Experimental Music Since 1970 - Jennie Gottschalk. London: Bloomsbury, 2016
By Christopher Williams
Few writers and editors of recent books on experimental music aim to represent the field comprehensively. Volumes by John Zorn (2000–2014), George Lewis (2008), James Saunders (2009), or Benjamin Piekut (2011; 2014) are just a few examples of the contemporary tendency toward moments, movements, networks, and threads that help us to rethink the field from particular perspectives, and away from displaying or defining it in a broader sense.
Perhaps there is a reason for this: experimental music is an increasingly global, diffuse, and contested phenomenon. The variety of places in which it is practiced and disseminated, of styles and methods it encompasses, and of views concerning its history and identity as a field is vast. By any measure, experimental music is a woolier topic than it might have been when seminal texts such as John Cage’s Silence (1961) or Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (1999) were first published.
In Experimental Music Since 1970, composer and author Jennie Gottschalk stands apart from her contemporaries. She courageously attempts an overview of experimental music since these aforementioned classics. Her strategy is laid out in the Table of Contents: to explore a long list of diverse artists and pieces, grouped according to themes. Readers hungry for a broader view of the field will be enticed here by the buffet of younger and lesser-known artists from all corners of the globe, as well as Anglo-American veterans and icons.
Readers already familiar with these names may have their curiosity piqued by the chapter structure. Rather than proceed chronologically, geographically, or by means of conventional genres, Gottschalk groups artists according to topics: Scientific Approaches; Physicalities; Perception; Information, Language, and Interaction; and Place and Time. This helps to cut across convenient but problematic disciplinary borders (e.g. composition/improvisation/sound art) that are easily reiterated in such a survey; it suggests provocative transhistorical, aesthetic, and cultural continuities.
The grouping, as we learn in the Introduction, reflects Gottschalk’s own background as a composer. She is quick to point out that she does not write as an academic, but rather as an artist seeking to portray her community from the inside out:
Another of my hopes for the book is that it will serve as a creative prompt […] I am not a critical theorist, a musicologist, or a performer. My training is in composition and this book is written from a maker’s perspective. (7–8)
One notes the resonance with Nyman (1999), after which Gottschalk claims to have modeled her own book as a sequel. As Brian Eno points out in his Foreword to the third edition of Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond,
The best books about art movements become more than just descriptions: they become part of what they set out to describe. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond 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. (Nyman 1999: xi)
In sum, Gottschalk’s premises show enormous potential.
Unfortunately, her execution does not deliver. The problems begin with the omission of critical reflection on whom her readers might be, or why she writes for them as she does. She professes to write as a maker for makers, rather than as a chronicler: “this book is not a ‘who’s who’ of experimental music”, but rather a “creative prompt” (7). To this end, she openly admits to discussing primarily artists and issues of personal interest, without much concern for scholarly breadth or protocol. This approach presents no problems per se. However, the book reads exactly like the atlas she purports not to write, sometimes with dozens of diverse artists and pieces discussed in the space of a few pages.
As previewed in the TOC, the book is a cornucopia of references and repertoire. It would therefore seem most appropriate for readers with a casual interest in experimental music, or to students in an introductory university course. This could have been a potential strength, if adequately acknowledged and embraced. But the value of her approach to both these readerships is severely limited. Nonspecialists will be underserved by a lack of precision and context. At times Gottschalk addresses historical precedents in offhand or incongruous ways. In the following portrayal of minimalism, for example, commonly acknowledged pioneers such as La Monte Young or Terry Riley are passed over, and others not commonly associated with the aesthetic are lumped together without any further explanation or references:
The word ‘minimalism’ has had two somewhat distinct applications within music. The best-known use applies to composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams, who use clear-cut harmonic materials and enliven their use through processes. The other application is more casual, and relates to the classification of visual artists such as Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, and Mark Rothko. The composers who receive this label – more in reviews than in scholarly publications – include Alvin Lucier, Howard Skempton, Arvo Pärt, Chiyoko Slavnics, composers of the Wandelweiser collective, and [Laurence] Crane. (42–43)
Granted, the book is not a work of music history, and the reader need not get hung up on such statements. Less forgivable, however, are the frequent misleading generalizations that bear direct relevance to the author’s chosen themes. A particularly strange case, for example, is her statement that Extended Just Intonation – a harmonic framework based on natural tuning employed by composers as diverse as Harry Partch and Robin Hayward – “is essentially affirmative, warm, and inviting in its character, and open to an apparently infinite range of new developments” (49). Any reader familiar with this music would have to wonder what she means. Even readers unfamiliar with this music might wonder why she makes such a statement at all, given its inclusion in a chapter about scientific approaches.
For makers, the book is crippled by a lack of depth; the sheer amount of material crammed into 282 pages prevents any real conceptual development. This manifests in a formula repeated throughout the book: some aspect of a composer or piece is described in one to three paragraphs, then gently elided with a description of another composer or piece for one to three paragraphs, and so on until we reach the end of a chapter subsection. Such connections can be more or less convincing at a surface level, but rarely does the author reveal any insights that would serve as a “creative prompt” to most serious practicing musicians. A particularly disappointing feature of this structure is when Gottschalk concludes her discussion of a given composer by offering a citation with no reference to her topics or to other artists. Three examples of such missed opportunities include quotes about “nature-culture friction” (49) in the music of German composer Walter Zimmermann, English composer Michael Parsons’ use of rational procedures as a “method of inquiry” (55), and American sound artist Ellen Fullman’s quest for new sounds through a traditionless long string instrument (61).
The combination of this writerly schema with the other problems mentioned above becomes extremely tedious. Inspired by the TOC, I began reading eagerly. After one chapter, I slowed but suspended disbelief. After two chapters, I was frustrated by the laundry list-like character of the writing and debated whether to write this review. Finally, I forced myself to read one more chapter, which improved slightly on account of longer descriptions of work by Paul Panhuysen, Aaron Cassidy, and others. But I could go no further. To see if and how things would change, I began flipping through the book to see if the formula and problems might vary or dissipate; sadly, they do not.
Despite these major flaws, Gottschalk’s effort may still warrant a read. Because of its speculative and ever-changing nature, experimental music is a field in constant need of reformulation. The author’s attempt to do so on such a large scale from the perspective of a practicing artist is generous and in some ways well researched; nonspecialist readers may profit from mining the book as a collection of references. One only wishes she had explained her subject a bit more incisively, rather than simply describing it. As such, the book is unlikely to contribute anywhere near as much to the field as did its predecessor.
Cage, John (1961). Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Lewis, George E. (2008). A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and Experimental Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Nyman, Michael (1999). Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Piekut, Benjamin (2011). Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and its Limits. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Piekut, Benjamin (Ed.) (2014). Tomorrow is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Saunders, James (Ed.) (2009). The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music. Farnham: Ashgate.
Zorn, John (Ed.) (2000–2014). Arcana: Musicians on Music vols. I-VII. New York: Hips Road.