Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Still experimenting

Norman O. Brown was fond of pointing out that the German translation of the Christian Lord's Prayer contained the phrase "führe uns nicht in Versuchung", which can be taken literally as "lead us not into experiment". For some reason or another, when it comes to music making I was apparently never properly instructed in the proper Christian avoidance of experiment.

I happen to have no problem wearing the experimental label. The American compositional tradition with which I most identify has often been characterized as experimental. My graduate school composition faculty was a program in experimental music (Lucier, Kuivila), my other teachers (Mumma, Young, Harrison) had no problems with the label, either.

Although my own music often has a surface that resembles some other, familiar music, it is always the result of a project beginning with a "what if" question. As Cage put it: "here the word 'experimental' 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."

The willingness to risk failure, by placing success and failure outside the project, and the detachment of composerly intention from the end result, strike me as the vital emblems of experimental musics. This is in contrast to music which has "effectiveness" as its object. I've never been comfortable with the terms of "effective" music-making: tension/release, climax, etc.. It could be that this is a deficit on my part, but I've never much like being manipulated, and perhaps that's the main reason I've been drawn to experimental music.

(And yes, I have noticed that I have appealed twice in recent posts to "comfort"; I suppose that's just a symptom of being a terminally American composer. )


MikeZ said...

Interesting idea. What is the end result of experimental music? (For that matter, what is the result of music?)

So far, I think that music is an ordered sucession of tones, ordered by some logical system. (Tones include pitch, spectrum, duration,...)

What determintes the success or failure of a particular piece of experimental music? Is it its reception by a audience, or by an audience of other experimental musicians?

Your last comment is intriguing: (not being comfortable with "effective" music). Could that also be "affective" music? What else is music other than an emotional communication?

Or is experimental music a search for that "what else"?

And are there some standards (explicit or not) in determining whether a piece is successful? We could apply Ives': if I like it, it's a success.

Trevor Murphy said...

'It all depends on who experiments and why. Every true composer feels the need to experiment. Having exhausted the existing means of expression, he is forever compelled to renew them. Only narcissism - absorption in one's own art - can halt this natural tendency, with fatal consequences. Experiment enriches a composer's equipment. The purpose of the avant-garde, to use the term in the narrow sense of the word, is to prepare the ground for new generations, for classical artists of the future. That is why we must distinguish between an experiment which is useful for any individual composer and an experiment which turns the wheels of history.'

I thought of this bit from 'Conversations with Witold Lutoslawski' that I read recently when I encountered your post. What strikes me about his ideas about experimentation versus yours, though, is his statement that 'experiment enriches a composer's equipment'- you seem to feel that the experiment itself is goal enough.

I must admit that I am a little puzzled that you love the idea of new music as experiment, but can also get behind Beethoven's 9th and Monteverdi in the previous post. Is loving those experiments of previous generations - that are now considered as scientific 'fact', to wear out the analogy - so different from loving contemporary music which doesn't draw from that accumulated data, so to speak? In other words: if Beethoven's 9th did not exist and were written today by some ultra-reactionary, would it still be worth hearing with today's ears?

Daniel Wolf said...

These are serious questions and deserve a thoughtful response. I hope that I haven't suggested that all experimental works are "landmarks" or "renewable", or that all landmarks are (or were) experimental. Experimenting is a way or working, while the categories of "landmark" or "renewable" are qualitative. That said, I find that the real musical landmarks are those that keep giving, in that they continue to reveal new ways of listening. I think even Beethoven's 9th may be rich in this quality -- it was, orginally, something of an experiment (a symphony with a secular -- dare one say "secular humanist" -- cantata appended) -- but what precisely it is and how it is used continue to be redefined.

For a better answer, please see my item "Ambition", which is just a quote by artist Robert Irwin.