Table of Contents

Extended Techniques and Experimental Music

It is difficult to define 'experimental music' because sounds and techniques that are innovative and boundary-pushing at their inception often become part of the mainstream over time. Often the term avant-garde (a French military term meaning 'vanguard' or 'front line') is used to discuss music that challenges audiences and critics to reexamine their definition of music itself. Using this term in a broad sense, we will examine several different composers whose controversial work questioned traditional notions about the nature and purpose of music.

Experiments in Composition

Schoenberg and Atonal Music

In the early 20th century, Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his students, Alban Berg (1885-1935) and Anton Webern (1883-1945), explored ways to dispense with tonality, the well-established system of keys and scales that underlies the vast majority of Western music. They pursued atonality with composition techniques that deliberately avoided patterns that evoked familiar scales, chords, and other trappings of tonality. They also rejected established notions of harmony and sought "the emancipation of dissonance" as a fundamental aspect of music.

Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern saw themselves as the continuation of the great Viennese Austro-German musical tradition established by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The latter three are often known collectively as the Viennese School, so the former began to refer to themselves as the Second Viennese School to reflect their sense of inheritance. From an aesthetic standpoint, however, there is little shared between the two groups of composers. Listen briefly to a minuet for piano by Mozart and one by Schoenberg:

Mozart, Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331: II. Menuetto

Schoenberg, Suite for Piano, Op. 25: Menuett

Serialism and Twelve-Tone Methods

In the piece above, Schoenberg used a compositional technique called serialism in order to avoid tonality and create some measure of structure and unity in the piece. When applied to pitches, this technique involves creating a set of pitches in a fixed order that would appear over and over in a single piece. This may sound simplistic, but there are several different ways that the set can be used: as a melody (in sequence), as harmony (simultaneously), or as a combination of melody and harmony. Furthermore, the set could appear in its original, or prime form, or it could be altered by one or more of the following processes:

  • transposition - keeping the same pattern of intervals, but starting on a different pitch
  • retrograde - playing the set backwards
  • inversion - changing the direction of each interval (major 3rd up becomes major 3rd down)

Schoenberg's special variation on this system is called the twelve-tone composition technique. In this method, the series includes all 12 pitches available in the Western pitch system. This creates an landscape of sound in which no single pitch is more important than any other - a dramatic departure from the tonal system that is based largely on the interplay between the tonic and dominant pitches alone.

In Schoenberg's system, transpositions, retrogrades, and inversions can create 48 different versions of a single 12-pitch set. Any of these versions could appear in a piece as melody, harmony, or a combination of the two. These possibilities show that the technique of serialism is actually much more varied that its basic principles might have initially suggested.

Atonality in Modern Music

When Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern called themselves the Second Viennese School, it was because they believed that they were starting a revolution that would transform the way that music would be heard and composed forever. They believed that they were modernizing music and that their techniques and aesthetics would soon become mainstream. Although there are still composers that write atonally and exploit serialist techniques and ideas (Jerry Goldsmith, for example, did so in his scores for Planet of the Apes and Alien), atonality never became the dominant system and remains a stylistic dead end.

John Cage and Aleatory Music

John Cage (1912-1992) is considered one of the most important figures in avant-garde music following World War II. After studying various art forms as a young man, Cage studied composition with Schoenberg in the 1930s and was so inspired by the older composer that he vowed to devote his life to music. Although he studied Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique and used it in a few compositions, Cage found himself drawn to a variety of compositional methods.

His interest in dance and friendship with choreographer Merce Cunningham led him to a greater interest in percussion instruments and creating structures based on lengths of time. In 1938, Cage was working on a dance piece and found himself very limited in terms of performance space. Instead of using a large percussion ensemble, as was usual for him at the time, had to limit himself to a much smaller ensemble. Cage decided to use a single piano and, remembering the experiments of his friend and colleague, Henry Cowell, he began inserting screws, bolts, and pieces of felt between the strings to dramatically alter the sounds that could be created at the keyboard. This practice became known as prepared piano, and will be explored in more depth below in the section on the Bowed Piano Ensemble. Here is an example of one of Cage's prepared piano pieces:

Cage, Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano: First Interlude

Inspired by Asian philosophy and the work of composer Morton Feldman, Cage also became interested in aleatoricism, the use of chance operations in the creative process. Using chance as part of the compositional process transformed the role of the composer from "making to accepting," as Cage put it, and that idea fascinated him. Cage rolled dice, tossed coins, and found a wide variety of ways to introduce chance into his pieces.

His interest in aleatory music also led him to new ideas about the aesthetics of silence. If chance could soften the composer's control over his piece and make compositions more spontaneous and natural, then silence could represent an even stronger negation of the composer's intentions and preferences. To Cage, a silent concert hall represented the absence of intentional sounds, but other sounds remained: unintentional, ambient sounds. In other words, when intentional sounds are silenced, what remains is the natural noise of the world around us.

In 1952 he combined his interest in aleatoricism with his new ideas about silence in 4'33", his most famous and controversial composition. The piece consists of three movements of silence, the lengths of which were determined by chance operations, totaling 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Some dismiss Cage as a charlatan and see 4'33" as little more than a joke or scam. Others value the piece for the philosophical questions it evokes: What is music, what is noise, and what is the role of a composer? Watch this performance of 4'33" by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and decide for yourself:

Cage, 4'33" performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra

Arvo Pärt and Tintinnabuli

Arvo Pärt (1935-) is an Estonian composer who has also experimented with several different compositional approaches throughout his career. His earliest works are neo-classical, meaning that they draw on the styles and forms of music from the time of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. In the 1960s he began studying the serial techniques of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, applying those ideas to rhythm in addition to pitch in his pieces. Soviet officials scorned these serial pieces for their harsh dissonance, and they also criticized Pärt's overt expressions of Christian belief in some of his works.

After receiving such strong disapproval, Pärt revamped his style again. He started to study Gregorian chant and other early music, which led him to return to a much more simple and consonant aesthetic. He then developed a technique that he called 'tintinnabuli'. The term is drawn from the sound of tintinnabulation, or tinkling of bells, which is represented by the three notes of a triad in his technique. In the tintinnabuli style, a melodic voice moves in small intervals around a central pitch, while a second voice (the tintinnabuli voice) sounds the notes of the tonic triad, one at a time, moving together with the melodic voice as in chorale-type homophony. In Fratres for Strings and Percussion, this technique is combined with a low drone and occasional interjections from the percussion section.

Pärt, Fratres for Strings and Percussion

Experiments with Instruments

The Bowed Piano Ensemble

Prepared piano for 10 players

Experiments with Technology

Musique concrète and Sampling

Making music out of sounds through recording technology

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