Why study the history of experimental music?

Composer and sound artist John Cage once wrote in History of Experimental Music in the United States:

“Why, if everything is possible, do we concern ourselves with history (in other words with a sense of what is necessary to be done at a particular time?” And I would answer, “In order to thicken the plot.”

Cage’s engagement with the history of music enabled him to think critically and intellectually about how to push the boundaries of music. For example, he pioneered a compositional approach called indeterminacy, in which the musician “reading” the music can interpret and perform the original written piece in an infinite number of ways. Cage’s approach is built upon a prior knowledge of other avant-garde artists, such as Edgard Varese.

It was Varese, who in 1936, imagined sound and new music beyond the boundaries of music as it was understood. He wrote in The Liberation of Sound:

“From Perspectives on New Music New Instruments and New Music When new instruments will allow me to write music as I conceive it, taking the place of the linear counterpoint, the movement of sound-masses, of shifting planes, will be clearly perceived… There will no longer be the old conception of melody or interplay of melodies. The entire work will be a melodic totality. The entire work will flow as a river flows.”

Varese was describing a type of music that was not defined by notes or traditional rhythms.

As a student who has not had any exposure to the history of experimental music, I find Cage’s reasoning for studying the history of music to be continually relevant in my approach to experimental music. In today’s age where nearly any form of digital art is accessible within a click, context is often lost. I have heard experimental music before, but I didn’t have a particular appreciation for it. But understanding why and how Cage and Varese were trying to break away from the traditions of sound and composition has given me a greater appreciation and sense of intent, especially with using programs such as Max, where I have yet to use a conventional piano keyboard, a sheet of music, or even a grid that would be commonly found in many digital application. Sound has indeed been liberated according to the vision of Varese.

Prior to concerning myself with the history of experimental music, sound was simply just noise without a context. But even sound itself, does not need to be defined as something inherently musical. Learning about sound artists such as Bill Fontana and Janet Cardiff has expanded my understanding of how sound can and could be used.

In an interview with Peter Traub from Networked Music Review Fontana described:

Besides the physical differences between sound in the air and vibrations in solids and underwater, most people find their everyday acoustic worlds hidden by lack of attention, and iTunes. I wish to bring these hidden aspects to the foreground.

Fontana wants people to appreciate sounds as they are found in the natural environments. He believes that sound has taken a secondary role to music. Understanding Fontana’s work has evoked me to take the time to simply listen to the sounds in my surroundings and to think about them or think about how they could be employed.

Bill Fontana recording sound from a large hadron collider. Credit: Ars Electronica

Cardiff’s use of sound in her audio walks has challenged me to think about how sounds could be employed. She describes her work:

…the sound of my footsteps, traffic, birds, and miscellaneous sound effects that have been pre-recorded on the same site as they are being heard. This is the important part of the recording. The virtual recorded soundscape has to mimic the real physical one in order to create a new world as a seamless combination of the two.

Learning from Cardiff’s work has taught me to think about sound as a virtual experience. As something that can transport a listener to a different place or time.

While I’m still an early student of experimental music, concerning myself with the history experimental music, past and present, has certainly “thickened the plot.” Whether it’s exploring music beyond the conventional notion of music or employing sound to impact the listener in a particular manner, sounds and the creation of sounds are not just arbitrary, but are done with intent.

John Cage, an experimental music pioneer

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.

Response to Edgard Varese’s “Liberation of Sound”

In Edgard Varese’s Liberation of Sound, Varese is describing the new boundaries of music that will be created through the use of machines. “The new musical apparatus,” he describes, will be “able to emit sounds of any number of frequencies, will extend the limits of the lowest and highest registers, hence new organizations of the vertical resultants: chords, their arrangements, their spacings, that is, their oxygenation.”  Much like Luigi Russolo, Varese was interested in exploring the capabilities of sound beyond the conventional. Russolo and Varese had both thought of machinery as a means to invent new sounds, but the way they envisioned machinery’s involvement was a bit different. Russolo had thought of noise as a product of machinery; crackles and rumbles were produced my machine-like instruments. Varese’s imagined the machine as something that a composer could put his score through and the machine “will faithfully transmit the musical content to the listener.”

Today, we can think of the role the music producer as the composer that was described by Varese, who had also accurately predicted that traditional music notation would be dated and that new graphical representations of music notation would have to be invented. He imagined that music notation would be seismographic. With the advent of digital audio workstations, music is often visually represented through sound waves and other graphical representation.

Though computers play a major role in nearly all recorded music today, Varese might be disappointed in how it has been shaped. He was constantly trying to challenge musical conventions, breaking from the rules. But toward the end of Liberation of Sound, Varese describes his reservations: “I am afraid it will not be long before some musical mortician begins embalming electronic music in rules.“ Music today is created through machines, but still adheres to western traditions and pop conventions. Varese’s Poeme Electronique explores all the new oddities and new frontiers of experimental music and stylistically reminds me of something bleak and space-age like. He was successful in creating art that pushed the boundaries, but I’m curious to see what he would think of the state of music today.