Experimental Music – Questions and Responses (August, 2021)

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When an unexpected email arrived from a student I had met only one time two-years earlier. 

Here was the student’s question:

“For my music course, we have a unit called “Experimenting with Music”, which contains exploration and composition using a variety of musical instrumentation, techniques, or theories. I am amazed by how you and contemporary musicians can produce peculiar musical products using unconventional instruments and techiqnues! [Would it be possible] to ask a few questions regarding some of your compositions?”

I thought briefly about how deep my response should be, because the subject of experimental music could easily comprise the volume of one or more thick books, and at minimum a full semester of weekly classes. 

The subject of “experimenting with music” has always been important to me.  In a profound way, composing music – especially “art music” – always involves elements of experimentation for the purpose of revealing insights into important questions: What is music?  What is music for?  What does music reveal about human nature? What does music tell us about ourselves and others? What does music tell us about what humans have in common (and what differences)?  What does music tell us about what we perceive as beautiful? . . . and many more questions.

I agreed to respond to the student’s questions in an email that also contained links to two videos posted on Youtube:

1) “Just Sing” (2002)   https://youtu.be/uxGGIcCRJ-g  composed for the NEXUS CD, “Wings.” 

2) “The Crystal Cabinet” (2008)    [https://youtu.be/z7scSVtLMxM  scored for 2 percussionists.

What followed next from the student was an email containing 8 questions, to which I responded question-by-question over the following days.

Question #1 – In the 21st century, music with strong melodic motifs still dominates popular music used for entertainment or socio-cultural expression purposes. Experimental music, on the other hand, often disrupts orthodox musical structures, creating “unpopular” sounds. What do you think should be the main purpose of experimental music? 

My Response:

I can only speak for myself.  The purpose of experimental music is not to disrupt or to make listeners feel uncomfortable with unfamiliar (unpopular) sounds, but rather the purpose is to discover and learn from a new experience – very much like traveling to a place never visited before, where many things are unknown or not well understood.  Travel is probably the best way to have new experiences.  Another way (it’s probably cheaper!) is to listen to unfamiliar music, or to look at unfamiliar paintings and sculptures, or to read books by writers who have had experiences that were new to them.

The traveler in an unfamiliar place may ask:  “Why do these people do things that way?  The logical next question is: “Why do I do things this way? “

There are times when I don’t want to travel; I may prefer to stay at home where I am comfortable.  Sometimes I want to listen to music I already know – “popular” music, classical, Jazz, Latin, African, Chinese, etc.  If I hear music that is different from the music I already know, I may not understand it.  

Most of the music that audiences hear in the world is created by musicians who have carefully prepared it, based on tradition and many years of playing and listening to it.  The purpose of these musicians is to fulfill the expectations of listeners who are also familiar with the traditions and who have had similar listening experiences.  “This music is like the music I know.”

But there are also times when I want to travel to a place that is new or unfamiliar, because it can be fun and exciting to learn from these new experiences – by finding my own way to understand them by asking myself questions.  I also ask myself questions when I am composing, and I want to have an open-mind to the possibility of discovering something new about the music and about myself.

“Why did I like this music (or not)?” 

“What about the music made me like it (or not)?” 

“What am I, as the composer (or performer), trying to say?” 

“What was it about this music that is beautiful (or not)?” 

“How can I change my thinking to understand this music?”

Experimental music is created by musicians who ask:

“How does this unfamiliar music make me feel or think?”   

“What in the music was not expected?”

“How did the unexpected things make me feel or think?”

“Is it still music if it does not have melodies, rhythms, or harmonies?” 

“If the music does not have melodies, or rhythms, or harmonies, how does that make me feel or think?“

Experimental music may be “unpopular” but that is not its purpose.  Experimental music mostly provides questions, not answers.  Only the listeners who want to understand it can provide answers that are satisfying to themselves.  That is what makes experimental music fun (and not threatening) to hear; it is like solving a puzzle.

Question #2 – NEXUS has performed and arranged a lot of traditional music, like the Ancient Military Aires presented in 1984. Did traditional world and ancient music influence your compositions? If so, to what extent?

My Response:

All of the original members of NEXUS (Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Robin Engelman, Russell Hartenberger, and John Wyre) as well as the current member Garry Kvistad studied Western Classical Orchestral music in college, so this formed the framework of the group’s musical sensibilities. The sixth member of NEXUS, Michael Craden (1941-1982), did not formally study music; he studied the visual arts (painting, sculpture).  He learned to play jazz intuitively without learning to read music notation.  His intuitive playing greatly expanded the aesthetic of NEXUS beyond the formal classical mindset. 

Ancient Military Aires is based on the European and American military fife and drum music of the 18th and 19th centuries.  The drumming style is called, “Rudimental,” and is based on the drum patterns from that period of history.  It was this style of snare drum playing that the members of NEXUS learned when they were starting as grade school students.  This “ancient” style has gradually evolved into a more highly technical style that is used today.  NEXUS wanted to preserve the older style in its concerts, so the music is called, “Ancient Military Aires.”

In the early years of NEXUS (1971 to 1979) some of the members (Bob Becker and Russell Hartenberger) studied “World Music” in post-graduate studies in college, where they studied with master drummers from Africa, India, Japan, and Indonesia.  They brought the musical ideas that they learned to the rest of NEXUS, and in doing so they also greatly expanded the aesthetic of NEXUS by embracing these new ideas, and applying the ideas to classical music and improvised music.  NEXUS was fortunate that the 1970s were a period of expanded access to ideas from around the world because of new high-fidelity long-playing records containing world music, new international trade which enabled access to the world’s musical instruments, and international jet travel which enabled musicians to travel to hear world music or to perform around the world.

Also in the 1970s NEXUS started to collect non-western percussion instruments, which were very inexpensive, and which were different from the classical orchestra instruments we studied in college. NEXUS was inspired by the sounds of the percussion instruments from Asia and Africa, but there was no classical music composed for these instruments, so NEXUS simply decided to improvise music because the sounds of these instruments were engaging enough to sustain our (and the audience’s) attention.

By the late 1970s John Wyre and I began to compose our own music for NEXUS, including compositions for symphony orchestra and percussion.  The compositions brought together all of the ideas gathered by NEXUS from our musical education, our world music experiences and our experiences in improvising music. 

[In a separate email I attached an audiophile of music that I composed in 1976 titled, “In Ancient Temple Gardens.”  It wa originally s scored for NEXUS with chamber orchestra, and I play the solo xylophone part.]

Question #3 – Other than using digital technology to produce music, contemporary musicians mostly use percussion instruments as their primary instrumentation when composing experimental music. What makes percussion instruments so special? 

My Response:

Although there are contemporary composers such as Steve Reich who have created works featuring mostly percussion (Drumming, Music for Pieces of Wood, Mallet Quartet, Sextet, etc.), Reich has also composed for mixed-instrument ensembles (Tehillim, The Cave, Music for 18 Musicians, etc.), some of which may (or may not) have percussion instruments, but not necessarily in a primary role.

There are very many works by contemporary composers in which percussion instruments are not used at all (mixed-ensemble chamber works, string quartets, wind quintets, etc.), or if percussion instruments are used, they are not the primary focus of the music.

In most contemporary music, percussion instruments are equal partners with other instruments – strings, keyboards, woodwinds, brasses, electronics.  Each of these instrument groups may be featured by composers in specific works, because each instrument group has its own special sound and technical characteristics.

However, throughout Western history percussion instruments have been mostly used to provide an exotic (non-traditional or foreign) sense in the music.  For example:

1675 – Timpani added to the French string orchestra in the opera “These” by Jean Baptiste Lully, to give the music a sense of middle-East (Arabia, Persia, Turkey) military music.

1782 – Bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, added to the orchestra in Mozart’s “Il Seraglio Overture” to give the music a sense of Turkish Janissary (military) music.

1813 – Snare drum added to the orchestra by Beethoven in “Wellington’s Victory” to give the music a sense of European military music.

1874 – Xylophone added to the orchestra by Camille Saint-Saens to make the music sound like the rattling bones of dancing skeletons.

1893 – Chinese Tam-tam added to the orchestra by Tschaikovsky in “Symphony No. 6 – Pathétique” to give the music a sense of darkness and tragedy.

1913 – An enlarged percussion section in the orchestra is used by Stravinsky in ”The Rite of Spring” to give the music a highly rhythmic and primitive sense to support the theme of an ancient Russian tribal sacrifice.

1923 – A piano and percussion ensemble with singers is used by Stravinsky in “Les Noces” to give the music a sense of a happy wedding, with the sound of wedding bells at the ending.

1933 – A combination of pitched and non-pitched percussion instruments is used by Edgard Varése in “Ionisation” to create music that was radically new to audiences.

1941 – A solo percussion quartet, consisting entirely of non-pitched instruments was used by John Cage in “Third Construction” which challenged audiences to accept non-pitched sounds as “music.”

1971 – An enlarged percussion ensemble with voices and piccolo was used by Steve Reich in “Drumming” to combine the African musical concept of “rhythmic cycle” with the timbres of pitched percussion instruments, within a “minimalist” structure in which individual notes are gradually added or subtracted from the rhythmic cycle over time.

1971 – The percussion ensemble, NEXUS, combined its collection of dozens of non-Western percussion instruments from musical cultures around the world to create improvised music.  The many instruments consisted of pitched bells and gongs having diverse tuning systems along with non-pitched shakers, rattles, wooden & metal blocks, and ‘found’ objects.

In all of the examples above, percussion instruments were used to expand the spectrum of sounds that composers wanted to include in their music.  This “special” role has been assigned to percussion instruments in Western music, even though it would be entirely possible to introduce the sounds of wind and string instruments from non-western cultures into the orchestra or chamber ensemble.  For example, the Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu, composed music for traditional Japanese instruments (biwa, shakuhachi) with a symphony orchestra (“Seppuku”, “November Steps”).  But in general, percussion instruments, especially non-Western percussion instruments, have been most widely used by composers of “art music” to broaden the palette of possible sounds in their compositions. 

[I included a link to a video of NEXUS performing John Cage’s “Third Construction”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_ZHd-ReIUg  ]

Question #4aPieces like “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” (1961) by Krzysztof Penderecki and “A Survivor at Warsaw” (1947) by Arnold Schoenberg are both written in the style of the avant-garde to express the emotions of fear. 

My Response:

The compositions by Penderecki and Schoenberg were composed in 1961 and 1947.  At the time these works (and all of the works mentioned earlier in my response to question #2) were composed, the compositions were “avant-garde.”  In english avant-garde means, “vangard” or “cutting edge.”  The Penderecki work was composed 70-years ago, and the Schoenberg 76-years ago, so today I would not describe these compositions as “avant-garde.”  These two particular works can certainly generate a sense of “fear” in listeners, not only because of their programmatic titles (and program notes by the composers), but also because when these works were composed, the musical vocabulary was new and therefore not well understood by listeners.  Even in a composition that is not programmatic, there can be a sense of fear (or discomfort) in a listener responding to a musical work that is new and not well understood.  

To listeners who are familiar with any composition – even a 76-year-old composition – the musical language may not be threatening or challenging in any way.  A good example is Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” which was very discomforting to many listeners when it was premiered, and which may still be labeled as “avant-garde” by listeners to whom the music is unfamiliar.  But to listeners to whom the music is familiar, the feelings generated may be of energy, excitement, ritual, obsession, or more, but not of fear or discomfort.

Even when composers provide clues to the feelings or emotions they want to express (in the title, program notes, etc.), it is each listener’s experience that determines whether or not the composer’s intent is matched by the listener’s response.  All music, whether programmatic or not, has the power to create feelings and emotions in listeners, but listeners also have the power – through their prior listening experiences – to have their own emotional responses, which may (or not) be different from one listener to another.

Question #4bIn your music, “This World,” emotional expressions of urgency and danger can be heard. Would you say that experimental music expresses emotions more directly compared to other forms of music? If so, why?

My Response:

Last year (2020) during the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, I decided to add images to “This World” to make a video on youtube.com.  The images – showing examples of climate change – greatly enhanced that theme as sung in the text, further suggesting the emotions (urgency, danger, as you have responded).  All music – including experimental music – has the power to create feelings and emotions, which may change over time with repeated hearings; the listener’s experience may change as well.

The emotional response of a listener to music is greatly influenced by the music that the listener already knows from his/her culture.  If the music is similar to the music in that culture which the listener knows from experience, the listener’s emotional responses will be influenced by those past experiences.

A listener from another culture may have an entirely different emotional response.  In the 1970s I became friendly with a wonderful vocal teacher from India who was a virtuoso in North Indian classical  music.  One day I invited him to a symphony orchestra concert to hear a Beethoven symphony.  After the concert he told me, “Beethoven’s music all sounded the same.”  While the classical music of India was intimately familiar to him, the classical music of Western European culture was not familiar, so he did not have the cultural background to have an emotional response similar to a listener familiar with Beethoven’s music.

Question #5What is the main purpose behind the composition of “Just Sing?”

Question #6In “Just Sing,” harmonicas and accordions disrupt the melody here and there. These unexpected lines of music are introduced to the audience as a “distraction” from the main theme instead of being a part of the harmony. Are the timings of these instruments specifically set (written in measures), or are they up to the performer’s free interpretation? Why?

My Response:

When I composed “Just Sing” I did not intend to convey any particular emotion.  My purpose was simply to put my musical ideas into notation and then discover what emotion(s) I would feel and what thoughts I would have after hearing the music performed.  I did not know what my feelings and thoughts would be.

I first heard the music at a NEXUS rehearsal in 2002, after which NEXUS performed it and later recorded it in 2003.  When I first heard “Just Sing” I had a vague feeling of reverence, like standing in a crowded temple (or church) with other people and children independently moving around behind me. The harmonicas and accordions were not intended as a distraction from the main theme.  They were intended as equal to, and even a part of the main theme. [A digital copy of the score was attached to this emailed response.]

I have grown to appreciate that there are always sounds surrounding us, which may or may not be heard, depending on whether I am paying attention or not.  Sometimes, when I pay attention to sounds that I have previously ignored, I appreciate them.  

[I added the following comment about Question #3 above]:

My comments regarding Question #3 were about percussion in Western (European, and European diaspora) music.  Of course, there are also non-Western cultures and musics.  Many of those musical cultures (in Africa, Asia, Indonesia, Polynesia and their diaspora around the world) have for centuries had music in which percussion instruments have a very prominent role. 

It was an important discovery for the members of NEXUS, after graduating from college, to learn about non-Western musics, which we had never studied in our formal under-graduate education and in which percussion instruments were so important.


Question #7a –   Unlike This World and Survivor at Warsaw, The Crystal Cabinet does not have clear emotions that it intends to express. Granted, the composer of this piece allows the audience to interpret the music freely, but performers also produce their own understanding of the piece when playing it.

My Response:

“The Crystal Cabinet was composed with the intent to convey a sense of mystery as expressed in the poetry of William Blake (1757-1827). The English poet believed in the freedom of the imagination and the rejection of rationalism and materialism.  In his poem, “The Crystal Cabinet” Blake describes an imaginary cabinet made of gold, pearl, and crystal (glass).  Here is the 2nd stanza of the poem:

This cabinet is formed of gold

And pearl and crystal shining bright,

And within it opens into a world

And a little lovely moony night.

     Of course, the “cabinet” in the poem is imaginary, but the cabinet is a metaphor; the reader of the poem must imagine a connection.  Is the cabinet a metaphor for the mind? the body? the soul? the heart? or something else?

One possibility is that the cabinet is a metaphor for the human heart, which is precious like “gold”, organic like “pearls”, and fragile like “crystal” (glass). When the imaginary cabinet is opened, its inside is like a mysterious night filled with moon light.  The emotions of the human heart are also mysterious and like moonlight – shadowy and unclear to the observer.

The music is scored mostly for metallic percussion, which is intended to convey a sense of crystal (glass) with glimmering sounds. The musical structure reflects my lifelong fascination with free and open music without meter, in which seemingly independent and unrelated musical lines, when occurring simultaneously, can be perceived by listeners as connected, much in the same way that independent events in everyday life are seen as related in hindsight.  Free, meterless music can evoke mysterious and otherworldly atmospheres, as for example in “Poèmé Électronique” by Edgard Varése or in Gagaku (traditional Japanese court music). 

In relation to the “world” in Blake’s poem, the music is intended to “open into an imaginary world” of sounds. (score is attached)

Question #7b To what extent do you think the performers can influence audiences’ interpretation of music like “The Crystal Cabinet?”

My Response:

Performers have an enormous influence on an audience’s response to their performance, which may or may not be exactly as the composer intended.  It is the responsibility of all performers to bring their own thoughts, insights, understanding, and imagination about the music into their performance, by selecting appropriate instruments, and giving attention to as many aspects of the music – timbres, dynamics, phrasing, physical gestures, balance, etc. – as possible.  To the extent that each and every performer does this, their influence increases.

Question #8 –   Finally, how do you define “experimental music”? 

My Response:

Definitions have two sides: they can clarify meanings, but they can also restrict meanings, so it is important to recognize this and to be careful.  Any music can be “experimental.”  For example, It can be experimental to perform a Beethoven symphony at a tempo different from the one suggested in the score.   It can be experimental to perform “Dance Macabre” by Saint-Saens in an arrangement for percussion ensemble.  Whenever a musical tradition or expected practice is modified there is an element of experimentation.  All types of music began at one time as new – challenging audiences to accept and understand it.

It can be a problem for listeners to identify music with any label – including “experimental” – especially if they are unfamiliar with a specific composition, because the label may prevent them from listening with open ears and open mind.

These things having now been said, “experimental music” to me usually means music that challenges listeners by introducing new musical ideas that expand upon existing musical traditions or practices that listeners would normally expect.

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