i think its about experimental music. .. ... .... ..... ...... ....... ........ ......... .......... ...........

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Can experimental music be expressive?

The term “experimental music” is generally applied these days to lots of different musicians that are innovative, or just plain weird. Although these musicians can be soulful, in a more strict definition of the term, coined by John Cage, emotion doesn't have much of a role to play. Cage and some of his contemporaries in the twentieth century, attempted to extract or minimize the influence of the composer’s will by using arbitrary systems or processes to choose which note comes next, where it will go, how loud it will be, for how long, and how it will sound. These pieces are interesting for the processes they employed, the end product of which is sometimes cacophonous or bizarre. This wouldn't seem, on the face of it, to exemplify the notion that music is the language of the soul, emotional short-hand, etc.

Traditionally, I’ve considered the purpose or motive behind art or music (if any) to be emotional expression. We create it or consume it because it feels good. The reason why one musician, for instance, might switch from the verse to the chorus at a certain time in a pop song is the same reason another might makes noise with a circuit bent toy for half an hour: it feels good. The idea of experimental or art music serving a purely intellectual purpose is almost a paradox: can something emotional even be intellectual? Is music a means to an end, or an end in itself? Is it rational, irrational?

Obviously, logic and reason do play a big role in music. Knowing and recognizing patterns are essential to playing or just listening to music. Even in the sappiest of songs, a song writer must decide how the song should be organized, the arrangement of notes/beats, how the various instruments are coordinated, how fast to play it, time signature, key, etc. There are a lot of decisions to make. These decisions are usually made intuitively, but also involve math and reasoning skills.

So obviously, the intellect has a place in music along with emotion. I think in "normal music," emotion is the guiding force, the inspiration, the muse (whatever you want to call it), while our prefrontal cortex helps decide how that emotion is specifically expressed and organized. When understood this way, the idea that music is both rational and emotional is not so paradoxical: it is a rational, deliberate expression of something more irrational, mysterious, and emotional. Can the same be said about experimental music?

One could argue that experimental music is more rational, or scientific even, than other music and I don't think many people would object. The name "experimental" obviously implies there is something being tested. What's fascinating to me about experimental music is it seems to bring two worlds, or ways of thinking/being that are traditionally thought of as opposed to one another in western culture: scientific and artistic. To be both a scientist testing or playing with the fundamentals of sound, time, structure, etc. and musician (or maybe "artist" is more apt?) with the desire to express and create is a pretty unique job to have.

The early experimental musicians of the last century did have more intellectual methods of composing music (in contrast to the pop music we're all used to anyways). One pioneer of experimental and avante garde music in the twentieth century, Milton Babbitt, was also a math teacher, and regarded his music as purely intellectual. In his use of the serial, or twelve-tone method, he attempted to compose purely mathematical music. Serialism was a technique developed by Arnold Schoenberg, an Austrian and American composer, and teacher of another pioneer of experimental music: John Cage. Serial composition, or the twelve-tone technique, was widely used by modern composers as a method of choosing the order of notes. It works like this: you start with twelve notes, say the twelve notes in the key of C Major (CDEFGAB). Then, you can play these notes in four ways. In it’s:

1. Original order
2. Reverse order
3. Inverse order (if the second note is three steps up from the first note, now it is three steps down, etc.)
4. Reverse Inverse order

This method was normally just applied to melody, and maybe just to certain parts of a composition, but Babbitt, like Cage, was an extremist, and applied it to every aspect of music: rhythm, pace, time signature, dynamics, timbre, etc. (Anton Webern and Pierre Boulez used total serialism in Europe as well). His compositions were extremely complex and difficult for musicians to play, so he eventually turned to electronic instruments that he could program to play anything. The Mark II electronic music synthesizer, developed by the David Sarnoff research center with Babbitt as a consultant, was a giant, room sized computer that featured a binary sequencer using a paper tape reader. It had an array of switches that controlled things like pitch, octave, volume, timbre, and envelope/dynamics. One of Babbitt’s more famous piece composed with this sequencer is Philomel (1964):

Other composers that have used some form of serialism include Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Jean Barraqué, Béla Bartók, Luciano Berio, Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, Walter Piston, Alfred Schnittke, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Igor Stravinsky.

While Babbitt sought a completely intellectual method of composing, John Cage was trying to detach himself completely from the music, being neither intellectual nor expressive. With his indeterminate or chance compositions, he used, for many of his compositions, a random method contrived by him to choose the various musical aspects of a piece. This method should be distinguished from aleatory. Like serialism, aleatory was normally applied to some but not all parts or aspects of a piece. Cage’s indeterminate compositions, however, applied the method to all aspects of music. Cage’s methods became increasingly complex, but one of his earliest methods, which demonstrates the idea of indeterminacy well, is that which he used to compose Music for Carillon 1954. Cage placed a piece of graph paper underneath a sheet of cardboard. He then marked the imperfections in the piece of cardboard (discolorations, stains, etc.) with a pen by punching through to the graph paper. One horizontal inch on the graph paper equaled one second in time, and each vertical inch indicated a certain pitch.

Another indeterminate piece by Cage, composed using the ancient chinese text I Ching, or book of changes, is Music of Changes (1951). Cage would "ask" the book questions and then refer to charts that corresponded to pitch, duration, dynamics, and tempo:

Other composers that have used aleatory or indeterminacy are Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

One could argue that serialism, aleatory, indeterminacy or any other systematic method one can imagine for composing music, although they may seek to extract the expressive influence of the composer, in a way, fall short of that intent. Is is realistic to think that one could completely extricate his feeling, whim, intent, or will from a piece of music? Babbit had to at least start by deciding the order of the 12 note series, and what permutations of that order were to follow. I’m willing to bet that if you questioned him on every little aspect of his composition, more than half the time he wouldn’t have an answer as to why he composed it exactly that way, why he used that order, formula, permutation, etc. Perhaps there's still some intuition involved in musical experimentation.

Cage’s indeterminate pieces probably come the closest to non-expression, (it’s non-composition really). But consider his cardboard and graph paper method, for instance: did he not have to decide what counts as an “imperfection” in the cardboard? Or what if the mark he made on the other side landed in an ambiguous area? He’d have to make a judgment call about what note to play. Even in Music of Changes, where he apparently thought of an arbitrary way to make every little decision, the system itself was contrived by him. Had someone else been assigned the same task, the system, and therefor the music, would necessarily be different. This music can hardly be considered expressive in the common sense of the word, but isn't doing something like this, doing anything for that matter, an expression of who we are in that moment?

As I touched on before, there is no logical purpose to art or music. Music can be logical only in method, not purpose. Maybe methods like serialism and aleatory/indeterminacy are more an expression of a curiosity than an emotion. Maybe these composers are driven by a desire to see how delightfully mad it will all turn out. In Cage’s case, however, he was concerned with letting things just happen, letting the universe write the music, so to speak. This was, no doubt an expression of his spiritual and philosophical background in Zen Buddhism. One of his most famous pieces, 4’33” (1952), consisted of four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence in which a pianist just sat at a piano, not playing. The idea was that all the little unintentional sounds in the room (people shuffling feet, etc.) are, and should be considered music. He also wrote music for the prepared piano, which, by placing nuts and bolts and bits of rubber on the piano strings, introduced an element of aleatory or randomness to the sounds the piano would make. Music for Marcel Duchamp (1947) is one of the more famous pieces written for the prepared piano. This has also been done with guitar and other string instruments by the way.

The experience of listening to music, I think, is also inherently emotional. If you compare the two pieces above, for instance (Cage's Music of Changes, and Babbitt's Philomel), two pieces written in ways that intended to deny the composer's emotion, the experience is similar: maybe delight or fascination by some, uncertainty, unease, maybe even annoyance at what is perceived by most people as "just a bunch of noise." The point is: regardless of how music is composed, it produces some emotional effect in the listener, which may or may not be a result of its method of creation.

These composers did create some really interesting music by obsessively following their ideas to their logical end, which is a quality American artists and musicians seem to have in common. I think, however, that its best to avoid extremism. A mixed approach is usually the most interesting and entertaining. And always listen to your artist's intuition. I say, follow your experimental curiosity but let your musical gut get the last say.

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