From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Experimental music is any music that challenges the commonly accepted notions of what music is. There is an overlap with avant-garde music. John Cage was a pioneer in experimental music and defined and gave credibility to the form. David Cope describes experimental music as that, "which represents a refusal to accept the status quo" (Cope, 1997, p. 222)
Michael Nyman (1974) uses the term "experimental" to describe the work of American modernist composers (John Cage, Meredith Monk, Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, etc.) as opposed to the European avant-garde at the time (Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis). The "experiment" in this case is not whether a piece succeeds or fails, but is in the fact that the outcome of the piece is uncertain or unforeseeable (Cage 1961, 13).
In general, as David Nicholls stated, "...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). That tradition is the inheritance of common-practice Western art music, with its concern for increased technical complexity, historical inheritance, composer intention and other features. In general, and at least originally, experimental music took its inspiration from non-Western sources and from varying times. It may take its inspiration (directly in terms of generating systems) from other media; practitioners may or may not be professionals in the traditional sense of the word, although they may still be trained in their work and adept at it.
As with other edge forms that push the limits of a particular form of expression, there is little agreement as to the boundaries of experimental music, even amongst its practitioners. On the one hand, some experimental music is an extension of traditional music, adding unconventional instruments, modifications to instruments, noises, and other novelties to (for example) orchestral compositions. At the other extreme, there are performances that most listeners would not characterize as music at all.
While much discussion of experimental music centers on definitional issues and its validity as a musical form, the most frequently performed experimental music is entertaining and, at its best, can lead the listener to question core assumptions about the nature of music.
The term "experimental music" was used contemporaneously for electronic music, particularly in the early musique concrète work of Schaeffer and Henry in France and in the Experimental Studios at the University of Illinois, run by Lejaren Hiller. "Experimental" electronic composition may be "experimental" in the sense used in Nyman (for instance, Cage, Cartridge Music or the early work of Alvin Lucier); it may also lie more comfortably with the avant garde.
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".
Indeterminate music - Also called 'chance music' (Cage's habitual usage). 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.
Graphic notation - Music which is written in the form of diagrams or drawings rather than using “conventional” notation (with staves, clefs, notes, etc).
Literalism - Music that rejects the aesthetic as motivating force for the creation and pursuit of sound, using either the basic building blocks of orchestral composition (strict literalism) or sounds present at the site of performance (direct literalism) instead.
Microtones - A pitch interval that is smaller than a semitone. This includes quarter tones and intervals even smaller. Composers have, for example, experimented in dividing the octave into 31 and 53 microtones, and using this scale as a basis for composition.
Some of the more common techniques include:
- Extended techniques: Any of a number of methods of performing on a musical instrument that are unique, innovative, and sometimes regarded as improper.
- "Prepared" instruments—ordinary instruments modified in their tuning or sound-producing characteristics. For example, guitar strings can have a weight attached at a certain point, changing their harmonic characteristics (Keith Rowe is one musician to have experimented with such techniques). Cage's prepared piano was one of the first such instruments.
- Unconventional playing techniques—for example, strings on a piano can be manipulated directly instead of being played the orthodox, keyboard-based way (an innovation of Henry Cowell's known as "string piano"), a dozen or more piano keys may be depressed simultaneously with the forearm to produce a tone cluster (another technique popularized by Cowell), or the tuning pegs on a guitar can be rotated while a note sounds (called a "tuner glissando").
- Incorporation of instruments, tunings, rhythms or scales from non-Western musical traditions.
- Use of sound sources other than conventional musical instruments such as trash cans, telephone ringers, and doors slamming.
- Playing with deliberate disregard for the ordinary musical controls (pitch, duration, volume).
- Use of 'radical' scores which serve as non-conventional written/graphic 'instructions' to be actively interpreted by the performer(s). Cage is credited with the original development of the radical score and this influence continued through other composers/artists such as La Monte Young, George Brecht, Yoko Ono etc. and far beyond.
Notable composers and performers of experimental music
- 20th century classical music
- Aleatoric music
- Circuit Bending
- Computer music
- Contemporary music
- Danger music
- Electroacoustic music
- Electronic art music
- Electronic music
- European free jazz
- Extreme music
- Free improvisation
- Free jazz
- Bailey, Derek. 1980. "Musical Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music". Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall; Ashbourne: Moorland. ISBN 0136070442. Second edition, London: British Library National Sound Archive, 1992. ISBN 0712305068
- Experimental Musical Instruments. 1985–1999. A periodical (no longer published) devoted to experimental music and instruments
- Holmes, Thomas B. 2002. Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition. Second edition. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415936438
- John Cage. 1961. "Experimental Music" and "Experimental Music: Doctrine", in Silence: Lectures and Writings, 7–12 and 13–17. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.
- Source: Music of the Avant Garde
- Nyman, Michael. 1974. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0028712005. Second edition, Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0521652979