Exploring the Wondrous World of Experimental Music & Instrumentation
By Omar Shabbar
44 CANADIAN MUSICIAN
On the evening of May 15 , 1951 , music lovers and art aficionados hustled in to McMillin Theater at Columbia University . On stage stood 24 musicians , huddled in groups of two around 12 portable radios that stood in a semi-circle , facing the audience . The scene was set for the premiere of American composer and philosopher John Cage ’ s newest piece : “ Imaginary Landscapes No . 4 .” Cage walked on stage , swatted his baton , and the performance was underway . The musicians on stage tweaked and twiddled the volume and station dials of each radio . Following Cage ’ s surprisingly conventional five-line staffed score , the radios jumped between the chatter of interviews , the radio hits , and the white noise of the in-betweens . There was no way of telling what would be on the radio during a performance or where exactly each musician would land on the dial , so despite the sheet music and conducting , much of the performance was left up to chance .
While an experimental performance like this may not be completely unheard of to us nowadays , in the 1950s , this was completely new , and to say that this performance was not well taken would be an understatement . At one point , one of the radios landed on a station that was playing Mozart , which was met with cheers and applause from the audience . Many members of the audience were left wondering what they just witnessed . Why did they use radios ? Did they make a mistake ? What was this music ? Was it even music ?
Experimental Music & New Instruments
Depending on who you ask , the term “ experimental music ” can mean many different things , but I believe that there is one key theme that runs throughout all experimental music , which is the idea of breaking free from western music traditions and pushing forward – exploring new sonic territory . Many experimental composers see the western classical theories and traditions that we were raised on as unnecessary , rigid , and even oppressive limitations on music .
In order to break from these limitations , experimental composers and musicians use new instruments that can create different timbres and sonic pallets that aren ’ t achievable on conventional instruments . Because of this , instruments are at the forefront of this musical exploration . “ Imaginary Landscapes No . 4 ” used 12 radios as the instruments during its 1951 premiere . For John Cage , many of his new instruments coincide with the mid-20 th century boom in technology , which is something that he incorporated into his music . This correlation between new instruments and acceleration of technology is another key theme found in experimental music . As Cage said in what is arguably his most famous written work , The Future of Music : Credo , “ Given four film phonographs , we can now compose and perform a quartet for explosive motor , wind , heartbeat , and landslide .” Cage ’ s instruments , along with many of his compositions and philosophies , would go on to inspire generations of musicians , experimental and conventional alike .