In History of Experimental Music in the United States, American composer John Cage describes the nature of experimental music, provides a historical account of how composers have tried (and arguably failed) at creating experimental music, and gives his perspective on how one would approach composing experimental music.
What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen. It is therefore very useful if one has decided that sounds are to come into their own, rather than being exploited to express sentiments or ideas of order. Among these actions the outcomes of which are not foreseen, actions resulting from chance operation are useful. However, more essential than composing by means of chance operations, it seems to me now is composing in such a way that what one does is indeterminate of its performance.
Cage expressed a frustration with many current attempts at experimental music because he was observing that many composers were still adhering to formal methods of composition. He didn’t believe that these composers were truly experimental because their methods of creating music still involved too much of a method of control, which fell in the traditions of music. Experimental music, he believed, had to operate with unforeseen outcomes. Cage provides an example of how he would approach musical composition with indeterminacy:
I take a sheet of paper and place points on it. Next I make parallel lines on a transparency, say five parallel lines. I establish five categories of sound for the five lines, but I do not say which line is which category. The transparency may be placed on the sheet with points in any position and readings of the points may be taken with regard to all the characteristics one wishes to distinguish.
This form of composing is interesting because it allows the composer to give form to music without restraining it. The person performing the music can interpret the composition in a myriad of ways. Not only did Cage believe in the liberation of music through sound, but he was ardent in trying to liberate music from traditional compositional methods such as beats and time signatures.
In his piece, Cartridge Music, Cage demonstrates his experimentation with multiple layers of sound that explore rhythms and intensities. These rhythms, however, are not bounded by beats, but I describe them as rhythms because there is a conscious use of gaps between the sounds. Sonically, it resembles Luigi Russolo’s Risveglio di una Citta in that the noises seem to exist within the physical and organic world. With each sound, I find myself trying to visually pinpoint what the objects being used to make the sounds may look like. Are the sounds made from metal, are they spring like, or do they look like bicycle chains? The sounds do not sound completely foreign.
His music sounds like it could have been created from bicycle chains. Source: http://www.atomiczombie.com/tutorials/Bike%20Chain%20Basics/Figure%201.jpg
Cartridge Music is musical, especially if we think of music as organized sounds. But I wonder if I only think that because I am given the intellectual context for the sounds. There is a level of intellectual capacity that is needed to appreciate Cage’s work, but that’s only because one needs to be able to break away from the traditions of music. Perhaps that level of effort wouldn’t be necessary if we had been viewing music through a different angle to begin with. Nevertheless, Cage is able to move away from the traditions precisely because he is, as we discussed in the last class, aware of the traditions.