music; here the perceived political divide between the avant garde and experimental music became the most pronounced. Eley writes in his history of the Orchestra:
Amongst the Scratch Orchestra members there was considerable support for the ideas of John Cage, Christian Wolff, etc.; that is, random music with a multiplicity of fragments without cohesion as opposed to serialism. Aleatory (chance) music seemed richer, unpredictable, free! But serialism, the tradition stemming from Schoenberg, was formal, abstract and authoritarian. Most important was the social implication of Cage’s work — the idea that we are all musical, that ‘anybody can play it’. All this, at least, in theory. Serial music, on the other hand, was definitely elitist, uncompromisingly bourgeois, and anti-people.
Cardew and The Scratch Orchestra perform The Great Learning Paragraph 1.
Eley separates Cage and experimental music completely from the modernist music traced back to Schoenberg, despite the commonalities of history and process discussed above. This was a politically convenient argument; it does not do to acknowledge shared forefathers with the enemy. Yet Cardew’s Marxist-Leninist rejection of formalism soon extended to Cage as well. Cardew’s 1974 book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism put both Cage and Stockhausen in the same basket as ‘bourgeois composers’ of no relevance to the working classes. Cardew writes that Cage’s music initially outraged their bourgeois audiences, but that all-too-soon Cage performances had become ‘society events’. Admittedly, Cardew’s conclusions need to be understood in the context of his Marxist-Leninist ideology, where modernist movements were often denounced as decadent formalism, but Cardew’s later Maoist self-denouncement of his work in both the avant garde and experimental movements give rare insight into the heart of each movement. After rejecting both modernist music movements, Cardew made largely-unsuccessful attempts to write Maoist folk music (in the tonal idiom) aimed at radicalising the working classes towards revolution. After Mao’s death in 1977, Cardew gave some indications of wanting to explore some forms of experimental composition again (Anderson, p.317), yet his tragic death prevented any realisation of this return. Cardew died in a hit-and-run accident in 1981; the driver was never found, leading to several assassination conspiracy theories involving M15 or rival revolutionary groups.
This compartmentalising of modernist movements that the fable-like story of Cardew represents is not unique to music; most art forms went through similar splits during the twentieth century. Writing about cinema, Peter Wollen’s concept of ‘two avant gardes’ has parallels with the experience of modern music. Writing about similar process-orientated problems in avant garde cinema. Wollen looked at other modernist art movements, including the visual arts and literature, to identify modernist characteristics that could also be recognised in film. These included focus upon sign and signifier to the exclusion of the signified itself (ala semiotics), through to an art of pure signifiers detached from meaning altogether (abstraction). Alongside the key tenets of formalism, structuralism and other process-driven practices, Wollen also identified intertextuality as a common factor (the play of allusion between texts, such as practiced by James Joyce and Ezra Pound in literature, where again the process is magnified and the signified receives less emphasis). In Wollen’s assessment, the film maker Jean-Luc Godard was a figure who trod a similar path to Cardew, in that he moved from the establishment avant garde to the radical experimental camp, before discarding the ideologies of both.
These parallels between different art forms poses the question as to whether modernism is ‘finished’. Modernism itself may be better understood as a process than an end in itself. The twentieth century was a period of great social, cultural and technological upheaval in the Western world (and arguably beyond the West). Modernism was an intellectual and artistic process that attempted to deal with this radically-altered world through new means of expression and thought; no better demonstrated than in the arts. Placing avant garde and experimental music alongside other modernist art movements allows us to understand these art forms as part of the process of modernism. Modernist music met the challenge head on, particularly in the aftermath of the Second World War, as the activities of the avant garde and experimental music movements have demonstrated. Although their processes, methods, political alignments differed, both movements were essentially tackling the same problem; the perceived end of the Western artistic and moral paradigm. As has been shown, these seemingly-opposing movements had much more in common than either liked to admit.
Attempts later in the century to grapple with a definition of ‘experimental music’ focussed on innovation beyond cyclical renewal (Landy). Whiteoak uses the term ‘exploratory music’ to encompass a range of musics, including experimental and improvisatory practices. The composer, Warren Burt, has written that experimental music is essentially ‘problem-creating’ rather than ‘problem-solving’; it isn’t the end product that is important but the journey (or process) getting there. Like modernism, the process is paramount. But is the process complete? Definitions of ‘post modernism’ vary between it being a subset of modernism through to something that comes ‘after modernism’. Whatever modernism was, it’s upheavals largely seem to be over. If so, what does this mean for experimental music practices today? In some ways, the development of technology in music has seen the practices that composers like Cage advocated in the 1950s, such as electronic music, now well and truly part of the mainstream, especially in non-conservatorium ‘popular’ music genres. The rise of popular music has also seen the toppling of the composer as all-powerful authoritarian figure; although not as Cage might have imagined. The performer (and in some electronic music, even the producer) is now king. Music that we might identify as ‘experimental’ still takes place throughout the world in a variety of settings; through process-driven composition, to structured improvisation, to multimedia events that transcend musical boundaries into performance art and happening, and the fringe musical genres that have sprung from experimental music practices, such as industrial music and noise music that rose to subcultural prominence in the 1980s and 1990s (although their existence as genres poses the question as to how experimental these musics actually are, they are both vividly modernist in aesthetic and intent). Problem-creating and process are still prominent in contemporary experimental music practice; occasionally the ‘problems’ become musical genres themselves. Experimental music is still a process rather than an answer, but sometimes the problems become the solutions.
Virginia Anderson, ‘”Well, It’s a Vertabrate...”. Performer Choice in Cardew’s Treatise’, Jounal of Musicological Research vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 291-317.
John Cage, Silence. Wesleyan, 1973.
Cornelius Cardew, Stockhausen Serves Imperialism. Ubuclassics, 2004 http://www.ubu.com/historical/cardew/cardew_stockhausen.pdf
Rod Eley, ‘A History of the Scratch Orchestra’, in Cornelius Cardew, Stockhausen Serves Imperialism. Ubuclassics, 2004 http://www.ubu.com/historical/cardew/cardew_stockhausen.pdf
Guido Fackler “Official Camp Orchestras in Auschwitz”. Music and the Holocaust http://holocaustmusic.ort.org/places/camps/camp-orchestras
Leigh Landy What's the matter with today's experimental music? Organised sound too rarely heard. Taylor & Francis, 1991.
Michael Nyman Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Alex Ross The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2007.
Alex Ross “Cage in Barcelona”. Unquiet Thoughts, 9 Nov. 2009 http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/alexross/2009/11/cage-in-barcelona.html
John Whiteoak Playing Ad Lib. Currency Press, 1999.
Peter Wollen, ‘The Two Avant-Gardes’, Studio International vol. 190, no. 978 (November/December 1975), pp. 171–175.