A Timeline and Perspective on Experimental Music Since World War II, by Cole Cassano
Just as complicated and controversial as the experimental art music that exploded after World War II is the terminology we use to refer to it. As much as the commonly used “modern music” imparts, it belies about a century worth of artistic tumult. “Modern,” that is, modernist music began to develop near the end of the nineteenth century with more distinctly delineated avant-garde movements such as Impressionism, Expressionism, and Serialism (the latter of which especially marked a major shift in compositional practice). We see in this period a sort of tug-of-war between progressive or experimental and conservative or traditional approaches in music ongoing throughout major periods of music history; we will continue to see this “after” modernism (which doesn’t have an agreed-upon end), except any neat, granular ordering of musical movements existing in these sorts of binary struggles will only continue to dissolve and get more abstract.
The end of World War II provides a convenient entry point, making particular reference to Paul Griffiths’ especially insightful book Modern Music and After, into studying “modern music” and what nebulously comes after. The atrocities of the Holocaust and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were among some of the traumas of the war that, just as with the first World War thirty years earlier, prompted further despair and distrust in the established artistic principles. 1945 also brought the death of serialist composer Anton Webern, opening a new chapter of his life’s work; the new music composers convening at the Darmstadt summer courses started expanding on Webern’s and the other serialists’ ideas, aiming towards perfecting a possible “total serialism”. Meanwhile, John Cage and his contemporaries in America rose to notoriety for their avant-garde performance art pieces which challenged conventions of composition and what could be considered “music” at all. At this time, composers were also experimenting with electronic sources of sound; what was then cutting-edge technology continued to provide new avenues for both composition and performance. In the 1960s, minimalism emerged in some ways out of but also largely in reaction to whatever arguably “maximalist” came before it; indeed, some within the previous generations of avant-garde composers were hostile toward these developments. All the while, popular music forms such as rock ‘n’ roll and jazz music in America continued to experiment with more “sophisticated” art music and unravel in their own complex, branching traditions.
As tangible as these historical events may seem, a comprehensive, encompassing music history would be intensely more intricate, with the proliferation and cross-pollination of distinct styles and influences not only being impossible to fully realize (especially given all the terminological issues it would unpack), but also needing to trace the international historical factors propelling certain artistic shifts and trends. Griffiths gives historical context for important years throughout Modern Music and After. In my own timeline, I indicate 1945 with the end of World War II as my general starting point, but from then on, I only discuss musical works, instead trying to represent multiple international important developments through that lens. Over the almost fifty years of musical history I cover, some of these shifts become apparent: the ongoing tugs-of-war between and even within generations of composers, the way certain moments or schools of thought become especially private and localized (for example, with Polish sonoristic composers or French spectral composers) under larger, stagnating catch-alls (i.e. “avant-garde” or “experimental”), the advancing technology transforming composition and performance, and the increasing presence and availability of recorded music. What I especially try to indicate is the wash of musical ideas that defy any distinct historical periodization as the younger generations of artists continue to have at their disposal once fiercely defended musical ideals from across music history, now able to be decontextualized and reimagined in groundbreaking ways.
Doing this research in the library (and as an aspiring librarian myself), I was constantly met with questions regarding the information architecture of my project, and how best to organize data that necessarily resists organization, data which I collected up until roughly fifty years, at a point when the newness of minimalism had thoroughly exploded and technology was thoroughly entrenched into music composition: hence I end with Public Enemy and golden-age hip-hop, recognizing how soluble is the divide between “popular” and “classical” music. What became especially difficult was divorcing my own subjectivity, inasmuch as I really could, in creating the timeline, and being as objective as possible in discussing each work’s significance and justifying its inclusion.
In doing this, I first wanted to standardize a general terminology, which is why I refer to post-war music as generally “contemporary music”: not as necessarily contemporary to us (few of the composers I list are still alive) but more to avoid the slippery slopes of what some might call no longer “modernist,” but “postmodernist” or even “postclassical”. Additionally, I refer to “art music” instead of “classical” or “concert music” as those terms tend to largely exclude popular music artists (oftentimes to harmful ends). While indeed “art music” might carry its own history, as well as, at times, elitist connotations, it’s more accurate for encompassing works of both popular and classical music, or recorded and solely concert music. Finally, at the core of all these works, for me, is their experimental qualities. As much as terms like “experimental” and “avant-garde” (both, of course, are different) can become buzzwords or lose their meaning, at the core of each of these works is something I find very experimental, whether as a genuinely innovative work, or as it stands within the composer’s personal development or within the social and historical circumstances it was created. Many of these works either speak to something wholly cutting-edge, or hybridize musical rhetorics from across history, but in doing either, tread into unknown waters.
Establishing this framework helped inform which works made it into the timeline, since as much as I needed to recognize the more obvious, well-known works and composers, I wanted to center the more obscure composers, especially those whose success was barred because of who they were. Thus, I tried to highlight composers from this window of time who were women, people of color, (openly) queer, or disabled, and whose voices were stifled by the predominantly white male musical world, one which largely, in the window of time I was covering, was localized in North America and Europe anyway. Many of these composers (and indeed, many more not on the timeline) are only recently being given their due; for example, Florence Price and Julius Eastman, both African-American composers whose work incorporated African-American vernacular music, have been largely rediscovered after their deaths, with restoration efforts still underway to preserve what can be saved of their life and work. My timeline features both of these and other lesser-known composers, trying to strike a healthy balance between these and the more well-known composers.
There were of course some works and composers that should’ve made it into the timeline, which is why I also call this project a perspective on contemporary experimental music. Initially, I was planning on focusing more solely on Steve Reich and minimalism; however, when I realized that the best course of action to take would be to more broadly study the music immediately following World War II, up to and including minimalism, I started familiarizing myself with an additional twenty to thirty years of musical history with roughly a month left of research, instead of the many years it might take to more adequately study, appreciate, and even perform this music enough to consider myself any sort of expert. I also avoided any in-depth musical analysis of certain works and stayed largely surface-level, although there are certainly works here that book-length sources can be (and have been) written about.
In general, when I continue to familiarize myself with more works by these composers, I can imagine looking back on this timeline and wanting to have done things differently. Nevertheless, arranging things the way that I did now came from places of deep interest and admiration. For example, I knew I needed to start my timeline with Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps; even though it was written during the war (and in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, no less), and even though I’m not a Messiaen expert, to me, the piece and its genesis symbolize a new chapter of healing and growth about to be opened in history (in addition to simply being an amazing and moving piece of music). Some of these works and composers are still largely new to me; others, like Copland’s Appalachian Spring or Eno’s Music for Airports, I already have my own nostalgia for. In the end, each piece of music that follows is daring, innovative, and thought-provoking in its own way, and I hope this timeline can not only help you appreciate how, but maybe even give you some recommendations!
Most of my descriptions for each work were developed based on the entries for composers on Grove Music Online, as well as the articles, website pages, and book-length sources which can be found in my works consulted.