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Experimental Music, Part 1

Writing this blog, I’ve been surprised at how difficult it is for me to write about experimental music. Maybe it’s because I feel like I don’t really know much about it, or because the term gets used in different ways, or because there are so many different ideas about what makes music “experimental.” Still, I shall endeavor to persevere, starting with what the word “experimental” might mean. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary online says:

-relating to a scientific experiment or to scientific experiments in general
-made or done in order to see how well something works
-using a new way of doing or thinking about something

Does music have to involve what most of us consider science in order to be experimental? Replace “scientific experiment” with “technology” and I think the mark is pretty close to the way most people think about experimental music today, since so much of it involves modern technology, especially electronics. I think the term experimental music arose in the 20th century along with the rise of technology as an integral part of our lives (at least in Western cultures).

Before the Information Age, the Computer Age, the Atomic Age an amazing thing happened that changed our relationship to music – the ability to record sounds. Almost all of us have been immersed in a world with recordings all of our lives, so we take it for granted, like air. But it changed the way people can experience music. Instead of, or in addition to, going somewhere to hear an orchestral performance, or a marching band, or making the music yourself, it became possible to listen to music you liked over and over and over again in your living room, something I did a lot when I was growing up.

But think about how long ago this change in the way we can experience music happened. Rewind: before the 21st century, before the proliferation of the Internet, before computers were available, before there were nuclear bombs, before jazz, before IBM’s tabulating machines were used for the census – we’re already into the 19th century now – before airplanes, before cars, before widespread use of electricity, even (barely) before the light bulb was invented – yes, that far back, the way we listened to music changed when, in 1877, Thomas Edison succeeded at recording sound with a machine.

Recording technology proceeded to develop from machines that only allowed one copy of a capture, to methods that allowed multiple copies of recordings, to electrical recording – microphones to capture sound instead of horns, for example – to magnetic tape, to digital recording. Computer proliferation opened up all sorts of opportunities for experimentation for anyone who chooses to explore.

I happen to connect the evolution of experimental music more with the dramatic changes resulting from recording than with the rise of the computer age much later on. In fact, my “bible” of the development of Western music, Burkholder’s A History of Western Music, first mentions experimental music with Charles Ives messing around with tonality, and exploring different techniques and ideas.

This aligns more with the second definition of experimental above, “made or done in order to see how well something works,” and doesn’t have anything to do with technology. He was experimenting in the first decade of the 20th century, before microphones were even being used to capture sound, before World War I. My grandparents were small children, for cryin’ out loud. So to me, then, the science/technology definition of experimental doesn’t work so well on its own. Technology-oriented experimental music is a subset, then.

I have more to say about experimental music, so look for another blog soon where I continue. In the meantime, check out a boat-load of experimental music this weekend (June 22-26, 2016) in Austin, Texas at the Salvage Vanguard Theater where nmass 2016 is happening now!

Stay tuned for part 2….


Permanent link to this article: https://ashleyhkraft.com/experimental-music-part-1/

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