An Introduction to Experimentation

On Sunday, the first meeting of the Society of Experimental Musicians (affectionately abbreviated S.Ex.M.) convened in a warehouse art space in Los Angeles’ Atwater Village. Organized by composer-performer James Klopfleisch, part of S.Ex.M.’s stated mission is to bring together musicians and non-musicians with a common interest in “the exploration and realization of radical music, music on the fringe, and anything and everything that falls under the extremely vague category of ‘not in any concrete category’.”

What distinguished this event from many others of its kind was its informality and distinct lack of stuffiness, despite some of the academic trappings on display. Each meeting promises to feature different artists talking about and presenting their work, and Klopfleisch chose to present his own work for this first occasion. He did so in a jocular and easygoing way, closer to the delivery of a storyteller than a professor. Two pieces were presented: The Virgin Joke (in which your self-conscious narrator performed) and Landscape #4 (an electronic piece that played continuously in the background of Klopfleisch’s talk, sometimes to disruptive effect).

The Virgin Joke was written in an airport during a 12-hour layover, Klopfleisch explained, when he had little else to entertain himself with other than a script from an old episode of Roseanne. The piece is built around a single bit of dialogue from that episode, with an undetermined number of musicians in a pseudo-accompanimental role behind the three speaking parts. In some ways the piece engages very strongly with experimental traditions, employing a simple graphic notation in which high sustained tones and short percussive sounds are specified, but exact pitches and timings are free. In other ways the piece is explicitly conventional, particularly in its replication of the typical setup-punchline joke format. There’s even a musical punchline of sorts when the entire ensemble is asked to play something like an ascending scale in unison. (I chose to perform this part on the flexatone, because comedy! The other performers were Todd Lerew, Marcus Rubio, Colin Wambsgans, Christine Tavolacci, Andrew Young, Sepand Shahab, Nicholas Deyoe, and Mike Winter.)

The event concluded with a panel discussion about some of the issues raised with Anne LeBaron, Nicholas Deyoe, Casey Anderson, and Dorothy Fortenberry. As the sole non-musician on the panel, Fortenberry (a playwright and television writer) had a difficult and crucial role to fulfill, almost as a kind of audience proxy. She admitted to being frustrated by the way Landscape #4 was deployed, making it impossible to devote your full attention either to it, or to the talking that it would frequently interrupt.

While the audience of 30 or so people consisted mostly of other musicians, this was certainly not universally the case, and as discussion shifted away from the panel into the audience, the perspectives of non-musicians took on even greater importance. What I found heartening was that audience members were not afraid to express their lack of understanding of something, and they were not belittled or dismissed for doing so. There was no assumption of blame on the part of the musicians or the audience, simply an exploration, a search for reasons behind the disconnect. The feeling of openness that this engendered, and the distinct lack of judgmentalism all around, is something I’d like to see more of. When I think of what I want the experimental music scene to look like in the future, this would be an excellent model.

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