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 What is Experimental Music?

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Ride_The_Lightning60
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PostSubject: What is Experimental Music?   Tue Jun 03, 2008 11:10 pm

Experimental music is a term introduced by composer John Cage in 1955. Cage defined "an experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen" (Cage 1961, 39), and he was specifically interested in completed works that performed an unpredictable action (Mauceri 1997, 197).

In a broader sense, it is also used to mean any music that challenges the commonly accepted notions of what music is. David Cope describes experimental music as that, "which represents a refusal to accept the status quo" (Cope, 1997, 222).

Michael Nyman (1974) uses the term "experimental" to describe the work of American composers (John Cage, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Meredith Monk, Malcolm Goldstein, Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Philip Glass, John Cale, Steve Reich, etc.) as opposed to the European avant-garde at the time (Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis). The word "experimental" in the former cases "is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success or failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown" (Cage 1961, 13).

According to David Nicholls, "...very generally, avant-garde music can be viewed as occupying an extreme position within the tradition, while experimental music lies outside it" (Nicholls 1998, 318). That tradition is the inheritance of common-practice Western art music, with its concern for increased technical complexity, historical inheritance, composer intention and other features. In general, and at least originally, experimental music took its inspiration from non-Western sources and from varying times. It may take its inspiration (directly in terms of generating systems) from other media; practitioners may or may not be professionals in the traditional sense of the word, although they may still be trained in their work and adept at it.

Leonard B. Meyer, on the other hand, includes under "experimental music" composers such as Berio, Boulez, and Stockhausen, as well as the techniques of "total serialism" (Meyer 1994, 106–107 and 266), holding that "there is no single, or even pre-eminent, experimental music, but rather a plethora of different methods and kinds" (Meyer 1994, 237).

As with other edge forms that push the limits of a particular form of expression, there is little agreement as to the boundaries of experimental music, even amongst its practitioners. On the one hand, some experimental music is an extension of traditional music, adding unconventional instruments, modifications to instruments, noises, and other novelties to compositions. At the other extreme, there are performances that most listeners would not characterize as music at all.

While much discussion of experimental music centers on definitional issues and its validity as a musical form, the most frequently performed experimental music is entertaining and, at its best, can lead the listener to question core assumptions about the nature of music.

The term "experimental music" was used contemporaneously for electronic music, particularly in the early musique concrète work of Schaeffer and Henry in France (Vignal 2003, 298) and in the Experimental Studios at the University of Illinois, run by Lejaren Hiller.[citation needed] "Experimental" electronic composition may be "experimental" in the sense used in Nyman (for instance, Cage, Cartridge Music or the early work of Alvin Lucier); it may also lie more comfortably with the avant garde.[citation needed]
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