I recently received a copy of Jennie Gottschalk‘s book Experimental Music Since 1970. It would be difficult for me to overstate how much I am enjoying it so far. Sure there are occasional passages I don’t quite get but that’s probably more on me than her. I’m into this book. If you’re into experimental music you will find it interesting as well.

Arcs vs Boundaries

So many discussions about Big Broad Topics get completely bogged down in the “Let’s define what we mean here” stage; all energy is sucked out of them; the bright thinking disappears leaving a yawn-fest of minutae. Gottschalk skillfully avoids this by framing a series of “arcs” for discussing experimental music, none of which are hard and fast boundaries and all of which can be present to greater or lesser degrees. This keeps the conversation fluid enough to encompass the incredibly wide range of sounds and human behaviors that make up experimental music while providing enough structure to have interesting conversations.

Instead of being stuck in never-ending “This is experimental,” “no it’s not,” “yes it is,” “no it’s not,” “yes it is” loops we can move right along to discussing how a piece of music bends along which of Gottschalk’s arcs. As rhetoric and mental model it saves us hours of inane chatter. I can’t say how grateful I am for this.

The arcs she mentions in her introduction are:

  • indeterminacy
  • change
  • experience
  • research
  • non-subjectivity

I find these incredibly fair. And as I read more of her book, I find increasing utility in these arcs. In my mind the arcs form a sort of rope work containing a sail–some are more taught or more slack depending on conditions but they continue to hold.

Experimental music and research

I can still hear echoes of one of my college professors–a composer, thinker, and arguer of a very high order–when he went off about the different names for contemporary music. “Avant-garde? Arrière-garde more like, it hasn’t changed in forty years! Experimental? What’s the experiment? What are the tests? Who are the subjects?”

Those echoes have remained and when I encounter things that might be put on the “Experimental” shelf of a record store I ask myself the same questions. When some of the more “outside” music I make with groups like the le duo has half of a record review devoted to talking about “experimental music” I am not so sure about it.

But Gottschalk’s arcs make room for these things. There is room for a little slack in the research arc perhaps which gets made up for with some taughtness in the indeterminacy arc.

Maybe this approach could be criticized as simply avoiding the questions but then Gottschalk follows through with specific examples and insights that are illuminating, clear, and on point.

Experiment and utility

I have never been entirely comfortable referring to myself as an experimental double bassist or musician. The gnawing doubt of “where’s the research? what’s the hypothesis? how will it be tested?” to my musical approaches seemed a bridge too far. Gottschalk has given me some tools to analyze and conceive/reconceive some of the things I’m working on.

Which brings me to another reason why I’m enjoying Experimental Music Since 1970 so much: it’s encouraging me to consider applying procedures and ideas to my music which I haven’t yet tried. From my work beyond music I’m familiar with a variety of research methods, any of which could be applied to musical material and pull taught the arc of research in my work. Not that it would be necessary, but it now seems of interest and I can wrap my head around it.

There’s an openness, an invitation to consider ideas that is conveyed in Gottschalk’s style. That openness translates into a desire to adjust and try, to experiment.