Contemporary experimental music is something not easily captured with words. It is a music full of sounds not easily correlated to their origin, sounds abstracted or sampled from a wholly different context, sounds built from waveform and filter instead of resonance. Extended techniques have become primary approaches rather than accents or singularities. The impact of electronic interventions on sound can be compelling but also unpredictable and further abstract the sound from its source.
In addition to the now complicated relationship between sound and source, experimental music has largely moved away from attempts to inspire emotion or awareness into the evocation of abstract atmospheres or altered environments. A recording may be a presence rather than an event, where each listen is as much visitation as audition. It seems counterintuitive but music can be inaudible, or so close to inaudible that it can only be detected as a change in the atmosphere of the room. Adjectives are not well suited to described this variety of experience.
A third circumstance that makes it difficult to write about music today is the diversity of sources. There are no conventions to refer to, little historical documentation to draw from, too many different backgrounds and circumstances to support any assumptions about intention or motivation. As a listener this can be freeing, but it pulls the listening experience into a subjectivity that further blocks communication.
And so it is in this landscape that Jennie Gottschalk has done listeners a great service with her book Experimental Music since 1970 (Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2016). While not exhaustive, the book provides an excellent catalog of methods, primary source information about compositions and techniques, and quite thorough references for further exploring. It is, perhaps, the beginning of an approach to writing about experimental music that will eventually provide tools to greatly improve the clarity of writing about music.
The structure of the book presents a method to overcome the difficulties presented above. The discussion is organized around the questions asked by the music, as established either through primary sources or interviews. The broad categories of Scientific Approach, Physicality, Perception, Communication (as Information, Language, and Interaction), and Location (as Place and Time) immediately offer a way of beginning to discuss any given piece of music. A listener can weigh the relative importance of these sign-posts, and the book gives thorough examples of how each is reflected in various areas of music. For some compositions, one or two of these categories might clearly dominate, but in nearly any example all five would be relevant to communicating the experience of the music.
And so. Gottschalk has proposed a methodology for us, and offered quite a number of examples as well. She doesn’t try her technique with anything outside of the experimental tradition (and within that tradition doesn’t investigate a number of subsets such as harsh noise or drone) but I suspect with a little work all of the same tools would apply. Maybe the word ‘scientific’ would have to be dropped, as really any a priori framework could serve as an approach. It’s no shorthand, and it probably won’t immediately displace any of the subjective contemplations we function under already. But I’m glad to have the tools in hand.
And in the meantime, here we have the fourth volume of surround. I wish to say nothing about the excruciating delay between this and the previous outing. I wish to say nothing about how long some of these great articles have sat on my hard drive awaiting this moment. So please, read on and enjoy and let us not dwell on the times that have escaped.