Strange Experiments

Strange Experiments

I’m taking a break from composing to write this column. I’ve been working on a piece for twelve wind instruments, an ensemble twice as large as the next-largest ensemble for which I’ve written, and I’m just entering the “will this actually work?” phase. Leaving aside its reception by an audience, it’s possible that this monster will crash and burn as early as the first rehearsal. The piece is too far outside my usual realm of musical endeavor for me to predict its success with any accuracy.

We sometimes refer to new music—or a particular subcategory of new music—as “experimental music;” in other words, music of uncertain results. The piece I’m hacking away at probably doesn’t represent the kind of experiment that will reveal heretofore unseen potentials for musical development to the compositional community at large, but it’s certainly an experiment for me. There are so many balls to juggle, so to speak—so many (occasionally contradictory) compositional goals, so many dimensions of criteria, so many strata of craftsmanship. Even in a solo piece, a medium in which I’m much more comfortable, it’s hard enough to decide what to do and then to actually do it. I shudder to think what kind of neurosis would afflict me if I were to try to write a piece for orchestra!

However, it’s only by taking risks that we can transcend our limitations. William Faulkner’s criticism of Ernest Hemingway was that he didn’t take risks, that he never left his literary comfort zone. He was an unqualified success at being “Ernest Hemingway,” testosterone-powered and daiquiri-buttressed badass, but he was seldom (if ever) able to be more than that. (Incidentally, Hemingway responded to Faulkner’s comments with a letter, written while drunk, that you should totally read.) There’s something undeniably frightening about taking creative risks, opening oneself up to a heightened possibility of failure. Nevertheless, the composers I respect most have continued to push themselves and, if necessary, change direction mid-career as they feel their music requires. And unlike me, some of them had to contend with a public which expected them to keep churning out familiar music once their styles had been established!

I’m going to get back to the grind. Whether or not this piece comes off as well as I hope it will, I’ll be damned if I’ll let it scare me off before I even finish it.

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8 thoughts on “Strange Experiments

  1. kmanlove

    Colin, I’m sure you’re aware of a piece of mine, entitled “Vistas” for nine players. That thing was a beast. It still is in fact. With this many players or more, it’s just a crap shoot, especially with textures or instrument combinations get weird. Oh, also, if you can get away without doing an orchestral work, you’re a lucky man. That pain-in-the-neck of mine never even got performed.

    All of my pieces take risks. They may technical risks, or they may be more abstract than that, but risk is the thing that makes me want to write “experimental music.” I really hate faux experimental music that, at first glance, sounds experimental but takes no risks at all. My composition lessons have always been full of “I’m pretty sure this is going to work, Keith” and “Yeah, you probably shouldn’t do that.” It’s always worked. The most important thing is convincing your performers that it will work, not your teacher.

    I am really amazed by people that continue to push themselves as well. The fact that Philip Guston abandoned his abstract style for a dark, representational style amazes me. Nono, Basquiat, Feldman, and hordes of others are my heroes because they pushed. I think if I can give any advice to you, I’d say that if you feel uncomfortable and you’re not quite sure if it’s all going to work, then you’re in the right place.

  2. jbunch

    What do you mean by expiremental music?

    Can something that is “nothing new” be expiremental? And if it is only new to you, then in what respect is anything any composer writes not be new to them in that way?

    For instance, if expiremental music is all about risk-taking, then wouldn’t people like David Del Tredici (in the 80’s) be an equally good example as someone like John Zorn (in the sense that both took risks that could have endangered their acceptance – be it by their peers or by their audience)? Afterall, I have never heard of anyone classifying Del Tredici as “experimental.”

  3. Colin Holter

    In the context of “individual experimentality,” which is what we’re talking about here, music is experimental if, as I said, the success is uncertain. Although this might seem like an all-inclusive category, there are definitely composers out there whose music may be in some way radical but is not at all experimental.

    The best example I can come up with (without insulting anyone) is Carl Ruggles, whose music, although highly individual, varied so little from piece to piece that by the end of his career he was more or less replicating a formula for successful music that he’d developed. In this sense he’s not unlike Hemingway, who as I mentioned wrote almost exclusively about things that fell comfortably within his sphere of personal experience. Whether Ruggles’ work – or Hemingway’s, or Del Tredici’s, or whoever’s – is experimental within the context of global contemporary artistic activity is a different question altogether.

    Just you wait. The Ruggles people are going to flood NewMusicBox with irate comments.

  4. pgblu

    ‘The success is uncertain’: whose success, and by whose standards?

    Can a piece be semi-experimental, because you wrote a note for the contrabassoon which you’re not sure the player can reach? Or that you’re not sure will sound quite right?

    Is it experimental to climb Mount Everest without a sherpa? Or just foolhardy?

    I only mention Everest because Colin seems in his original post to be channeling Jon Krakauer. This leads me to ask whether composers sometimes need to adopt a heroic tone while talking about their music in order to reassure themselves that they’re in their comfort zone?Not that there’s always something wrong with that; it’s just extremely prevalent.

    I admit, the Ruggles dig was a plucky one; I won’t touch it.

  5. Colin Holter

    It would not satisfy me to write a piece with which I know I will be satisfied. I think I have enough experience by now (although I’m not entirely certain) to do a piece – written in a familiar manner – that “works.” The abandonment of that safety net, I think, constitutes an experiment.

    As for the heroic tone, I think sometimes we need to convince ourselves that we’re doing something that matters (despite substantial evidence to the contrary). I mean, I’m a pretty heroic guy in general – saving babies from sinking ships, correcting the Earth’s orbit, etc. – but I try to keep a level head when discussing my musical activity.

  6. kmanlove

    Hero being a relative term here guys. I assumed that you would realize that ‘hero’ meant musical hero, and that I don’t think Morton Feldman saved the world. People and words!

  7. pgblu

    Hero clarification
    I didn’t mean Keith’s use of the term hero but Colin’s use of the heroic tone of voice. How is writing abstruse dots on paper a heroic act? I think I have an answer, but am not sure.

    The real “devil’s advocate” question is whether writing more conventional music is not just as heroic in a world that couldn’t care less about things being done well and with attention to detail.


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