What Is ‘Experimental’ Anyway?

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Growing up, I always found the relationships people had with different types of recognition peculiar, especially how they defined being good at something.

My sister, for example, performed poetry but hated being described as deep. Not being deep, but being described as such. This was near the beginning of the dilution of slam poetry’s power – where the formula to being non-traditional was so well-defined and so widely-circulated that it became difficult to separate the formulaic from the authentic. It was a complex relationship, one based partly on the snobbery of not wanting to be of the “hoi polloi” as well as a concern for the quality of writing. Funnily enough, any moves away from “deep” were also quickly copied – rendering the move useless.

The same game led to “hipsters” being loathe to self-identify as such, yet quick to adopt any new hipster trends. It’s a phenomenon we’ve all seen since – entire scenes and movements that exist through negative definitions as opposed to positive ones. “We are what is excellent because we aren’t what is mediocre” (negative) versus “we are excellent because our work is excellent” (positive).

A similar current can be seen all too often when it comes to contemporary music that describes itself as being “experimental”. In fact, I think it’s even more pronounced in music. Instead of having the nebulous concept of “popular consciousness” to inform what deep might be for a poet (or hip for a hipster), music has a much more solid pillar to pivot upon: Pop.

Positive definitions of experimental music have existed since at least the ’50s, with its first proponents hailing from the world of academia. In this context, experimental music was simply music in which an experiment of some sort was happening. Expanding on this idea, the composer John Cage had described it as “music for which the results are unknown.”

Of course this raises several issues, such as the fact that composers of music usually execute it with deterministic steps, after having experimented earlier (although even then, the newness still exists from the perspective of the listener). Experimenters deconstruct music, with its stubborn habits, traditions, and connotations to reform works using the building blocks of sound itself. In this, the French composer and “godfather of sampling” Pierre Schaeffer saw a tension between the physical act of listening and experimentation (as a scientific methodology) – between the musician as such (in the traditional sense) and the musician as a “craftsman of sounds”.

While these definitions are academic, they still serve as a great basis to describe a lot of new music today. Experimental music, in this original context, is alive and well. It’s also, now in the era of tastemaker blogs, finally moving out of its parents’ place in the colleges of music to explore the world and meet new people. 

Experimental mindsets have been taken up by underground producers who employ them for music beyond academia, employing experiments to expand various genre constraints. These musicians are lauded, as they should be, for their work as crafters of sound.

If all this has sounded a bit heavy, then that’s on purpose. It’s not meant to be trivial. It’s also extremely tricky, bringing us back to the problem of negative definitions: experimental music is one thing: not pop.

But defining what pop music sounds like is like trying to catch smoke with a net. Describing what pop is, on the other hand is straightforward. Pop is clean. Pop is well-mastered, and engineered to sound good. Pop is concise and direct. Pop is loud (or loud enough). Pop is well-worked, with a clear sense of purpose. Pop is (often, but not exclusively) popular – with its structures and boundaries well understood. None of these elements are essentially bad or of bad taste, but it’s that last one, its popularity, that gets to certain people. Because of its ubiquity, pop’s gotten a bad rep amongst many people.

What this has done is to carve out a nook in-between experimentation and pop, where the latter is seen to lack the forward-thinking rule breaking that necessitates it being experimental.

Avoiding pop’s commercial side for the sake of purism also has its downsides, both for the quality of the work produced and the scope of the scene it exists in. There are more parties playing commercial music, for example, because they are built to be commercial entities – which also implies sustainability. 

The funny thing is that pop is a venerable monster, and one that must consume its own weight in new trends in order to survive – thus making a lot of it pretty weird. As a test of this, I’d challenge anyone to explain to a 1960s record exec how and why Future or Beyonce are as pop(ular) as they are today.

The rules have been drastically bent since then, but it’s happened so slowly and at such a large scale that it’s tough to notice with any definitive clarity. Conversely, some of the most experimental artists today employ pop forms and tropes to subvert them in the hopes of creating work that is alienating while remaining slightly familiar.

For example, Chino Amobi’s remix of Michael Jackson‘s ‘They Don’t Really Care About Us’ is a perfect case study here, laying voice over a brutalist soundscape. It’s jarring to listen to, as it should be, and through the cacophony, the real urgency of in Mike’s delivery is emphasised. Locally electronic acts like Angel-Ho have acted as trojan horses, using popular dance forms to deliver subversive content.

The unrestricted connectedness of the world today means that one can follow both Nicki Minaj and Chino Amobi on Twitter, receiving both streams of music and personality at once with no hierarchy, melting the divisions between the two to both casual listeners and creators. This kind of cross-pollination has seen acts like Rihanna finding video collaborators via Instagram DM – where pop literally reaches into the underground in the most direct way.

Elsewhere, on the credits list for Kanye’s Yeezus the names of lesser known artists like Brodinski and Arca sit beside his as if it’s normal.The music that arose from those sessions was uniformly strange, a twisted sort of expressionism channeled through distortion and screams. Nothing here is says Top 40.

The term “experimental” shouldn’t be defined negatively, or applied indiscriminately. In a sense, those who use the term, whether directly or through association to it, should have a responsibility both to their art and their consumers. The Music itself will flourish this way.

Even if not, pretending to be experimental will only work as long as the consumers you’re catering to don’t look beyond you. Entire genres and scenes are created when boundaries are pushed. Scenes explode into life and auteurs are crowned. Only by demanding this higher standard will we all find real forward momentum and progression.

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