Is Experimental Music Revolutionary?
or the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: Is experimental music revolutionary?
It would be prudent to begin by becoming clear on what is meant when it is asked, “Is such and such a thing ‘revolutionary?’” Intuitively, I think of two senses of the word ‘revolutionary,’ the first being something that overturns a particular dominant political order/system of law (one at the foundation of a state), and replaces it with one that ensures a redistribution of economic resources. This is the strong sense of ‘revolutionary,’ in the sense of the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution etc.
It is the weaker sense of the word ‘revolution’ though, that is most often used when discussing matters of culture. In everyday use, the kind of things that we describe as ‘revolutionary’ are those that engender some kind of dramatic change in a field of practice. These phenomena tend to alter a set of presuppositions that we’ve had had about the nature of that practice, they cause us to rethink both what kind of activity a certain type of practice is, and thus what is its potential domain of affectivity. We can say that ‘revolutionary’ phenomena make us rethink what we’re doing when we’re acting. And, these sorts of revolutions entail a replacement of old presuppositions with new ones, they entail a new conceptual order for fields of practice.
It seems to me quite simple to say that that what we call “experimental music” very readily fails to fulfill the criterion of the first definition. Experimental music didn’t make Thatcher go away, it didn’t make Reagan go away, and it certainly won’t make Bush v.2 go away. Art’s relation to society very rarely results in the sort of direct change that organized labor is capable of. However, this isn’t to say that in the history of experimental music, there haven’t been investigations into the possibility of this being the case, of music’s place in such efforts.
This is in fact what makes the late work of Cornelius Cardew so interesting. Cardew is noteworthy as a composer and improviser in England in the 50’s through the early 70’s. In Morton Feldman’s 1963 interview, “Conversations Without Stravinsky” he says, “Any direction modern music will take in England will come about only through Cardew, because of him, by way of him” (52). In his works with and for the Scratch Orchestra (of which he was a founder) Cardew attempted many experiments at flattening out what he saw as the composer/musician/audience hierarchy. It became a testing ground visionary alternative arrangement of social structures by means of music and theater. In the early 70s, Cardew begin a relationship with Marxism and later Maoism that would remain with him until his death in 1981. But, in about 1974, Cardew consciously separated himself from the entire tradition that he had been part of, in favor of a stronger commitment towards his political activities (embodied in his book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism. His latest works were adaptations of folk and popular songs like “Father Murphy” and “Croppy Boy” and polemical songs like “Red Flag Prelude” and “Long Live Chairman Mao”.
To put it excessively simply, Cardew shows us the line of how politically effective avant-garde or experimental music can be. In order to participate in politics on the level of politics, it can only be as an instrument of a political force (ostensibly, propaganda). This is the only way in which music can be revolutionary in the strong sense. As experimental music is not a very good candidate for this sort of instrumentality (i.e. not that many people really like it), it does not stand a good chance of being politically revolutionary. 
It seems, then, that in order for experimental music to be revolutionary, it would have to fulfill the qualifications of its weaker use. And the trouble with this begins with even trying to say what “experimental music” really is. Who can fix a definition? “Experimental music” in name, would seem to pick out commonalities in creative methodologies, but on that note, who would call dub “experimental”? The more I think about it, the more I think that “experimental music” picks out a number of scenes (Japanese noise, London free-improv, New Zealand free-noise/psych), approaches (60’s minimalism, lowercase-sound), and common material elements and constraints (field recordings, electroacoustic improv). They’re linked in a loose conceptual network by geography, common points of influence, and similar methodologies. What makes it so hard for something to be “revolutionary” is the fact that anyone discovering a new way of thinking about sound by no means closes off another field of practice elsewhere. The coming of minimalism didn’t stop the practice of musique concrete, the Max/Msp programming language didn’t stop crude 4-track tape collage, digital synthesizers didn’t end the use of analogue ones, and on and on. What seems to be more of the case is the constant cannibalization of outdated forms (movements don’t burn out, they tend to be simply buried under the pile of newer ones until some diligent musical archeologists bring them back into the public’s eye), cycles of work. In order for experimental music to be revolutionary, it would have to be a new order that would throw out the old. And as countless discussions on Bagatellen have proved, this just isn’t the case. Someone doing something new by no means serves as proof that something old is out of date.
 Give My Regards to 8th St.: the Collected Writings of Morton Feldman, ed. B.H. Friedman (Exact Change).
 This is certainly not to say that the “political” is not a subject matter for music, but rather that if it wants to be recognized by politics, it must become part of a political force.
By: Nirav Soni
Published on: 2005-05-11