“There’s nothing wrong with pretty music.” Jonathan Bunce—author of this issue’s feature on Canada’s new pop adventurists—is talking with me about the twenty-one-year-old singer–songwriter known as Grimes. Her song “Crystal Ball,” and its sequenced, synthesizer-harp intro, drum-machine rhythm track, and reverb vocals, had put me in mind of synth-pop and Bjørk. Bunce goes on to insist that her music is experimental. Experimental? No. Not according to my ears. But when the ears don’t understand, the questions start. There must be something in this music that I’m not hearing. Have I heard too much to be surprised by her work? Have I been living in the new-music ghetto too long? The point on which Bunce and I agree is that the taxonomy of the experimental rests in the ear of the listener.
Experimental music is defined by its newness. Berg’s use of atonality in Wozzeck shocked listeners with its novelty. The three generations of composers that followed Berg continued to recreate the experimental. Although there is no formula for newness, experimental music has always been about rebellion. Expressionism rebelled against impressionism. Mimimalism was a response to modernism. But art music doesn’t have the market cornered on experimentalism. Western popular music has its own story of rebellion. Chuck Berry’s lyric, “rock and roll, deliver me from the days of old,” speaks to rock’s push away from pop and classical. Twenty years later The Clash’s singer Joe Strummer sang, “no Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones in 1977.” Where art music is defined by its experimental materials and methods, popular music has defined its experimentalism through social rebellion. Is one experiment more valid than the other?
Listeners are starting to hear this question more clearly. The contexts in which experimental music is created are no longer so easily defined. We have already seen the fragmentation of experimental contexts surfacing in the coining of genre names such as “pluralism.” As Bunce says in his article. “Canada’s New Pop Adventurists,” the world’s entire music history is available online to be listened to and to provide influence. In addition, the ubiquity of these many musics facilitates a multitude of individual listening experiences and interpretation of those experiences. This can produce musicians who crave authenticity—a music experience that hasn’t been mediated by the market. Like the punks of the ’80s, the new experimentalist is rebelling against the commodification of sound—they are starved for something that hasn’t been analyzed, codified, or produced for the sole purpose of market share. But the availability of music can also bring about music that uses sound combinations never heard before—as in pluralism.
With this fragmentation comes commonality. The popular musicians of today are as at home with musical allusions to musique concrète as the art music composers are with quoting Public Enemy. Are we listening to each other as we cross-reference each other’s experiments? Or does our commonality lie in rebellion? As long as there is a status quo—whether in art music or popular music—there will be the attendant experimental reaction. Kindred rebellious spirits? By nature, rebellious spirits rebel. And we don’t play well with others.
As the next generations define what experimental sounds like to them, on occasion we may be rankled by what we perceive as unoriginal, but I implore you to listen to the context of the sound. You might hear something new.

Image by: Backofthenapkin.