Music—and sound art more generically—called experimental can vary in its sound, instrumentation, structure, function and in any of a number of other ways. It can be found within genres such as jazz, Western art music, rock, and so on. It is, I think, an attitude toward sound—a curiosity or sense of exploration framed within a tradition of curiosity and exploration. This tradition is extremely eclectic, tracing back to the Futurists with their intonarumori, Charles Ives’ simultaneity of harmonies and rhythms, the inventions of Henry Cowell, Harry Partch and Lou Harrison, European experiments with musique concrète and serialization, Varèse’s constructivist blocks of sound, the New York School’s indeterminacy and opening out to silence, La Monte Young and the exploration of duration, the boundary-breaking free improvisation of the AACM, the DIY ethos of the tape underground—the list can go on almost indefinitely, it would seem.
The upshot of this is that experimental music is probably best thought of as a practice, and not a genre. “Experimental music” is really “experimental musics”—a large set with fuzzy boundaries, whose membership is diverse in sometimes seemingly unrelated ways. Experimental music can for example encompass works calling for expansive instrumental techniques or invented instruments, or the use of unusual tunings and pitch relationships; it may emerge from aleatory or generative compositional processes; it could consist entirely or in part of field recordings and ostensibly unmusical sounds; when written out, it may be scored as graphic, verbal or other non-standard forms of notation; it may involve improvisation and even, in some cases, abstaining from making sound altogether.
It is this broad field of sometimes bafflingly heterogeneous topography that composer Jennie Gottschalk sets out to survey with Experimental Music Since 1970.
Gottschalk describes the book as a follow-on to Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Chronologically, Gottschalk takes up where Nyman’s book, first published in 1974, leaves off. Thus Gottschalk’s book is a survey of artists—more than 300 of them are listed in the index–active in experimental music during the last forty-five or so years, although a few precursory works from the 1960s are covered as well.
Writing for a non-specialist readership, Gottschalk provides clear and concise descriptions of representative works by a wide variety of composers. She groups them into several thematic categories which cover, among other things, work concerned with harmonic relationships and tunings; work interacting with or dependent on the resonant or audible qualities of physical spaces; immersive work addressing the perception of sound, self and time; collectively created work; and work based on or engaging the sounds of ordinary things and events. There is some overlap of groupings and subgroupings, but despite its somewhat diffuse organization, the book is an accessible reference source for anyone curious to find out about the types of experimental music that she engages.
Like Nyman, Gottschalk tends toward a conception of experimental music that traces back to Cage, particularly to 4’33”. She presents this composition early on as something of a paradigmatic work embodying the salient qualities and aims that would come to shape subsequent experimental music practices. These qualities and aims include, but are not limited to: A focus on the way both participants and audiences experience the work and its context, with the possibility that both groups’ attitudes toward performance and environment will be enlarged and transformed; an acceptance of limits to the composer’s ability to prescribe a composition’s realization as well as limits to both composer’s and performer’s self-expression; and a view of the work as a vehicle for discovery or investigation—a testing of hypotheses about sounds, processes and structures whose exact properties and effects are as yet open variables.
4’33” is what might be called a music of contingency—a work drawing attention to, and ultimately being about, the concrete set of facts, aural and perhaps more, of the situation in which it might be performed. (It is a particularly radical music of situation in that its realization just is the situation in which it is realized.) Similarly, despite differences of approach, materials and surface aesthetics, much of the work Gottschalk presents is music of contingency; many of the artists she discusses are united by an interest in uncovering a fundamental interdependence of the sound or gesture called for by the composition and the concrete facts making up the context in which it appears, whether this latter consists of the physical environment, perceptual activity, or human relationships. The music of contingency both depends on and fosters a dialectic of ambiguity between musical sound and everyday sound, between the deliberate and the accidental. The relationship is not one of opposition but of interpenetration. For many of these artists, music is a means of opening out beyond music, to explore ideas and intuitions about the surrounding world in its actual manifestation.
Cage’s piece addressed or raised these issues by, in effect, getting itself out of the way of the experience it was meant to frame and enable. Much of the work Gottschalk covers does something similar. In choosing the examples she does, Gottschalk calls attention to an important trend among a number of experimental composers and musicians—a trend toward the embrace of reductive means and transparent structures. John Lely, whom Gottschalk quotes early on, sums up this work well when he refers to “the variety of sounds, correspondences and experiences that can emerge through the use of limited sets of musical building blocks” (56-57). The score to “Only,” a composition for a single performer from Michael Pisaro’s harmony series, elegantly encapsulates how this might work:
Outdoors, or in a large, resonant space.
For a long time.
Once in a while, playing a long, very quiet tone.
Works such as Pisaro’s—and there are others like it discussed throughout the book–largely direct themselves toward the use of organized sound to expand and focus the listener’s, and just as often the performer’s, attention. Through such focused attention, the music asks us to listen actively to what usually is passively endured, whether this latter consists of the natural or built environment, the acoustic properties of physical spaces and living beings, the spatial distribution of sound, the sonic qualities of everyday objects and materials, or the temporal dimension of sound.
This music of reduction and transparency naturally leads outward and through itself, toward the situation surrounding it or the conditions constituting it. In effect, it serves as an invitation to the listener to make the act of listening, or the context of listening, the focus of attention, and through that, to frame the situation as a kind of ur-work preceding, underlying, and ultimately merging with the composition. Rather than a discrete work sealed off from the accidental facts surrounding its presentation, there is an opening out to the contingencies surrounding the occasion of its performance and reception. In a sense, this is a music of self-effacement, of the downward glance gleaning clues from the contingent facts underfoot that are often otherwise overlooked. What this self-effacing music of situation establishes is something of a paradox: A sense of music as a presence always on the verge of vanishing. (And sometimes the music does in fact vanish. A few of the scores, such as Bill Drummond’s ON THE MOUNTAIN and Stephen Chase’s lights out for the territory simply call for the listener/performer to imagine a sound, or to listen to the sound of a given place.) As a seeming part of the audio background, which it integrates itself into or at least doesn’t shut out, it just is, acquiring the status of sound that is already there—in this way taking on the paradoxical function of becoming a presence before its own presence, or the ground of its own possibility, as it were.
In the course of engaging its surrounding situation, music almost inevitably engages time. Time is in a sense the most fundamental of situations defining music. The experience of time that many of these works attempt to create is consonant with, if not directly influenced by, the experience of time that emerges from many of Morton Feldman’s compositions. If Cage’s indeterminacy and anti-expressiveness are significant formative factors for the experimental music Gottschalk considers, so as well is Feldman’s exploration of duration and low dynamics. Feldman, in fact turns out to be something of the not-so-secret hero of this music. His mature work, which repeated minimal material played at low volume, created a sense of time quite different from time as it more conventionally appears in music. Whereas time in music tends to be experienced as a projection into the future, Feldman’s work often affords a sense time as a telescoping of past, present and future into a static, coexistent moment. So too in its own way does Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening, which has been another source of inspiration for many of these artists. Compositions such as Antoine Beuger’s silent harmonies in discreet continuity, Jürg Frey’s Streichquartett 2 and many of Éliane Radigue’s works use such devices as subdued dynamics, monochromatic surfaces or sustained tones to create a similar sense of time—one in which the cumulative effects of duration and an apparent lack of motion negate the listener’s sense of anticipation, and with it, the future-directed structure that ordinarily informs the reception of music.
A good deal of the experimental music Gottschalk covers bears a striking resemblance to the conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s. Like conceptual art, much of this music begins with an idea; more often than not there is a strong and strongly developed underlying concept as well as a high degree of self-awareness. (Perhaps a more accurate title for the book would have been Experimental Music Since 1970: Conceptualism After Cage. The qualifying subtitle might also allay reservations many might harbor about the book’s being taken as definitive or canonical—something Gottschalk did not intend.)This segment of the broader experimental field tends toward a cooler, impersonal aesthetic supported by a significant verbal component. Many of these artists are particularly able and willing to articulate statements, describe processes, engage in interviews and explain aims. (And in this context, the frequent use of verbal scores is worth noting.) Not surprisingly, Gottschalk’s book includes a liberal selection of quotes, which gives it the feel of a sourcebook of composers’ writings and statements as well as a survey of their works and practices. Together with her to-the-point descriptions of individual artists and works, these first-hand accounts provide a wealth of insight into what this particular group of experimentalists is experimenting on, with and toward.