An introduction to experimental music

As the highly active and passionate consumer of the music medium that I am, I listen to a wide spectrum of different stuff; everything from catchy pop songs, to heavy metal bangers and nasty punk tracks, to cool jazz tunes and tasty hip-hop beats. Out of all though, experimental music is probably the most interesting and exciting category within the musical realm that I regularly enjoy, examine and explore. While not so much a concrete genre as an umbrella term for a variety of different styles, there is yet one common aesthetic that all musical approaches within the category bears, and that is their will to explore the possibilities of the medium, and creating as equally immense as unique and interesting listening experiences. But while the category is filled with intriguing stuff, it is also a type of music that people are generally highly alienated towards, often meeting it with raised eyebrows and dismissive words such as “crap”, “pretentious”, “I don’t get it” or “how is this even music?”. Therefore, I’d for this particular post like to provide an exploratory introduction to experimental music’s different branches, by both looking at how they’ve come into being, what the “ideas” behind them are, what techniques and methods are used, and also how they overlap with mainstream music in a lot of ways. That way, I hope to shed some insight and perspective onto this often rejected musical category.

For starters, I think it’s important to distinguish what we mean with the term “experimental music”. A general conception would be to say that it is music that experiments, which in itself may refer to several things; either mixing different genres and traditions across the musical spectrum, or playing around with the medium’s different components in unconventional ways. What it ultimately comes down to though is a matter of inventiveness – in other words trying out new things. From this definition, all types of music have at one point been experimental, since it is by trying out new things that new genres are born and that the medium evolves. Because of this, it would be necessary (at least in this particular context) to limit the term from “experimental music throughout all of history” to only that which is present today. Although this specification quickly creates an issue, because as we further on will see, the different genres present within the realm of experimental music today derives from well-established traditions that has been around for decades, making it not really a matter of experimentation in the sense of creating something completely unheard of. The definition I’d say rather lies in the still highly prominent unconventionality of these traditions, in that they have yet to own their place in our normally accepted definition of the medium. Here I think thus lies a concrete and well-grounded definition of the term: experimental music is music that works in ways outside of our widely accepted idea of what music is.

So in order to get some insight into what this definition implies, I think it would be necessary to see where the idea-based distinction between music and non-music really lies. In other words, we need to examine what our general conception of music is, and the different components that it includes. At a fundamental level, a musical piece in the traditional sense consists of a collection of notes that, when combined in a certain way, creates an interplay in the form of harmonies and melodies, which are then applied to a rhythmic structure. At a practical level though, music is made out of so much more than that; instrumentation, performance and sound engineering are all equally important factors. Countless of pop songs are written around a three- to four-chord structure and often even consisting of the exact same chords as the next, yet still manage to be original and interesting because of how the chords are used. A song’s notes merely make up its skeleton, upon which other components are added; how the bass is mixed, how hard the drummer is hitting his set, how much distortion is coming out of the guitar amplifier, how soft or forceful the vocalist is singing, and so on. In other words: music isn’t just made out of harmonies and melodies created through a combination of notes, but of general sounds as well. One way of approaching experimental music would thus be to recognize its lack of this so-called skeleton; instead of notes being its primary element it often emphasizes on sound in its purest form.

Furthermore, I think it’s important to see this from a cultural perspective as well – particularly in terms of harmonic structures. In our western music tradition, the tonal frequencies between one pitch and its higher or lower counterpart are divided into twelve steps. This means that we essentially have twelve notes available to create harmonies from, which is (at a basic level) done in the form of scales. Furthermore, there are two specific scales within western music that are the basic and most commonly used ones; the major and the minor scale. However, this is only one of many forms of music theorization that have existed and still exist in the world. Just to get some perspective: the theoretical basis that our western music tradition is based upon was formed around Europe during the Middle Ages. Before that, both the Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire used entirely different forms of scales and tonalities, and the Ancient Egypt before them as well. Not only that, but in parallel to our whole western music history there are countless other traditions around the world that all have different forms of notation and harmonic structure. In short: the twelve-step tonal system and the major and minor scales that make up our common approach to music are far from universal.

Another major factor to our cultural conception of music is that we tend to divide it into patterns. Just as the pop songs today are done in a verse-chorus-verse-structure, the classical symphonies are divided into movements. Each of these movements then contain different sections that all naturally float into one another both harmonically and dynamically. There’s always a crescendo between a quiet and a loud part, and the harmony is always following a consistent thread. This is highly apparent in pop music as well; the verses are more quiet and stripped down while the choruses are louder and more bombastic, and there’s always a nice transitional buildup between the two. And as I previously mentioned, pop songs often contain a repeated harmony of three to four chords – but also in the cases that have a more expanded chord progression, the chords always resonate with one another in a way that creates a coherent passage. In other words, music as we normally know it is structured in a way that it sounds and progresses just like we as listeners expect it to (buildup and payoff). Subsequently, (I’d argue that) those expectations are created through cultural normalization; we expect our music to sound in a certain way because that is how we are used to it sounding.

Among the first ones to really challenge all these conceptions within the western music tradition were the classical modernist composers of the early 1900s, with Igor Stravinsky being the most prominent figure. In 1913, Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris and nearly caused a riot because of its radicalness. It completely broke the rules of how music should sound like by defying the clear melodies and harmonic and dynamic structures that had been natural elements of the medium for so long. For a comparison, here is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9:

…and here is The Rite of Spring:

As we can hear, Beethoven’s symphony has a cohesive structure in both harmony, melody and arrangement, as well as a consistently clear outline of where it is and where it wants to go. Stravinsky’s ballet on the other hand is all over the place; the instrument sections are completely spread out, the dynamics are unpredictable and the harmonies are constantly shifting. The Rite of Spring is regarded as one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century for its radical defiance against conventional methods in the western music world. However, while the work may sound utterly chaotic at first, it is just as meticulously written and arranged as any of Beethoven’s or Mozart’s works, and features both distinct melodies and structured harmonies. It even has the same sort of movements as well as carefully planned out parts within those movements; the performers know exactly what to play and when to play it. Simply put: it is seemingly sporadic but not actually so. Much of the later experimental music would come to be far more out there in terms of free-form and unpredictability, which all started with a particular genre called jazz.

When jazz started to emerge at the beginning of the 20th century, it introduced a lot of new things to western music: a simpler and more stripped down form of song structures, a higher emphasis on rhythm rather than dynamics – which also led to a more active participation from the audience in the form of dancing – but also, and possibly above all, improvisation. The idea that a musical piece could consists of parts than weren’t precomposed but made up on the spot was something that had never been heard of in the western musical world before. This was also what created the first step to the tradition within experimental music recognized as, for a lack of better term, “free music”. After its initial birth, jazz quickly started to evolve over the course of the 1900s, creating several different sub genres such as big band, cool jazz, hard bop, bebop, modal jazz, and more. One of these genres was free jazz, which came into being by the 50s, 60s and 70s when musicians started taking the initial concept of improvisation and exploring it to its utmost edge. Miles Davis blurred the line between improvisation and composition with his 1970 album Bitches Brew, while musicians such as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor abandoned the compositional aspect almost completely.

But while free jazz introduced the concept of non-compositional music and complete improvisation, the one that truly opened up the doors for this sort of free-form as well as music’s general limitations was John Cage. With strong influences from Zen Buddhism’s teachings about embracing nature by letting go of one’s ego, Cage saw a problem in our will to control music through theory and compositional methods, and argued that we should invite natural occurrences such as chance and surrounding sounds into our musical world. Whenever we perform music, whether it be on stage or in the studio, we always seek to keep it clean from all uninvited sounds, either by asking the crowd for utmost possible silence or by drowning them with high volume, or by isolating a recording studio with sound-proof walls. Whatever the case, silence is something that we always strive for in order to make our music sound the way we intend it to. Cage however realized the impossibility in this. In his 1961 book Silence, he writes about a visit he once had to an anechoic chamber; a room built to be completely soundproof and free from echoes. While in this chamber he still heard two sounds – one high and one low – which the engineer explained to him was respectively his nervous system and his blood circulation. Cage thus concluded that sound is everywhere and that we never can achieve absolute silence, so instead of trying to clear music from all the natural sounds appearing in our environment we should let them become a part of it. Consequently this also meant that all sounds are to be considered music, and that there is no distinction between the two; every bit of sound wave produced and reached to our ears have a value equivalent to that of a musical work. Music is sound and sound is music. As he puts it in an interview:

People expect listening to be more than listening. And so sometimes they speak of inner listening, or the meaning of sound. When I talk about music, it finally comes to people’s minds that I’m talking about sound that doesn’t mean anything, that is not inner, but is just outer. And they say […]: ’You mean it’s just sounds?’, thinking that for something to just be a sound is [for it] to be useless. Whereas I love sounds just as they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are. I don’t want them to be psychological, I don’t want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket, or that it’s president, or that it’s in love with another sound – I just want it to be a sound. […] There was a german philosopher who is very well known, Immanuel Kant, and he said there are two things that don’t have to mean anything: one is music, and the other is laughter. Don’t have to mean anything, that is in order to give us very deep pleasure.

This concept is something that Cage constantly explored throughout his different compositions and musical practices, whether it be his many chance operations, his usage of instruments in non-intended ways, or his experimentations with electroacoustic music. But the work that best and most famously captures Cage’s philosophy is his 4’33” from 1952. This work is divided into three movements, is four minutes and thirty three seconds in total length, and does not contain a single note played by any of the performers. Instead, what makes the piece are all the surrounding sounds appearing in the environment; the breathing and coughing from the audience, the humming of the air conditioner, and even all the sounds from outside the concert hall.

The idea that all sound could be seen as music, that the art form wasn’t just limited to twelve specific tonal frequencies but the entirety of the sound spectrum, completely opened up the gates for what was possible when making a musical piece. Not only was it a big influence on the previously mentioned free jazz genre as well as other forms of free improvisation, but it also stood as a major stepping stone for a certain genre called noise music. This genre is, as the name suggests, a way of making music with noises. It is often done through experimenting with various music gear such as amplifiers, mixing consoles and effect pedals, with the intention of getting sounds out of them that you normally would want to avoid. The album often cited as being the first legitimate noise record is Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music from 1975; an hour long collage of sounds created through feedback and guitar effects.

It didn’t become a solid genre though until the early 80s when several acts started emerging out of a growing music scene in Japan, creating a phenomenon often referred to as Japanoise. Among the first and most well-known of these acts is Merzbow, the artist pseudonym of Masami Akita, who expanded upon what Reed had established in 1975 by abandoning that album’s instrument basis to solely work with various PA-equipment and effect pedals, thus forming the aesthetic that is today normally referred to when talking about noise music. For a typical example of the Merzbow sound:

At a first glance, this track may seem like nothing but random noises compiled into total chaos – which, to be fair, it is – but by listening more closely one will see that it contains a surprising amount of texture. The first thing we hear is a pummeling looped base sequence, upon which then a sharp, white noise-like sound is added, playing sporadically around the upper frequency. It is then quickly accompanied by a light loop sequence discretely playing in an even higher frequency, and with an entirely different tempo than the base sequence. This is followed by several other sounds coming from various directions, each adding more and more to an already intense soundscape, and in less than a minute Akita has showcased a wide variety of sonic outputs. All these different sounds and textures almost make the piece equivalent to that of an orchestra, considering how many different components it contains; it is layered, dense and full of details. We can also see how the concept brought forth by Cage is, at least in an auditory sense, here taken to its utmost level; any possible sense of tonality or general structure is completely abandoned, to instead exclusively work with pure sound in its most sporadic form.

Even though this “pure sound”-musical approach may seem very alien at first, it can actually be seen in a lot of places in mainstream music. The pioneering hip-hop group Public Enemy for example are recognized for showing a wider audience that music didn’t have to revolve around harmonies and melodies, as their sample-based beats were of an almost exclusively percussionist nature.

And while we’re on the topic of hip-hop, there have just within recent years emerged a lot of interesting acts such as Death Grips and clipping. whose beats are heavily noise-oriented, to the point that some have coined the term noise-hop as a description of their music.

Not to mention Kanye West’s album Yezzus from 2013, which was supposedly very influenced by this emerging trend.

Another genre that lays a major emphasis on noise is the EDM subcategory dubstep (or “brostep”, if you will), with acts such as Skrillex having gained mainstream success for their strong use of abrasive wobble-sounds.

Now to completely change track, there is another side to experimental music whose musical approach in a way goes in the complete opposite direction than that of John Cage and free music. Minimalist music is a tradition that doesn’t care so much about the sporadic as much as the durational. In a general sense, it centers around working with a limited amount of musical ideas, both harmonically, melodically, rhythmically and dynamically – meaning that, rather than creating a chaotically diverse cluster out of complete freedom like free jazz or noise music, it revolves around getting the most effect out of fewest material. This consequently results in a musical output characterized by linearity and non-progressiveness. The minimalist tradition first emerged as a scene in New York during the 1960s, with four main composers being at the forefront; Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley and La Monte Young. While both Steve Reich and Philip Glass have about the same fundamental approach to the minimalist style, although expressed in somewhat different ways, Terry Riley and La Monte Young each have their own special take on the genre, which why I’ll talk about them separately later on.

Both Reich and Glass both have one basic concept which they follow through almost all of their music: repetition. Listening to pretty much any of these guys’ works, you will hear a strong sense of linear continuum driven by sequences and patterns. Steve Reich for example largely used repetition in relation to rhythmical interactions. In his early days as a composer, Reich became highly inspired by the idea of having two tape recorders playing the same looped recording simultaneously, to then over time hear the loops getting slightly out of sync with each other until they’re completely far apart. This concept is what his whole compositional approach is based upon, which becomes especially apparent when listening to his earlier works.

This piece of music is played by four violins and essentially only consists of one simple melody. The way the piece works though is that each violin plays the melody out of sync with one another to various changing degrees, creating the same effect as the case with the two tape loops. What at the beginning of the piece is a clear and simple melody has at the end of it grown into a cloud of different sounds. This sort of conflicting rhythmical relationship is something that Reich constantly explores throughout his music; either through this “out of sync”-effect, or by working with polyrhythms in different ways.

But that is not to say that none of the minimalist compositions contain any form of progress in terms of harmony and melody; in fact, most of them do. Although due to the very fixed pulse and the sequence-like nature of all the separate parts, the progressions all naturally float into one another, creating one steady stream of continuous flow. While this flow is very evident in Reich’s music, with the different instrument sections literally floating into one another, Glass achieves it in a bit different ways. Similarly to Reich, Glass’ music contains a frequent use of looped melodies, but instead of playing around with them rhythmically, he does it in the form of arpeggios. (An arpeggio is, simply put, a chord whose notes are broken up into a continuous sequence instead of played simultaneously.) On top of that, he also works with repeated chord progressions a lot, not too different from what is a familiarity within pop music. Here is the second movement from his chamber music work Glassworks:

Here we can right from the start hear a clear four-chord structure being played by a soft wind instrument. We then hear how several different instruments one after another are added onto this, creating a vast soundscape of various arpeggios. Never does the piece show any major harmonic changes, always staying on the same chord structure; Glass is creating grandiosity through simplicity.

Just like with the Cagean “pure sound”-tradition, this repetitional form of composition can also been seen in a lot of places within popular music. Particularly the idea of establishing a steady ground which repeats itself – like a baseline, a drumbeat, or a more elaborate arrangement – and then building up the rest of the song around that is something that many composers have explored in different ways. Both Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon, Radiohead’s The National Anthem and a lot of Talking Heads’ stuff are good examples of this.

One particular band that this especially applies to is LCD Soundsystem, whose funky tunes often center around this style of writing as a general band concept.

It can also be found within the post rock genre, with bands like Sigur Rós and Godspeed You! Black Emperor embodying the same idea but with a more dramatic, cinematic and emotionally charged approach.

Now when it come to Terry Riley, I see him as the most diverse of the four big minimalist composers in terms of style. Having worked with a lot of the same ideas as both Reich and Glass as well as La Monte Young, he can almost be seen as a sort of middle ground between the two camps. Just like Reich, he was very inspired by tape loops and how different fragments of change can appear in a seemingly static format. But on the other end he also worked a lot with, just like La Monte Young, microtonal scales, unconventional tuning methods, electroacoustics and drones. One general aspect of his music though is improvisation, although not the sort of free-form that we’ve previously seen, but one that is contained within a certain set of rules. To take one of his earlier works In C, which consists of 53 numbered musical phrases that are played by an indefinite number of musicians, whenever and however they want. The only major rule is that they have to be played in order of their numbers (although one may skip some), and that there sometimes is one musician playing the C note as a pulse.

And last but not least we have La Monte Young, who as aforementioned worked with a lot of the same musical ides as Riley, among them being improvisation. But there is one major attribute to his music that can be seen as a trademark and that he more or less pioneered a whole musical style with, which is his use of slow, long and drawn out tones. Sustain is one of the most prominent factors throughout Young’s compositions, whether it be his solo works or with his ensemble Theatre of Eternal Music.

Here, we can see a complete opposite take on the whole minimalist concept of non-progression than that of Reich and Glass; instead of building up a composition through repetition of harmonies and melodies, he takes a set of singular tones and simply holds them. What Young here had started quickly came to grow into a legitimate genre in the form of drone music, with musicians such as Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros and Phil Niblock exploring the concept in different ways.

Closely related to drone music is also the genre ambient music, founded by musician Brian Eno. While Eno explored a lot of Young-inspired ideas in his earlier works – such as Discreet Music and (No Pussyfooting) – his first release under the Ambient series, Ambient 1: Music for Airports from 1978, was what coined the genre. This series featured very soft, light, non-percussive electronic music that was initially meant to be used as background music for various environments.

The genre later got a real boost during the early 90s when several IDM-acts such as Aphex Twin and Autechre approached the style with a more cold and metallic sound, and often blending it with dance beats.

While the ambient genre explored the more low-key side of drone music, there also emerged another genre during the 90s that went in a complete opposite direction, called drone metal. This genre started when the band Earth released their 1993 seminal debut album Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version, which featured heavily distorted guitars playing slow sustained notes at a very low frequency.

Being a sort of mixture between drone music and doom metal, this type of music isn’t so much about textures or sonic details as it is about creating a bodily experience through bass-frequency vibrations. Earth 2 was after its release quickly followed by other bands such as Sunn O))) and Boris who in their own ways expanded upon what that album had established.

What’s particularly interesting about drone music though is that, while La Monte Young may have pioneered the genre, he merely introduced a playing style to the west that had already existed within several different music traditions around the world. In fact, a sustained “drone” is a common form of accompaniment used in classical and folk music of both Asian, African and European traditions. Some examples of this are the tanpura instrument, used within Indian classical music, and the sho instrument, used within Japanese gagaku music.

Other instruments that are built to either partially or exclusively produce this type of accompaniment are singing bowls, didgeridoos and bagpipes, as well as the vocal technique of overtone singing – all played in entirely different parts of the world.

But even though the drone sound is far from any new musical phenomenon, one can see how La Monte Young still created something highly unique out of it. As it previously only had been an accompanying part of a bigger ensemble, Young took the drone out of that context and let it stand on its own as a self-contained genre.

And with that, I think we have reached a conclusion, as we now have gone through all the essential main branches that make up modern experimental music. There are of course a lot more musicians and musical approaches out there that deserve attention, but since this is merely an introduction, I feel like enough has been covered to create a solid overview. Just from this thorough exploration though, it is clear that the category is a wide and diverse one, with several different methods, concepts and ideas contained within it. Whether you’ve never encountered any of this music before, or have previously just regarded it as weird or pretentious, hopefully this post has given you some insight and perhaps even appeal for the category that is experimental music.

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