M. Nyman, Experimental Music. Cage and Beyond

The tradition of experimental music is important for the field music games. Many threads that we follow are presented in Nyman's book, so it's a worthy read even if the game aspect is far from the focus. Chapters are:

  1. Towards (a definition of) experimental music
  2. Backgrounds
  3. Inauguration 1950-60: Feldman, Brown, Wolff, Cage
  4. Seeing, hearing: Fluxus
  5. Electronic systems
  6. Indeterminacy 1960-70: Ichinayagi, Ashley, Wolff, Cardew, Scratch Orchestra
  7. Minimal music, determinacy and the new tonality.

First chapters

The book uses a lot of its space to present pieces of experimental music, in some parts even becoming a dense list of work descriptions. Other type of content is provided irregularly but is dominant in Chapter 1, which is theoretical and develops notions currently broadly adopted (e.g. process music). There is a clear attempt to distinguish between avant-garde music and experimental music. These related terms are often contrasted in the book, sometimes rising almost to the level of antonyms.

The first chapter contains also The Game Element, which is maybe the shortest subchapter in the whole book (p. 17-18).1 It features Christian Wolff and Dick Higgins while referring to game-related insights from Morse Peckham's Man's Rage for Chaos with the focus on bounded unpredictability and the element of challenge.

See: Writing, Music text by Michael Pisaro for an analysis of Christian Wolff's rules.

The next section Rules and their (subjective) interpretation focuses on ambiguities of scores. This is relevant in the context of game design practice which stresses the need for the precision of rules. Still, when comparing to traditional notated scores, a music game is usually very imprecise as for the musical material. Unfortunately but understandably, Michael Nyman doesn't distinguish between interacting with the system and purely musical decisions, and as we see from the book, both types of ambiguities commonly happen in experimental music.

Backgrounds chapter focuses on the precursors and has some playfulness represented by Satie. Then the chapter about pioneers presents the works that properly introduced indeterminacy and alternative notations into music; it also gives insight into personal relations between the four heroes of experimental music (Feldman, Brown, Wolff, Cage). As for Christian Wolff, the composer will be later showcased in Chapter 6, and we get to know his early permutation-based phase now, also a short reference to his Madrigals (1950, a very early example of "parameter follows the line" mechanic) and a fitting quote:

Christian Wolff said of the early days in New York, when he, Feldman and Cage brought their latest pieces to show each other: 'Sounds were treated as self-contained counters, and fitting them together was a bit like making moves in a game of chess.'

Specific chapters

See: Fluxfestkit Legacy activity for a selection of Fluxus scores.

As for the historical presentation, chapters 4 and 6 are the most wiki-relevant. The Fluxus chapter, Seeing, Hearing, suitably marks the moment when more photos of performances are presented alongside illustrations of scores. When speaking about early days of Fluxus at the workshops led by Cage, Nyman notices (p. 75):

Toys figured largely in the New School class, since they could be played without any specialized training, produced unhackneyed sounds, and could be picked up at dime stores on the way to the class.

Famously, Fluxus was inspired by games and Dick Higgins coined the term "Games of Art" — we get a few examples of that inspiration in Chapter 4, but rather simple ones.

Page 99 displays the Cage's Reunion piece (chess with Marcel Duchamp) and the next chapter is: Indeterminacy 1960-70: Ichiyanagi, Ashley, Wolff, Cardew, Scratch Orchestra. It's again impossible to dissect all the rich material provided by the author as a copy or as a description. Comparing to earlier Fluxus, we are closer to participatory and open activities, agency of performers, and musically-grounded works, so there is a lot to work with, but the chapter spends also quite a lot of time with recordable/listenable music of AMM and Musica Electronica Viva.

A little thought-provoking detail is to be found on p. 135 in the Scratch Orchestra part. There, a Houdini Rite is mentioned which Nyman attributes to Hugh Shrapnel, whereas in the wiki we have CMH-CR135 ("Hand-cuff Rite" attributed in Nature Study Notes to Chris May) and Houdini Exercise (which CBN reports as Cardew's). But let's leave that for historians.

The final chapter focuses on minimalism, apart from the American classics it showcases also British developments, for example John White's "machines". The theme especially of interest is the accessibility of experimental music and another topic is the political involvement of musicians. There is the following quote in the final paragraph of the book (p. 170-171) from Alan Brett:

"those artists who have achieved a revolution within their individual artistic languages have rendered their own efforts a useless nonsense, because of their works' total lack of revolutionary content".

The question of the tension between accessibility and sophistication might be even more relevant for music game designers than many other artists.

Unless stated otherwise Content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License. See licensing details