Thursday, June 11, 2015
Experiment, maybe not, invention, maybe better
While I'm comfortable enough with the phrase "experimental music" (let me cheerfully remind that Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was premiered at a Paul Whiteman concert billed as "An Experiment in Modern Music") particular when the outcome of the compositional work is unknown, and because there is a known historical repertoire or tradition to which this label — sometimes more, often less, accurately — is attached, I may be more comfortable with identifying music as inventive, or individual works as inventions. Though my immediate nod of acknowledgement here goes to poet Charles Bernstein (in his essay/interview collection Attack of the Difficult Poems), there is a legitimate tradition in music of using the term, from the contrapuntal keyboard Inventionen of Bach (in his "learned" mode) to the handmade circuitry virtuosi of more recent days (with added hat tips along the way to the fathers of Charles Ives and John Cage as well as those imaginatively monstrous soundmaking inventions of a Percy Grainger or Harry Partch and every Wagner Tuba or Sousaphone you'll ever encounter.) The term invention gets us usefully out of characterizing and evaluating a work based on whether a precise and verifiable experimental method has been carried out and takes us more, well, musically, into a realm of trial and error in composition, performance and audition, with evaluation — does this "work"? is this compelling? does this stretch of sound — this potential (hat tip to the Oulipo here) music — actually achieve the musical? — usefully returned to questions of aesthetics or taste rather than experimental demonstration without relinquishing the thrill associated with the experimental that comes from the potential, the risk, of failure.