2014, Gina Emerson

The term ‘experimental’ appears frequently in new music discourse but is rarely clearly defined. Applied to the practice of designing contemporary musical instruments, experimentalism can be seen to manifest itself in two central ways:

1. as an approach to the acts of composing and inventing, i.e. a kind of ‘experimental aesthetic’ or mode of thought; and
2. in the form of ‘experimental music’, this being the musical genre into which the music produced by new digital instruments is often said to fall.

John Cage’s original definition of experimentalism in music blends these two aspects and serves as a useful starting point. In his 1957 lecture on the matter, he defined an experimental action as

an act the outcome of which is unknown.

This aligns an experimental approach to music-making with the act of carrying out a scientific experiment, in which the sounds produced exist as results that could not have been precisely predicted in advance. Also implied here is the building of chance and uncertainty into the creative process by employing methods that force the composer to relinquish direct control over production, for example the use of cards, dice or charts to make decisions in performance. Chance music or as Cage called it, ‘letting the sounds be themselves’, can be viewed as the hallmark of American experimentalism of the 1950s and 60s. Other features that characterised this movement include an emphasis on rhythmic structures, the development of extended instrumental and vocal techniques and the viewing of musical performances as theatrical ‘events’, in which anything, not just music, could happen.

Developing new musical instruments and creating music for them is an essentially experimental practice. The design process involves much trying and testing, the carrying out of many small-scale experiments within larger ones. Furthermore, through the implementation of different sensors, mappings and interfaces, artists can alter the extent to which their sonic output is left to chance. This in turn impacts the extent to which the results can be classified as ‘experimental music’ in the Cageian sense outlined above. Such genre classifications, however, vary according to who’s listening. In lay terms, in which ‘experimental’ stands for ‘weird’ or ‘unconventional’ or in a less negative sense ‘new’, the music produced by those creating contemporary musical instruments today probably would be included under the banner of ‘experimentalism’. It is then up to those creating to decide whether to accept this label or not.

Defining experimentalism in art will always remain a futile undertaking. The experimental is by nature uncertain and difficult to grasp; our notion of it changes continuously. That which seemed experimental in the 50s and 60s is, for example, most likely no longer so. Each new usage of this term represents a new interpretation of it, a new potential definition.

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