Book Review: Experimental Music on Your Bookshelf


I have a confession to make.

I’m sure that the world is full of people who don’t enter a field of artistic endeavor certain that they’re somehow unique or special or full of ideas that no one has tried before. But I was one of those people who did – I sailed into the enterprise certain history somehow “didn’t matter,” since my versions of an idea that seemed a variation of what had gone before or my particular collection of borrowings (or attempts to imitate “work I liked”) were different, because I was different. I was special – sui generis.

When I reflect on those days now and the initial flush of shame and embarrassment passes, I realize that I had more problems than mere hubris – that way of thinking actually isolated me from what I have come to love the most about creating things: the sense of family and community – the notion that I’ve taken my seat at a huge and unruly banquet at a table full of friends, living and dead, some of whom I have yet to meet, and many of whom have very good advice for me and the person I will become. I grew up suspicious of being constantly told that “history matters,” since I saw it as little more than a crude and violent implement of exclusion. I know know it as my astrolabe and compass, and the finest rolodex in the universe.

I’ve spent a number of book reviews talking about what I think of as the “standard bookshelf” for the Max user – standard works in the field, if you will. I’d like to spend a little time talking about two books that I think will be invaluable to the Max audio person who wants to know how we got here, who their new friends will be, and where they fit in. If you think of yourself as an experimental musician, here are two books I think you should consider having on your shelf (or on your Kindle).

The first of them – Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond has a history of its own – In the forward to the most recent edition, Brian Eno puts it this way:

“The best books about art movements become more than just descriptions: they become part of what they set out to describe. (This) is such a book. It sought to identify and give coherence to a whole body of musical work that fell outside both the classical tradition and the avant-garde orthodoxies that had proceeded from it.”

The British composer Michael Nyman wrote this from the middle of the maelstrom; the work he talks about goes to 1970, and the book was begun (as one of a series of monographs on contemporary practice for the publication Studio International) a scant two years later. It’s both quite specific (the first chapter about what a definition of what experimental music might be, should be required reading, in my opinion – it’s still the best and most concentrated piece on the subject written), and general in what was a then-novel approach – that of looking at the broad field of activity by “fields of inquiry” rather than genre.

The book was either out of print or difficult to come by on and off, having passed among a number of publishers. It’s not too hard to find a copy of it now. One of the particularly nice discoveries for the new edition is that the publishers have decided to not rewrite history by altering the original text. Although Nyman himself offers an historical overview in the second edition, you get a sense reading it of how the discourse was seen at the time of the book’s writing. What Nyman has done is to expand the bibliography and discography for the book; It’s the beginning of an even better treasure hunt/rabbit hole repository than it was. Then, as now. It remains the finest summary of the field for the time covered.

An index of that success can be found in the title of the second book I’d like to recommend to you: Jennie Gottschalk’s “Experimental Music Since 1970.” The title makes explicit reference to the historical boundaries of Nyman’s book by picking up where it leaves off, and – together with Nyman – provides a magnificent and succinct overview of the discourse of Experimental musics.

Like Nyman’s original approach, Gottschalk begins from a kind of definition of experimental practice, updated in a way that reflects the arrival (and passing) of various postmodernisms. She begins from the notion that experimental music isn’t an historical event – rather (and this echoes Nyman), it’s a proliferation of approaches to sound and the experience of hearing it. And, like Nyman, she doesn’t provide a chronology. Where Nyman’s history unfolds from a number of chapters on seminal figures and then follows by the consideration of tools and methods. Gottschalk’s book is structured by what she refers to as “arcs” and “content area” (e.g. resonance, harmony, objects, shapes, perception, language, interaction, sites, and histories) – and very much aware of the notion that more recent experimental work is not so much identified by how it sounds or its techniques as by the kinds of questions it poses and the roles that extramusical matters (social, perceptual, scientific) play in catalyzing new works.

The final trait she shares with Nyman has to do with historical distance – she’s also constructing her narrative on a discourse very much in progress, and mindful of the inherent limitations. While she makes no claim to completeness (I don’t think that’s even possible any more), her bibliography and discography should also provide you with hours of interesting sources for reading and listening.

Taken together, these two volumes describe the terrain in which many of us operate and the tectonic forces that shaped its contours, then populate that terrain with amazing persons and things and ideas which, I think, inspire us to return to our own work with renewed confidence and clarity.

Next month, I have a some suggestions for those of you who are interested in the visual/plastic arts. See you then….

Dec 14 2016 | 9:30 am

Hey Gregory… your last sentence basically pre-empted my question… "Do you have any recommendations for similar reference material related to audiovisual arts"?

One such item sits on my shelf: See This Sound

I look forward to what you dig up… always inspiring!

Dec 15 2016 | 9:35 am

Looks good. Thanks!

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