By Jeremy Farkas // Photo by Adriana Ciccone
Experimental music is a broad spectrum label for any music that pushes the boundaries of cliches in any given genre. When a musician or composer incorporates styles from various genres and/or non-musical elements into their music, it may fall under the umbrella of experimental music.
“Experimental music” was a phrase used in the mid-20th century to describe a range of ultramodernist compositional techniques as being a form of quasi-scientific research. John Cage, an American composer and music theorist, pointed out that the term should apply to music where “the outcome of which is not known”—so, music with improvisation, since the composer shouldn’t have pre-planned it for it to be considered experimental. Now, it tends to refer to music where the elements are unusual or weird.
John Cage, born 1912, USA, was one of the first experimental composers in modern history, blurring the lines between what music is and what it isn’t. Experimenting with silence, nature sounds, the sounds of the performer moving and even background noises found in an auditorium, Cage found a way to incorporate all of it into his compositions and therefore, pioneered experimental music.
In 1966 the boundaries between pop and experimental music began to blur with music purposefully created and executed as distinct, cohesive pieces. Records by the Beach Boys, The Velvet Underground, The Beatles, Frank Zappa, and many other artists of the time began including avant-garde stylings in their compositions.
Avant-garde and progressive rock soared throughout the early to mid 70’s with bands like Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis released groundbreaking records, pushing the boundaries with experimental sounds and recording techniques, and even more so bridging the gap between experimental and pop music. Brian Eno also began creating experimental art-pop records, using synthesized sounds and effects to create otherworldly sounds. Kraftwerk, a German band, pioneered electro-pop music as we know it today, creating records using self-made instruments, vocoders, drum machines, and synthesizers, something unheard of at the time.
Hip Hop was experimental for the time, introducing sampling into popular music. Shoegaze expanded on the effects laden music Brian Eno was famous for, featuring a wash of reverb and delay soaked guitars and vocals, where no instrument is very distinguishable from each other. Sonic Youth took art-rock in a different direction by creating their own tunings by modifying their instruments with non-musical objects such as pencils and screw drivers to create their own tunings.
Post-rock began in the 90’s and became popular with acts such as Sigor Ros, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, and Mogwai. Post-Rock artists used traditional rock instrumentation to create songs based out of textures and timbre, rather than traditional song structures. Mr. Bungle, an experimental rock band from California, was one of the first bands to blend the genres of metal, funk, jazz, and ska, to create an incredibly eclectic sound that would inspire many experimental musicians in the future.
One of the newer forms of experimental music comes in the form of the genre vaporwave. Vaporwave is a form of music created from blending elevator music lounge music and old commercial jingles from the 80’s and 90’s and shoving it all together to create songs that don’t really go anywhere.