Experimental Instruction

Over the last few years I’ve had the pleasure of teaching several classes in music theory and rock history, but I’ll be preparing in a few months for an entirely new teaching experience: I’ll be running a course on American experimental music between 1910 and 1945 for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Minnesota, a continuing education program with a “focus on active learning in dynamic and respectful environments.” I’m extremely psyched about this for two reasons: First, as much as I appreciate my thoughtful and hardworking undergrads, I’m excited to work with a different student population; second, as a teaching assistant I’d never get the chance to lead my own seminar on such a specific corner of the literature.

I’m sure I’m not the only grad student in the latter boat. We toil to acquire an advanced knowledge of music—more advanced in some areas than others, naturally—but we may not often get the chance to teach to our specific interests. In this case, I’m also looking at the course as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with a rep that I admire very much but haven’t had a lot of recent contact with. I’m planning to go heavy on Ives, Cowell, and Ruth Crawford Seeger, all composers whose catalogs I’m relatively familiar with but am eager to dive further into. It’s expected that the course will have some reading and listening assignments but no tests, papers, or other evaluations; I imagine that a little lecture and a lot of discussion will make up the bulk of each class.

Now that you know the basics, I’d like to source the crowd: What would you do if you were asked to teach a short continuing-ed course on American experimental music before 1945? (Remember that these students are probably coming to the material with very little preparation; I also want to establish some general historical context early on.) I can’t wait to hear what you all come up with.

14 thoughts on “Experimental Instruction

  1. smooke

    Music in which you believe. If you’re excited about it, they will respond to that. Everything else is secondary. Sounds like fun and good luck with it!
    – David

    Reply
  2. Bob Chamberlin

    I would also want to include the music of Varese, Cowell,and Partch. Early electronic instruments could also be included: Theremin, Ondes Martenot. Sounds like a great course in the making. Best wishes.

    Reply
  3. Daniel Wolf

    Two suggestions, with best wishes on your course (I first taught a course in experimental music in 1983 at UCSC; your restriction to 1910-1945 certainly makes things interesting.)

    First suggestion: Think hard about what you consider experimental. The Paul Whiteman concert in which Rhapsody in Blue was premiered was billed as “an Experiment in Modern Music.” The term had a lot of currency and covered a lot of ground, but how meaningfully? Ives, Seeger, Cowell, Varese, Crawford Seeger, Becker, early Antheil (and Ezra Pound), Vivian Fine, and Henry Brant (as the youngest of the composers included in Cowell’s anthology) alongside the earliest works of Partch, Cage, and Harrison, and the surviving works of William Russell and Johanna Beyer all certainly fit the bit. Also pay attention to interesting cul de sacs, like Joseph Schillinger.

    But to what degree are the practices and aesthetics of other “ultra moderns” — Ruggles, Rudhyar, Riegger, Ornstein, Weiss — really experimental? Ruggles’s musical langiage was clearly a modern one, but his practice, working over his scores until perfected (“giving them the test of time”, was not necessarily of an experimental nature. Rudhyar and Ornstein seem to me to be far more directly connected to the Skriabiniste tradition than to other Americans, but you may well hear their music differently from me. On the other hand, the earliest Stein-and-Satie inspired works of Virgil Thomson, ordinarily considered a mainstreamer, before they simply became elements of a “Thomson style”, and often using rather explicit material restrictions, often made in fits of automatic writing, are more convincingly experimental in nature; certainly Thomson more often than most risked experimental failure in his music.

    Second suggestion: start with Ives’s Memos — in essence a memoir of a lifetime of musical experiment — as a point of departure. I’ve often thought that experimental music is perhaps best defined as trying out anything George Ives (or the George Ives Charles Ives allows us to imagine) might have tried.

    Reply
  4. mclaren

    Mildred Couper composed some of the first American quarter tone pieces, including the ballet Xanadu and piano pieces like Fawn in the Snow. Ivor Darreg composed Four Quarter Tone Pieces in 1943. Johanna Beyer wrote one of the first notated electronic music piece in 1938, Music of the Spheres, and her early percussion pieces from the 1930s like the Percussion Suite (1933) IV (1935) and March For Thirty Percussion Instruments (1939) use exotic time signatures like 2 1/2 / 4 that anticipate much later neorhythmic music by Conlon Nancarrow, Michael Gordon, Mikel Rouse, et al.

    Since there exists no such thing as “experimental music” in America, hermeneutic quibbling and word games prove pointless. If you want to consider out-of-the-mainstream composers, call ‘em that: in each case, their music eventually became mainstream a few decades later.

    Charles Griffiths’ opera The Cairn of Coridwen deserves inclusion, along with The White Peacock and The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan and Poem for Flute and Orchestra. Griffiths has gotten tarred with the brush of impressionism, an incorrect effort to pigeonhole and marginalize him. Griffiths’ music hews to a far more modernist orbit than Debussy’s. Griffiths wrote music that falls somewhere between Stravinsky and Debussy. Since the most transgressive final frontier of the avant garde remains sonic loveliness, Griffiths qualifies as one of the out-of-the-mainstream group.

    Lou Harrison’s early work often gets overlooked. He did some adventurous pieces for instruments like brake drum and oxygen cylinder, viz., Counterdance In the Spring (1940).

    Carl Ruggles and Dane Rudhyar worked well outside the mainstream in the 1920s and 1930s. By contrast, Henry Cowell’s writings proved adventurous, but his music (save for a few outlying pieces like Concerto for Rhythmicon and Orchestra (1933) and Fabric and Rhythmicana and Quartet Euphometric (1916-1919) and a handful of extended-technique piano pieces like The Banshee (1925)), not so much.

    This raises a question: should we judge American composers to reside outside the mainstream based on what they wrote, or on what they composed instead? If the former, Max Meyer deserves inclusion for The Musician’s Arithmetic (1929), especially since it contains a just intonation tonality diamond published before Partch wrote anything on the subject.

    Edgard Varese’s writings race light-years ahead of his music too. But should Varese count as an American composer? Or a transplanted European? Colin McPhee almost single-handedly invented minimalism with pieces like Tabu-Tabuhan and his Second Piano Concerto. McPhee qualifies as North American; American, maybe not.

    John Alden Carpenter’s Krazy Kat (1921) sounds like it comes from outside the mainstream, so he should be included too.

    Reply
  5. Owen Davis

    Great comments so far. I would also suggest “Experimental Music” by Micheal Nyman as a starting point. Have fun!

    Reply
  6. Patrick

    That’s Charles Tomlinson _Griffes_, not “Griffiths”, in his time a widely played and popular composer of concert works. His piano sheet music was a big seller. A student of Humperdinck, his work depends on equal parts for the music of Debussy but also Skrjabine, thus very much connected to the European main stream.

    Reply
    1. mclaren

      Thanks for the correction about Giffes’ name.

      In the 1910s, Debussy and Scriabin weren’t mainstream in America. Most American composers in that period were composing Americana and using motifs like cowboy songs for their source material. Roy Harris’ and David Diamond’s and Walter Piston’s symphonies and Aaron Copland’s ballets using folk tunes (that Shaker tune in Appalachian Spring) were the standard concert fare in American serious music in the 1910s and 1920s and 1930s, and if an American composer wanted to get outre and adventurous, he threw in a little jazz a la Gershwin’s Rhapdosy In Blue. Scriabin represented the far side of the moon back then, at least as far as American music in the 1910s and 1920s was concerned.

      Reply
      1. Daniel Wolf

        The “Americana” style did not come into fashion until the 1930’s, in the New Deal-era parallel to socialist realism, which largely eclipsed the “ultra-modernism” of the teens and ’20s. None of the symphonists you mention was active in the teens, let alone composing symphonies in the Americanist style (Harris’s Third Symphony, for example, a key work in the Americanist repertoire, was written 1937-1938, and revised 1939; David Diamond’s First Symphony wasn’t written until 1940; Walter Piston, on the other hand, was never an Americanist, remaining very much in the orbit of Boulanger).

        The advent of the Americanist style can be rather precisely dated to two events in the late 20s which had enormous influence on younger composers: the premiere of Charles Ives’ cowboy song “Charlie Rutledge” in a Copland-Sessions Concert with Copland himself playing piano (Copland, to that time, had been a Francophile modernist) and to the premiere of Virgil Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1927-28) in its four-hands arrangement by John Kirkpatrick.

        In the first decades of the 20th century, the larger cities in the US were surprisingly well-informed about development in Europe, arguably better informed than in any period since. Both Richard Strauss and Mahler conducted in the US in the first decade of the century, bringing new works in tow (Mahler was music director of the NY Phil.) As to Debussy and Scriabin in particular: There was practically a Debussy fever throughout the country in the early century (see, for example, this thesis on Debussy reception in Boston 1902-7: http://lastella.symphonicman.com/fas/thesis-rev1.01.pdf) Even a “conservative” like Amy Beach would experiment with whole tone scales in her later music, inspired specifically by the example of Debussy. Scriabin himself toured the US to great enthusiasm in 1906-1907. The music of these composers was novel, but not obscure.

        Reply
  7. Roydmags

    Ditto the first comment – teach the music you feel passionate about. This doesn’t seem to be a course which is preparing these students for another course – it simply is their only chance to know these sounds. They are not forced to be there like undergraduates – something I am sure you’ll enjoy! – but…they don’t have to be there.

    I’d give as much context as possible – play Ives, yes. But after playing his first Piano Sonata, play some contemporary Ragtime. Then play Stravinsky’s Ragtime, strange and non-American as it was, to show a reinterpretation. How can you show a thread from this music to the experimentation of the Beatles? This is what will make your class memorable and significant in their “muggle” lives.

    Have fun!
    RM

    Reply
  8. Phil Fried

    A consideration in such an enterprise is this; do you present experimentalist works by musical examples or by the composers? Why I ask is this: what was the composers commitment to experimental music over their life time? There seems a wide range on this. Were they consistent? Did they compose a work or two in the genre yet mostly compose mainstream work? How did that work? What was their motivation for their experiments? Did they codify the work of others, did they invent or did they have an idea that caused others to listen?

    By the way I wonder if Virgil Thomson’s opera fit in here.

    Or course its all easy with hindsight. Yet that mind set and the association their of are gone.

    Reply
  9. chris sahar

    What I suggest that I have not seen written is connecting with that period with present day music and technology to some degree. I’d suggest getting to know your students – find out about their listening tastes, music background and why they are taking the course.

    Ask, what experiments in that period became mainstream later? From this point it is easier to point out important cul de sacs.

    Here is some way of connecting the present with that period – take Ligeti score heard in Kubrick’s film. How can you connect say Lux Aeterna to the slow movement of Seeger’s String Quartet? How is that piece very much of its time and yet transcends it?

    Another connection is all the early computer music which were the building blocks for such technology as HD sound.

    Finally Gerswhin is a great starting point to more ambitious experiments (too bad you cannot include Babbitt’s All Set).

    I second the suggestion of using Ives letters as these reflect a changing role of the composer in the 20th century which Ives was a combination of. Ives was a composer starting as an insider and turned outsider, challenger of status quo and inventor in the music field.

    Reply
  10. Greta Couper

    Does anyone have a copy of Mildred Couper’s “Fawn in the Snow”?
    Thanks
    Greta Couper [granddaughter]

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.