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Experimental music refers, in the English-language literature, to a compositional tradition which arose in the mid-20th century, applied particularly in North America to music composed in such a way that its outcome is unforeseeable. Its most famous and influential exponent was John Cage (Grant 2003, 174). More loosely, the term "experimental" is used in conjunction with genre names to describe music within specific genres that pushes against their boundaries or definitions, or else whose approach is a hybrid of disparate styles, or incorporates unorthodox, new, distinctly unique ingredients (Anon. [n.d.]a). Similarly, it has sometimes been used to describe "transethnic" music: the mixture of recognizable music genres. A quite distinct sense was current in the late 1950s to describe computer-controlled composition, and the term at that time also was sometimes used for electronic music and musique concrète. "Experimental music" has also been used in music journalism as a general term of disapprobation for music departing from traditional norms.
The Groupe de Recherches de Musique Concrète (GRMC), under the leadership of Pierre Schaeffer, organized the First International Decade of Experimental Music between 8 and 18 June 1953. This appears to have been an attempt by Schaeffer to reverse the assimilation of musique concrète into the German elektronische Musik, and instead tried to subsume musique concrète, elektronische Musik, tape music, and world music under the rubric "musique experimentale" (Palombini 1993, 18). Publication of Schaeffer's manifesto (Schaeffer 1957) was delayed by four years, by which time Schaeffer was favoring the term "recherche musicale" (music research), though he never wholly abandoned "musique expérimentale" (Palombini 1993a, 19; Palombini 1993b, 557).
John Cage was also using the term as early as 1955. According to Cage's definition, "an experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen" (Cage 1961, 39), and he was specifically interested in completed works that performed an unpredictable action (Mauceri 1997, 197). In Germany, the publication of Cage's article was anticipated by several months in a lecture delivered by Wolfgang Edward Rebner at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse on 13 August 1954, titled “Amerikanische Experimentalmusik". Rebner's lecture extended the concept back in time to include Charles Ives, Edgard Varèse, and Henry Cowell, as well as Cage, due to their focus on sound as such rather than compositional method (Rebner 1997).
Michael Nyman starts from Cage's definition (Nyman 1974, 1), and develops the term "experimental" also to describe the work of other American composers (Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Meredith Monk, Malcolm Goldstein, Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Philip Glass, John Cale, Steve Reich, etc.), as well as composers such as Gavin Bryars, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Cornelius Cardew, John Tilbury, Frederic Rzewski, and Keith Rowe (Nyman 1974, 78–81, 93–115). Nyman opposes experimental music to the European avant-garde of the time (Boulez, Kagel, Xenakis, Birtwistle, Berio, Stockhausen, and Bussotti), for whom "The identity of a composition is of paramount importance" (Nyman 1974, 2 and 9). The word "experimental" in the former cases "is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success or failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown" (Cage 1961, 13).
David Cope also distinguishes between experimental and avant garde, describing experimental music as that "which represents a refusal to accept the status quo" (Cope, 1997, 222). David Nicholls, too, makes this distinction, saying that "...very generally, avant-garde music can be viewed as occupying an extreme position within the tradition, while experimental music lies outside it" (Nicholls 1998, 318).
Warren Burt cautions that, as "a combination of leading-edge techniques and a certain exploratory attitude", experimental music requires a broad and inclusive definition, "a series of ands, if you will", encompassing such areas as "Cageian influences and work with low technology and improvisation and sound poetry and linguistics and new instrument building and multimedia and music theatre and work with high technology and community music, among others, when these activities are done with the aim of finding those musics 'we don't like, yet,' [citing Herbert Brün] in a 'problem-seeking environment' [citing Chris Mann]” (Burt 1991, 5).
In a recent dissertation, Benjamin Piekut argues that this "consensus view of experimentalism" is based on an a priori "grouping", rather than asking the question "How have these composers been collected together in the first place, that they can now be the subject of a description?" That is, "for the most part, experimental music studies describes [sic] a category without really explaining it" (Piekut 2008, 2–5). He finds laudable exceptions in the work of David Nicholls and, especially, Amy Beal (Piekut 2008, 5), and concludes from their work that "The fundamental ontological shift that marks experimentalism as an achievement is that from representationalism to performativity", so that "an explanation of experimentalism that already assumes the category it purports to explain is an exercise in metaphysics, not ontology" (Piekut 2008, 7).
Leonard B. Meyer, on the other hand, includes under "experimental music" composers rejected by Nyman, such as Berio, Boulez, and Stockhausen, as well as the techniques of "total serialism" (Meyer 1994, 106–107 and 266), holding that "there is no single, or even pre-eminent, experimental music, but rather a plethora of different methods and kinds" (Meyer 1994, 237).
In the late 1950s, Lejaren Hiller and L. M. Isaacson used the term in connection with computer-controlled composition, in the scientific sense of "experiment" (Hiller and Isaacson 1959): making predictions for new compositions based on established musical technique (Mauceri 1997, 194–95). The term "experimental music" was used contemporaneously for electronic music, particularly in the early musique concrète work of Schaeffer and Henry in France (Vignal 2003, 298). There is a considerable overlap between Downtown music and what is more generally called experimental music, especially as that term was defined at length by composer Michael Nyman in his book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (1974, second edition 1999).
A number of early 20th-century American composers, seen as precedents to and influences on John Cage, are sometimes referred to as the "American Experimental School". These include Charles Ives, Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, and John Becker (Nicholls 1990).
Harry Partch as well as Ivor Darreg worked with other tuning scales based on the physical laws for harmonic music. For this music they both developed a group of experimental musical instruments. La Monte Young is known for using this technique when he began working on his minimal drone pieces which consisted of layers of sounds in different pitches. The Mexican composer Julián Carrillo (1875-1965) developed a theory of microtonal music which he dubbed "The Thirteenth Sound". See also spectral music.
Musique concrète (French; literally, "concrete music"), is a form of electroacoustic music that utilises acousmatic sound as a compositional resource. The compositional material is not restricted to the inclusion of sonorities derived from musical instruments or voices, nor to elements traditionally thought of as 'musical' (melody, harmony, rhythm, metre and so on). The theoretical underpinnings of the aesthetic were developed by Pierre Schaeffer, beginning in the late 1940s.
In the 1950s, the term "experimental" was often applied by conservative music critics—along with a number of other words, such as "engineers art", "musical splitting of the atom", "alchemist's kitchen", "atonal", and "serial"—as a deprecating jargon term, which must be regarded as "abortive concepts", since they did not "grasp a subject" (Metzger 1959, 21). This was an attempt to marginalize, and thereby dismiss various kinds of music that did not conform to established conventions (Mauceri 1997, 189). In 1955, Pierre Boulez identified it as a "new definition that makes it possible to restrict to a laboratory, which is tolerated but subject to inspection, all attempts to corrupt musical morals. Once they have set limits to the danger, the good ostriches go to sleep again and wake only to stamp their feet with rage when they are obliged to accept the bitter fact of the periodical ravages caused by experiment." He concludes, "There is no such thing as experimental music … but there is a very real distinction between sterility and invention" (Boulez 1986, 430 & 431). Starting in the 1960s, "experimental music" began to be used in America for almost the opposite purpose, in an attempt to establish an historical category to help legitimize a loosely identified group of radically innovative, "outsider" composers. Whatever success this might have had in academe, this attempt to construct a genre was as abortive as the meaningless namecalling noted by Metzger, since by the "genre's" own definition the work it includes is "radically different and highly individualistic" (Mauceri 1997, 190). It is therefore not a genre, but an open category, "because any attempt to classify a phenomenon as unclassifiable and (often) elusive as experimental music must be partial" (Nyman 1974, 5). Furthermore, the characteristic indeterminacy in performance "guarantees that two versions of the same piece will have virtually no perceptible musical 'facts' in common" (Nyman 1974, 9).
Fluxus was an artistic movement started in the 1960s, characterized by an increased theatricality and the use of mixed media. Another known musical aspect appearing in the Fluxus movement was the use of primal scream at performances, derived from the primal therapy. Yoko Ono used this technique of expression (Bateman [n.d.]).
The term "experimental" has sometimes been applied to the mixture of recognizable music genres, especially those identified with specific ethnic groups, as found for example in the music of Laurie Anderson, Chou Wen-chung, Steve Reich, Kevin Volans, Martin Scherzinger, Michael Blake, and Rüdiger Meyer (Blake 1999; Jaffe 1983; Lubet1999).
Free improvisation or free music is improvised music without any rules beyond the taste or inclination of the musician(s) involved; in many cases the musicians make an active effort to avoid overt references to recognizable musical genres. The term is somewhat paradoxical, since it can be considered both as a technique (employed by any musician who wishes to disregard rigid genres and forms) and as a recognizable genre in its own right.
In 1963 Frank Zappa appeared on The Steve Allen Show where he did an experimental music piece called Playing Music on a Bicycle, a performance very similar to John Cage's Water Walk of 1960 in the I've Got a Secret show. Zappa later became mainly famous for his rock music. At the end of the 1960s rock groups like The Beach Boys and The Beatles began adding musical influences outside the common field of popular music of those days: non-western music and musical instruments as well as ideas, concepts and techniques copied for traditional classical music as well as modern classical music. They experimented with all kinds of new recording techniques like reverse tape recording. Besides those mainstream artists, a group of underground artists like The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, White Noise and The Residents began incorporating the experimental musical aspects of Varese, La Monte Young, Cage and the minimal music as well as adding new extended techniques like audio feedback, heavy uses and multiple combining of stomp boxes and other electronic sound effects. The Residents started in the seventies as an idiosyncratic musical group mixing all kinds of artistic genres like pop music, electronic music, experimental music with movies, comic books and performance art (Ankeny [n.d.]). Other pop musicians who made experimental music are Captain Beefheart, Franco Battiato, Brian Eno, John Zorn, Pere Ubu, Faust, Can, Robert Wyatt, DNA, Robert Fripp, Diamanda Galás, Cabaret Voltaire, Boyd Rice, etc. Throbbing Gristle experimented with electronic noise and cut-up techniques with short pieces of tape with recorded sound on it. Fred Frith as well as Keith Rowe began exploring new experimental possibilities with prepared guitars. In the seventies Chris Cutler began experimenting with an eclectic drum kit with all kinds of added sound possibilities acoustic as well as electric. The self-titled debut album of This Heat was recorded between February 1976 and September 1978, and characterized by heavy use of tape manipulation and looping, combined with more traditional performance, to create dense, eerie, electronic soundscapes.
Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca composed multi guitar compositions in the late 1970s. Chatham worked for some time with LaMonte Young and afterwards mixed the experimental musical ideas with punk rock in his piece Guitar Trio. Lydia Lunch started incorporating spoken word with punk rock and Mars explored new sliding guitar techniques. Arto Lindsay neglected to use any kind of musical practise or theory to develop an idiosyncratic atonal playing technique. DNA and James Chance are other famous no wave artists. Chance later on moved more up to Free improvisation. The No Wave movement was closely related to transgressive art and, just like Fluxus, often mixed performance art with music (Masters 2007). It is alternatively seen, however, as an avant-garde offshoot of 1970s punk, and a genre related to experimental rock (Anon. [n.d.]b).
Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine started in 1983 releasing a magazine with added cassette tapes focusing broadly on experimental music from the past as well as from the present. Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore experimented heavily with altered tunings and playing with a third bridge technique with screwdrivers jammed between the strings and the neck. Following the krautrock movement of the 1970s, German musicians started to experiment with unusual song structures and instruments. Einstürzende Neubauten created their own instruments made out of scrap metal and building tools.
Also Aphex Twin as well as Jim O'Rourke experimented with circuit bending to create new experimental music. Closely related to the circuit bending is the musical genre EAI of which Merzbow is the most famous artist. He worked with series of radios all positioned differently for receiving different FM and AM frequencies and making new experimental musical compositions with all these derived sound signals.
The band Neptune built a series of self-designeds among which a microtonal 13-TET guitar (Hasse 2007) to create new sounds, and have released their fourth or fifth CD, but the first on the Table of the Elements’ Radium imprint label (Crumsho 2008). Micachu also makes other instruments herself, but is reluctant to describe her work as anything but "pop music, … maybe experimental pop" (Parkin 2008).
Antimusic - A concept composition which actively renounces or even seeks to deliberately damage some or all of the perceived icons of traditional music, including concert forms and conventions, instruments, performers, audiences, or venues, etc. Blurring of the distinction between audience and performer; forced audience participation; and Danger music are some examples. Also sometimes referred to as anti-iconic music.
Indeterminate music - Related to 'chance music' (one of Cage's terms). Music in which the composer introduces the elements of chance or unpredictability with regard to either the composition or its performance. This term is used by experimental composers, performers and scholars working in experimental music in the United States, Britain, and in other countries influenced by Cagean aesthetics. Not to be confused with aleatoric music, a term coined by Werner Meyer-Eppler and used by Boulez and other composers of the avant-garde (in Europe) to refer to a strictly limited form of indeterminacy, also called "controlled chance". As this distinction was misunderstood, the term is often (and somewhat inaccurately) used interchangeably with, or in place of, "indeterminacy".
Minimalism - An approach to music which strips musical forms down to a few very small (minimal) elements. In extreme form it may border on antimusic, with pieces consisting entirely of silence ([4'33"]), a single event; or an exact repetition of a simple phrase for an extended period of time ([Satie's] "[Vexations]"). More commonly it refers to music composed of layered repetitions of small figures in which the natural progression of the repetitions exposes relationships not usually the focus of traditional composition (such as phase shifts).
Concepts shared with avant-garde music - There are many ideas broadly utilized by experimenal musicians which are not, however, strictly experimental music concepts, having seen significant application prior to the advent of experimental music, particularly by the avant garde. Examples include:
Some of the more common techniques include: