One of the things that strikes me about the music of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown in the 1950s is how uneasily it might sit in the library of a conservatoire of music. It represents attitudes to sound, composition and value-judgements like skill, quality, or success and failure which seem to me to be at odds with those of the mainstream of western classical music history. And this seemed to me a good reason to drag it out and examine it under the lights of the library display cabinets.
But first things first – why does this music tend to be grouped together and described as ‘experimental’? Attempts at naming and defining a musical movement seem to me to be doomed to exceptions and over-simplifications, intended as they are to take in the work done by a range of different personalities over a vaguely-defined period of time. Yet, they have their uses. Something new really did seem to happen in the way people were creating and thinking about music in New York City, beginning in the 1950s, and calling this new music ‘experimental’ seems reasonable. At least, John Cage seemed to think so:
“The word ‘experimental’ is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown.” [written in 1955]
Cage is the composer most associated with the inception of this new music, but the work of all four men has a further attitude in common; they were all writing music which was at one remove from the person who made it, and thus somewhat distanced from their own tastes and prejudices in favour of a more objective approach to sound. Michael Nyman, in his book on experimental music, also adds that it is music which is somehow distinct from the ‘well-trodden but sanctified path of the post-Renaissance tradition’ of avant-garde composers such as Boulez, Xenakis, Kagel, Berio, Stockhausen, Birtwistle, Bussotti. I’ll come back to that.
John Cage’s famous ‘silent’ piece 4’33’’ was composed and premiered in 1952 and is often the place to start off any discussion about experimental music. Consequently, I almost cringe talking about this piece. It seems to have been picked over again and again, endlessly. However, one of the reasons this is the case is that it’s just such a good example in the way in encapsulates many aspects of the new attitude towards music that began to emerge in the work of a number of composers around the same time in the same place.
John Cage at a drinks reception at the Cage/Cunningham Residency at the Laban Centre, July 1980. Photo by Peter Sayers (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Cage’s piece grew directly out of his realisation that sounds surround us always, even in the quietest of places, and if we attend to them, and accept both intended and unintended sounds into composition, a new attitude to making and listening to music is born – ‘Happy new ears!’, as he put it. His move was to simply provide a time-frame (the duration of which was generated by chance) in which an audience could attend to all the sounds that surround them. And although 4’33’’ is the idea taken to its logical extreme, the emphasis in this new attitude was not the traditional one of prescribing a defined time-object, the materials and structuring of which were calculated and specified in advance. Instead, these composers were more interested in outlining a certain situation in which sounds then occur. It was an attitude of acceptance rather than craftsmanship; an effort to distance one’s self from the composition; and an attempt to bring art and life closer together:
“When a composer feels a responsibility to make, rather than accept, he eliminates from the area of possibility all those events that do not suggest at that point in time vogue of profundity. For he takes himself seriously, wishes to be considered great, and he thereby diminishes his love and increases his fear and concern about what people will think.
There are many serious problems confronting such an individual. He must do it better, more impressively, more beautifully, etc. than anybody else. And what, precisely, does this, this beautiful profound object, this masterpiece, have to do with Life? It has this to do with Life: that it is separate from it. Now we see it and now we don’t. When we see it we feel better, and when we are away from it, we don’t feel so good. Life seems shabby and chaotic and disordered, ugly in contrast.”
Describing pieces like the graph pieces of Morton Feldman, in which only the number and relative placement of pitches (high, middle, low) are specified within a time-grid, Cage said that ‘the composer resembles the maker of a camera who allows someone else to take the picture.’
“What is, or seems to be, new in this music? One finds a concern for a kind of objectivity, almost anonymity – sound come into its own. The ‘music’ is resultant existing simply in the sounds we hear, given no impulse by expression of self or personality” 
It should already seem quite clear how this attitude is very different from that of the European-classical canon, including the work of the avant-garde at the time. In that tradition the responsibility for managing and calculating all of the musical parameters is laid squarely at the feet of the composer. The emphasis there is on integration, organisation and control as opposed to the impersonal techniques used for merely ‘setting sounds in motion’, in which any possibility of drawing events into some kind of pre-calculated image is impossible because so much is left open until the moment of performance. And indeed, it was the uniqueness of the moment, rather than the uniqueness of something preserved, that interested the experimental composers.
So this brings me to the place experimental music might occupy in a conservatoire of music. After all, it’s here that performance students come to hone an extraordinarily refined skill-set over a period of at least 4 years, with the emphasis being on replicating certain unique and preserved master-pieces. It’s hard-work, and success and failure are very real categories. So it seems understandable that the presence of this different attitude to music-making might sit a little uneasily here – who needs a degree when all you’re doing is ‘projecting sounds in time’? How do you accurately rate the performance of a piece that sounds completely different every time it’s performed?
However, my feeling, for what it’s worth, is that music is not just one thing, and students should be able, if so inclined, to take advantage of their time here to explore it in all its variety. Surely, this is one of the main things the library is here to facilitate. Whether this music seems exciting to one person or empty to another depends ultimately on their temperament, but either way, having it in the collection increases its scope. After all, let’s not forget that this music is hardly ‘new’. In fact, it’s now just about old enough to qualify for a free bus pass.
It’s refreshing that people tend to find the arch-modernist style-police amusing for the vitriol with which they denounced anyone who didn’t plow their particular furrow in the mid-twentieth-century, and this opening-up and moving away from an unhealthy obsession with style can only be a good thing. I know that when I learnt about what was happening in 1950s New York for the first time it opened my ears to new ways of thinking about and listening to music. It didn’t stop me practicing my scales, but it did give me a different take on listening to all the sounds that we normally do our best to ignore; or wondering whether we can, or why we might want to, remove our tastes and prejudices from the things we make. Being exposed to a diversity of values and approaches to music only enriches things.
However, as a final thought, I’ll leave Morton Feldman to muddy the waters. For all this talk of a diversity of approaches, perhaps this supposedly brand-new attitude wasn’t really all that separate from the mainstream avant-garde after all? It seems a good example of how parts of a culture that seem unconnected at the time, when seen in perspective can shed light on each other in interesting ways. All the more reason to welcome this kind of music into the conservatoire library, I’d say.
“What rhapsodizes in today’s ‘cool’ language is its own construction. The fact that men like Boulez and Cage represent opposite extremes of modern mythology is not what is interesting. What is interesting is their similarity. In the music of both men, things are exactly what they are – no more, no less. In the music of both men, what is heard is indistinguishable from its process. In fact, process itself might be called the zeitgeist of our age.”
 John Cage, Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), 13
 Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 1
 John Cage, A Year From Monday: Lectures and Writings (Marion Boyars: London, 1968), 30
 Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 4
 John Cage, Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), 130
 John Cage, Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), 11
 Christian Wolff, quoted in Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 30
 Morton Feldman, Give my Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman ed. B.H.Friedman (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2000), 109