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Experimental Music, Part 2

You can experience experimental music this weekend in Austin, Texas at nmass 2016!


Part 1 of my exploration of the meaning of experimental music started with a definition:

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

By the end of part 1, I had decided that technology-oriented music is more of a subset of experimental music. I’ll admit that it’s a very popular subset.

Today, plenty of electroacoustic competition calls refer to “tape” in the instrumentation outlined, not that I would call that a modern technology. (There is a whole other discussion that will not be had by me – what does “modern” mean?)  reel-to-reel tapeI find the use of the term tape to be … quaint, as if we are still using tape decks every day.

I do like old stuff.  I remember having a blast with my best friend Kathy when we were kids playing with her tape recorder.  It had 3 speeds, so we could record at one speed and playback to sound like Alvin and The Chipmunks, or just hyper, frantic people. Or we could sound like sludgy, slow-motion creatures.  It was fun!  And it was rare for someone to have the tools to do that. Oh, how I wish we still had those recordings.

I know there are folks who still work with actual tape today, but these competitions aren’t limiting media that way.  For the most part, the term nowadays mostly seems to mean “recorded material.”  I guess it’s just easier to use the legacy term. Tape. One syllable for seven. I can go for that.

Some of the earliest music that was called experimental did involve use of actual tape. Richard Taruskin in his book Music In The Late Twentieth Century calls the making of early electronic music in this form “the most labor-intensive musical medium in all of history.”  I don’t know iSea_organ_640f that’s the case. I think it takes some time, thought, and effort to make a bone flute or a sea organ.

But John Cage and accomplices took five months, seven hours a day, to splice together William’s Mix, a 4 minute, 15 second long electronic piece.  What they spent months doing, anyone with a computer can do in minutes or a few hours today. Not that today’s experimental musicians don’t have to spend a lot of time realizing their art. It’s quite intensive!  As far as I can tell, music-making requires a lot of time and thought, no matter what.  I think a lot of people assume that something that sounds random or unusual is thrown together like my soup of the day.  But Curtis Roads, in his book Composing Electronic Music – A New Aesthetic, says people have described his composition process as occurring on a “glacial timescale,” where a passage that is just a few seconds long may take a week to design, with his ideas being realized over months or years.

Back to John Cage. What makes William’s Mix experimental to me isn’t so much that it was created with technology, but that what he was doing aligns more with those other two definitions, using new ways of doing or thinking about things and seeing how well new methods would work. He was really good at that! He explored new timbres from a known instrument (prepared piano), he experimented with interaction of musician and environment (4’33”), he applied chance to music (Music of Changes), and always challenged the listener to think about music in a different way. To me, this is experimental music. This is what I’m looking for and listening for when I experience experimental music.

4’33” is a piece in which the musician sits quietly for a prescribed amount of time, in three movements. Some people respond to the piece as if it is the Icebreakerwork of a charlatan, or is a joke, as if he is “peddling silence.” In fact, Cage made the point very well that music isn’t only sound, but silence also. If you don’t think that’s so, think about what a rest in music notation means (and if you don’t read music notation, ask someone who does). The spaces between sounds make a huge difference in the experience of the music. That being said, 4’33” isn’t silence. The listeners hear the sounds of the environment they are in.  The premiere of 4’33” took place in a venue with sides open to the outdoors, so there were nature sounds – wind and raindrops – as well as the sounds made by the audience leaving. 4’33” in a black box theater, or on a school stage, is likely very different. Each performance is unique.Laura Brackney

Many pieces have been composed where each experience of the piece is, by design, a one of a kind event. Unsilent Night, by Phil Kline is a piece written to be performed outside during December, consisting of 4 tracks, available in several media. The tracks are obtained by the participants/audience, who carry boomboxes, smartphones, or whatever will amplify music, and walk together through city streets, making a sound sculpture that is unique with each performance.

Austin-based composer Laura Brackney, influenced by Kline, has created several sound sculptures of her own. One performance, titled Afternoon at Abuelita’s, occurred at the Blanton Museum’s SoundSpace event in February of this year. Cassette tapes of four different tracks were distributed amongst numerous boomboxes, creating a totally unique and appealing experience. This one took place with performers afoot.

Most of Laura’s sound sculptures thus far have been created for bicyclists, which makes sense because she is an avid cyclist herself. For this year’s nmass festival Laura, along with George Pasterk of COTFG, present Sound Cycle, at 9:00am, Sunday June 26. FoSoundCycle2016ur tracks are available for download and as participants move through the city together playing their downloaded tracks, shifting positions will create a unique, constantly changing soundscape. More information is available HERE.

Meanwhile, there are two more days of nmass. I’ll be attending all day Saturday. We’ll see what I have to say about experimental music after a day of immersion.

Permanent link to this article: https://ashleyhkraft.com/experimental-music-part-2/

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