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Experimentalists: Talking with Adam Berenson, Dana Jessen, and Abdul Moimême

Experimentalists: Talking with Adam Berenson, Dana Jessen, and Abdul Moimême
Karl Ackermann By

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For some reason, I try to make my guitar not sound like a guitar. That might denote a certain rebellious disposition. On the other hand, so-called, experimental music can be dismally conventional. —Abdul Moimême
The newly opened Théatre des Champs-Elysées was sold out on the night of May 29, 1913. The well-heeled Parisian audience had come to enjoy the much-anticipated premiere of Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" which featured the choreography of the acclaimed Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Some accounts of what transpired that night appear to be exaggerated. There were no riots in the street outside the theater, as had been reported, but there was considerable violence in the theater as fans and detractors went at each other with walking sticks and fists. One audience member was said to be stabbed with a woman's hatpin and the police arrested dozens of audience members at intermission. The dissonance, odd rhythms and lack of other familiar points of reference caused outrage among many in the audience, as did the accompanying ballet which featured a staged human sacrifice. As a performance art package, "Rite of Spring" seemed to have something to offend almost everyone and it wasn't performed again for twenty years. In retrospect, it was viewed as a work ahead of its time with Walt Disney using part of the score in his 1940 release of Fantasia. In the jazz world, Hubert Laws, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane and The Bad Plus have adapted passages from the score.

Experimental Music

Since early man banged sticks on rocks, the history of music has been one of innovation, and innovation does not exist without experimentation. And low or high technology, experimentation has remained a constant—if sometimes, unwelcomed—aspect of music. The body-slaps of drum-less slaves, the comping of early blues guitarists, left-hand walking bass lines on the piano were innovations developed for an earlier purpose; amplification, or fill, for lacking instrumentation. "Experimental" as a multipurpose label, is often used as a proxy for work that is pioneering, progressive, radical, or simply just so beyond the conventional norms that there is no convenient epithet to apply. Experimental music has been described as any music that pushes the boundaries of conformity; or, as music written with no prescribed end result; obscure and without intention. Harmony, melody, and continuity may be considered extraneous. It may, or may not, be created for the listener's entertainment. Composing can be more related to direct sounds than musical tones. Everything is what it is, and the artist's freedom of expression is the only driving force. Like the flexible definitions of jazz itself, the descriptions of experimental music exist in a limbo where they are affirmed, disputed or ignored. It can be reasonably argued that all music is experimental and that no music is experimental, but that's debate is for another time.

Half a century before John Cage's revered and reviled "4' 33" appeared, Alphonse Allais' "Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man" (1897) was the first known composition of complete silence, comprising of twenty-four blank measures. French composer Erik Satie was among the early modern composers to push beyond conventional tonality, employing unusual scales and pitch; techniques furthered later by Claude Debussy. The influence of Debussy has been cited by jazz composers across the entire time span of American jazz, including Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington and Branford Marsalis. But to talk about music as "experimental" requires framing the genre based on arbitrary and sometimes ambiguous criteria. Music that uses unconventional instrumentation, extended techniques and untraditional composing processes, are fundamental to the broader discipline. Other explanations talk of removing the human element from the composition method so deeply-rooted social norms are not influencing the creative process. If composing in a subliminal state seems counter-intuitive, it partially explains why the "experimental" label is untenable.

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