Point of Departure: Experimenting with music

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The whole notion of experimental music is a little wonky, much like the notion of politicians "experimenting" with drugs. As one comedian noted, "What are they, setting up test tubes and beakers before they smoke a little weed?" And a lot of music, to one extent or another, is built around chance and the notion that you can never enter the same stream twice; improvised solos live and die in an instant on the stage and technical difficulties have led to plenty of unamplified audience sing-alongs more inspiring than a performance that went according to the letter would have been.

But composers like John Cage actively used chance operations based on the throw of the dice, the I Ching, or other sources of indeterminate outcomes in composing their scores. The performances based on these scores are often as random in outcome as the scores themselves. Cage's (and experimental music's) most famous piece, 4'33", is often misunderstood as being four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, but in fact, it's more a frame through which to hear the world. By indicating the beginning of a performance and its conclusion four and a half minutes later, Cage made the environment the piece is performed in the music.
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Composer Alvin Lucier

This is experimental music's greatest contribution to the average music listener's world. For example, as I'm writing this, I'm sitting in a coffee shop listening to a live performance of Alvin Lucier's "In Memoriam John Higgins" on my headphones. As is often the case with experimental pieces, the idea behind the composition carries nearly the weight of the performance itself. The concept is simple: a drone produced by an oscillator climbs slowly (over the course of 20 minutes) from the bottom of a clarinet's range to its top. A clarinetist then plays notes just above where the oscillator is sounding. The notes interact in the way notes that are slightly out of tune will, by vibrating, and as the oscillator climbs to the clarinet's note, the waves come slower and slower until the two tones are in tune for a moment until the oscillator begins to move on again.

But of course, explaining it and hearing it are two different things. When the piece begins, the sounds are ominous and barely audible. Then, as it climbs into the middle range, it becomes easier to hear what's going on, and the sound of the oscillator and clarinet begin to glow warmly. And finally, as it reaches its close, the pitches played become so high as to almost reach out of human hearing. It's a stunningly simple and moving elegy.

But what's really interesting about the live version (which you can download for free from iTunes), is that because of the piece's delicacy, every cough and inhale (and what even sounds like a lighter being flicked) become a part of the piece, adding an extra layer of humanity to the spare music. Once again, by delineating a performance, by saying here is where we begin and here is where we end, the music invites the world in, rather than trying to dictate and establish its own reality.

And so even as I was listening, conversation, chair squeaks, coughs, laughing, and myriad other sounds filtered in through my headphones and became a part of the piece as I heard it at that moment in time. Someone listening at a different time in a different place will experience their own unique performance, even of a pre-recorded piece, and so they'll create it again and again.

Once you begin to perceive music in this way, it becomes inseparable from the world. Instead of something held apart and frozen in time, it becomes populist and ever-changing. This is, after all, the principle that underlies the use of music in movies, although experimental music resists the tyranny of having your musical associations dictated to you.

For example, ten years after the premiere of 4'33" in 1952, Cage wrote 0'00" or 4'33" No. 2, the score for which is just one instruction: "In a situation provided with maximum amplification, perform a disciplined action." That piece's premiere consisted of Cage writing that sentence.


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