I started this before Jeff posted his June 4th article, but it seems a nice follow-up.
For as long as I’ve been in this field, I’ve worked with, read about, and listened to musicians who all considered themselves to be ‘experimental’ in their musical approach. The number of said approaches is varied to a man, and it gets me to thinking: why use such a vague, universally applicable word for something that’s so personal and intimate? To that end, what is it that not only leads a composer to the conclusion that they belong under this umbrella, but drives them to compose in the first place?
I remember watching an interview with Stravinsky several years ago, where he relays an anecdote about being at a border crossing, and when asked for his occupation, he called himself an inventor: an ‘inventor’ of music, as opposed to simply a ‘composer’ of music. This is a rather romanticized notion for a composer as pragmatic as Stravinsky is often portrayed, so it speaks volumes about how he perceived himself. From a semantic angle, he’s making the contrast of being a ‘composer’ (one who assembles sounds, supposedly pre-existing in some form) against being an inventor (one who creates something that does not as yet exist). Inventors, by their very nature, experiment. Stravinsky, for example, experimented with combinations of octatonic sets with the standard diatonic scales. Probably the most successful of these experiments can be heard in his three works for the Russian Ballet: Firebird, Petrushka, and, perhaps most famously, The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky didn’t stop there, either: he even experimented with the past; specifically classicism, and all of its understood artistic meanings, from accepted conventions in voice-leading to ancient mythology. Late in his life he experimented with serialism, coming up with the concept of hexachordal rotations, which he used in Requiem Canticles. Serialism itself was a bold experiment; an attempt to find a new way to express harmony using the conventional 12-tone tuning system, eventually evolving to include rhythm and form.
When I meet musicians today who call themselves ‘experimental’ it seems that they usually mean one of two things: an attempt to reconcile two or more disparate musical styles or finding a new means of sonic expression, either harmonically (within the 12-tone temperament or with other tuning systems) or with timbre (with extended techniques of conventional instruments or electronic sounds, or any combination thereof). These are all worthy endeavors. The search for that which has not yet been done need not necessarily come to a successful conclusion to be rewarding; after all, sometimes it’s the journey – not the destination – that matters. The use of the term ‘experimental’ seems to imply an invitation to fail; this is certainly not a bad thing; often it is in the failed experiments where we as composers learn and grow the most. A composer afraid to make music that fails is a composer that fails to make music.
I often get the question that all composers learn to despise: “What’s your style?” My answer, the most honest one I’ve come up with so far, is, how the hell should I know? I’m just the composer. I write what’s in me to write, without preconceived notions about style or accepted (or worse yet, fashionable) conventions. ‘Fashionable conventions’ are usually an artifact of the academic atmosphere, and really have no place in true musical expression. Once a composer gets over that intellectual hurdle (or goes around it by avoiding academia altogether), that composer can be said to be working as a true experimentalist, to the effect that he’s taking what he knows and trying to synthesize it into something unique and personal. The other side of the coin, however, is the composer who uses the word ‘experimental’ as a ruse to cover up music that is really compositionally incoherent and insincere, examples of which are far too numerous to mention here, but are painfully and instantly obvious to knowledgeable musicians.
Stravinsky is just one of countless examples of the experimental composer, of course. Monteverdi experimented, and in doing so gave us the dominant seventh, establishing the tritone as the fundamental engine that drives tertian tonal harmony. Bach experimented, and in doing so wrote in a harmonic style that was often 150 years ahead if its time. The conclusion that I come to is that all composers – all sincere composers – experiment because it is their very nature. It comes down to the innate search within each of us to find our own voice as a composer, combined with a sincere desire to expand the possibilities of the art, along with the ears of our audience. Some find it early on in their careers, some go to their graves having never discovered it, but in the search is the great experiment: What can I, as a composer who is uniquely me, contribute to the art that no one else has done, or, at the very least, will be instantly recognizable as something I did? A musician who is not experimenting is either probably engaged in a rote academic exercise (a 3-part invention for their counterpoint class perhaps) or auditioning for American Idol. Those of us active in the electronic medium are no exception. Joe has it right: every timbre we create is a secret kept under lock and key as a secret family recipe: a piece of code, a combination of waveforms and effects on a synth, a series of envelope settings, all come from the spirit of ‘let’s push this button and see what happens.’ And we allow these creations to interact and watch the results.
If the experiments have all been done, then there must be no music left to write.