Experimental music is an art of living

Spotlights 23.09.2022

If experimental music has a history and a genealogy - rich and exciting -, it cannot constitute a musical "genre" in itself. It is much more an attitude, a singular way of considering creation, but also listening, and of (re)reconciling art and life. An attitude shared by all the artists invited to the 2022 edition of the riverrun festival, organized between Albi and Toulouse, by the GMEA.

A genealogy of musical experimentation

The notion of avant-garde lived, it is history, as the Americans say; it participated of a progressive mythology of the art which made its time. In all the senses of the term. Because the avant-gardes of the XXth century, consubstantial to the modernity, did not allow less the artistic creation, and even to the conception of the art, to accomplish determining metamorphoses. That, they owe it in big part to their nature - their vocation - experimental.
The experimentation, would it be in the end what remains of the avant-garde? Dada and Fluxus, to quote only them, have in any case aggregated around them artistic personalities who still today impress by their intrepidity. Starting, of course, with the American composer John Cage (1912-1992), a sort of hyphen between these two movements, who was the first to theorize the notion of "experimental music" in a 1955 article, "Experimental Music: Doctrine", defining it as "an action whose result is unknown"(1).
Certainly, in the same decade, Pierre Schaeffer, the father of musique concrète (or electroacoustic music), had also used the expression of experimental music; but it was then in a sense that was closer to the scientific, "laboratory" meaning of the epithet. It is also true that the term "experimental" has been used to designate - in a rather pejorative way - the whole of post-war Western music in the written tradition - that is, contemporary music. But, if certain composers such as Pierre Boulez were able to resort to processes of an experimental nature (open work, recourse to the aleatoric), the conception of Cage contrasts radically with the posture of these representatives of what one ended up calling "the institutional avant-garde", if only by his ambition to reconcile, in the image of the artists of Dada and Fluxus, art and life. 

The genesis of experimental music is also largely Anglo-Saxon. It was mainly developed in South Carolina in the 1950s, at Black Mountain College (where Cage created in 1952, with Event #1, the first happening in history, with the complicity of pianist David Tudor, among others), and then in the following decade in California, around the famous San Francisco Tape Music Center, which can be considered as one of the first centers of what was to become minimalist music. Several composers featured in this 2022 edition of riverrun have gravitated towards the latter: Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016), Alvin Lucier (1931-2021). Of these composers, the Swedish electroacoustic musician Ellen Arkbro can be considered today as one of the heirs, who has not ceased to explore, especially on the organ, the mysteries and the vertigo of continuous sound...

This genealogy branches out concomitantly on the other side of the Atlantic, in Great Britain, around the figure of Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981), a "disciple" of Cage and a great adept of graphic scores - a musician that the GMEA has frequently honored in recent years. With him, experimentation in music takes on a value that is not only aesthetic and ontological, but above all political. From this history, which is still ongoing in all parts of the world, and of which the essential work of the critic and composer Michael Nyman, Experimental Music, published in 1974 with a preface by Brian Eno, provides a fascinating analysis(2), one observation emerges: the notion of "experimental music" cannot be summed up in the notion of indeterminacy which, for Cage, defined it at the beginning. It encompasses a multiplicity of heterogeneous sound practices, which nevertheless have in common to upset the concepts of musical work, notation, time and space; to give silence its rightful place - in this respect, the music of Swiss composer Jürg Frey, whose piece Grounds of Memory, inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson, will be premiered by the Dedalus Ensemble, singer Peyee Chen and the Quatuor Bozzini, is particularly emblematic; and, ultimately, to transform the roles of the composer, the performer, but also the listener.
The experimentation in musical matter can for example concern the lutherie: thus of the (d)astonishing, heterodox and so poetic instrumentarium, deployed by the Japanese Rie Nakajima and the Belgian Pierre Berthet. It can also take tradition as its object: one thinks of the astonishing rereadings that Deborah Walkerand Silvia Tarozzi will propose of the "songs of war, work and love" borrowed from Italian folklore. And so on...

An innocence of music

Matthieu Saladin summarizes very well this "absence of a distinctive musical 'genre' for experimental music" in the introduction of his collection L'Expérience de l'expérimentation, which embraces American minimalism as well as Japanese noise, improvisation or the "experimental": "It is rather singular relationships to musical creation that emerge, nourished by different problems or interests according to the musicians and artists, crossing moreover a multiplicity of currents and practices". field recording He adds: "It is rather singular relations to the musical creation that emerge, nourished by different problems or interests according to the musicians and the artists, crossing moreover a multiplicity of currents and practices. He adds: "If experimental music does not represent a genre, it is also because experimentation does not manifest itself exclusively in so-called experimental music, and that, conversely, musicians working in music qualified as experimental by convention or habit, may not experiment at all. This fragility of experimentation forbids in this sense any reduction to a practice of experts, opening it in return to the multitude of amateurs who will know in their turn how to exploit the flaws. To think of 'experimental music' in the opposite way to a closed category requires considering the forms of experimentation in music that has often been refused such a qualification, notably because of its popular roots.

If it has the vocation to thwart labels, codes, formats and academisms of all kinds, the "experimental music" is not exempt, indeed, from clichés, tics and clichés. And in fact, experimentation has taken place today in all musical styles, from r'n'b to folk, through rock - at least since the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which, in 1967, imposed the studio as an instrument in its own right.

In this field, a point of no return seems to have been reached by Lou Reed in 1975 with his fifth studio album, Metal Machine Music an hour of white noise which, at the time, was a real commercial (and critical) suicide for the former singer of the Velvet Underground. The Zeitkratzer ensemble, directed by Reinhold Friedl, will offer a reading that only underlines the timeless modernity of this radical gesture.
An experimental dynamic also animates a good number of actors of the electronic scene: the German Antye Greie-Ripatti, alias AGF, is a good example, as one will be able to see with the concert of the Lappetites, the trio which she forms since 2005 with the Englishwoman Kaffe Matthews and the Japanese Ryoko Akama.Many record shops have "Experimental" bins, which generally include the works of the heirs of the industrial music of the early 1980s, a movement that is itself protean. The fact remains that experimentation is first of all a curiosity, a faculty to remain open to the moment, to the unknown, to the unforeseen. It is a disposition of spirit, an attitude, in the same way as the punk finally; a practice, as is the meditation. It is in a way, whether or not it is one of these "expert practices" that Matthieu Saladin talks about, a form of innocence. A word that brings us back to Cornelius Cardew, who intended, with his masterpiece Treatise (1963-67), to address the "musical innocents" - these amateur musicians for whom the Scratch Orchestra was also intended, a sort of democratic utopia that he initiated at the end of the 1960s.

A word that also brings us back to the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, Pascale Criton 's master of thought - a composer who has never ceased to explore crossroads on the fringe of institutional practices -, according to whom experimentation in art "seems all the more difficult and intellectual to intellectuals that it is accessible to the stupid, the illiterate, the schizo"(4). Reputedly difficult to access, isn't experimental music on the contrary the most naturally shareable?
Thus the innocence in question concerns the artists as well as the spectators/listeners. In experimentation, it is listening at least as much as creation that is at stake. We come back to John Cage, to this always renewed fusion of art and life, of the work and its environment, to which he aspired. "We are in reality, technically equipped to transform our current awareness of the operating mode of nature into art. We should not fear the future of music," he said in 1957. Would experimentation be the childhood of art - or, to say it in a less overused way, an authentic art of living?

David Sanson

Festival riverrun from September 24th to October 9th 2022, a partnership between GMEA - Centre National de Création Musicale & Hémisphère son.

1. This article, translated in 1961, can be found in the collection Silence. Conférences et écrits, Geneva, Éditions Héros-Limite, 2003.
2. Experimental Music was published in French by Allia.
3. See Matthieu Saladin, L'Expérience de l'expérimentation, Paris, Les Presses du réel, 2015, pp. 11-16.
4. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, L'Anti-Œdipe. Capitalisme et schizophrénie, quoted by Matthieu Saladin, op. cit. , p. 15.

Article photo: Rie Nakajima and Pierre Berthet
Photo Mountain College © Barbara Morgan


buy twitter accounts