What is experimental music?

As one of the content restrictions on this blog is to include only experimental music, I thought it might be worthwhile dragging out the old chestnut for some fresh discussion.

Let’s start with a hypothetical:

A pop rock band is recording a new song. It is a pretty generic, standard 3 minute pop song, with a 4/4 beat, verse/chorus structure. One of the band members spies some bagpipes in the corner of the studio, tells his band mates he used to play them as a kid, picks them up and begins playing along with the song. The others like the effect and decide to include the bagpipes in part of the recording. The band have never used bagpipes before.

Is this experimental music?

Michael Nyman in his book on John Cage defined experimental music (in part) as, “an act where the outcome is unknown”. In our hypothetical, the outcome was unknown to our band, so perhaps their song is experimental music.

John Whiteoak, author of the book Playing Adlib, makes the division between problem solving and problem creating music. And Warren Burt has written that true experimental music seeks to create problems without expectation of success or failure. The use of bagpipes by our pop band was on the surface a case of momentary inspiration, but another way of looking at it was that the band asked the question, “what if we use bagpipes?” The band judged the inclusion of bagpipes to be successful to the song, but if it had not been successful, they would likely have discarded the overdub. In this case, that would fail the definition of experimental music. But what if they then tried a gamelan instead, or a mic’d up power tool or vacuum cleaner?

All of the aforementioned writers talk about the importance of cultural context in any definition of experimental music. Let’s assume our band have never heard AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top”. If they haven’t, should they have? Is it the duty of the experimental musician to be culturally aware and knowledgeable in their chosen field. Should they know if bagpipes have been used in pop music before?

Or is experimental music now a genre of music, just like blues, rock, punk, heavy metal, jazz, etc. Are we kidding ourselves that there is anything more to it than that? John Whiteoak often uses the term “exploratory music” instead of “experimental music”. Is experimental music an ideal (perhaps a quaint one at that) as opposed to a contemporary reality?

Please add your comments here as to what you think defines experimental music. It may help further define what will be listed in this blog.


snagglepussy said…
Hey Clinton,
That's a pretty nice and succinct attempt at defining this business in the midst of ever shifting fads and fashions.

I also think this blog is a great asset... even though I can't make it to the gigs it will be good to get a cohesive sense of what's happening all over.

Oh and have you seen the Peter Blamey review of Artefacts at realtime?

cheers Gail
clinton said…
Hi Gail,

I actually don't go to gigs that often, and I'm in Melbourne! But when I do, I want to have a good view of what to choose from. And because I don't get out that much and talk to people every week, it is another way for me to keep up with what is happening.

Another way sort of hypothetical you could do to explore the question of "What Is Experimental Music" is a sound artist/s applying a whole lot of theoretical techniques to make what, essentially to an outsider, sounds like a pop song. Actually, this is something that does happen, doesn't it? But because we in the know are aware of the process, we accept it as experimental. Again, we are saying that the end-product is of little consequence, aren't we?

Yeah, I did see Peter's review - I was really pleased with it.
barnaby said…
Hi there,

It's nice to have a post that's not another gig plug, so I'm going to incautiously wade into this discussion with some loosely connected thoughts.

The use of 'experimental' as a genre label is lazy at best, as with terms such as Ambient, Indie, Punk, Minimalist or Folk, the common usage of which bears next to no resemblance to their origins.

I like Ligeti's response to being labelled experimental. He simply stated that since all his pieces 'succeed' then they are anything but experimental.

Clearly there's a distinction between experimentation as a technique and as an end in itself. I think maybe Warren Burt was referring to the latter, whereas those hypothetical popsters' activities are the former. The latter almost demands an abandonment of technique, whereas the former is a temporary suspension of it. Another case might be Eno's early work, which consisted of actually devising techniques to bring about unknown outcomes. This passes Nyman's test at least. Of course he was ultimately guided by his ear, but I don't agree that you should be disqualified for exercising some editorial control.

Now I come to think of it it's hard to really apply the term in the 'Burtian' sense even to Cage, since he was always clear to the point of dogmatism about his aims and methods - the unknowns were only on the level of detail. But it fits better with a movement like Fluxus, or even an artist such as Lou Reed who for all his shortcomings was always willing to risk falling on his arse (which he often did).

On a more personal level I've recently been thinking about the notion of challenge - I'm finding it useful to look at my own work in terms of how it challenges me (rather than how I might be challenging the audience).

And if I go to an 'experimental' show I'd like to expect the artist to be as moved and surprised as me by what happens.

I guess these last 2 statements could be a case for experimental music as a shared, participatory experience rather than a didactic, one-way performance.
snagglepussy said…
Hi Barnaby,
Your comments about the artist being challanged are exactly in line with a response I've been writing to Clare Cooper today. She is doing a survey on extended techniques in improvisation and with these previous posts swimming through my mind I wrote:
"At its core improvisation is about finding something new, not necessarily new within the whole genre of music, but, at the very least, something new and surprising for the artist."

I'm not saying that this is enough in itself, but an artist who is passionately engaged, consciously seeking, coming from a place that is devoid of pretension is going to be far more intriguing.

Perhaps I'm an idealist...that's not very sydney of me:)
clinton said…
Barnaby, I totally agree that as an artist I want to be challenged in my work - I think that's the main reason that in my mind I call myself an experimental artist. But say what I'm doing in my performance is nothing new to you or anyone in the audience, not even engaging, even though it is challenging to me, is there a problem here? Because let's be honest, this is a very common occurance at so-called experimental performances.

Here's a question to both yourself and Gail, and everyone else; does an artist have to reach a certain level of attainment in their field (instrument, composition or whatever), before they can truly enter an experimental phase? A phase that is challenging to themselves, and the audience/community, and perhaps even progresses the field itself (through new musical breakthroughs, for example)? To put it another way, do you need to know (or even master) the rules before you can break them? Or can you come completely from outside?
bxckxtrxdxr said…
We had this problem with terminology at the Make It Up Club many years ago. People like Ren Walters and David Tolley felt the term 'experimental' belittled the actual outcomes of performance in the same way Barnaby cites Ligeti.

The problem of clarifying terminology was exacerbated by the fact that we wanted to formalise the aims of the MIUC in order to become legally incorporated.

In the end, we settled on 'avant garde' as a better term to preface the approaches to improvised music and sound performance we wanted to showcase.

The term 'avant garde' has its own problems, particularly with all the baggage it has accumulated from those naysayers that have abandoned the modernist project of abstract, aesthetic exploration, but I think it still resonates with the kinds of adventurous music that the Experimental Melbourne blog is aiming to include.
barnaby said…
In general I like definitions to be inclusive rather than exclusive - that's just the way I think. So I'm more interested in expanding the concept of experimental rather than narrowing it down.

But in doing so I'd like to reconnect with the very positive aspects of an experimental approach, not just in art but in life in general. As opposed to simplistically and lazily shoving a bunch of stuff under that label. (This was Ligeti's point, I think - or at least the spirit in which I cite him- rather than to belittle the truly experimental aesthetic.)

For me 'avant garde' as a term does have some weighty baggage, and denotes a particular time and place - you might call yourself Ars Nova with equal justification.

Also let's separate improvisation from experimentation, however often they happen to coexist.

definition-wise, there's maybe 2 ways to look at it:

1) To work with an aesthetic or technique that has not gained any significant degree of acceptance.

2) To work in an open, empirical fashion, not being bound to a particular method or outcome. (I include audience reaction under 'outcome'.)

1 is external materialistic, dependent on time and place, and on the specifics of what you're doing, and what others have done. 2 is more internal, experiential, and closer to that concept of challenging yourself, and Gail's "passionately engaged, consciously seeking". To answer Clinton's first point I think there is something intrinsically fascinating in witnessing the act of discovery (2), but if it's also a discovery for you (1) then you've got a really interesting and valuable experience. And a shared experience too.

Regarding Clinton's second question: it's a bit of an old chestnut to say you have to learn the rules in order to break them. I think in practice it can happen either way - naivety is as useful a quality as mastery.

Finally I'd like to bring up the concept of 'experimental listening' - what, if anything, is it, and how does it fit in here?
clinton said…
Yeah, "avant garde" is a loaded term in many ways for me, too. When people ask what kind of music I play, I think it is more descriptive for me to say experimental - avant garde, taken literally, is sort of judgement-based. Who am I to say I am leading the pack!? I know that in a historical and musicological context it means much more than that, and as such is much more descriptive of the music we are talking about here, as bxckxtrxdxr correctly points out.

Barnaby, your two definitions very much agree with me. As far as "listening", I feel the influence of Cage here more so than in music, how I listen to what is happening around me. I think many of us who are attracted to experimental music already have this inclination to for open/intensive listening, it is just that Cage gave it a framework and a context for me. Although I am not sure what experimental listening might mean in a performance context, because in most performances the dynamic and relationship between audience and performer is not really that different from what occurs in mainstream music. When things are occassionally played around with (the recent Musicircus comes to mind), the audience is able to interract and listen to music in a new way. Actually, what was great about the Musicircus was that this new way of listening was very natural and relaxed, it wasn't imposed on the audience.
Greg Wadley said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg Wadley said…
This is a great topic for the first debate on this blog. Everyone has grappled at some point with the problem of trying to name this kind of music, even if they're just describing a band to a friend. The word "experimental" has problems and never feels quite right.

Clinton illustrated one of the problems with his "bagpipe pop" example. I suspect that no definition of experimental is immune to attack by counter-example. Take a look at the definitions in the Wikipedia entry. "The outcome is not foreseen" doesn't work. It would mean my next card game was experimental music. And what happens the second time I play my Artefacts cd? What if the covers band at my office party choose their last song by coin-toss? No-one on this blog wants to see that gig, but it's experimental by the uncertain-outcome definition. "Music that challenges the commonly accepted notions of what music is" means that anything is experimental music as long as one person says it is and no-one else believes them. This would set up some fun of the Duchamp variety but it doesn't help us talk about records and shows. Lots of 60s pop challenged existing definitions, but we don't think of Gold 104 as an experimental station. Definitions based on the degree of acceptance fail because all types of music are increasingly micro-niched.

My hunch is that the unease of using this word arises because we are trying to name a genre, an action contradicted by the name: if something belongs to a genre then it's not experimental.

I bet any definition of experimental music leaves too much out or lets too much in. The word suggests something about how the music was made, or what was going in the mind of the producer, or the perceivers. These vary from person to person, change quickly, and are not properties of the music. Other names like "noise music" have similar problems. "Sound art" sounds too pretentious for a lot of the people working in the field. If someone came up with a better name it would be a boon. How about we offer a prize?
barnaby said…
Most definitions can be pushed to absurdity, but luckily this is an aesthetic rather than legal discussion so I wouldn't attach too much significance to any anomalies anyone can find.

I don't actually have any unease about the term at all myself. I'd hope that 'experimental music' is something that transcends genres rather than simply being an inadaquate name for one.

Actually Greg, your aleatoric covers band could be the basis for a genuinely experimental and interesting performance, if taken a little further. Same with the card game, if Cage and Duchamp hadn't got there first with their amplified chess game ;-)
Wormfood said…
For a long time I've used the term "abstract music" to define a lot of what I do, and a lot of what I listen to that is more often called "experimental". As problematic as I know it is, I think it's more descriptive of what kind of sounds are involved, as opposed to whatever process may be involved in creating them.

Whatever I do usually has some experimental aspect to it, though, in that I never fully know what the end result is going to sound like exactly. I can have a plan, try to achieve the sounds I want, but there is always a chance element, whether it's the main concept of what I'm doing, or just a part of the overall process (not always the main part).
Others, though, have a lot more control over what they're doing and I think would not appreciate being called Experimental either.

If anyone has ever seen the "experimental" section at MP3.com.au, you'll see just how free and easy people are with the term. It's the flip side to Clinton's argument; for some people, experimental means anything outside of Australian Idol.

I suppose it's redundant to mention, that music only goes forward when there is experimentation.
Anonymous said…
i think experimental music is simply about making tracks that don't try and copy already existing music and/or fitting in to a genre. every genre was once experimental by nature when it was first introduced - until every man and his dog wanted to recreate the same shit and it became generic (such as acid techno, full-on psytrance, tech-house, scrillex-style EDM etc.). experimental music may also be using your tools in new ways to create new sounds (eg. Joe Meek purposefully distorting his compressor to add colour). experimentation is just freeing your creative mind from the expectations of the people and doing whatever the fuck it is you want to do, trying new ways of doing things and most importantly having fun.
Clinton said…
But the thing about the Anglo/American experimental music of the 1960s/70s, as identified by Nyman, is not just experimenting in a gentre, or even creating a new genre, but being committed (at least in theory) to experimental process. The process was the whole point, the outcome of little relevance. The generic experimentation is akin to innovation to improve a genre/artform - it solves problems; whereas Experimental Music (as Nyman saw it) sought to CREATE problems. Much of this I think was a result of the political climate of the time, and I still think it is questionable about how such a practice exists in the 21st century.