Good taste is totalitarian. The art critics, curators, and editors that create taste’s laws also enact those laws; their opinions influence what gets seen and read by the audience. Experimental music operates under it’s own totalitarian regime. Educators, artistic directors, and programmers who influence what we hear and what is commissioned create the rule of law.
Does it follow then, that bad taste is democratic? Ask an experimental music devotee this question and he will answer yes, and the answer will be illustrated by using popular music and mass listenership as an example. In adhering to experimental music’s established laws and criteria, the ideas and tastes of new-music veterans and newcomers alike are anything but experimental, but rather, entrenched ideas about experimentalism.
Conflated with the idea that experimental criteria equals taste is the idea that rarity equals value. In his novel Juliet, Naked, author Nick Hornby describes this thinking succinctly: “. . . the suspicion that if a piece of music had reached a large number of people, it had somehow been drained of its worth.”
With social media and file sharing, the decision-making process about taste in music has been democratized by access to sound via the Web. Control of what qualifies as experimental art has been taken from the tastemakers by the listeners. Experimental music’s reach has been extended, often reaching listeners who are unaware of what has been deemed good taste. Yes, these listeners are also influenced by their peers, but they are blithely unaware of experimental music’s laws and listen with open ears, judging each piece on its own merits.
What happens now? What happens to experimental music if the composer is really heard? Heard a lot. Heard so much that the composers voice/language is widely adopted in music practice? Does the music lose its value? And how do we define the inverse—a piece of experimental music that uses popular genres as its material?
In this issue of Musicworks our feature writers tackle these questions. Nick Storring writes about the neo-sincerity movement. Born from access to music and in reaction to ironic postmodern posturing in the arts, neo-sincerity sees a new generation of artists creating music using modern strategies and postmodern tactics. The musicians John Kameel Farah, Thom Gill, and Chris d’Eon, featured in the article, borrow from many classical and formerly popular genres to create new music. These genres, judged by many as outré or to be listened to only in guilty pleasure, are used by neo-sincerists without irony and to great novel effect.
Composer Nicole Lizée, known for using unorthodox instrument combinations in her music, pairs percussion duo with turntable art in her new work, written to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of John Cage’s birth. Imagined as a John Cage rave, the piece uses Cage’s statement, “percussion music is revolution,” as a starting point. Lizée uses the word revolution in relation to revolving turntables and also to the way she uses stereophonic sound in the piece. One can also imagine a covert wink and nod between Cage and Lizée as they acknowledge the revolutionary gesture of combining turntable music with chamber music.
John Terauds writes about Philip Glass and his particular style of minimalism in the context of his seventy-fifth birthday. No other composer has challenged the equation “experimental music equals taste equals rarity” more than Glass. Glass-style minimalism is ubiquitous in high and low art, from opera to garage bands and mobile apps. Does making the journey from concert hall to iPhones make the music any less valuable?
Don’t mistake this editorial for a popular slam against elitism. It is a challenge to listeners to define for themselves what is of value to them. I have seen too much experimental music of true value discounted for not belonging to the new-music club. Renew your sense of openness, remain a connoisseur; but be a listener too—the only true hallmark of the experimental.