Experimental Music Is Music That Does Not Work

The following can be filed as commuter scribbling


Technology was once described as something that nearly works. Perhaps the same  person is responsible for describing alternative medicine as medicine that isn’t yet proven to work. The inference with both of these illustrations is that when something does what it is meant to do one isn’t consciously aware of the thing itself, only the effect or consequence.

Might it then follow that experimental music might be construed as music that doesn’t yet work? When it works it will simply be received as music.

Experimental music, at this time, seems largely to be framed as a 20th century phenomenon – somewhere in the sharp and angular soup of serialism, Pierre Schaeffer, Stockhausen, minimalism, electronic music and the evolution of sound art. And it all still sounds odd, out there, other. 

David Toop, for one – there are others – sought to define experimental music as a discipline or system of evolving signals and process that challenges definitions and boundaries of musician, instrument and performance. But the defining of evolving systems seems, in itself, quite confining, constrained. Experimentalism would surely exist outwith the evolving algorithm, and stick a spike into its own cog to disrupt the system.

I certainly don’t like to think of my own work as being experimental. I think of it only as music. Un-successful music that will continue to be regarded as un-successful or marginal until it is just heard or experienced as music. 

Changes in a listeners expectations may have some role to play in this perception.

Once we open up to the possibility of the experience of listening to music as being an evolving process, it becomes somehow simpler to consider experimental music as something that has always been present, that is merely the occurrence of musical acts yet to prove successful, acceptable, integrated. The evolution from plain song to polyphony in european sacred song in the Middle Ages, the introduction of new scales and modes, the rise of even tempered tuning, the late 18th century evolution of a tonal language unconnected to text, all initially jarring, confrontational, controversial interventions but, in time, accepted, welcomed.

So, why has the 20th century become fixed and fixated? Why are those present at the vanguard, and those monumental presences – Cage, Cardew, Xienacis, Stockhausen, Ayler, Young, et al, still hailed as experimentalists, composers and musicians. Never just composers and musicians. Why has experimentalism been locked as a stance?

The nature of the archive? The seal of recording? The culture of personality refusing to allow evolution of the person in name and reputation? Experimental emerging as a genre in its own right, one with no need to assimilate into more generalised musical appreciation? An ever present media allows for culture to be fixed in aspic. That is a consequence of the detailed archive.

I know I am not an experimentalist. I would like to think that I am a traditionalist.