Jennie Gottschalk – Experimental Music Since 1970 (2016)
I’ve been curious about Jennie Gottschalk’s Experimental Music Since 1970 since I saw an announcement of its publication in August. I’ve been unsuccessful locating a copy in Mexico, and thus hadn’t gotten a chance to pick it up. I spent the past weekend away with friends. As luck would have it, one brought his copy, but abandoned it to other activities. With no internet, and a full week of writing ahead of me, I sat down to read.
I approach books on experimental music with caution. It’s a subject close to my heart, but one difficult (if not impossible) to tackle in broad sweeps. The term is malleable, often escapes explicit definition, and is applied to a seemingly endless number of pursuits and practices. From the outside, its “objects” can appear opaque, challenging, or elitist, presenting a music of polarities – made for those who “get it”, and excluding those who don’t. Because of this, there is often a presumption made by writers and practitioners that their audience is fixed and already in possession of the interest and vocabulary through which to face this music, its subjects, and practices. That they are in effect, preaching to the choir. Though you can’t fault the presumption, in most cases it’s probably correct, the context of experimental music is marked by degrees of obsessiveness not often present in other musical contexts. Fans and practitioners tend to have an extremely developed knowledge of the world in which they inhabit. For this reason one must ask for whom such books are actually written, what insights they offer, what their intentions are, and what the relationship of an author might be to the larger body of experimental music, be those its ideas, sounds, community of fans, or practitioners.
At the outset of Experimental Music Since 1970, Gottschalk explains that she is a composer who first encountered experimental music as a graduate student ten years ago. This developed through inquiries toward how to push her own practice forward. In other words, the author’s engagement with these sounds and structures was not natural or intuitive, it was analytical and strategic. This basic proximity, which fails to transmit a sense of developed interest, devotion, or passion within the text, underscores nearly every concern I have with her ambitious effort.
Years ago I encountered a Mike Watt quote – an insight into how personal positions and relationships effect the formation of a musical practice. He categorized two types of people who create music – those who do so as an extension as their love of their instrument, and those who draw on their love of music, particularly that of others. Though Watt was pointing to the context of Punk and Hardcore (and it’s direct relationship to others), I’ve long believed his thoughts have much broader application. It flashed into my mind as Gottschalk’s words began to unfold before me. Her relationship to experimental music extends from her instrument and composing, not from love. It frames everything that she writes. This is important for a number of reasons. The book lacks heart. It is distant – at times to such a degree that the music it describes, and which so many of us love dearly, is so divorced from its context, that it’s existence feels hard to rationalize. It almost seems as though she spent ten years researching a music which she forgot to listen to, or inquire further about. It seems like an unfinished exercise in box ticking. This feeds my second concern – her source material. Her research clearly relies heavily on on texts about experiential music, rather than her ears. This presents a number of problems. Those whom she cites, and whose practices she accounts for, is largely focused on artists who have a lot to say, or have been written about extensively. Its default is the exclusion of those who are less present in texts, many of whom are incredibly important and could not have been missed, had the text drawn on primary sources (the music) rather than secondary (texts). Though she attempts to excuse herself by stating that the book does not attempt to sculpt a canon, and that it would be impossible to include everyone (which of course is true), even a cursory glance at the text will reveal a great deal of motive, intention, and decisiveness. The question is not what she has included, it is what she has not, and what those absences achieve. Were the book to bear a different heading, one more specific to the territories she covers, we might be able to let her off the hook on this count. Unfortunately the title Experimental Music Since 1970 implies a canon, whether she likes it or not. Simply including a vast number of artists does not mean you have chosen the best ones to represent the territories at hand. Many of the artists within her text seem to have been placed to frame the subjects and practices for strategic reasons – to paint a modified vision of our world which suits her aims. This may be a consequence of her sources (previous texts) – inadvertently perpetuating the aims of those who proceeded her, but it’s hard to know. My third, and perhaps most significant concern, relates to context, entry, and social proximity. The book exists within a bubble which completely omits the places from which experimental music grows, and how and why it exists within our lives. This seems to be because Gottschalk has no relationship to these articles. She is an outsider looking in. Experimental music is a body of practices within the avant-garde. The avant-garde is by nature a social operation, which is generally aligned with a counter-cultural position. In other words, it is a rejection of the normative, and an attempt to push toward greater possibility. It is about people (and diversity) as much as it is about sound. It is the hope and ambition for something more, which generally draws fans and practitioners into this world, not compositional structures and practices. To miss its context and proximity, as Gottschalk has, is to entirely miss the point. This is something you encounter again and again in academic writers and composers – the continuous denial and stripping of operation and context. They want this music to bow to their needs. They rarely comprehend that it does not exist for the sake of it (or for their exclusive use). It exists to present alternatives for society and culture as a whole. An experiment is not an outcome. It is an action.
Experimental Music Since 1970 is intended to be a sequel of sorts to Michael Nyman’s 1974 text Experimental Music : Cage and Beyond. The relationship between the two is both striking and telling. Nyman’s book (as the title implies) traces the direct Anglo-American extensions of musical thought and practice which drew on John Cage’s achievements during the 1950’s – particularly (but not exclusive to) those related to AMM and Fluxus. Though Gottschalk’s book uses its predecessor as a rough model for approach – deconstructing the basic operations of her subject from the perspective of a composer, it lacks much of its accomplishment. Nyman has a deep love for this music, an appreciation for where it lies, and from whence it grows. He was writing about his own community, and did so by offering great insight and context, with humanity and affection. Nyman’s book is an accessible labor of love, and as such is as valuable for readers accustomed to this world, as it is for inviting others to it. It should also be noted that he makes no attempt to account for the entire spectrum of experimental music, only those who drew on Cage. Gottschalk makes no such claim (though sets out on the same path). Perhaps the most striking difference is presented at the outset of Brian Eno’s introduction to its second edition of Nyman’s effort : The best books about art movements become more than just descriptions : they become part of what they set out to describe. Experiential music : John Cage and Beyond is such a book. It sought to identify and give coherence to a whole body of musical work that fell outside of both classical tradition and the avant-garde orthodoxies that had proceeded from it. Experimental Music Since 1970 couldn’t be further from what Eno outlines. Not only is it divorced from the context which it describes, and is in fact just a series of descriptions, but it seems to attempt to establish a locality tied to both the classical tradition and avant-garde orthodoxy.
So what is this book? What does it achieve? It’s effectively a list of artists falling under subcategories of practice. It reads like.. so and so did this.. so and so did this.. and so and so did this.. and on and on and on, one after another. The little insight and perspective it offers is almost exclusively compositional. There is almost no presentation of broad context – where this music grows from, and what it draws on beyond the realms of music. It’s essentially an incomplete encyclopedia of names who “do things” floating in space under tenuous sub-categories. Because of the way it is written and structured, is almost impossible to utilize as an efficient research tool – it’s a tangled web. Though it has value – particularly as means of documentation for future generations looking back, as a contemporary operation it is almost entirely useless for anyone with a developed knowledge of this world. There are very few artists mentioned in the book that I wasn’t aware of (many I know personally). Those whom I haven’t encountered operate within the dry academic quarter, which has almost no connection to the larger community of fans and practitioners who embraces these sounds, structures, and approaches. Though I can’t speak for others, given that most members of the experimental music community are incredibly knowledgeable, I doubt that the book’s logical readership will find themselves in a different position. So who is this book for? It seems to be for people like Gottschalk – people not naturally disposed to this world, looking in as she once was. Given the heavy use of technical language, these outsiders could only be people with strong formal educations in music. This deductively implies that the book is a tool for composers to co-opt strategies of experimental music for their own purposes. It’s a cheat sheet for interlopers who have no interest in understanding the true purpose or proximity of experimental practice.
Though the book is considerably less transparent than Nyman’s, it essentially draws on the same foundations – Cage and those who followed him. In other words, the practices highlighted within tend to be traced back to this source by inference (whether valid or not). Because of where Cage and subsequents have come to be historically placed – having come to be seen as a kind of orthodoxy within avant-garde classical music, Gottschalk is essentially framing experimental music within (or for use by) this context alone. Given the diversity of thought and practice which have transpired since 1974, this is not only deeply naive, but arguably manipulative. It almost completely excludes those whose origins are separate from some canonical idea of “high-art” regardless of how their work operates. This became glaring when I noticed that there had been no mention of Jim O’Rourke (among many others). I can think of few figures who have been more important to experimental music in the last 30 years – be that as an advocate or practitioner. How could he be left out of the narrative? The obvious reasons easily rise to the surface. Little has been written about him in academic texts, he doesn’t tend to talk about his practice, and his origins are connected to Rock music as much as to the experimental and avant-garde. He is of no use to the framework of intent laid out by this book – he in fact undermines it. He offers nothing to a composer looking to co-opt strategies of experimental music for their own purposes, and does not allow them ownership of it. This occurrence (of absence) presents itself again and again – applied to experimental strategies which fall outside of being easily appropriated, or have less orthodox sources or localities. With this in hand, and casting a broader view, the book can be seen to perpetrate many of the endemic problems in the historicization of avant-garde and experimental music – practices which should be shattered and destroyed. Though it does some good in being more inclusive than other texts, particularly of women, it still frames this world as a drawing from white male Anglo-American ideas. Once again we find the source of the problem in texts vs actuality. Few active members of the experiential music community would describe it as such, particularity in recent decades. This world is diverse, open, and broadly representative of countless sources and traditions. Experimental Music Since 1970 mentions some women, and a few artists of non-white ethnicity (tiny nods to a few members of the AACM, and artists from Japan and other parts of Asia, etc), but I can’t accept these as the exception which proves the rule. Especially when it infers a dominantly white male cannon as their source. It ignores vast swaths of the world, and the diversity of practices found there – ones which we all recognize and interact with. Once again, we are faced with a book written by someone who fails to understand the spirit with which so many of us participate within this world of sound, and which perpetuates a historically dominant, but false vision of who we are.
Most of my readers might find this piece a surprise. I never write negative reviews, but here I make an exception as warning. Over the last decade there’s been an increased interest in experimental music from the outside world – magazines, books, academia, the art world, energy drink companies, mobile phone providers, etc. Being the person I am, and believing in this music as I do, I’d love to view this as exciting and affirming. Unfortunately, few of these forces are sympathetic. They regularly seek to bend our accomplishments to their use and will – to capitalize on them for their own gain. Because experimental music is a marginalized music, many among us have welcomed such attention, failing to see what is at risk – the strip mining of a remarkable world built through collective effort to be as diverse and inclusive as possible. The current contexts demands that we be wary of our borders, a sad contradiction in terms.
Because our sounds are often those of ideas, but exist in a temporal realm which rarely allows for concrete or decisive meaning, it is highly susceptible to outside agendas and influence – particularly “thinkers,” critics, academics, and historians. Experimental music is constantly being bent to the needs of those who care to utilize it for their own gain – who claim tell us what it is. These fields are marked by individuals who are not long standing members of our community, and thus do not have access to first hand experience or knowledge. They tend to rely on texts to guide them (over sound), preferring explicit explanation, and avoiding personal feeling and taste. In doing so, they effectively built and perpetuate a faulted orthodoxy that couldn’t be further from our truth. Because these are difficult musics to “get,” even for long time fans, there is a tendency to defer to authority to those who can explain it (critics, academics, and historians) and put its many actions into concrete terms, offering a vocabulary through which to discuss them. Few musics dispose fans to read about them, as much as they listen to them, but this can expose us to great risk. Not only can it undermine the openness and inclusiveness of the experimental music world, but it risks destroying the very operation of the music itself, by mediating how its meaning is deconstructed or interacted with by the listener. It imposes singularity. Sadly Experimental Music Since 1970 is one such case. I entered it with excitement and enthusiasm, and was happy to encounter the names of many friends and acquaintances, until I recognized the book’s use and purpose. It is a tool for co-option, and imposes a narrow view (the number of artists and practices it sites is subterfuge). At its conclusion, I was left with a hollow frustration – as though it said nothing, yet asserted something dangerous and misleading. It knows many of our names, but describes nothing of our world.
I’m sure Gottschalk had the best of intentions when embarking on this project (it is ambitious). The thought leaves me feeling awful for rendering such a review, but as all members of the experimental music world understand, the objective rarely dictates an outcome. Given how much insight and attention this music and its community could benefit from, this book represents a tragic lost opportunity.