Monday, 13 April 2009

about the curious practices of experimental music...

By memo guerra
Tony Herrington is the editor of The Wire, a magazine dedicated to some the most interesting and cutting edge music. I’m an avid reader of said publication myself and so I thought I’d write him an email to ask if he would kindly spare an hour of his time for me to conduct an interview for the purpose of this research [the thesis i had to write for uni last year].

He wrote me back granting me the interview and gave me a time and date for me to come by the Wire offices. After 15 minutes of minor difficulty trying to find said offices, I was in the lounge with Tony. I asked if he would mind me taping the conversation to which he consented. I started the Dictaphone and introduced the purpose of this interview:

Is experimental music really a genre, and if not, what is it?
Well, there certainly are people who think it’s a genre. For me, it’s not a genre. For me it’s more like an attitude, an approach to [making] music. There are a lot of historical precedents for it. Michael Nyman wrote a book called Experimental Music in the mid 1970s, which was basically about contemporary composition after John Cage, post-war onwards. It also talked about the minimalist composers at the time like Philip Glass, Steve Reich and a lot of lesser-known composers; but also a lot of European composers like Xenakis and Stockhausen, and Americans like Morton Feldman, British people like himself and his contemporaries, Gavin Bryars…
That was a very strict definition of experimental music; it was kind of coming out of the post-war European Avant Garde, really. That’s one kind of definition of experimental music, but it’s a very narrow one. There are other people in the improvised music community who would maintain that their music is experimental music and there are others who claim ownership of the word experimental. They are charlatans because the way they operate is by methods that have been set in stone for decades, writing notes on paper and getting other people to play them to their instructions.
The idea of experimental is all about an attitude and an approach to producing, making and recording music. It’s about trying to kick against convention and trying to express ideas in ways that are new and provocative; trying to engage audiences with new ideas, new ways of thinking; not producing music or art that settles into very easily observable patterns and so on. That’s my idea of what experimental music is, and if you have that kind of definition, then experimental music can exist anywhere. It can be in an East London club with people playing dubstep, kicking against the conventions of dance music or club music culture and trying to bring new things [to it]. In that context, they think they might be experimental because they’re trying out new things. It can happen in rock music, obviously. A group like Sonic Youth who came out in the mid-eighties… they were totally a rock band, into the Stooges and the Velvet Underground but they were also familiar with improvised music and minimalist composers like LaMonte Young and they were trying to feed those ideas to a classic rock line-up and playing that kind of stuff to big crowds. That’s another example of experimental music in a context that isn’t necessarily what academics would recognise as experimental music, perhaps.
I did read Nyman’s book. It’s actually one of the main sources for this project.
Yes, Nyman’s book was interesting when it came out because he was trying to pin down an approach to making music and trying to make it slightly more accessible to people. [He was] also writing about composers that existed on the cusp of the classical music establishment. So people like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, whatever they’ve become now, in the late sixties and early seventies they were playing places like the Kitchen in New York. They weren’t conducting orchestras in the Lincoln Centre in New York. They had their own seven piece bands making a hell of a racket in art spaces. And that’s what Nyman did as well. He had his own band and they played gigs, basically, but the way they were operating was coming out of a tradition of classical composers writing scores on paper and giving them to musicians to perform. He was writing about people after Cage and contemporary composition, because it is composition, even though a lot of those composers investigate chance operations, indeterminacy and other possibilities [to composition].
I think experimental music can exist in all areas of music, not just in the academically defined ideas of [what] experimental [music is], basically.
This brings me to my next question, which is: is it still experimental if the production or compositional process simply follows the experiments already applied or pioneered previously by other experimental artists? For example, you mentioned indeterminacy and random choice operations. I think of Cornelius Cardew composing a piece by the roll of dice, Eno’s oblique strategy cards and so on. I can think of an example: The Beatles; “Revolution no. 9” being basically musique concrete that the likes of Pierre Henry and especially Pierre Schaeffer had done before. Can we still say that’s experimental?
I think so, yes. I think it’s about context, really. What the Beatles were doing was definitely experimental and they were using their position, which was obviously a massively privileged one at the time. They were curious about the whole thing. John Lennon was going out with Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney was sponsoring avant-garde art galleries in London. They were actively involved in the counter culture, the emergence of new ideas and so they started feeding that into the world that they lived in, which was three-minute pop songs, the top 20 hit parade and stadiums full of screaming fans. We can talk about musique concrete: Pierre Schaeffer hits on this idea of how to go about organising sound in a new way in Paris, 1948 with cutting and splicing tape… I think Schaeffer was inspired by collage, montage and visual art. He was taking an idea from one medium, transferring it to another and twenty years later the Beatles took Schaeffer’s idea and took it to another space and did something new with it within the context of their world.
Context is very important, I think. Musique concrete is a good example. It’s an academic approach to making music, which now covers a huge amount of activity. Obviously some people can replicate procedures without adding anything new to the process. I think it’s when people pick up on ideas and expand on them – like Eno expanding on Cage’s ideas of indeterminacy with, like you say, the oblique strategies cards. That was just chance elements and introducing randomness to what can be a very locked down process. That’s the difference between novelty and [actually] experimental, I think. Novelty is just something that burns brightly and briefly for a moment but [eventually] burns out. Generally experimental ideas last a very long time and they still have a cache many years after they were first brought in.
What do you think makes a certain work fall into the category of experimental music and not another?
If you hear something that knocks you sideways or takes you aback and catches your ear, there is something happening within that. It is either just a brilliant track or someone can just be a sensational singer or [it has] a fantastic riff, lick or beat, just done really well and it sounds great… But often it’s not that; it’s something new that you haven’t heard before. Again, it’s about ideas and making you think, without sounding too pompous about it.
It’s basically about presenting interesting, provocative notions about the world and how we live in it, about music and art. And like I said, that can happen anywhere: it can happen in a reggae single, a concert hall, an art gallery or a banging hardcore club. Certainly a lot of people still do define notions of experimental music historically and they link it to particular practices as the ones you mentioned before: chance operations and free improvisation. Free improvisation is a classic example. It was an idea that emerged in the 1960s and it was an incredibly radical idea. You basically just play anything freely and avoid all references to any idiomatic, generic tics. This is a very radical approach to music. Of course that approach very quickly started to produce a certain type of music that sounded a particular way: the sort with pizzicato, alien, abstract, itchy-scratchy sounds that would start very quietly well up to a climax and then in the coda they sort of fall away. And so that became a very established way of making music. Free improvisation became recognisable as a genre very quickly, actually. Forty years after the first pioneers started playing it, there are still people who are playing it exactly the same way; you know exactly what it’s going to sound like. So I think it’s a reasonable question to ask: is this music [actually] experimental or is it purely generic? And I think that music is purely generic, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a bad thing if the people making it maintain that it is experimental and that it is better than anything else; better that pop music or whatever. There are certain experimental music practices which have become so embedded that they do become generic, it does become a recognisable genre and that’s where it becomes problematic: what’s experimental about this anymore? Are you not just rehashing ideas that have been in the air for a very long time; you’re not doing anything new with it.
That’s not to say that all improvised music is like that. There are lots of free improvisers who are trying new ideas. They realise, “Yes, we improvise freely; we try and avoid genre and idiom. But what does that allow us to do as musicians?” The general preconception about improvisation is no one is allowed to play chords or a beat. If you suddenly introduce a chord or a beat into a free improvisation… that’s quite shocking, actually. That almost becomes the experimental action within that performance. If you suddenly start banging out E chords in the middle of some really quiet improvised thing, or you start playing a funky drumbeat, you’d probably get booed of stage.
Can any music sounding of a wayward nature be defined as experimental music?
Not necessarily, no. I don’t think so. It’s not experimental but if you look at it culturally or socially, people who make music that is way outside of most peoples’ idea of what music is (non-mainstream music, marginal, underground, alternative or leftfield music) are making a statement by making that music. [For example], to people who don’t get it, noise music is probably the most offensive, horrible racket, like Merzbow and Whitehouse. But they’re certainly making a statement with that music. It might not be experimental anymore because the techniques they use have been tried and tested many times, so there’s not a huge amount of experiment left in it or in them. But they’re making a social and cultural statement saying “we don’t want to be part of mainstream society. We are in opposition to you. We make this stuff to say that we are outside of mainstream ideas. We position ourselves away from you.”
“We’re Outsiders.”
“We’re outsiders,” yes. Which is a totally valid position to take. It’s a valid way to signal your outsider status. And also, a lot of people [simply] like it.
Sure, it’s got its…
It has its own aesthetic. Certainly most of the music [that] I’m into doesn’t have any of the qualities that most people would look for in music. It’s got no melody, it’s got no beat, you can’t hum along to it, and it sounds horrible. I really like it. It’s not a pose. I actually like it. It comes down to taste, really, but aesthetically I like the sound of it.
But does the compositional or production process need to result from experiments, or does the process itself need to be an experiment in order for the music to be considered experimental?
I think it can be both, really. The process can be experimental. Lots of music emerges without the artist having any idea of what it will sound like, and it does emerge because the processes are random, wayward, not controlled. The parameters are set really wide and anything can happen. Me and you could be sitting here and suddenly decide to make music in here, saying “right, we’re going to drag these chairs all around the place.” I have an idea of what a chair sounds like when you drag it across the floor, but if you contact mic it and plug it to a row of effects boxes, who knows what would come out of that process? The actual thing about dragging a chair across a room is not experimental at all, but the process is random and wide open. You would probably have a good idea of what would come out. You’re not going to get Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds (laughs) or any other sort of raison-based thing. You know you’re going to get some kind of horrible noise, possibly, or you can treat it to make it sound less horrible. People may say “that’s not an interesting or experimental idea, to do just that. It’s something that people do all the time.” but the process makes it into something that can throw up new sounds and new ideas. That happens a lot in lots of music that is improvised or that use electronics. You try something and discover that this is what happens when you do x, y and z. You can then expand on that.
That kind of random process can give rise to more coherent practices and methods, which can then be used to build further into more coherently organised sound. You can take a standard string quartet reading off a score, and if that score is presenting composed music that has never been presented before, then that is also an experimental approach, obviously. Nam June Paik is the perfect example for that. His material is basically violins and cellos, but he would get people to play them in the most outrageous ways [with] weirder, extended techniques and add-ons. Within the performance aspect, people played naked and so on, just to thrown those traditional music practices completely out of kilter, if you like. Those things are still valid approaches and can still throw new and exciting stuff.
Do we perhaps throw the term around too much to any unconventional sounding music?
Yes, I think that does happen. It’s become a slightly meaningless term. Experimental music in certain areas has become a generic name for certain practices whether it’s free improvisation or certain [other] approaches to composition. It’s a bit too easy to label it. But labelling things is really just the shorthand. Let’s face it: it just allows people to communicate that much quicker. If I said to you “Avant-rock”, you probably have an idea of what I might have in mind. It’s just a phrase; it’s not a genre. It’s just the shorthand description so that we all have a general idea of what we’re talking about without having to go through long, convoluted descriptions of what particular musical genre it might be, or what approach to making music it might be. And [with] experimental music it’s the same. I think it gets thrown around too much without people really thinking about [sic] “are these ideas experimental? Is this stuff experimental? What is it doing that justifies that kind of tag? Are we simply applying it because it sounds like John Cage” or whoever – and John Cage obviously epitomizes experimental music.
You were mentioning artists trying to make a statement. What are some of the things aimed at and achieved by experimental music?
It’s all about ideas and engaging people, exciting them, making them think differently about the world. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about illuminating the world. People say art is like life only better or that art is life magnified. It’s about excitement and elevating your life. The idea is to get the blood running through your veins and getting the air to vibrate around you. It’s life-affirming stuff. It confirms that you are alive and the world is an amazing place, basically.
That kind of idea would go against lots of peoples’ ideas of what they think experimental music is. They think it’s a bunch of bearded men sitting in very quiet rooms listening to someone blow a trombone into a bucket of water or something like that. That’s a cliché, obviously, that it’s all very quiet and reverent, although those situations exist. You can still get interesting experiences in the concert hall or in very antiseptic surroundings, art gallery spaces and so on.
It’s got to be about ideas and expanding the world through art and music. It’s also about transference of ideas from one person, which is the composer to the other, which is you, me or whoever is observing.
The least interesting music renders the world as a grey and familiar place [as if] we know everything there is to know. It just makes it boring, with the instant hit or thrill that has no lasting impact or lasting value. That can be Jazz or improvised music. Classical music can do that as much as pop music.
Speaking of which, in what ways might experimental music influence popular music, or the general culture around it?
I think it does, or it should do. For me, the most commercial ideas have always been the most original ideas, the new ideas. It doesn’t matter where it is, in every area of life: design [and other] media… it doesn’t matter, really. Original ideas are commercial ideas. I think that original ideas should feed into the capitalist mainstream and should be used up. Sorry, I kind of drifted out there… let me rewind and start again… (pauses)
I think it happens less now because everything has become much more locked down in terms of how art and music gets out to the world. Only ten, twenty and thirty years ago you had popular groups like David Bowie, Roxy Music and later Public Image Ltd. who were all in the top ten, but they were taking ideas from all over the place. As artists, they were just people who were interested in the world and so they were grabbing ideas [from] everywhere. Roxy Music is the best example [of that]. We all know about Eno, but then [there was] also Bryan Ferry and Phil Manzanera with their backgrounds in art school, weird and minimalist composition and free improvisation… they pulled all of these ideas and somehow managed to package it into this amazing pop group who were one of the most popular bands of the time. I think that’s what’s missing a bit today, which is strange considering that everything is within arms reach for everybody now. You can learn about all this different music with the Internet and download it immediately and so on. It should be easier to incorporate more into the popular music of today.

The tape ended at that point, but we carried on talking for the next fifteen minutes. Tony was saying that - in a nutshell, and to answer some of my previous questions – the best ideas always remain with us. I agreed with him in that if there is still life in something, there’s no reason not to revisit it. But more importantly, it should give more of a reason to re-evaluate it, look at it closer and from different angles and re-examine it in order to take that particular idea even further and expand on it.

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