The following is the first in what might become an archive of articles about experimental music. Let us know your thoughts on this feature at questions**experimentalmusic.co.uk (substitute @ for **)
There's a kind of strange story attached to this paper. It perhaps gives away more of my personal history than I would like, but because it reinforces the point in my article that aesthetic choices are made in the formulation of history are based upon unstated assumptions about history I've reluctantly decided to relate it. There is a danger that in doing so I am chewing sour grapes in a public forum - that I am blaming the system for rightly rejecting a bad and poorly argued paper - but if there is a useful idea or two in this out-of-date paper I'm willing to risk it.
I wrote an early version of this paper in about 1984 for a Ph.D. seminar in the philosophy of history taught by Leo Treitler at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. When I left Stony Brook in 1985 (the new head of graduate studies told me that I could not write my dissertation on British experimental music because it was too recent and obscure to be evaluated - a complaint with which I had already dealt in this paper) I worked it into something like its present form and submitted it to Perspectives of New Music. As is the common practice with most journals a team of three readers gave their opinions: one - a strong approval - was from Barney Childs, who had suggested that I submit it in the first place (and so it could have been considered close to nepotism by those who disagreed). The other two readers were negative: one may have had reservations that the paper was badly written (which it probably was); the other complained that the paper was about British music and PNM was an American journal. This was interesting: I remember noting then that a current issue featured that All-American boy Karlheinz Stockhausen. The editor, John Rahn, took the time and the trouble to go through the piece with good suggestions as to how to improve it, even though, since it was rejected, he didn't have to do it. I have added my sincere thanks in a footnote below but such a kindness deserves more prominent display.
After a few more rejections elsewhere I put this article aside. I tried, in the late 1990s, to revamp it for an Internet journal but I couldn't silence the sound of creaking out-of-date sources. As such, I am leaving it here as I found it in my computer, with some slight updates and adjustments from the abortive Internet preparation. It is not in the style in which I would write today but, as with my thesis (which we flog here at the EMC), I think it has some use as an historical document in its own right. I think, also, that the main premise still holds: there is still a strong percentage of critics, academics, and arts mavens who denigrate experimental music. I firmly believe that they do so partly for the modernist historical assumptions which are outlined below.
Gary Tomlinson, the editor of Nineteenth Century Music and
musicologist, states that we are caught in our 'web of culture,'
Leo Treitler, writing in Perspectives of New Music, notes the circularity of mainstream historicism:
when the actor in history adopts the beliefs of historicism he places himself under the compulsion to act in accord with his understanding of the historical process. Historicism is not merely a mode of understanding; it is also a standard for action.
This statement follows two quotations he cites from prominent American representatives of opposite 'camps' of new music. One is Milton Babbitt:
If [advanced] music is not supported..., music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live.
The other, John Cage:
I'm devoted to the principle of originality. Not originality in the agnostic sense, but originality in the sense of doing something which it is necessary to do. Now obviously, the things which it is necessary to do are not the things that have been done, but the ones that have not yet been done...; that is to say if I have done something, then I consider it my business not to do that but to find what must be done next [italics added by Treitler.]
These two 'camps', the 'avant-garde' and the 'experimental', thus hold to different sorts of the same historicism for Treitler; that is, one of a line of inheritance which should be continued, in the first case, or reacted against, in the second. Histories written by defenders of the avant garde support Babbitt's use of an evolutionary model, and hence assume a line of succession and development. The historicism Treitler sees in the experimental movement (or at least in Cage) is not as defined as Babbitt's. Even if Cage meant a constant reaction (or even revolution) by his definition of originality, it does not follow that reaction creates its own evolutionary momentum. A line is ill- defined in those groups and individuals who have associated with experimental music. Treitler also discounts or is unaware of the timeless, 'here-and-now' effect of Zen philosophy behind most of Cage's statements.
Treitler drew these historical battle lines in the 1960s, but the formal
treatments of these movements as history, with all their assumptions, appeared
in the 1970s. I have chosen Paul Griffiths' A Concise History of Avant-Garde
Both writers mention the historical stance of at least one of their subjects. Griffiths says that
one might ask why it should have been Schoenberg who took the first step into atonality. His own answer was typical, that it had to be somebody: the historical imperative was inescapable.
Nyman quotes Cage:
I rather think that influence doesn't go A B C, that is to say from Ives to someone younger than Ives to people still younger, but rather that we live in a field situation in which by our actions, by what we do, we are able to see what other people do in a different light without our having done anything. What I mean to say is that the music we are writing now influences the way in which we hear and appreciate the music of Ives more than that the music of Ives influences us to do what we do.
Schoenberg's invocation of historical imperative is clear. Treitler sees a kind of reciprocal relationship of Schoenberg's statements and his inclusion in histories:
'When asked on one occasion if he was the Arnold Schoenberg, he said, "Someone had to be; no one wanted to be; so I volunteered."'.... It is worth asking how much responsibility Schoenberg bears for the historical style of the modern century, as well as for its musical style. The answer will surely be that, as has happened before, historians have accepted with insufficient reflection and then perpetuated a self-image that has the authority of documentation.
Treitler types certain historical concepts - his 'Crisis' theory and (my
favourite) 'Music History as Strip-Tease' (Part IV). Griffiths' statement
resembles more 'music history as relay race', with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven
(or Wagner) as strong runners of the first three laps, and Schoenberg as the
star to take the team home. Nyman's quotation from Cage is a clearer historical
statement than Cage as presented by Treitler. Here Cage combines the non-
progressive, non-linear view found in James Ackerman's concept of art history as
a reservoir and in T.S. Eliot's concept of present art changing that of the
Griffiths must entitle his book 'from Debussy to Boulez,' that is, from the
first composer mentioned in the book to the last, as historical inevitability
cannot be seen in new composers and works. There are younger (and older)
composers within, but he has decided that Debussy was the first avant-garde
composer. Younger ones, such as Reich, have not proved themselves equal to the
task of carrying on the tradition. He gives the last chapter the title
'Multiplicity,' indicating an inability to find an heir to the line of figures
and styles presented in the earlier chapters. Nyman's title, 'Cage and Beyond,'
also indicates a chronological history, but one without closure. Nyman could
title most, if not all, his chapters 'Multiplicity' without textural changes,
which is not an indictment of sloppy historical writing. He is not concerned
with presenting historically 'important' composers - the last group mentioned is
the Ross and Cromarty Orchestra, whose works appear only in a 1971 issue of
Both writers have chapters on historical backgrounds, but while Nyman's opens with the Cage quotation, Griffiths begins his first chapter with
If the term 'avant-garde music' suggests the music being written today, or even tomorrow, it might seem paradoxical to attempt a 'concise history of avant-garde music.' However, those composers most associated with radical development in music do have roots in the past. And if one were to trace those roots back, one might well find oneself...at the beginning of the Prelude a 'L'apr`es-midi d'un faune' by Claude Debussy [italics added]....'
Griffiths' second chapter, 'The Late Romantic Background,' continues, though
tacitly, the concept of organic growth. The title even lends itself to a
pictorial analogy of support and context.
It only may be coincidental that the authors' own backgrounds indicate a
possible reason for their historical approaches. Both are critics, but while
Nyman studied composition and musicology before becoming a performer of
experimental music (and of course he is now better known for his compositions),
Griffiths' education was in biochemistry. This might explain Griffiths'
interest in more-or-less numerically determined compositions and in scientific
models (the organic growth mentioned above; also cause-and-effect relations,
although not in as strict or knowing way as the historian Carl Hempel
Both 'avant-garde' and 'experimental' have achieved a rather narrow usage.
Nyman acknowledges this division - in fact, he defines experimental music
through its differences from the avant-garde, following Cage. Griffiths sees a
wider use of the word 'avant-garde.' In an expanded version of the book under
study, Modern Music: The Avant-Garde Since 1945
Since 1952, when the whole range of music appeared to have been contained between the extremes of Cage's 4'33"; and Boulez's Structures I, new vistas have repeatedly been opened to show that this was not the case, until the avant garde has lost whatever defining features it may have had. Attempts to draw up new distinctions, between 'avant-garde' and 'experimental', 'bourgeois' and 'revolutionary', 'post-serial' and 'minimalist', may offer useful signposts, but no borders may be firmly drawn in the heterogeneous musical commonwealth of today.
Of course, writers do overuse labels, which sometimes approach the ridiculous
(although not as weird and wonderful as in the indie pop scene that arose in the
1970s, in which labels, such as post-punk-queercore-thrash-metal, can be strung
together endlessly), but here Griffiths ignores, as far as possible, the
difference in compositional technique and ideas between those 'signposts'. He
evaluates all music written in the twentieth century in light of the ideals of
the avant garde in its narrowest sense, and so he treats Cage, Young, and Cardew
less thoroughly than Boulez and Stockhausen. This practice is common in
Experimentalists are not part of the line of composers revered by the avant-
garde. The exceptions are Cage, who has been accepted because of his short time
as a student of Schoenberg,
Because Cage's work cannot be brought into line with avant-garde theory, Griffiths mentions him only where he can be compared to Boulez or where he 'anticipates' Stockhausen's use of live electronics. The approved 'line' also seems to justify reassignment of the invention of technical features in Griffiths' book and other sources. Cage's chance music was laughed at during his first visits to Europe, until Stockhausen and Boulez 'invented' aleatoricism, and Larry Austin's improvisation sessions in Italy in the early 1960s (inspired by his collegiate work in jazz) were ignored while Stockhausen's later Plus-Minus was hailed as a 'first'.
If Griffiths judges experimentalists who broke from the 'line' of the avant
garde improperly, those who never were a part of that line (those whose early
works are experimental) are almost totally ignored. The experimentalists'
disinterest in a traditional 'school' may make such inclusion difficult or
unnecessary to the author. There has never been the equivalent of the Darmstadt
Ferienkurse or Boulez's research-based IRCAM in experimental music.
Although experimental music provides useful educational material for the amateur
(as has been found in the valuable group COMA in recent times), the diffusion of
information between composers seems more collective than didactic. Cage's oft-
cited 'students' of the 'New York School' - Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and
Christian Wolff - were
really associates, as were the artists who attended Cage's loosely structured
lectures at the New School of Social Research in the late 1950s. Cornelius
Cardew taught experimental music courses at Morley College and composition
lessons at the Royal Academy of Music from 1967-73, but the former were a set of
rehearsals which led to the formation of the Scratch Orchestra, where Cardew
had, at best, an equal voice; and the latter were given to allow musically
trained members of the Orchestra to obtain credit toward their diplomas (and to
give Cardew some income besides his work in graphic design) and were as loosely
structured as those of Morley College.
His short treatment of the Scratch Orchestra and Cardew brings out two
issues: politics and amateur involvement. He describes the amateurs who took
part in the Scratch Orchestra as ones 'of no great skill,'
Politics figure in Griffiths' history, from the Russian constructivists,
Weill, and Eisler, to Nono, Cardew, Wolff, and Frederic Rzewski. Of the latter
four, Luigi Nono is the centre of the chapter, 'The Theatre and Politics'; the
others seem to have been added to fill out the chapter. While Griffiths (or his
publishers) considers Cardew's earlier experimental piece Treatise
important enough (or maybe beautiful enough) that he used it as cover art for
Modern Music, the only experimental or avant-garde work he mentions of
Cardew's in his first book is The Great Learning, and then only as an
example of Cardew's political works. One can explain Griffiths' seeming
ignorance that The Great Learning is a pre-political piece using a
Confucian text by examining of his bibliography, which consists entirely of
books, not periodical articles or reviews. Apparently, only music which has
been heavily documented is worthy of consideration in introductory histories.
As a result, Griffiths misses many beautiful and original works. In this case
Griffiths does treat experimental music in a manner ignored by other British
writers of the time,
Nyman avoids many of the assumptions Griffiths holds, primarily because not
only does Nyman accept a division between 'experimental' and 'avant garde', but
also uses the distinction to define his subject. As such, it is a work of
narrower interest, one which has omissions only due to a lack of information.
The lack results not from a paucity of large-scale works on his subjects (very
few of Nyman's subjects have such sources), as Nyman took advantage of all
sources, including interviews and questionnaires he made himself. It occurred
only where Nyman had no access to composers by any means; those, like West Coast
American composers, who had nothing written about them and who did not visit
London when Nyman was researching the book.
Nyman's limitation of his subject to American and British composers occurs
because citizens of those countries wrote most of the kind of music he
In what can only be described as a typical English musical inferiority
complex, Griffiths only touches lightly on the music of England, even though
this has been the most productive century for English music since the
Renaissance. One could explain these omissions as a consideration of space;
certainly a history should not have to be a confusing list of names found in
textbooks such as Eric Salzman's Twentieth-Century Music,
Nyman determines the organisation of his book, his choice of the Cage
quotation, to a great extent by the sort of experimental music he was playing
and reviewing when he wrote it. This is what was commonly referred to for years
Because of this, Nyman avoids linking chapters through associations as much as he can. He organises the chapters through the general decade (1950-60) or by medium (electronics), for example. He is careful to deny the concept of 'school':
And to talk of the 'influence' of Cage is an oversimplification. Dick Higgins wrote of Cage's teaching at the New School of Social Research in the late fifties that 'he brought out what you already knew and helped you become conscious of the essence of what you were doing'; and for Feldman (in those early days) Cage 'liberated me in terms of self-permission to go on with what I had decided I was going to do.'
In Fluxus there has never been any attempt to agree on aims or methods; individuals with something unnameable in common have simply naturally coalesced to publish and perform their work. Perhaps this common something is a feeling that the bounds of art are much wider than they have conventionally seemed, or that art and certain long-established bounds are no longer very useful.
It is only in the first half of his last chapter, 'Minimal Music,
Determinacy, and New Tonality,'
On the other hand, Nyman's treatment of English music of the time does not exhibit these assumptions, for example, that music is meant to be played by various performers from professionals to ultra-amateurs. Notation is mainly fixed, but is indeterminate either in composition (like Cage's early scores) or in performance (the Portsmouth Sinfonia was so 'bad' technically that traditional 'popular classics' as the William Tell Overture became indeterminate graphic scores). After the publication of Nyman's book, many of the English composers abandoned indeterminacy for numerically determined compositions not based on tone-rows or other techniques of the avant garde, but on the old English church practice of change-ringing and other worldly systems; and for tonal works, often entitled 'sonatas' or 'sonatinas', which have nothing to do with the classical models. These composers, including Nyman, believe that experimental music, for them, is dead, but their historical attitudes (for many of them) retain the eclectic nature of the 'field situation.'
Nyman presents a charming analogy of the field situation in an explanation for the 'return' to tonality:
[Christopher Hobbs] mentioned a story told by Keith Rowe of a Japanese monk, vegetarian for years, who having attained satori, eats whatever is put in front of him. The analogy with experimental music is clear: 'Having experienced silence we return to the old sounds; only, hopefully, with our feet a little off the ground.'
Satori does indicate a kind of evolution, but an unusual one; an evolution without chronology, without nationalistic bias. Hobbs certainly is not saying that his works are necessarily 'better' than those of Cage or of the older composers. The 'field situation' makes it hard to group these composers in any meaningful way, as their resources and techniques are very different. For a writer who tacitly accepts the line of succession as the basis for an historical work, the 'field situation' is not history at all. Conversely, the 'line' can lead to lazy history; a writer can totally ignore anyone who, say, is not from Germany, did not study in Germany or with someone who studied in Germany, and so on. Without the avant garde's historicism as 'a standard for action,' the experimentalists are outside of the avant garde and its histories.
The Scratch Orchestra and its progeny is clearly of some historical importance but has very little place in the mainstream, or mainstreams, of musical development now [p. 13].
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