Norman Lebrecht (1992: introduction) cites the beginning of the twentieth century as the watershed in the history of musical evolution in the West.
“The history of music both ended and began in a Milan hotel room at 3 a.m. on 27 January 1901 when Giuseppe Verdi drew his final breath. Verdi was the last of the titans whom music had brought forth with miraculous fertility ever since the near simultaneous birth in 1685 of Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Frideric Handel. When one creative force expired another was ready and waiting to pick up the baton of progress.”
Lebrecht’s hypothesis is well founded. Although none of the celebrated European composers and musicians working during the period from the beginning of the Reformation to the end of the Belle Epoch worked to a set, rigid template of creation, a discernible shift in focus is detectable after 1900 that lends the term ‘experimental musician’ a certain sense of relevance and piquancy. Gradually, music shifted away from a narrative epicentre towards a rich and diverse musical landscape that necessitated a move away from performance art to the embracement of the sonic possibilities of studio recording. Music, furthermore, became intertwined with social movements as the twentieth century progressed with the young enfranchised members of society influencing the course of music as much as the traditional ruling elite who had largely controlled composition throughout the nineteenth century. In this sense, musicians working during certain defining moments of the twentieth century were bound to be classed as experimental as technology and society offered options of creation and composition that had not hitherto existed.
The essay will look at a range of musicians who each played their part in the reconstruction of compositional music during the twentieth century – from Erik Statie to Brian Eno, from Terry Riley to Karl Heinz Stockhausen – encompassing avant garde, electronic, minimalist and classical music. The discussion will attempt to follow a format that will, in turn, examine the creation of experimental music (analysing techniques and innovations used to create the optimum studio and live performance by individual artists and groups), the exploration and formulation of the above techniques in form as well as the appraisal and critiques of the artists cited concerning their own work and their vision of how music might evolve. A conclusion will be sought so as to dove tail the above categories into a synthesis of opinion that attempts to show the essential continuities and differences between each of the experimental musicians within the study with the overall aim that the term ‘experimental’ might be better defined as a result.
Attempting to quantify the reasons why a composer composes is a nigh on impossible task that is tantamount to finding a formula for the motivation behind Picasso’s art. To state that every musician wishes to create a piece of aesthetically beautiful music is pedantic; and to attempt to find a blanket answer as to why all musicians compose is likewise futile. The common thread, however, between each of the artists that will be featured within this study is the inherent inquisition of each musician that leads him to wish to re configure the contemporary boundaries of popular music. None of the musicians, such as John Cage or Karl Heinz Stockhausen, were satisfied with merely re producing the work of either their influences or their peers; each felt that there was more ground to explore within their own space and time. This fundamental common trait acted as the trigger behind all of the experimental musicians of the twentieth century.
As in every other profession, musicians are a varied breed. Some, such as Alvin Lucier and Terry Riley, appear to be born ‘gifted’ and feel the music as an instinctive impulse while others are forced to labour over their constructions, taking their starting point and moulding it, over time, into an experimental piece of music. Steve Reich (1974:11) appears to be just such a composer, where, in the following extract, he describes a gradual process of creation as the antithesis to the drug induced rock music that was prevalent at the time of his Writings about Music.
“The distinctive thing about musical processes is that they determine all the note to note details and the over all form simultaneously. One can’t improvise in a musical process – the concepts are mutually exclusive. While performing and listening to gradual musical processes one can participate in a particular liberating and interpersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible that shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards towards it.”
It is clear from this quotation that Reich sees music as a separate entity from man, humanity and therefore the instigator. Clearly, however, his personal philosophy and ideology influences how he perceives music. Satie, on the other hand, was deeply influenced by the people he met, constituting life influencing art as opposed to the other way around. Notoriously secluded and introverted (indeed, even celibate), Satie’s personal life was arid yet his acquaintances and surroundings (Paris) were inherently experimental. Satie was especially influenced by the ‘outsider’ artists and contemporaries that he met, such as the Surrealists in the early 1920’s and artistic friends like Debussy and Cocteau. Kenneth Thompson (1973:456) underlines the power of the external influences upon Satie’s musical career, in particular the piece which subsequently singled him out as an experimental musician of the highest calibre and posthumously made him a hero of experimental music.
“It was Cocteau who arranged that Satie should collaborate with himself, Massine and Picasso on the Diaghilev ballet, Parade, the stormy premier of which in 1917 turned the composer into a father figure of the New Music in Paris, especially of those musicians (Milhaud and Poulenc among them) who later came to be known as Le Six.”
Likewise Karl Heinz Stockhausen, who produced the first published score of electronic music with his Electronic Studies (1953 54), can be seen as a product of the geo political environment in which his creative impulse operated. West Germany post 1945 was a particularly innovative artistic environment (as was the Weimar Republic before it) to ply an experimental trade. The discernibly schizophrenic character of West Germany post 1945 - split asunder and divided by ideology, bricks and mortar - can be seen to have influenced Stockhausen, who was particularly interested in creating a ‘unity of opposites’ in his compositions, a radical concept that is explained by Joseph Machlis (1980:488).
“He [Stockhausen] expanded the concept of the series to include not only pitch but also rhythm, timbre, dynamics and density, in this way achieving total serialisation. At the same time he was fascinated by the possibility of combining total control with total freedom, thereby reconciling two seemingly irreconcilable goals into a higher synthesis.”
It is thus important to note the diverse influences that separate as well as unify each experimental composer within this study. Overall, it would be fair to state that the differences would be more pronounced than the similarities. One common factor, however, is that each composer would doubtlessly state would be that they did not choose to become ‘experimental’ musicians but rather that music attached itself to them. That is a common creative fact of all artists.
However, in terms of the innovative techniques used by composers to experiment fully across their particular musical spectrum, experimentation was necessarily married to technology. The tools available to Satie, for example, were markedly different from those at Eno’s disposal. This, essentially, meant that a composer was bound by science as well as time. Technology influenced innovation which greatly influenced the output of music. As studio innovation evolved so did the productivity of experimental music, a point that Salzman (1967:161:162) explains.
“The vast improvement in amplification and speaker systems and the widespread availability of a faithful, durable and easily handled storage device – magnetic tape – made it possible for the composer to establish the fixed and final form of his creation by working directly on the medium and without the aid of an interpreter.”
The introduction of the magnetic tape, in particular, constituted a revolution within the evolution of experimental music because it gave the creator the possibility of mastering time as well as pitch and tone. Whereas composers before the introduction of tape had to rely on recording within their own space and time, musicians after this time were able to make multiple copies of sound so as to introduce loops and cyclic patterns that could be further expanded upon or synthesised. For the listeners too (surely an equally significant ingredient to the creative process as the writers), technology and tape meant that a piece of music could be listened to over and again whereas previously music was confined to a singular performance given by the artist.
For the creators of experimental music, the tape and home listening devices meant that the subtle intonations of sound and scales could be detected by the untrained ear over many plays of the same piece of music. Without doubt, much of the intricacies of nineteenth century composers went unnoticed by the audience who had only one opportunity to listen to the score. With this creative freedom came experimentalism. Indeed, such was the effect of the advent of post modernity with regards to musical composition that ambience itself could be manipulated on tape to influence the tones, time signatures and poly rhythms. As John Cage (1973:67 68) ascertains, the boundaries of music have been stretched to an almost limitless expanse as a consequence.
“In the field of music we often hear that everything is possible; (for instance) that with electronic means one may employ any sound (any frequency, any amplitude, any timbre, any duration); that there are no limits to possibility. This is technically, nowadays, theoretically possible and in practical terms is often felt to be impossible only because of the absence of mechanical aids which, nevertheless, could be provided if the society felt the urgency of musical advance.”
Paradoxically, the limitless possibilities of ambience and studio production induced a minimalist backlash in the post war experimental musicians of the West, particularly those in the USA where the 1960’s avant garde and minimalist art scene as characterised by Eva Hesse and Andy Warhol was reproduced in music. As the title of his 1973 book suggests, John Cage, for instance, was interested in silence as a musical medium, stripping bare the technological advances of modernity to re introduce a sense of perspective and a new artistic relationship with nature in place of an excess of sound and studio technique. Cage’s method of composition is an amalgamation of chance and the residue of ambient noise with the sum being a wholly unpredictable sound that has even influenced mainstream pop music.
Stockhausen was likewise an exponent of ‘intuitive’ music, attempting to get to grips with the catalyst for music in the first place, which required the composer to look inwards rather than concentrating on the external output of creation. Steve Reich, moreover, travelled to Africa and was tutored by African drummers where he taped his lessons and used the sound on an eight track studio in New York, playing with time if not the pitch of the music and tribal chants. It is important to note that the technological changes prevalent during the second half of the twentieth century were responsible for the inherent artistic impulse not to conform to taste and type. Experimental music, by definition, has to exist outside of the parameters of the dominant music of the day otherwise it would cease to be considered experimental.
Yet just as Cage and Stockhausen opted to turn their backs on the possibilities raised by the introduction of the magnetic tape others embraced the new relationship between time and music that the tape and tape loops offered the post war experimental musician. Terry Riley, another American pioneer of experimental music, used the studio and tape to maximise the mathematical components of music. Using both the studio and live performance, Riley developed his sound over time, often using a concert performance to iron out imperfections in his music, as was the case with Persian Surgery Dervishes (1971 2). The end result, as Mark Prendergast (2003:103) explains, was a wholly innovative and experimental type of new music.
“Though the piece is at first seemingly static, the relationship between the repeated organ bass on the tape loop and various processing effects on Riley’s own mixer build to an intoxicating sound. Another reason for its success was just intonation.”
Riley’s music was therefore a reproductive experience: constantly mirroring sounds upon the reflection of one another with subtle differences in intonation catching the listener unawares. By embracing the new musical studios, an experimental musician could stretch the possibilities of sonic creation every bit as much as the performers who opted to curtail their use of sound; the one unifying factor is the demands that both types of experimental music make of their listeners.
Thus far, the musicians cited within the study composed their music from outside of the spectre of commercialisation and the pressures of contractual pop music yet an experimental musician does not necessarily have to operate within such a creatively secluded environment. As already briefly touched upon, a key component of the musical revolution of the twentieth century that permitted Stockhausen, Reich and Riley to play with the very concept of composition was the social revolution that forever altered the landscape of production during the 1960’s. Therefore, it made sense that, within such a liberal social and political context, the work of Cage was soon transmitted into popular music.
The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows, for instance, is seen as a celebratory marriage of experimental music and mass mainstream pop – John Lennon taking the avant garde experiment further with Revolution Number Nine (the White Album) and his solo pieces, The Wedding Album and Two Virgins (1969). Yet these recordings were memorable mostly for the wider audience that experimental music reached as a result of the Beatles’ fame rather than for constituting a totally new form of music.
The arrival of Brian Eno upon the popular music scene however did constitute a shift in focus of experimental music due to the innovative recording techniques that he had harboured and the influence he had on contemporary experimental musicians. Utilising echoes, delays and fluctuating volumes, often by combining and multiplying tape loops, Eno was able to manipulate studio music in a way that other famous producers, such as George Martin and Phil Spector, either could (as was the case with the former) or would (as has been the case with the latter) not match. Brian Eno used ambience as the central actor in the studio where his collaboration with the popular face of experimentalism, David Bowie, on the 1977 album Low has been cited as the genesis and trigger for the late 1980’s and 1990’s intrigue with trance and dance music. Unlike Spector, Eno did not advocate the infamous ‘wall of sound’ studio techniques of the time; rather his technique was a mixture of Cage’s minimalism and Riley’s strict innovation, in the process bequeathing a new musical landscape to a new generation of experimental musicians.
Eno also worked with former King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp on Bowie’s 1977 album Heroes, where the two fused Fripp’s Les Paul electric guitar with Eno’s experimental production techniques to great effect on the title track. As Prendergast (2003:339) points out, the lesson of the combination of Eno, Bowie and Fripp was that, in the age of boundless recording techniques, less often means more.
“The slow tempoed electric guitar of Heroes sharded through Eno’s tape treatments for the Bowie song and was a pinnacle of understatement.”
As Fripp experimented with avant garde guitar techniques, other artists pushed the boundaries of electronic synthesised creativity still further. Alvin Lucier, for instance, expanded his vision of musical performance to encompass seemingly inanimate, non musical objects around him. Lucier has used brain waves in live performances and notations to mark the physical movements of actual performers.
By the time that Fripp collaborated with The Orb, The Grid and The Future Sound of London in 1994 experimental music had moved over into the mainstream to such an extent that tape looped ambient dance music became a kind of musical Mecca for an entire generation with hubs of activity such as Ibiza, Manchester and Amsterdam thriving off the legacy of all of the above artists, each and every one whose stated aim it was to experiment with the contemporary norm.
It has been shown that experimental music was and remains tied to technological advances and the casting of the studio as central compositional actor. The day that The Beatles stopped touring in 1966 and vowed only to release recorded material was a watershed in terms of popular music and its ties to formula, but the groundwork had largely been laid by pioneering composers before them. Mahler’s Symphonic Movements began an inquisitive train of thought that has still yet to derail and likely never will for as long as artistic integrity prevails over commercialisation and manufactured music. Modern bands such as Radiohead prove that the influences of electronic, minimalist and experimental music retain their resonance in the twenty first century and these sounds are able to evolve with new media and technology to play a key part in contemporary experimentalism.
Ultimately, as John Cage (1973:69) concludes there is no set thesis pertaining to experimental music and the people who create it; every artist is inspired and influenced by different genres and aspirations while the time and space in which said artist is operating is even more critical, inherently influencing the sound of the final product. The one certainty he seems offer regarding experimental music is that it is beyond the tangible reach of calculated creative effort.
“What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen. It is therefore very useful if one has decided that sounds are to come into their own, rather than being exploited to express sentiments or ideas of order… for nothing one does give rise to anything that is preconceived."
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