Experimental music refers, in the English-language literature, to a compositional tradition which arose in the mid-twentieth century, particularly in North America, and whose most famous and influential exponent was John Cage (Grant 2003, 174). More loosely, the term is used 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).
The term was first introduced by composer John Cage in 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).
A year earlier, 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). Unfortunately, publication of Schaeffer's manifesto (Schaeffer 1957) was delayed by four years, by which time Schaeffer was favoring the term "recherce musicale", though he never wholly abandoned "musique expérimentale" (Palombini 1993a, 19; Palombini 1993b, 557).
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). 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.
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).
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).
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. In the late 1950s, Lejaren Hiller and L. M. Isaacson (1959) used the term in connection with computer-controlled composition, in the scientific sense of "experiment": 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).
Artists: Luigi Russolo, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives, Edgard Varèse, Erik Satie, Pierre SchaefferA number of early twentieth-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).
John Cage began writing music in 1939, but it is for his work from the mid-40s on that has earned him his reputation as the father of American experimental music. Cage's earliest influential innovation was the Prepared piano, which completely altered the sonic possibilities of a grand piano (See: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano). In the same period Cage had reached the conclusion that since the only characteristic shared by all sounds (if total silence is included as a sound) was duration, the only logical compositional strategy was to determine a durational structure which would be filled in an indeterminent manner. Cage's "4'33"," also known as "the silent piece," demonstrated Cage's belief that all sounds are equally interesting, if you only listen to them with the same intent..
Harry Partch as well as Ivor Darreg started working with other tuning scales based on the physical laws for harmonic music. This was called microtonal music. For this kind of experimental music they both developed a group of experimental musical instruments. The uses of microtonal pitches was besides more harmonic than the Western equal tempered tuning also a new way to experiment with beating frequencies in any kind of unexpected way when playing tones without calculating them in advance which colors the music in new ways. 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. See also spectral music. This phenomenon was later adopted by Chatham and Branca, during the No Wave period.
See main article: Musique concrète. 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). 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).
For full article, see Fluxus
Artists to be added: Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman
Fluxus was a artistic movement started in the 1960s, characterized by an increased theatricality and the use of mixed media. The beginning of Fluxus might be said to be George Brecht's conception of an event score. Event scores are written instructions that, when followed, enact a musical composition. One early example is a piece of LaMonte Young's that instructed the performer to "draw a straight line and then follow it." 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.]).
For main article see: Minimalist music
In the 1960s LaMonte Young became interested in drones of various types, especially those created by live performers, in part because the subtle changes that occurred within the overtone series could create melodies that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Steve Reich, Philip Glass and, to a lesser degree, Terry Riley, all fall into the category of rhythmic minimalism, a minimalist approach with a steady, driving pulse. Riley's In C or Glass' Music in Fifths provide examples of such pieces. These works are highly repetitive, with many gradual changes.
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).
For main article see: Free improvisation
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.
At the end of the 1960s pop groups like The Beach Boys and The Beatles began adding musical influences outside the common field of pop 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 also a group of underground artists like 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 a 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, Brian Eno, Pere Ubu, Faust, Can, DNA, Robert Fripp, Diamanda Galás. 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 electic drum kid with all kinds of added sound possibilities acoustic as well as electric.
Artists to be added: Boyd Rice
See main article: No Wave. Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca composed multi guitar compositions in the late 70s, based on the ideas of LaMonte Young (Chatham) and Harry Partch (Branca). 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. Change 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. Non rock-related acts, such as Aphex Twin, have explored new experimental techniques like placing pictures in spectrograms and returning them to audio signals. 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 build a series of experimental musical instruments to create a new way of experimental music, being recognised and picked up by Rhys Chatham's Table of the Elements label. These Are Powers modified their bass guitar and drum kit into unusual instruments to explore unexpected soundtextures based on the changed musical scale of the bass guitar. Because the fretboard isn't representing the 12TET anymore because of the preparation, the chord combinations and tone progressions form an altered microtonal spectrum.
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".
Graphic notation -Music which is written in the form of diagrams or drawings rather than using “conventional” notation (with staves, clefs, notes, etc).
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.
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, divided the octave into 22, 31, 43, 53, 72, etc. microtones, either equally or unequally, and then used this scale as a basis for composition.
Some of the more common techniques include: