On Experimentalism, pt. 2

In my first post on experimentalism, I examined some issues with the current though process starting to grab hold in academia. At the top of the list was the idea of job preparation and a leaning toward finding answers to classical music's image problems by borrowing from popular music. I argued that this mode of thinking would lead to a stagnation of musical culture, as well as stunt the overall musical growth of students. This week, I look at two ideas of being experimental; the personal level and the universal level.

The personal level is accepting a mode of thinking and acting that revolves around experimentation. This means actively studying new techniques and ideas, being open to ideas from all areas, and entering with a sort of scientific mind-set.

What do I mean by a scientific mind-set? Think of doing experiments in a lab. If a young chemistry student sits down to do his/her first experiment, there are a few things that happen. First the teacher (or adult supervisor) helps the student learn the proper safety procedures and the use of the various equipment needed for the experiment. It wouldn't do much good for a student to start a distillation procedure, but not know how to set-up the Bunsen burner, or connect the glass piping together. After that, students are given the basic instructions on how to proceed. They are not told of exactly what awaits at the end, but instead sent off to do the experiment, write down observations, do calculations as needed, and find an answer.

This is how I approach writing music. Before I write a piece, I set out to learn any techniques needed, in at least a general way. As the piece evolves, I may find I need to work harder on one aspect, take some time to study a certain type of notation, or play around with one small idea for a while to learn it's inner workings. This reminds me of an experiment I did in chemistry long ago when we were doing a distillation experiment. I followed the directions properly for the set-up, but it still took a little fiddling to find the right setting on the burner that would be hot enough but not too hot (and thereby uncontrollable), as well as having to make sure some of the linking in the tubing where completely secure.

I don't start with an ending in mind, instead a general direction or idea. Maybe I want to explore spectralism as a pitch structure, but due to the make-up of the commissioning group, I can't keep the timbre possibilities exact, not can I use the type of rhythmic language usually associated with the movement. So, I explore, play around, find different ways to play with the basic pitch material and overall sonic image from the recording. And out comes a piece that seems more like a funk piece than spectral piece.

I am a composer that is endlessly experimenting. My time in college has been to learn and try as many different types of writing music as I could. This gave some of my teachers fits, as I'd ask about some obscure style of writing music. Other teachers loved my sense of experimentation, always interested to see what would come next--maybe an hour long randomly generated electronic piece, or a fluxus style improvisation piece with trash cans. Recently I've written an algorithmic compositionTDRM, for trombone and percussion. This work is also proportionally notated, meaning that standard rhythms have been removed, instead a general sense of speed is given for the piece, and the rhythms are interpreted by the performers by the proximity of note-heads. There are also graphic representations, extended techniques, and a kazoo. 
 None of the techniques in this piece are brand new--I've invented nothing. The experiment in this case is a personal one. I had never written my own software for determining composition, nor done an entirely proportionally notated score. I had to learn new software, new techniques in software I was already familiar with, and change my entire mode of thinking in the creation of this piece. The experience of the piece will be noticeably different in each performance, and the end results musically would easily be considered to be avant-garde. It most certainly does not fit in with any pervading opinion of music, be it the academic mindset or the populist mindset. The piece is experiment, which may completely fail.

My dissertation is an opera with an original libretto. It has many traditional elements--it is pseudo-through composed, in the sense that the arias don't happen expressly as "stop and sing," but are inherent to the action of the drama. The writing within the opera may be a tick lower on the experimental spectrum than most of my works, but that is due to a different consideration. No, not the consideration of will it be popular, nor accepting that opera houses mostly stage Romantic works, so I should play to that audience. Instead it's due to a musical and dramatic choice that is somewhat unique.

Most operas are written in one main style. Specific styles may change, the inclusion of a dance movement, or a more Romantic turn for a love aria. However, when one listens to a Mozart opera, it is definitely Mozart. The unifying style of an opera by John Adams goes a bit further, with a minimalist attitude permeating the entire score. If the opera is a bel canto opera, all the singers will perform in that style. If it's more of a musical theater style, all performers will perform that style.

My opera takes the dramatic idea of characterization to the music. Characters speak with distinct voices in plays. Dialogue is written to differentiate the characters from one another. However, it seems that most music is written in a more homogeneous style. Yes, the voice types will differ, and the best opera composers used pitch and rhythm cleverly to delineate characters. I'm taking a more novel approach of each character operating in a particular style--this means that the punk singer will not be singing bel canto, but screaming, and the music backing him will be a punk band. Another singer is a sprechstimme role in the style of Brecht/Weill, and so the music is reflected accordingly. When singers of different styles take a duet or trio, elements of their styles are intertwined into a single style, or are overridden by a pervading style--however all the singers remain true to their voices, creating a clash of styles more like one would encounter in a normal conversation.

Will this work? Honestly, I have my doubts. There's usually a good reason why certain things have happened a certain way over time. However, I'm taking the chance to experiment, to try an idea that is, at least new to me. If I was worried about performability, perceived popular opinion, or economics, this project would never exist. How can I make money on a full scale opera, being worked on at the moment with no opera company partner? How can I write music that is outside the perceived popular opinion? And where will I find a punk singer that's willing to scream on stage for an opera?

All good questions, and things I will deal with after the work is completed. I can pitch the project to companies, now as I'm working, and later after it's finished, or find a way to finance and produce the work myself. I never worry about perceived popular opinion, but it is interesting to note that every single person I've described this project to thinks it's a fantastic idea--from the musical idea, to the original story, to the interweaving of folk tales and current politics, to the influence of death metal. And you'd be amazed how many popular performers were in drama club in HS, and wouldn't mind doing another musical, especially if it's doing what they already do.  

All this ties into the idea of experiential learning, that humans can learn to do something through active experimentation. What happens when experimentation is removed, and instead replaced with an economic rationale for learning? It's actually been shown in a couple articles that money is not the best motivator. Instead, internal motivation for creation should be used for motivating young musicians. Furthermore, education should be used to broaden a students understanding, not force a narrow viewpoint. Even in specialized courses, the goal is to challenge students, not to give them basic tools and shoo them out the door. We'll end up with generations of young people unable to reason their way out of a problem, only apply pre-determined formulas. I've seen this first hand from a specific trade school churning out graduates in audio production. Most of the students I've met come out with an understanding of exactly what they were shown, and nothing else. There are a few outstanding students I've met that had a firmer grasp of fundamentals and theoretical ideas, allowing them to apply their training to other similar devices...but only a few.

All of these ideas tie to the idea of personal experimentation. I am under no illusion that my music is somehow transcendentally unique. Instead I work in small increments, learning new skills, new ideas, and testing my own boundaries. All the while I'm learning the breadth of music available, and seeing where I fit within the grand traditions.

Experimentalism in a universal sense is moving outside those student experiments. You've been working on ideas, ideas that for all your hard research you have yet to find paralleled elsewhere. Perhaps it's a new tuning system, or a the use of a newly created instrument. This is the universal experimentalism. It's what happens when a person follows a long stream of "what if"s until it reaches a point where no one has explored before. This is what leads to great leaps in technology and art.

It's what happened when multitrack recorders started hitting the circuit. The idea of multitrack recording (or recording more than 1 channel at a time. This includes stereo recording) is ubiquitous now, but it wasn't widely available until the early 1960s. The first commercial machines were made in the late '50s by Ampex, with the first one sold to Les Paul. And without Les Paul, Ampex may never have even made the technology, as his continuous tinkering and experimentation led to several different multitrack recording set-ups prior to Ampex selling him the 8-track machine. By the late 70s, multitrack had taken over.

It's what happens when Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly take an early mono recorder out and start recording folk songs. Alan Lomax did the same thing, collecting American folk songs, but did so in a way to preserve the tradition. Bartok took the folk songs, and used their raw nature to create classical music. Even this idea was far from new, with the use of folk and popular songs as starting points for art music dating back to the beginning of art music (see fact #7). But it was the way in which Bartok used the folk songs, keeping the complexities and nuances of the untrained singers, not shying away from free rhythms and complex meters as needed. It was keeping the pitch material closer to the original, instead of shoving it into an already accepted Western scale.

It's an experimental nature that leads to something new to the entire form, not just to a single person. It's that leap in understanding. It's the same leap made by Pierre Schaefer  in using recorded sounds to create music, something that is now common in popular and art mediums. It's those leaps that can be lost when we turn music education into a job preparation kit, especially focusing on ideas that are popular over personal exploration and development.

It's that constant search for bettering oneself. Some people refer to this as "finding your voice." I dislike that phrase because it points to an end point, that all this work leads to one single outcome; your voice, your one unified style in which every piece shall be written. I wonder what Stravinsky would think of this idea as he switched styles throughout his life. Or Penderecki, who after writing complex pieces with large amounts of extended techniques, switched to a more Romantic style. Did they never find their voices? Or do we consider their last pieces the culmination, that this is what the journey was all about. Has Penderecki, who still lives and writes music, found his voice in his latest choral works?

Or is there no one voice, and he's moved continuously in development, accepting and rejecting his own ideas. Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshmia is a highly experimental piece composed in 1960. Penderecki explored many extended techniques, percussive hitting of the body of the string instruments, and new notations. He has since left this style, with the anecdote being that he "has written all that can be written in this language." Is this type of language a dead end then? Are there no more experiments, just rearrangements of the same twelve tones?

I argue against this approach, the linear idea of a start and a finish. I believe any use of music education that becomes that sort of end-product focused can lead to a disaster. Of course there are markers we can use. A performer can and should be able to play all major and minor scales over the entire extent of the instrument. This can be graded for accuracy, and the next step of technique can be attained. A composer can and should learn to write a fugue, following very specific rules. The adherence to these rules can and should be graded for accuracy. The same can be said for learning counterpoint rules, all the extended techniques available for each instrument, basic instrumentation, form, different ways of generating musical structures, and on and on. The more knowledge one has, even if not actively engaging in it's use, will change the way one thinks about a passage...and all of a sudden, completely unbidden, a passage turns into a perfect serialist fugue, without the aid of a matrix.

Experimentalism in music is needed at all levels. It is through this experimentation, the pushing of new ideas, that music can grow. It is not through touting all ideas as new ideas. Research is integral to this approach. A young chemist doing a simple experiment, say, heating mercury thiocyanate in a place no one has thought to in a while, say, in a large quantity in a park, doesn't run out and say "I have created something entirely new! A wonderful form of chemistry called 'live interactive park chemistry!' " It's still the same experiment. And, more than likely someone has done it...and gotten the fine associated with creating noxious fumes in a public place.

In closing, it's important to remember that without experimentalism, there is no development in music. By making music into a vocational schooling meant to pump out musicians that can trumpet the latest fad in music, but without the skills to reach new conclusions will only hurt music in the long run. It will create a generation of followers, musicians that think they're developing new ideas when in reality just putting a slightly different paint job on the same idea.

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