Back in the late 60s and early 70s when I started listening to classical music, Charles Ives was one of the big recent discoveries and a number of recordings of his music were issued by major artists such as the recording of Three Places in New England with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Boston Symphony in 1970. Now there are an enormous number of recordings and even entire festivals devoted to his music. He stands at the beginning of the American 'experimental' music movement that continued with Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow and John Cage. There is a lot to be said for this approach as it acknowledges no barriers or rules. Let's have a listen to music by each of those. First Henry Cowell:
A bit of Harry Partch:
This is from a 1968 documentary about Harry Partch. He wrote quite a bit about his theories of tuning and scales. That reference to a "true major third" at the end of the excerpt alludes to the fact that in modern equal-tempered tuning (developed in the 18th century) all intervals are actually slightly out of tune. Equal-tempered thirds, for example, are all slightly sharp. The reason the equal-tempered tuning was developed was that without it, modulation to remote keys like A flat is impossible. Partch developed a 43-tone octave to solve the problem. Actually, I think what that does is create even greater problems! I had the great good fortune a number of years ago to visit the collection of Partch's instruments that were stored at the time in White Plains, NY. I got to try out a couple of them and I can attest that the giant bass marimba is a truly amazing instrument.
Some Conlon Nancarrow:
If you ever want to make a pianist really uncomfortable, just play them some Nancarrow. In these studies for player piano he worked by incising the notes manually. A player piano works by reading a roll of heavy paper in which slots have been cut. Each slot produces a note. By using a special cutting mechanism, a performance could be 'recorded' on a roll and played back. Here is an early ragtime performance:
But what Nancarrow did was to create compositions by cutting the slots manually into the roll. This meant that he was not restricted in any way by the limitations of an actual performer. So what a pianist hears in Nancarrow are things that are simply impossible!
Now for some John Cage:
I suspect that the book on this tradition has yet to be written and a lot of the basic research probably hasn't even been done yet. But we can make a few observations. First of all, the idea was to throw away all the past traditions and discover entirely new ways of making music. This goal was certainly achieved! Charles Ives, at least in some of his music, took the tunes, chords and rhythms he heard all around, like the fiddle tunes in "In the Barn" and did a kind of 'mash-up' of them. Cowell, inspired by some mystical ideas, created some great atmospheric music by using the piano in entirely new ways. Harry Partch went back to some very ancient Greek ideas about tuning and combined it with a Bohemian sensibility. Have a listen to his piece called Barstow for an example. Nancarrow took a unique approach that prefigured and paralleled some of the work others were starting to do with tape and computer music. He eliminated the performer in the process. John Cage summarized all that had gone before and took things to their logical conclusion.
This is all fascinating, of course, but if you set out to experiment and break all the rules, most of the time what you end up with is harmonic incoherence, rhythmic chaos and melodic confusion and that is what we mostly hear. After all this experimentation has been done, someone has to come along and find out what new musical principles have been discovered and try to make music with them. What principles of structure and harmony do we find underlying the music of Charles Ives? Or Harry Partch? Or Conlon Nancarrow? In the case of John Cage, he purports to have made sure, by means of chance procedures, that there aren't any.
Well, that's too bad... I suspect that a lot of experimental music re-invents the wheel or wants to un-invent the wheel, or is just incoherent. But somewhere in there are some genuinely valuable new approaches.