It can be an interesting exercise to try and view one’s “own” subculture with an alienated gaze… I’ve been feeling this way about experimental music the past few years, and have been wanting to articulate my shifting sense of doubt about a type of art that I once identified with strongly. Experimental music can provide an instant sense of community, and it feels odd to both participate and to feel separate.
One recurring question I’ve had is about the role of pleasure in listening to music that might be determinedly anti-comfort, anti-tradition, anti-beauty. My goal in asking is not to form an overarching theory about pleasure. There are infinite loci of pleasure, both in terms of making and listening. Pleasure as a subjective experience comes and goes – the same piece of music finds different places of interest depending on the moment, the context, the level of attention, and any number of other factors.
Experimental music is paradoxical in its formation as a genre. The term is problematic because it would best describe an activity that is constantly breaking apart under its own process of self-inspection. One thing I’ve noticed is that the rules actually seem to be multiplying. In addition to the usual concert-going conventions of classical music (audience should sit quietly, contemplating the music, and should clap after an appropriate pause), some areas of experimental improvisation have added several more layers of implicated or unacknowledged structure. For example, the set should consist of one long piece, or at most two; no leader or conductor should be hierarchically positioned; no pre-determined plan or score should guide the music, except for perhaps a few simple parameters; nothing resembling “music” should be played, even when traditional instruments are present; in many cases, timbral beauty should be resisted.
It’s a paradoxical position - the conventions of breaking the conventions. The restrictions of experimental concert practice have created a position within which any form of aesthetic conservatism mustn’t be used – regular rhythm, melody, and pitch have been removed from the palette of resources. These are deliberate choices, but they can feel diminished rather than expanded. Anything traditionally pleasurable is seen as conservative, and therefore must be withheld.
The history of 20th Century music contains many examples of withheld pleasure. The “progress” of the modernist avant-garde consists largely in the denial of familiar pleasures. Composers and musicians push audiences to accept gestures which are extreme in relation to their cultural context, and the accommodation of the new territory creates a new form of pleasure. The NPR program Radiolab had a fascinating section on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and its passage from riot-inducing avant-garde to Disney soundtrack. On a neurological level, the brain enjoys challenges, and assimilating unfamiliar sound combinations gives pleasure.
In many cases, it seems that while some types of pleasure are denied, a replacement can be found. For example, in Cage’s iconic work of withheld sound, 4’33”, we can find new pleasure in the absurdity of the theatrical gesture, the neo-Dada humor in the stilled player(s), the social tension of an audience attempting to be quiet. (Witness an orchestral version for an amplification of such characteristics, broken by the coughing, shuffling release of “allowed” noise during the movement markers.) Perhaps, maybe, one might experience the stated goal of 4’33” - the pleasure of hearing all sounds as music and the replacement of orchestral entertainment with the joys of apperception.
It’s not that I’m a stranger to the exquisite pleasure of displeasure. One of my favorite examples is the 2-CD “TNB Est Mort” by The New Blockaders. This grinding, crushing, wailing, dragging piece of noise music is broken into four approximately 25-minute sections, each of them continuous, unbroken, unchanging and similar almost to the point of being identical. In this case, the negation of musical pleasure is replaced by the monumental decision to just continue - the sheer excess of the composition extends beyond the bounds of tolerance, forcing the listener to either submit or reject.
I’m guessing that one underlying cultural metaphor separates pleasure into two varieties – that of the body and that of the mind – intellectual or sensual. Perhaps this division drives the pursuit of an arid aesthetic within experimental music, which is supposed to be smart. I suppose it also drives the vacuity of many popular musics. We could say that a song like Pitbull’s “Hotel Room” – which I find adventurous and hugely engaging on a timbral level - displays an entirely empty and surface-oriented lyrical content. This emptiness plays into the song’s function as a dance track. It emphasizes an unthinking, body-oriented listening.
I recently attended a concert of improvised music at the sparse but beautifully resonant Gallery Homeland. Performed was a duo between Bryan Eubanks on electronics and Vic Rawlings on electronics and cello. The sonic structure was typified by whooshes of white noise, crackles of contact mics, piercing high-frequency tones and crunchy electronics bursts. I’ve enjoyed music by both of these musicians on other occasions, but on this evening I found the music dry, timbrally predictable and sometimes painful on a basic auditory level. I really wondered what there was to find pleasurable – not because I questioned the musicians themselves but because I wonder about my own quality of attention.
In some improvised music, predictable structures are replaced by instrumental virtuosity, but this is a music that purposefully distances itself from displays of virtuosity. Some composed music orients the listener around processes of memory and recognition, but this is a music that is constantly drifting - neither static enough to be forgetful nor organized enough to be memorable. Most experimental music (and, I would argue, pop music) finds pleasure in new timbres, but here I found myself over-familiar with the limited range of non-musical sounds and physically repelled by the high-frequency sine waves.
Matt Carlson suggested that the locus of pleasure in this type of music is a deep self-identification with the players and their decisions. Each new sound, each interaction is viewed through a lens of asking if each choice was a ‘good’ one - “If I were playing, would I make the same decisions?” This requires an extremely close attention and when it works, it can also produce that attention. But perhaps it also emphasizes an insider’s understanding of the means and results. Does it exclude an unfamiliar audience to utilize only this kind of listening?
I ask this question of my own work as well, out of the desire to include more people in my sonic interests - not to meet an audience at the level of predictability, but to somehow draw them in. I would suggest that it has become more unpredictable to include “musical” structures and sounds in experimental music than to exclude them. I have been sweetly surprised by the music of Giuseppe Ielasi, for example, which draws elements of rhythm, melody and pattern into a fractured, difficult and gloriously unconventional framework. (Matt Marble wrote a nice review of Aix here.) Ielasi resists any blanket statements about the direction of his work or experimental music in general. Future projects may include minimalist drones or free improvisation. At the same time, these elements are not combined in a bricollage of various styles – they feel deeply committed and personally relevant. Each project is truly an experiment.
I felt the need to write this essay, but now I wonder about posting it. I would like to stop defining my interests in the negative. I hope that it might start some interesting discussion.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that commitment is the key term in the exchange between artist and audience. It is commitment which opens up the possibility of pleasure – through the means of attention. The energy of commitment itself can come from any number of sources, cultural or personal. It gives force to the act of attention, and anything becomes interesting given close enough attention.
From here on, I'll be writing more about the things that have caught my attention.