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David Nicholls
Avant-garde and experimental music
David Nicholls
The Cambridge History of American Music
Cambridge University Press
Cambridge, UK


Avant-garde and experimental music


A l t h o u g h t h e terms "avant-garde" and " e x p e r i m e n t a l " are o f t e n used t o

categorize radical composers and their w o r k s , it has been noted t h a t
" ' a v a n t garde' remains m o r e a slogan t h a n a definition" (Griffiths 1980, p.
743) and t h a t "'experimental music' is ill-defined and the concept it is used
t o describe is vague" (Rockwell 1986, p. 91). (In fairness t o Rockwell, he
does also stress t h e "bolder, m o r e individualistic [and] eccentric" aspects
of experimentalism, which suggest an " u n t r a m m e l e d willingness t o p r o b e
t h e very limits of m u s i c " [p. 91].) B u t equally problematically, there is no
clear demarcation line between t h e composers and repertories to which
the terms are usually applied, or between the territory supposedly
described hy combining t h e t w o terms and t h a t inhabited by other species of
c o n t e m p o r a r y composer. T h u s R u t h Crawford (Seeger) (1901-1953) and
George C r u m b (born 1929) m i g h t be t h o u g h t of as either avant garde or
experimental, while Steve Reich (born 1936) and Philip Glass (born 1937)
have - over a twenty-five year period - moved imperceptibly f r o m t h e
experimental fringe t o t h e p o s t m o d e r n mainstream, w i t h o u t having compromised their w o r k t o any substantive degree.
These problems of definition are at least partly attributable to t w o
linked paradoxes. First, almost all f o r m s of radicalism will, as a f u n c t i o n of
time, progressively degenerate into normality and acceptability: today's
novelty can easily become t o m o r r o w ' s cliche. Second (and m o r e important), radicalism does n o t txist perse, b u t rather is a f u n c t i o n of difference
w h e n measured against c o n t e m p o r a n e o u s norms. T h u s , in the context of
twentieth-century musical m o d e r n i s m , it can push the boundaries of
acceptance n o t only forward (into "advanced" territory), b u t also backward (into apparent conservatism) and o u t w a r d (into t h e exploration of
musics o t h e r t h a n those of the Eurocentric art music tradition). These
three shades of radicalism m i g h t be termed prospective, retrospective, and
N o n e of this, however, is of m u c h help in determining w h a t avant-garde



music and experimental music actually are. T h u s t h e present chapter proceeds f r o m t h e assumption t h a t , at any given time, b o t h exist at t h e foref r o n t of contemporary music t h o u g h t and practice (and are therefore de
facto likely to d i s t u r b rather t h a n reassure, challenge rather t h a n comfort);
and t h a t w h a t distinguishes t h e m is t h e e x t e n t to which they take t h e Eurocentric art music tradition as a reference point. T h u s , very generally, avantgarde music can be viewed as occupying an extreme position w i t h i n the
tradition, while experimental music lies outside it. T h e distinction may
appear slight, b u t w h e n applied t o such areas as institutional s u p p o r t ,
"official" recognition, and financial reward, t h e avant garde's links w i t h
tradition - however t e n u o u s - can carry e n o r m o u s weight.

Before W o r l d W a r II
Although t h e compositional roots of Charles Ives (1874-1954) lie t o a
considerable extent in t h e European R o m a n t i c tradition (see chapter 9), he
also "deserves pride of place as one of t h e first composers of experimental
music" (Burkholder 1990, p. 50). In general terms, Ives's experimentalism
manifests itself in t w o ways. First, he w r o t e a n u m b e r of overtly experimental pieces, in which he tried o u t particular compositional techniques
including extreme chromaticism, tone clusters, polytonality, polyrhythm,
polymetre, polytempo, stratification, and spatial separation. T h e pieces
containing these experiments range f r o m psalm settings and o t h e r quasireligious w o r k s (mainly dating f r o m the 1890s on) t h r o u g h t o secular
instrumental pieces (mostly w r i t t e n after 1905). N o t e w o r t h y examples of
t h e f o r m e r include Psalm 24 and t h e second of the Three Harvest Home
Chorales-, and of the latter From the Steeples and the Mountains,


Unanswered Question, and/w re con moto etal. Second, Ives w r o t e music in an

unprecedentedly w i d e range of styles, f r o m t h e popular t h r o u g h t o t h e
recherche. Equally (if n o t more) importantly, he s o u g h t t o integrate these
varied styles into a pluralistic whole, m o s t successfully in such "late"
works as t h e Second String Q u a r t e t , Piano Sonata N o . 2 {Concord, Mass.,

and Fourth Symphony.

Despite t h e apparently early dates of many of Ives's innovations - as well

as t h e precursorial mantle placed on him by H e n r y Cowell (1897-1965)
and others - t h e fact remains, however, t h a t t h e vast majority of Ives's
w o r k s only received their first performances many years after their
composition. F u r t h e r m o r e , Ives revised m a n y of his pieces before their
premieres, w h i c h has led, in recent years, t o a r o b u s t debate revolving

Avant-garde and experimental music


a r o u n d issues of deliberate deception and historical precedence. ^ T h u s

public awareness of Ives's music - dating initially f r o m t h e 1920s, and at
least partly resulting f r o m his private publication and distribution of t h e
" C o n c o r d " Sonata and 114 SonS - was contiguous w i t h t h a t afforded t o a
later generation of radical composers, including Cowell, C r a w f o r d , and
Carl Ruggles (1876-1971).
In t h e first quarter of t h e t w e n t i e t h century, t h e n , m o s t musical radicalism on t h e East Coast of America was actually centered on t h e activities o f
such recent European immigrants as Leo Ornstein (born 1894), E. R o b e r t
Schmitz (1889-1949), and Edgard Varese (1883-1965). In t h e 1910s,
Russian-born Ornstein shocked audiences (and inspired Cowell) w i t h his
chamber music, including t h e infamous WildMen^s Dance Op. 13 N o . 2,
(c. 1915). B o t h Schmitz and Varese hailed f r o m France; and b o t h f o u n d e d
organizations which p r o m o t e d t h e cause of m o d e r n music. T h e latter's

C o m p o s e r s ' Guild


1921-1927) gave per-

formances of w o r k s by such c o n t e m p o r a r y European and American

composers as Berg, Cowell, H i n d e m i t h , Colin M c P h e e (1900-1964),
Ruggles, Schoenberg, and Webern. Varese's o w n compositions f r o m this
period - notsbXy Ammques

(.'1918-1921), Hyperprism (1922-1923), Inte-

grales (1924-1925) 2L!\d Arcana (1925-1927) - excited m u c h interest and

exerted m u c h influence t h r o u g h their striking timbres and use of percussion. Schmitz's Pro-Musica Society (founded in N e w York in 1920, as t h e
Franco-American Musical Society) was less adventurous in its programming, b u t a m o n g its m a n y p r o m o t i o n s over a twelve-year period
w e r e t h e first performances of Ives's T^ree Quarter-tone Pieces in 1925 and
the first t w o movements of t h e F o u r t h Symphony in 1927. These activities
can be seen as part of an emerging m o d e r n i s t m o v e m e n t , almost exclusively prospective in spirit and celebrating t h e generally positivist m o o d
of t h e times. A n o t h e r example is the early w o r k of George Antheil
(1900-1959) which includes t h e Airplane Sonata (1921) and t h e Ballet
mkanique (1923-1925). S o m e w h a t paradoxically, t h o u g h , AntheiPs reputation was m a d e - and his m o s t advanced pieces first performed - in
Europe, w h e r e he received strong s u p p o r t f r o m Ezra P o u n d , a m o n g
On America's West Coast, meanwhile, there had been complementary
developments. In t h e fall of 1914, H e n r y Cowell had begun a series of
weekly meetings w i t h t h e t h e n Chair of Music at Berkeley, Charles Seeger
1. As noted in chapter 9, the "standard" datings of Ives's works are given in AmeriGrove-, the
controversy surrounding those dates is summarized in Burkholder 1995, pp. 9-11.



(1886-1979), at which issues in c o n t e m p o r a r y music were discussed. By

t h e time of t h e first meeting, Cowell had composed over a h u n d r e d pieces
in a plethora of styles. In distinct contrast to t h e Eurocentric East Coast
radicals - w h o w e r e all t o some extent indebted to Stravinsky and other
European modernists - Cowell was fully aware o f " . . . t h e rich variety of
oriental musical cultures t h a t existed in t h e San Francisco Bay area [and
had grown] u p hearing m o r e Chinese, Japanese, and Indian classical music
than he did Western music" (Saylor 1986, p. 520). W h a t he lacked, t h o u g h ,
was a (contemporary Western) context w i t h i n which t o develop his ideas;
this Seeger provided. T h e next five years m i g h t be likened to a research
p r o g r a m , in which Cowell and Seeger explored t h e intellectual limits of
music at t h a t time. T h e results included the first d r a f t of Cowell's import a n t bookjN^ew Musical Resources (published in revised f o r m in 1930) and a
n u m b e r of increasingly radical compositions, including t h e String Q u a r t e t
N o . i (April 1916), t h e Quartet Romantic (September 1917) and t h e Quartet
Euphometric (September 1919).
These t h r e e w o r k s all s h o w the influence of Seeger's theory of dissonant
c o u n t e r p o i n t , in which dissonance (initially of pitch, t h o u g h ultimately of
all o t h e r parameters as well) rather than consonance was t h e n o r m .
T h r o u g h Cowell, o t h e r composers - including Ruggles and J o h n J. Becker
(1886-1961) - were introduced to its disciplines, as is s h o w n , for instance,
in Ruggles's Portals (1925) and his magnum opus, Sun-treader (1926-1931).
Cowell's music, however, continued t o be w r i t t e n in a wide variety of
idioms, as a selection of his piano works demonstrates. Fabric (September
1920) adheres to the norms of dissonant c o u n t e r p o i n t ; Dynamic Motion
(November 1916) md Antinomy (December 1917) are astonishing for the
violence of their tone cluster dissonance; The Tides ofManaunaun


1917) also features clusters, b u t in accompaniment of a modal, folk-like

melody; b o t h The Aeolian Harp {c. 1923) and The Banshee (February 1925)
employ t h e strings of t h e piano, b u t t o q u i t e different (programmatic and
timbral) ends: the f o r m e r is sweet and tonal, the latter an evocation of the
wailing spirits of Gaelic folklore.
John Cage (1912-1992) once described Cowell as " t h e o p e n sesame for
n e w music in America" (Cage 1961, p. 71). In 1925 Cowell became a board
m e m b e r of Varese's (East Coast) International C o m p o s e r s ' Guild and
f o u n d e d his o w n (West Coast) N e w Music Society. Following t h e demise
of t h e I C G , Cowell in effect ran its successor - t h e Pan American Association of Composers (operative 1928-1934) - d u r i n g Varese's long sojourn
in France (1928-1933). T h u s , until 1936, Cowell presided over t h e most

Avant-garde and experimental music


i m p o r t a n t period in American musical radicalism's first wave. T h e concerts of the N e w Music Society and PAAC were seminal in bringing new
pieces to public a t t e n t i o n , in places as far apart as San Francisco, N e w York,
Havana, Paris and Budapest. Founded in 1

, Cowell's journal


Quarterly provided a u n i q u e outlet for c o n t e m p o r a r y scores. A n d , like t h e

concerts and the periodical,Cowell's 1933 sym^osmmAmerican


on American Music championed all those w h o stood consciously apart f r o m

t h e Eurocentric mainstream, including Ives (who provided Cowell w i t h
extensive financial backing for several of these enterprises), C r a w f o r d ,







(1895-1985). T h e range of music t h a t benefited f r o m these various initiatives was impressive. T h e PAAC tackled t h e Eurocentric establishment on
its h o m e g r o u n d , p r o m o t i n g concerts on the East Coast of America and in
Europe. T h a t given in Paris on June 6 , 1 9 3 1 , was typical: conducted by
Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995), it included Cowell's Synchrony (1930),
Ives's First Orchestral Set (in its n e w chamber orchestra version), Ruggles's
Men and Mountains,

and pieces by Amadeo Roldan (1900-1939) and

Adolph Weiss (1891-1971). T h e N e w Music Society znANewMusic


terly w e r e m o r e catholic in their tastes, t h o u g h still rather biased toward

American radical composers. T h u s while n e w European compositions
were tolerated, t h e names encountered most often are those of Cowell and
his closest confederates - Becker, Carlos Chavez (1899-1978), C r a w f o r d ,
Ives, Riegger, Rudhyar, Ruggles, and Varese - as well as such less celebrated









T h e radical o p t i m i s m of the period following World W a r I found its
antithesis, however, in the legacy of pessimism and u n e m p l o y m e n t
bequeathed by t h e Wall Street Crash. A l t h o u g h o p p o r t u n i t i e s for performance and publication appear - if anything - to have increased d u r i n g
these years, many composers began to question the relevance of their
earlier, ultra-modern, aesthetic beliefs. I t is significant, for instance, t h a t
Varese completed no n e w pieces d u r i n g t h e decade b o u n d e d by Density
21.^ for solo flute (1936) and t h e unpublished, speculative. Etude pour
Espace (1947). R u t h Crawford - w h o s e brilliant essays at t h e farthest
reaches of dissonant c o u n t e r p o i n t include the String Q u a r t e t (1931) and
the Three Songs (1930-1932) - dallied w i t h political texts, in the TwoRicercari (1932-1933), before becoming involved in folk music. H e r polemical
views w e r e shared w i t h o t h e r members of the left-wing Composers' Collective of N e w York, including Copland and Charles Seeger. Cowell, t o o .



v/as active in t h e Collective for a time; b u t t h e principal feature of his w o r k

f r o m t h e late 1920s o n w a r d is an increasing preoccupation w i t h transethnic matters. His earlier music - like t h a t of Charles Griffes (1884-1920)
and H e n r y Eichheim (1870-1942) - had already s h o w n a more-than-casual
interest in o t h e r cultures. Cowell did n o t , at this stage, match t h e wanderlust of either McPhee or Eichheim; b u t t h e Depression years certainly
coincided w i t h a deliberate a t t e m p t to engage at an intellectual level w i t h
t h e principles of non-Western musics. T h u s f r o m t h e late 1920s, Cowell
regularly t a u g h t a course on "Music of t h e Peoples of t h e World," while he
s p e n t 1931-1932 in Berlin, studying comparative musicology, Indian
music and Javanese music. H e subsequently followed his o w n advice given in the article "Towards N e o - P r i m i t i v i s m " (Cowell 1933b) - by
drawing on " t h o s e materials c o m m o n to t h e music of all t h e peoples of t h e
world [and building] a n e w music particularly related to o u r o w n century."
T h e result was a series of distinctly transethnic pieces, including Ostinato
Pianissimo (1934), t h e United Quartet (1936), and Pulse (1939). To t h e lay
observer, these and o t h e r developments in Cowell's w o r k of t h e m i d - to
late 1930s m i g h t have seemed regressive; b u t in fact they played an import a n t part in setting the agenda for t h e second great wave of American
musical radicalism.

From the 1940s to the 1960s

T h e p r e d o m i n a n t t h r u s t in avant-garde and experimental music until the
m i d - i 9 3 0 S had been assuredly prospective; b u t f r o m t h a t p o i n t on it
became increasingly balanced by retrospective and extraspective tendencies. Cowell's compositions d u r i n g t h e last twenty-five years of his life
continued, in p a r t , to employ advanced techniques. These include tone
clusters - for instance in t h e Trio in Nine Short Movements (1965) - and examples of the variable forms first encountered in t h e Mosaic Quartet (1935)
and the lost Sarabande (1937). But the majority of his music after 1940
was stimulated by traditions other t h a n those of his o w n time and/or
place, transethnic influences being joined by those of earlier music and of
vernacular music. A m o n g his w o r k s are a series of H y m n and Fuguing
Tunes (1943-1964); Saturday Night at the Firehouse (1948); Persian Set
(1956-1957); S y m p h o n y N o . 13 {Madras) (1956-1958); and t w o concertos
f o r k o t o and orchestra (1961-1962; January 1965).
Cowell's inclusivity of approach set an i m p o r t a n t example t o younger
composers and - in some cases - had a direct influence on their w o r k . At

Avant-garde and experimental music


t h e m o r e overtly experimental end of t h e spectrum, extreme rhythmic

complexity was spiced w i t h jazz by Conlon N a n c a r r o w (1912-1997),
w h o s e m a t u r e o u t p u t is indebted t o Cowell's suggestion t h a t intricate
r h y t h m s "could easily be cut on a player-piano roll" (Cowell 1930, p. 65).
In t h e mid-i930S, Cage and Lou Harrison (born 1917) studied w i t h b o t h
Cowell and Schoenberg, w h i c h led t o an unusual combination in their
w o r k of (traditional) discipline w i t h (radical) freedom. T h u s contrapuntal
pieces w e r e succeeded by w o r k s for percussion and for altered piano. T h e
percussion music of Cage and Harrison - mainly w r i t t e n in t h e late 1930s
and early 1940s - reflects a general proclivity for such resources at this
time: i m p o r t a n t earlier examples include Varese's lonisation


Cowell's Ostinato Pianissimo, and pieces by several Latin American composers. Harrison's tack piano (in w h i c h t h u m b tacks are pushed into t h e
hammers) and Cage's prepared piano (in which mutes of various kinds are
applied to t h e strings) are conceptually beholden to Cowell's string piano.
Such timbral innovations can be viewed as part of the broader radical
trends - notably t h e move t o w a r d transethnicism - described above. B u t
they also precipitated a loosening of the traditional Western bonds
between n o t a t i o n , execution, and perception: because t h e notation of
music for percussion o r altered piano c a n n o t be intrinsically linked w i t h a
consistent (recognizable) timbral result, t h e score begins t o become indeterminate o f i t s performance. Equally, intonational issues come to t h e fore.
A t this stage. Cage's radicalism was almost exclusively prospective: his
1937 lecture-manifesto " T h e F u t u r e of Music: C r e d o " is a typically bold
s t a t e m e n t of i n t e n t , in many ways prophetic of his later w o r k (Cage 1961,
pp. 3-6). T h u s , in response to t h e perceived need for " m e t h o d s of w r i t i n g
m u s i c . . . which are free f r o m t h e concept of a f u n d a m e n t a l tone," f r o m t h e
First Construction (in Metal) (1939) until t h e early 1950s, Cage contained his
timbral innovations w i t h i n a formal apparatus which - t h r o u g h its basis in
duration - was able to encompass b o t h sound (whether pitched or
unpitched) and silence. (It should be n o t e d , however, t h a t this so-called
"square-root f o r m " is clearly derived f r o m Cowell's earlier formal experiments, as typified in t h e United Quartet and Pulse) Square-root f o r m
proved t o be an extremely flexible resource. Cage was able to utilize it
w h e n w r i t i n g for i n s t r u m e n t s b o t h conventional and unconventional; it
also made possible collaborative work: the percussion ({rnvtetDouble Music
(1941) was w r i t t e n jointly w i t h Harrison. M o r e importantly. Cage could
adapt it to his changing aesthetic needs. His studies w i t h Cowell n o t w i t h standing, Cage's dependence on t h e prepared piano d u r i n g t h e 1940s



m i g h t be as attributable to his poverty as to its transethnic timbres.

Equally, his involvement w i t h Indian and o t h e r mystical philosophies was,
at first, as m u c h therapeutic as cross-cultural in intent. B u t t h e discovery of
The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna

"led h i m t o f u r t h e r immerse himself in

Eastern t h o u g h t , " notably that of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and - ultimately - Z e n Buddhism (Pritchett 1993, pp. 36-37). As a result, Cage was
encouraged in t h e pursuit of an unusual quarry: "giving up control so t h a t
sounds can be s o u n d s " (Cage 1961, p. 72). In t h e Sonatas and Interludes
(1946-1948) Cage's taste - in t h e guise of "considered improvisation"
(Cage 1961, p. 19) - played an i m p o r t a n t p a r t in d e t e r m i n i n g t h e progression of musical events; in s u b s e q u e n t w o r k s , however, such decisions were
increasingly devolved to impersonal processes. T h u s in t h e Strin Quartet
in Four Parts (1949-1950) t h e musical material is restricted t o a g a m u t of
thirty-three sonorities, while in t h e first t w o movements of t h e Concertofor
Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1950-1951) t h e sounds are contained on grid-shaped charts, a b o u t which Cage " m a d e m o v e s . . . of a "^thematic n a t u r e ' b u t . . . w i t h an 'athematic' r e s u l t " (Nattiez 1993, p. 92). In
t h e final m o v e m e n t of t h e concerto - and most remarkably in t h e Music of
Changes (1951) - however, t h e moves w e r e determined n o t by Cage b u t by
chance, t h r o u g h a process derived f r o m t h a t used t o consult t h e ancient
Chinese book of oracles, the I Ching.
In January, 1950, Cage had w r i t t e n to t h e French composer Pierre
Boulez t h a t " T h e great trouble w i t h our life here is t h e absence of an intellectual life. N o one has an idea" (Nattiez 1993, p. 50). Yet w i t h i n a year, his
situation had changed dramatically, as a result of his meeting t h e o t h e r
members of the so-called N e w York School -

M o r t o n Feldman

(1926-1987), David T u d o r (1926-1996) and Christian Wolff (born 1934).

(The remaining m e m b e r of t h e group - Earle Brown [born 1926] - joined
in 1952.) Cage discovered the I Ching - which would become his most
i m p o r t a n t compositional tool - t h r o u g h Wolff, whose father had recently
published an English translation of t h e w o r k . For t h e next few years, the
mutual interaction of t h e g r o u p led t o a q u a n t u m leap forward in musical
radicalism and a questioning of t h e m o s t f u n d a m e n t a l tenets of Western
art music. A l t h o u g h their individual m e t h o d s and techniques were
inevitably quite different, t h e principal feature t h a t linked t h e m was
identified by Cowell, w h o - prior t o a concert of w o r k s by B r o w n , Cage,
Feldman, and Wolff - suggested t h a t " h e r e w e r e f o u r composers w h o
w e r e getting rid of glue. T h a t is: W h e r e people had felt t h e necessity to
stick sounds together t o make a continuity, [they] felt t h e opposite nepes-

Avant-garde and experimental music


sity to get rid of t h e glue so t h a t sounds would be themselves" (Cage 1961,

p. 7 1 ) .
T h e most obvious manifestation of the n e w glue-less music was its
visual aspect, Feldman being t h e first of t h e group to experiment w i t h
graphic notation. A l t h o u g h graphic devices are occasionally f o u n d in t h e
w o r k s of Ives and Cowell, t h e score of Projection 1 for solo cello (probably
composed in late December, 1950) is unprecedented. T h e music is w r i t t e n
o n three systems, marked 0 (harmonic), P (pizzicato) and A (arco); w i t h i n
each system, relative duration and relative pitch range (high, m e d i u m , low)
are indicated quadrangularly. T h e appearance of the score is akin to t h a t of
some abstract paintings; indeed, Feldman is reported t o have sometimes
" h u n g " his compositions while w o r k i n g on t h e m (Patterson 1994, p. 72).
Earle Brown's collection of pieces entitled Folio (1952-1953) contains a
n u m b e r of innovative notational devices. T h e m o s t radical is f o u n d in
December ip^z,

t h e score of which consists of a single sheet of card, approx-

imately Ag-sized, on which are d r a w n thirty lines and rectangles of

different thicknesses and lengths. T h e sheet may be placed on any of its
f o u r sides, and t h u s may be read in four ways. However, in later pieces
B r o w n d r e w back s o m e w h a t f r o m this extreme position. InAvailable Forms
I (1961) and Available Forms II (1962) relatively conventional notation is
combined w i t h a Calder-like structural mobility, the order in which the
various musical events are performed being decided by the conductor(s). A
similar degree of flexibility characterizes m u c h of W o l f f s w o r k f r o m t h e
late 1950S o n w a r d .

Following t h e composition of Music of Changes, Cage came to realize t h a t

the adoption of chance freed him of t h e need for either square-root form or
traditional notation. Consequently, 1952 proved to be a remarkable year,
in which existing practices and n e w possibilities jostled for attention: t h e
post-Feldman graphs ofImaginaiyLandscapeNo.

5 andMusicforCarillonNo.

1 are contiguous w i t h t h e notational normality of Waiting and ForMC and

DT, while in t w o f u r t h e r w o r k s . Cage leapt into the musical u n k n o w n .
Water Music inaugurates a series of pieces - including Variations IV
HPSCHD (1967-1969),Roaratorio (1979), and theEuroperas ( 1 9 8 5 - 1 9 9 1 ) in which t h e needs of music and theatre collide in often unexpected ways;
4 33 " opened u p for the first time in Western music history the possibility
of unintentional sounds being considered as i m p o r t a n t as intentional
(composed) sounds. D u r i n g t h e remainder of the 1950s, Cage employed an
impressive variety of chance-based compositional tools in order t o fulfill
f u r t h e r his earlier-mentioned aim of "giving u p control so t h a t sounds can



b e sounds." As well as t h e 1 Ckin, these tools included t h e use of templates

of various kinds, and t h e identification and highlighting of imperfections
in t h e manuscript paper. O n e particularly radical result of Cage's n e w
approach t o composition was t h a t m a n y of t h e w o r k s composed after 1951
could be performed either separately or simultaneously. Perhaps t h e m o s t
remarkable p r o d u c t of this period is t h e Concert for Piano and Orchestra
(1957-1958), in effect a c o m p e n d i u m of his compositional practices. I t
contains an astonishing selection of notations, for a pianist and thirteen
o t h e r instrumentalists, all of w h o m have an unprecedented degree of
control over w h a t (and how) they perform.
Despite t h e wildly experimental n a t u r e of m a n y of t h e N e w York
School's innovations, however, they w e r e taken surprisingly seriously by
t h e European avant garde. In mid-1951, Boulez had w r i t t e n t h a t he and
Cage w e r e at " t h e same stage of research" ( N a t t i e z 1993, p. 97). Subsequently, many of the n e w ideas which characterized t h e w o r k of Cage,
B r o w n , and Feldman d u r i n g this period w e r e adopted and adapted by their
European contemporaries - witness, for instance, t h e notational styles of
Circles (1960) and SequenzaIII(1^66)

by Luciano Berio and t h e mobile form

of Momente (1961-1969) by Karlheinz Stockhausen. However, it should

also be noted t h a t Cage and B r o w n , in particular, had e n o r m o u s respect for
Boulez, and t h a t Cage and T u d o r were responsible for p r o m o t i n g - among
o t h e r European works - t h e first American performances of Boulez's
Second Piano Sonata (1947-1948) and Stockhausen's Klavierstiick XI
(1956). Indeed, it is possible to argue t h a t despite their m a n y disagreements, t h e N e w York School and their European avant-garde colleagues
actually shared quite similar aesthetic goals, which were resolutely
prospective in nature.
T h a t Cowell and Harrison were n o t significantly involved in this international avant-garde activity is noteworthy, for by t h e m i d - i 9 5 o s their
aesthetic values were markedly different f r o m those of Cage and his
colleagues. Following his r e t u r n to t h e West Coast in 1953, Harrison
increasingly followed Cowell's lead in exploring t h e m o r e retrospective
and extraspective facets of radicalism. D u r i n g t h e 1930s and 1940s, Harrison had already studied world musics and w r i t t e n for percussion and
altered piano; and as a result of reading t h e first (1949) edition of Genesis of
a Music by Harry Partch (1901-1974) he also became interested in t u n i n g
systems and i n s t r u m e n t building. These various tendencies coalesced
f r o m t h e late 1950s o n w a r d : t w o early produc t s are t h e Concerto in Slendro
(1961) and t h e Pacifika Rondo (1963). T h e latter w o r k is scored for a

Avant-garde and experimental music


chamber orchestra of Eastern and Western instruments; the former - for

solo violin, celesta, t w o tack pianos and t w o percussionists - may be played
in either equal t e m p e r a m e n t , or in t h e t w o Javanese modes specified in t h e
H a r r y Partch - w h o , like Cowell and Harrison, had a rather unconventional musical background - had in effect abandoned Eurocentric art
music traditions some thirty years previously. His early rejection of
Western i n t o n a t i o n and performance practice led t o his development of a
n e w intonational system, the building of i n s t r u m e n t s capable of perf o r m i n g in t h a t system, and t h e creation of an all-embracing aesthetic
viewpoint he termed corporeality. His w o r k shows an unusually w i d e
frame of cultural reference, including Chinese poetry, hitch-hiker inscriptions and Greek tragedy, in ijLyrics

ofLiPo (1930-1933), BaretfTW (1941)

and Oedipus (1951) respectively. In the t r i u m p h a n t synthesis of such late

pieces as Delusion of the Fury (1965-1966) Partch juxtaposes Japanese N o h
w i t h Ethiopian folklore; t h e set consists only of his amazing i n s t r u m e n t s including kitharas, adapted guitars, and a variety of t u n e d idiophones while t h e performers are required t o play, sing and act, mainly f r o m
memory. However, t h e price Partch paid for such extraspective independence was enormous: he received little institutional s u p p o r t , and even
at t h e height of his creative achievement, in 1966, could write bitterly to
Harrison t h a t " I w e n t t o the social security offices yesterday, and learned
that the $538.20 check f r o m t h e U.S. Treasurer is valid. It is my reward for
having endured this society for 65 years" (Garland 1987, p. 60).

Since the 1960s

The extent t o which prospective radicalism had become moderated by retrospective and extraspective tendencies may be gauged by briefly examining a selection of Cage's music f r o m the early 1960s onward. Variations IV
(1963) is designated as being " f o r any n u m b e r of players, any sounds or
combinations of sounds produced by any means, w i t h or w i t h o u t other
activities." T h e w o r k is thus superficially (and outrageously) prospective
in its specification n o t of substance (i.e. musical material) b u t rather of a
means by which t h e spatial sources of such substance may be determined.
As such, it is t h e e m b o d i m e n t of Charles Seeger's ultimate aim for dissonant c o u n t e r p o i n t - complete heterophony. Seeger's concept had been
of "a polyphony in which there is no relation between the parts except
mere proximity in time-space, beginning and ending, w i t h i n hearing of



each other, at m o r e or less t h e same t i m e " (Cowell 1933a, p. 111).

Significantly, t h o u g h , Seeger's s u b s e q u e n t concession - t h a t " H e t e r o p h o n y may be accidental, as, for instance, a radio-reception of
Beethoven's 'Eroica' intruded u p o n by a p h o n o g r a p h record of a Javanese
gamelan" - immediately introduces t h e possibility (if n o t t h e inevitability)
of retrospective and extraspective elements being p a r t of such a phenomenon. In practice, therefore. Cage's o w n recorded performance ofVariations
IV made extensive use n o t only of t h e amplified " a m b i e n t " sounds (of
street, audience and radio) liberated by 4' 3 3 " , b u t also extant discs of a
w i d e variety of musics.
One of Cage's chiefinspirations for HPSCHD (1967-1969) was t h e music
of M o z a r t ; Cheap Imitation (1969) paraphrases Satie (albeit in unusual
circumstances); Apartment House i j j 6 (1976), Some of "The Harmony of
Maine"' (Supply Belcher) (1978), and Hymns and Variations (1979) d r a w on
earlier American musics; t h e source of t h e series of Europeras is revealed
eponymously. In his use of such resources, Cage demonstrates a retrospective vulnerability shared w i t h m a n y o t h e r radical composers - Ives, for
instance, had evoked b o t h his o w n and his father's pasts t h r o u g h musical
q u o t a t i o n , while Cowell had f r o m his teens onward imitated and alluded to
earlier styles. Since the early 1960s, however, such tendencies have become
increasingly c o m m o n and, consequently, t h e distinctions between retrospective radicalism, traditional conservatism and - latterly - p o s t m o d e r n ism have blurred accordingly (see chapter 20). T h e third m o v e m e n t of the
(1968-1969) by Berio - w h o was resident in America f r o m 1963 t o
1972 - is often cited as a prime example of t h e polystylisni which may result,
b u t there are many o t h e r c o n t e m p o r a n e o u s instances, b o t h European and
American, including Stockhausen's Hymnen (1965-1967; 1969) and the
Baroque Variations (1967) by Lukas Foss (born 1922).
F u r t h e r examples of retrospective and, especially, extraspective radicalism d u r i n g this period are found in t h e works of many composers, including Pauline Oliveros (born 1932), H e n r y Brant (born 1913) and Lou
Harrison. Oliveros has increasingly s o u g h t to explore " t h e relationship of
the w o r k to its larger social c o n t e x t " (Taylor 1993, p. 388) - for instance in
Horse Singsfrom Cloud (1975) and Rose Moon (Pi^yS) - and has accordingly
o f t e n invoked t h e musics and aesthetic practices of o t h e r cultures. Brant's
p e n c h a n t has been for t h e spatial distribution of large forces. Meteor Farm
(1981) - like Variations IV, a comprehensive example of Seeger's complete
h e t e r o p h o n y - utilizes an orchestra, brass groups, percussion groups, a
jazz orchestra, solo and choral voices, a Javanese gamelan, a West African

Avant-garde and experimental music


d r u m m i n g ensemble, and a trio of South Indian instruments. Brant's

musical materials and compositional methods are equally diffuse. Harrison, meanwhile, has consolidated his position as the doyen of extraspective radicalism. Since t h e early 1970s he has w r i t t e n extensively for
Javanese gamelan and pioneered the building of, and composition for,
American gamelan. H e has continued to explore intonational systems
other t h a n equal t e m p e r a m e n t and has produced a n u m b e r of highly
successful transethnic works. For instance, in t h e Piano Concerto w i t h
Selected Orchestra (1983-1985) t h e solo i n s t r u m e n t is tuned to Harrison's
favorite Kirnberger N o . 2 well-temperament and t h e orchestral instruments follow suit, as far as is possible. Of t h e w o r k ' s four movements, t h e
first, third and f o u r t h all s h o w some Javanese influence; t h e second,
however, is titled Stampede and exuberantly combines Latin influences
w i t h Cowellian t o n e clusters. M o r e recently, Harrison has accomplished a
f u r t h e r r a p p r o c h e m e n t - between transethnicism, Rugglesian dissonant
c o u n t e r p o i n t , and o t h e r influences - in t h e polystylistic Symphony N o . 4
{Last Symphony) (1988-1990).
T h e best-known incidence of extraspective and retrospective radicalism
since 1960, however, is f o u n d in t h e w o r k of such composers as La M o n t e
Young (born 193 5), Terry Riley (born 193 5), Steve Reich (born 1936), and
Philip Glass (born 1937). T h e origins of so-called minimal music are
complex, b u t center around a hybridization of elements f r o m t h e Eurocentric, radical, jazz, and popular traditions. T h u s Young - w h o has been
described as " t h e grandfather of [minimalism]" (Rockwell 1985, p. 113) already included very long held notes in such early serial pieces as For Brass
(1957) and t h e Trio for Strings (1958). After a brief period of ultra-Cagean
prospective radicalism. Young has since 1962 concerned himself w i t h t h e
issues of j u s t i n t o n a t i o n , drones, and improvisation. Young's long-toned
atonal music led to Riley's long-toned consonant music, including t h e
String Q u a r t e t (1960). Subsequently, Riley's combination of repeated
melodic phrases and constant pulse - archetypically in In C (1964) - provided minimalism w i t h its m o s t recognizable trademarks; these, along
w i t h t h e use of drones, are clearly related to t h e performance practices of
the Indian s u b c o n t i n e n t . Reich's initial (prospective) experiments w i t h
tape phasing - in It^s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) - were succeeded by instrumental w o r k s , including

(1967), which echoed

Riley's enthusiasm for consonance and pulse. Subsequently, Reich has

supplemented his technique t h r o u g h the study of Ghanaian d r u m m i n g ,
Balinese gamelan, and H e b r e w cantillation. Glass, meanwhile, in his



earlier minimalist w o r k combined Indian additive and subtractive rhythmic procedures w i t h traditional Eurocentric scales and arpeggios. Even
m o r e so t h a n his colleagues, he used amplification and electric keyboards
in a conscious allusion to c o n t e m p o r a r y popular music practice.
As Glass has n o t e d , " [ b y 1967] I w o u l d say there w e r e roughly t h i r t y
composers w o r k i n g i n a very similar style"; a m o n g those he names are Phill
N i b l o c k (born 1933), Frederic Rzewski (born 1938), Tom Johnson (born
1939)5 Terry Jennings (1940-1981), and Meredith M o n k (born 1943)
(Strickland 1991, p. 113). However, it is the music o f Y o u n g , Riley, Reich
and Glass himself t h a t has tended t o monopolize scholarly and media
attention. Of t h e four, Reich and particularly Glass m i g h t be considered to
have abandoned radicalism since t h e m i d - i 9 7 0 s (see chapter 20) b u t Riley
and Young have remained true to their original precepts. Riley's album
Cflme/(i976;released 1980) consists of f o u r solo improvisations, made
using a specially adapted electronic organ in just intonation w i t h an elaborate digital delay system. T h e music is cast in t w o basic layers - a backg r o u n d of interweaving, pulse-like ostinato patterns, and a foreground of
freer, ornate, melodies. Young's self-confessed fanaticism has resulted in
his overall concept of t h e Dream H o u s e - "in which t h e composition,
performance, p r o d u c t i o n . . . and performance space are integrated into
a single artistic experience" (Farneth 1986, p. 580) - and such visionary
meta-compositions as The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys (1964- ) and
The Well-Tuned Piano (1964- ).
Despite t h e predominance of retrospective and extraspective tendencies, however, prospective radicalism apparently remained a p o t e n t force
in c o n t e m p o r a r y music. By 1988, Conlon N a n c a r r o w ' s series o f s t u d i e s for
player piano(s) - commenced in t h e late 1940s - totaled a r o u n d fifty. Some
degree of their complexity may be gleaned f r o m t h e (relatively mild)
subtitle of no. 27 - " C a n o n - 5 % / 6 % / 8 % / i i % . " T h e music of B r o w n ,
Feldman, and Wolff continued t o challenge convention in various ways.
Feldman's late works made extensive use of repetition and w e r e often of
epic proportions: Three Voices (1982) lasts ninety minutes, and For Philip
Guston (1984) four hours. Wolff's pieces, meanwhile, became increasingly
indeterminate in nature. T h e 1960s and early 1970s w e r e an i m p o r t a n t
period for radicalism in all its guises and m a n y composers disseminated
their w o r k t h r o u g h specialized journals, including Source - Music of the
Avant Garde. Composers also t o o k advantage of a n e w generation of performers, b o t h virtuoso and - sometimes - unskilled, in groups as different
as O N C E , Fluxus, Musica Elettronica Viva, and Speculum Musicae.

Avant-garde and experimental music


T h e experience of prospective radicalism after 1960 is best summarized

in the music of George C r u m b and John Cage. C r u m b works very m u c h at
the (avant-garde) edge of tradition, his compositions o f t e n stretching
notational, instrumental, and technical resources t o their limits. Several
scores - including Eleven Echoes of Autumn,


(1966) and Star-Child

(1977) - include circular notations s o m e w h a t paradoxically reminiscent of

Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Black Angels for string q u a r t e t
(1970) is o n e of many pieces in which t h e i n s t r u m e n t s are amplified. Its
performers are also required to vocalize and to play maracas, tam-tams,
and w a t e r - t u n e d crystal goblets. In Vox Balaenae (1971) and Lux Aetema
(1971) t h e players wear masks; as elsewhere in C r u m b ' s catalog, extended
performance techniques are utilized. A t all times, however, t h e aural (and
dramatic) results of these demands are wholly imagined. W i t h Cage, there
is if anything a greater expectation of p e r f o r m e r s ' virtuosity, as is evinced
by t h e unusually determinate Etudes Australes for piano (1974-1975) and
Freeman Etudes for violin (1977-1980; 1989-1990). In t h e majority of his
works, t h o u g h , indeterminacy is assured via a plethora of graphic and
other experimental means, including uncontrollable i n s t r u m e n t s - t h e
plants and conch shells of Child of Tree (1975) and Inlets (1977) respectively
- and (fixed or flexible) time brackets. Examples of the latter include Thirty
Piecesfor Five Orchestras (1981) and t h e extended series of " n u m b e r " pieces
that commences w i t h Two (1987).
After roughly a century of extreme radical activity in music, however b o t h in America and elsewhere in t h e Western world - one m i g h t be
forgiven for w o n d e r i n g w h e t h e r f u r t h e r development is possible. T h e
musical universe has been expanded to t h e p o i n t w h e r e it contains (to paraphrase t h e score of Cage's Variations IV) " a n y [or no] sounds or combinations of sounds produced b y any [or no] m e a n s . . . [and performed by] any
n u m b e r of [or no] players." There can be n o boundaries - and therefore no
f o r e f r o n t - in a universe as limitless as t h a t predicated by Variations IV.
Thus the conventional view of radicalism - based solely on prospective
expansion, and roughly analogous t o cosmology's big bang theory - fails
sufficiently to explain t h e realities of t h e c o n t e m p o r a r y musical situation
in which w e find ourselves. A m o r e plausible explanation - which can take
into account t h e effects n o t only of prospection, b u t also of retrospection
and extraspection - lies rather in an analogy w i t h cosmology's steady state
hypothesis, w h e r e " n e w " material is created n o t intrinsically, b u t rather
t h r o u g h t h e infinite hybridic recombinations of existing material. We
used t o move f o r w a r d ; after Variations IVwe. can only go r o u n d and r o u n d .



T h u s even t h e m o s t attractive, or striking, n e w w o r k s - f o r instance

those of Stephen Scott (born 1944), Peter Garland (born 1952), John Z o r n
(born 1953), o r Gregory Walker (born 1961) - m u s t inevitably be allusive
rather t h a n elusive, referential (and reverential) rather t h a n radical. Scott,
in his f u r t h e r development of t h e altered piano, and Garland, in his often
lyrical w r i t i n g for piano a n d / o r percussion, s h o w t h e continuing influence
of Cowell, Cage and H a r r i s o n , a m o n g others. Z o r n ' s music is "wildly syncretic . . . a typical Z o r n piece may move f r o m Brahms . . . to pneumatic
drills t o cartoon music t o p o s t - O r n e t t e sax w i t h i n half a m i n u t e " (Strickland 1991, p. 125). Walker'sDream/"/.

(1993) meanwhile, has been

described by its composer as t h e first rap symphony, and combines elements of hip h o p w i t h extended orchestral resources.
In W o o d y Allen's 1977 film Annie Hall, t h e schoolboy Alvy Singer
explains to a psychiatrist w h y he no longer sees any p o i n t in doing his
homework: " T h e universe is e x p a n d i n g . . . Well, t h e universe is everything,
and if it's expanding, someday it will break apart and t h a t will be the end of
everything." Has o u r musical universe broken apart, or rather stopped
moving altogether? Is M o r t o n Feldman's view of Cage's w o r k - that he
"stepped aside to such a degree t h a t w e really see t h e end of the w o r l d , the
end of a r t " (Feldman 1985, p. 92) - accurate? Have w e truly reached " t h e
end of everything"? N o t even musical cosmologists can answer such questions w i t h certainty; b u t w h a t is clear is t h a t t h e limitless musical universe
of Cage's Variations IV lies very close to t h e postmodernity which other
composers, f r o m quite different traditions, currently espouse. T h e British
composer Robin Holloway could hardly be considered a fellow-traveler
w i t h Cage: yet in 1989 his o w n perspective was t h a t " M o d e r n i s m is everyone's immediate past: and any remoter past can only be reached t h r o u g h it.
Meanwhile, w e have the present: infinite possibility, dislocated like a
wrecked mosaic that has been incorrectlyrestored"(Holloway i 9 8 9 , p . 66).
T h e c o n t e m p o r a r y musical situation in which w e find ourselves need
n o t be viewed quite so pessimistically as this, t h o u g h . An alternative is
simply t o try and accept it: as Lou Harrison once remarked in another
context " d o n ' t u n d e r r a t e hybrid musics BECAUSE THAT'S ALL THERE IS"
(quoted i n V o n G u n d e n 1995, p. 201). And there may even yet be t w o areas
of American music in w h i c h prospective radicalism continues t o play an
i m p o r t a n t part (although it is significant t h a t b o t h areas involve interaction w i t h o t h e r universes, one real b u t parallel, t h e o t h e r coextensive b u t
synthetic). T h e first (and less convincing) exists w h e r e music is joined
w i t h one o r m o r e of t h e o t h e r arts, n o t conventionally (as in opera, ballet.

Avant-garde and experimental music


etc.) b u t rather more idiosyncratically (as in music theatre, performance

art, etc.). A l t h o u g h many precedents existed, the posr-1950 collaborations of J o h n Cage and Merce C u n n i n g h a m (born 1919) had e n o r m o u s
influence. Events like t h e Black Mountain

College untitled event (1952)

stressed t h e potential independence of simultaneously occurring aspects

of a performance; Cage's Water Music (1952) allowed music and theatre to
collide in unexpected ways; o'oo"

(1962) did for action w h a t ^ ' ^ j " had

done for s o u n d ; and almost all of Cage's scores for C u n n i n g h a m ' s dances
w e r e conceived w i t h o u t reference t o t h e choreography (and vice versa).
This lead was followed avidly d u r i n g t h e 1960s, particularly by those associated w i t h groups such as Fluxus and O N C E . For example, La M o n t e
Young's Piano Piecefor David Tudor #1 (1960) opens w i t h t h e instruction
"Bring a bale of hay and a b u c k e t of water o n t o t h e stage for t h e piano to
eat and d r i n k " ; in Solofor Violin Viola Cello or Contrabass (1962) by George
Brecht (born ?i926) t h e p e r f o r m e r polishes, rather t h a n plays, his instrum e n t ; Kittyhawk (1964) by R o b e r t Ashley (born 1930) combines music,
movement, and theatre in an early condemnation of the oppression of
w o m e n . Since 1970, such multi-media theatricality has become increasingly c o m m o n : examples include Glass's collaboration w i t h R o b e r t
Wilson, Einstein on the Beach (1976); United States (1983) by Laurie Anderson (born 1947); Ashley's P e j / e c i i f m (Private Parts) (1977-1983) a n d ^ t o lanta (Acts of God) (1982); Steve Reich's The Cave (1993); t h e w o r k of
Meredith M o n k , including the quasi-operatic Atlas (1988-1991); and
Pauline Oliveros's Nzinga the Queen-King (1993).
T h e second (and m o r e promising) area of continuing radicalism is
electroacoustic music. Radical composers have, since t h e early years of t h e
century, enthusiastically explored t h e possible uses of electrical means,
b o t h pure and in combination w i t h acoustic resources. By 1922, Varese
was already calling for "an i n s t r u m e n t t h a t will give us a continuous
sound at any pitch. T h e composer and t h e electrician will have to labor
together to get i t " (quoted in Ouellette 1968, p . 76). Typical early examples of such i n s t r u m e n t s include t h e t h e r e m i n , developed by Russian
inventor Lev Termen w h o was resident in America d u r i n g 1927-1938;
and t h e r h y t h m i c o n , built in the early 1930s by Termen to a design by
Cowell. Cage followed Varese in advocating "a music produced t h r o u g h
the aid of electrical i n s t r u m e n t s " (Cage 1961, p. 3): among o t h e r w o r k s ,
the Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) has parts for frequency discs, played
on t w o variable-speed turntables, while Credo in Us (1942) and Imaginary
Landscape No. 4(1^^1)

utilize radios.



Since World W a r II a succession of m a j o r technical advances - notably

t h e development of magnetic tape, synthesizers, and c o m p u t e r s - have
resulted in greatly increased musical possibilities. Pioneering tape pieces including those of Varese, Vladimir Ussachevsky (1911-1990), O t t o
Luening (1900-1996), Cage, and B r o w n - w e r e followed by t h e creation of
i m p o r t a n t electronic music studios at universities t h r o u g h o u t America.
Synthesizers - "integrated and self-contained system[s] f o r t h e production of electronic m u s i c " (Schrader 1986, p. 31) - facilitated t h e composition of influential w o r k s by Milton Babbitt (born 1916), M o r t o n
S u b o t n i c k ( b o r n 1933), Jon Appleton (born i 9 3 9 ) , a n d others. C o m p u t e r s ,
b o t h analog and digital, have been used as versatile and multifarious
compositional tools by such composers as Lejaren Hiller (1924-1994),
J o h n C h o w n i n g (born 1934), and Roger Reynolds (born 1934). However,
it m i g h t be noted t h a t many electroacoustic compositions have tended t o
concentrate on technical, rather t h a n musical, matters; and, conversely,
t h a t electroacoustic composers have been as p r o n e as their acoustic colleagues t o t h e t e m p t a t i o n s of retrospection and extraspection. Only if
electroacoustic music becomes t h e truly sonic art imagined by Varese - as
perhaps in t h e vast soundscape of Metropolis San Francisco (1985-1986) by
Charles Amirkhanian (born 1945) o r t h e abstract, non-referential synthesis of nscor (1980-1986) by Curtis Roads (born 1951) - will it be able
legitimately t o claim t h e inheritance of prospective radicalism.