The Experimental

Recently I gave a talk and facilitated discussion between two terrific artists: my buddy Josh Quillen from So Percussion (functioning in this capacity as composer), and the choreographer Adele Myers, with whom he had worked on a new project. It was part of a residency series organized and sponsored by the Vermont Performance Lab, which is doing incredibly vital and amazing work.

The talk was about experimental and pop music and dance.

Really, my talk was about experimental and pop music only, and I asked Adele (who teaches dance history and theory) a lot of questions about dance.

My questions for the talk were as follows: are either of these terms meaningful? Do they describe a mode of operation, or do they imply actual musical styles? Can one operate on the other?

It is not clear to me whether the answers to these questions are meaningful for creative work. As usual, there is probably a fertile middle ground where these concepts intermingle in art. But I became aware of the fact that my usage of the word experimental with reference to my ensemble So Percussion was unexamined. I use it to encompass our diverse activities for marketing purposes, and I will probably continue to do that – strong short labels are necessary in a crowded marketplace – but I want to have a better personal sense of what I mean by it.

So I suppose this essay (an attempt) is only a process of self-examination.

For a fuller treatment of the Anglo-American Experimental Music movement, Michael Nyman’s 1974 book Experimental Music is still a powerhouse reference. He flushes out a brilliant definition of experimental music, and aptly captures the scene that coalesced in the 50’s and 60’s.

First to John Cage:

“What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen.”

from Silence, 1961

This quote immediately presents problems for me, because almost every aspect of music-making could meet this condition: an improvisation, the vagaries of live performance, even Milli Vanilli’s tape-skipping (am I dating myself too much here? Ok, Ashlee Simpson).

So let’s stick to one parameter: the act of creation or composition. If you play a Beethoven piano sonata correctly, you will play the same notes every time, and they will be the notes that the composer intended you to play. So the results – at least with regard to content – were intended and foreseen by Beethoven.

If you toss coins (physically or electronically) to generate the structure for John Cage’s Child of Tree, you will have before you a composition in which the composer does not control what is played, or in what sequence — although Cage, ever enigmatic, is careful to specify that the piece is 8 minutes long, in a satisfyingly divided combination of minutes.

In 4’33”, you have a piece in which the content is impossible for the composer or even the performer to control (I suppose you could shoot the birds near an outdoor venue, stop traffic around the concert hall, only invite friends who promise not to cough, and therefore exert some control).

So Cage – mostly – fulfills his own definition of an experimental action: the content in performance is unforeseen by the composer, therefore he has written a kind of experimental music.

Here is an excerpt from one realization of Cage’s Fontana Mix, which as Cage indicates is “indeterminate with respect to its performance.” If you are not familiar with Fontana Mix, here are some notes about it (I’m pretty sure they are Cage’s):

“This is a composition indeterminate of its performance. It is derived from notation CC from Concert for Piano and Orchestra. The score consists of 10 sheets of paper and 12 transparencies. The sheets of paper have drawings of 6 differentiated (in thickness and texture) curved lines. 10 of the transparencies have randomly distributed points (the amounts of points on the transparencies are 7, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 22, 26, 29 and 30). Another transparency has a grid, measuring two by ten inches, and the last one contains a straight line (10¾ inch).

By superimposition the performer creates a structure from which a performance score can be made: One of the transparencies with dots is placed over one of the sheets with curved lines. Over this one places the grid. A point enclosed in the grid is connected with a point outside, using the straight line transparency. Horizontal and vertical measurements of intersections of the straight line with the grid and the curved line, create a time-bracket and actions to be made.”

This work pretty well represents what Richard Taruskin called the “Scary Purity” of Cage. The experiment does not ripen into a smorgasbord of resources to “compose” new kinds of music: the music is the experiment, the experiment the music.

Of course, if you wander outside of the theoretical parameter of composition, it is difficult to say what outcomes can be controlled or not.

But I have a feeling that for many people, experimental means something more.

I wonder if the term itself falls prey to a simultaneous vagueness/specificity. Perhaps it is often meant to identify music that does not conform to a mainstream expectation, one which tinkers with styles and formulas, or which at least provides a product that a broad audience cannot immediately classify. The problem here is that you could be describing so much music.

It becomes another form of the alternative. An alternative to what? What is our baseline reference for which an alternative is being provided?

I’m not really sure how to get anywhere with this: my experience has given me too much information to dismiss most of our canonical composers as somehow “non-experimental” just because I feel that later people were more radical, or closer aesthetically to where I am personally. Check out Beethoven’s late music, Franz Liszt’s Nuages Gris, The Well Tempered-Clavier, Tallis’ Spem in Alium… the list is too long to be meaningful.

I’m strangely comforted by Cage’s definition of the experimental, because it is something we can evaluate piece-by-piece.


And so on to a brief consideration of pop. My thinking – and experience – is on much less sure footing here. I have always felt pop, known it when I heard it. I’m not sure how to locate it or define it. Does it have to do with popularity?

Is it ‘accessibility?’ Yikes, that’s a minefield: music is accessible when somebody has context for understanding what is being presented to them, which varies with each person, performance, place, etc.

Maybe it just refers to something that can or has gained traction with a broad swath of people. That at least can be measured to some degree: record sales, ticket sales to live performances, etc.

It helps me to work backwards: is Judy Garland a pop icon? Duh. Why? Because her image, voice, and work penetrate the experience and consciousness of people who otherwise don’t necessarily share anything else in common: professional connection, socio-economic status, geographical location. John Cage is quite well known, but in my experience it’s by people who are especially interested in a particular music, dance, art, etc. I believe very strongly that his ideas have penetrated our culture, but I know from experience that you can’t mention him to a diverse audience the same way you could Judy Garland and expect the same recognition.

Perhaps we could also say that pop extends to music that is made with some calculation toward achieving what I outlined above.

In the end, I don’t think I have anything to latch onto: there are too many examples of classical music that have achieved the same ubiquity of a Judy Garland, and yet we would never call them pop.

It may be that we would have to dig much deeper into pop music’s commercial past, and simultaneously the different versions of the avant garde who self-consciously opposed it. (I’m reminded even of Jack Black’s character in the movie High Fidelity, who was so self-assured in his taste and opposition to pop: “Do you even know your daughter? There’s no way she likes that song!”).

The Blondie Experiment

All of these speculations were spurred by considering the work that Josh and Adele are making together. Josh’s style is very familiar to me, although it is developing in many exciting directions at once. He loves to sample, pulling sounds from all over the place, but the samples are usually obscured, muffled. They don’t often engage the original source as content, but rather as a sonic resource only.

Adele has a strong connection to pop music, both as choreographer and also in life. She has often used it in her work. For this project, she wanted to use Blondie’s Heart of Glass as the final number for the show, which is entitled Theater in the Head. She proposed throwing the original up on the speakers, and letting her ebullient dance unfold. For Josh, this presented something akin to a crisis of conscience: as a composer he would never do that without commenting upon it in some very strong way.

Although their collaboration has been very fruitful and synchronous, this remained a sticking point. Adele knew she liked it, but Josh felt that it would necessarily be interpreted as an integral part of the musical score, a decision that he would be unlikely to make on his own.

The compromise they arrived at fascinated me. Since the soundtrack was being assembled and mixed at Guilford Studios (which is associated with the Vermont Performance Lab project), Josh asked if it would be alright to have a bunch of regular people come into the booth and sing whatever part of the song they wanted to over the original track. Along the way, he established a few rules: they should emphasize fun over accuracy, and he and the engineer were not allowed to fix any “mistakes” or errant sounds and comments. Each singer had only one take…if they forgot some words or missed a chord change, so be it.

Here’s what resulted. It bears a resemblance to Gavin Bryars’ Portsmouth Sinfonia from the 1970’s, in which he asked people who had no training on a particlar instrument to play familiar classics.

Josh’s Blondie track:

Is this a pop song? I haven’t established a rigorous criteria, but I think it’s safe to say yes. Is it experimental according to Cage’s stringent definition? Well, yes actually. After Josh set the process in motion, he had no control over whether people would sing in-tune, make stray comments, or even sing the song at all. Although the recording became fixed once it was on tape, it was only one realization of a very conceptual piece, much of which was “indeterminate with respect to its performance.”

My question, especially for any American who has grown up deluged by pop: Do you think this sounds like experimental music?


In the end, this is mostly an intellectual game. I’ve only chosen to address certain pre-compositional parameters, and that’s quite limiting (as many comments below reinforce).

Art is probably too big. But that’s a good thing.

Other Voices

I asked some friends and colleagues to tell me what experimental means to them.

Steven Schick

“I’ve always been bothered by the term experimental music, and especially bothered by Cage’s definition, which feels like a rare example of his being facile at the expense of being honest. After all, wouldn’t two performances of a Haydn Sonata by say Brendl and Gould be very different, producing in essence unforeseen results? If two performances of the most standard classical repertoire produce unforeseen results then what meaning does experimental have at least along these lines? Cage might have responded that the granularity and scale of “the unforeseen” are small in Haydn. But aren’t there serious problems with a definition that rests on questions of scale — that you need X amount of unforeseen in order to be experimental. And if we go down this pathway, how do we determine the minimum amount of unforeseen-ness necessary to qualify as experimental?

The scientific definition of experiment also seems wrong. In a scientific experiment all parameters except one are controlled so that the unforeseen results of the experiment can clearly be assigned to test the theorem in question. But musical parameters flow together combining fluently in such a way that a “controlled experiment” seems impossible even to imagine.

Experimentalism to some is a genre, in other words, it’s music that sounds like Lucier or like Braxton. But wasn’t even a conventional composer like Brahms also an experimentalist? The way he handles the abbreviated return of the exposition in the 4th symphony is a radical and progressive reformulation of form. Schoenberg was right in his essay “Brahms the Progressive.” So experimentalism often seems like a tribal marking these days, intended as much to exclude outsiders as shed light on the insiders.

Every time I consider this question I end up disqualifying all of the most obvious definitions for experimentalism, but does that mean it doesn’t exist? It seems to me that any musical act is an experiment, in sonic, cultural, social and historical terms. I just have trouble deciding which pieces of music are more experimental than others. This is basically the same answer that Ferneyhough gave when someone asked him what “complex” music was. “Show me music that is not complex and I’ll accept the term,” he responded. The changing dimensions of the creative act and the unknowability of the interface with perception means that experimentalism is the pervasive ether of any genuine musical experience, of any style or genre. I think Cage was engaging in some gamesmanship with his definition, poking at people whose methodologies he did not admire. I wish he had simply told them that their music was crap — after all not all experiments are successful.”

Paul Lansky

“On one hand I think most of what we call ‘concert’ music is experimental in that it takes an intersubjective assessment to figure out whether it works or not. That is, a composer writes a piece, thinks it may or may not work but withholds judgment until performers and listeners have had a go at it. There are undoubtedly some composers who can write a piece and know before anyone lays a hand or ear on it that it will work. I, for one, do not know anyone like this. Every composer undoubtedly has a rough sense about the success of a piece but it has to see some action before it can really be evaluated.

On another hand I’d refine Cage’s definition somewhat and say that there is a brand of experimental music that arises from a postulate. You have some abstract or general idea about how a piece of music can go and try to realize it. Ravel has a notion to hold a repeated Bb all the way through the 2nd movement of Gaspard; Messiaen uses only the notes of a symmetrical scale etc. They then do their best to make music out of it and because they’re really great musicians, something resembling music emerges.

Then on the “third” hand there is the experimental composer like Cage, or even Schoenberg or Babbitt, who bet the farm on an idea and push it through to a conclusion. Performers may balk and listeners run for the exits but the ‘validity’ or success of the piece is not at issue. The experiment can’t be said to succeed or fail. It’s simply a new genetic mutation in the course of music and may or may not lead to something. (survival of the grooviest?) I generally find myself in the 2nd category, sometimes in the first, and never in the third.”

David Lang

“I think the first question you have to ask about experimental music is “experimental to whom?” Is it experimental to an audience? I don’t think so – to an audience that has never heard it before, all classical music must sound pretty weird, for example.

The answer I am most interested in has to do with what is experimental to each composer, in each piece – has the composer set something in motion or made some pre-compositional decision about what might happen in a piece, so that he or she doesn’t completely know beforehand where such a decision will lead? Philip glass’s ‘two pages’ is an experimental piece while the violin concerto isn’t – both are really good pieces but ‘two pages’ combines patterns and counts them and builds up a structure from numbers in a way that was not well explored when he wrote it, while the violin concerto is Phil’s translation of some of his ideas into a more recognizably tradition-based idiom.

It is much harder to be an ‘experimental composer’ than to write a single piece of ‘experimental music.’ I suppose you can say that Cage spent a lot of energy across an entire lifetime trying to imagine newer and odder and more abstract ways to think about music; even Cage, however, wrote a bunch of pieces towards the end that were just new versions of things he already knew how to do really well. I wouldn’t consider them experimental, even though they sound great.”

Josh Quillen

“…as far as experimental music is concerned, I think that’s what all music has been, is now, and will always be. I, as a musician who performs quite often, have NEVER been sure of what the results or outcomes of the performance were going to be, regardless of the composer’s music I was playing or whether I was wearing a tuxedo or jeans and a workman’s shirt on stage. Therefore, I propose–music can only exist in performance.

Performance exists with an audience(large or small). Audiences are unknown variables. Performance cannot take place without unknown variables. Therefore, music=experimental at its very core. John Cage’s 4’33” and Steve Reich’s Four Organs both had unforseen results, both of which had one constant–the audience. Reich’s music, however, was codified and written down, Cage’s was too, but in the broadest sense possible. Neither one of them could control what people would think. Was the Rite of Spring experimental music? I think it was. Is it still? I think it is. Dan Deacon actually uses the unknowns that audiences bring to the table by harnessing them for group expression and catharsis.”

Bobby Previte

“Personally I don’t like the word experimental. First of all, it sounds way too uncommitted a frame for the performer. Like, ‘I am going to try this out, if it doesn’t work, well, I’ll just try something else, because it’s just an experiment.’ Perhaps that’s what we are really doing in the end, but calling it experimental allows you to put in place a firewall between you and it. I am all about ownership of everything you do. Without the full commitment, the feeling of being fully committed, I think what will emerge will be weak and aimless. Now, aimless music can be great..if you’re committed to aimlessness – see?

Secondly, it begs the question – to whom or to what is it experimental? A scientific experiment has a goal, a set of results that one is seeking. Are we seeking a set of concrete results? An experiment supposes that one has a thesis to prove. Do we? Or is this exactly why music/art is so powerful, because it does not answer any questions?

Lastly, and most importantly, it creates an imbalance between the “one making the art” and the “one consuming the art.” If you have an experiment, then who decides if the experiment is successful or not? I think the answer is very clear. Ask yourself this question: if you performed music you considered “experimental” for a thousand people and they all went wild with admiration and approbation, would you still consider the music experimental? Ha ha. I think not. And, in the opposite case, if they threw tomatoes, you might very well abandon your music because your experiment “failed.” When people use this term, I think beneath it all it must be understood that the final arbiter is the outside world. The problem is, this takes the life of the work out of the hands of the creator and puts it into those of the end user, where it does not belong, and where, even though everything in our modern life pulls it in that direction (that in itself is another essay), both the creator and the consumer are ultimately ill served.”

Allen Otte

“I have always loved/found so useful the phrase/thought from Cage’s very-much-contemporary-traveler-Modernist Herbert Brün [though Herbert wouldn’t much like the bed-fellows implication] — “what if this were thought to be music?”

If Beethoven’s late quartets were experimental in their time and place, and denounced as not being music, then the question to have been asked is: well, what if it were music? What would it say about art and ideas and society and time and place and reflection-upon/reflective-input-to if indeed we did call such-and-such composition [experiment], from any given time and place, “music”, and what could that tell us about ourselves and what-next?”






One response to “The Experimental”

  1.  Avatar

    Varese disliked the term experimental music because he wanted to emphasize the fact that the experiments happened prior to the creation of the music (I believe the quote is in the complete works set, but I don't have access to it right now). It's also fascinating to see how Cage's definitions really only pertain to his own music making. This seems to follow Cage's writings in general, and also meshes very well with his philosophy: he wasn't too concerned with forcing his definitions on others but defining his personal creation.The Blondie 'addmix' is ecstatic and wonderful!

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