Experimental Music - The Devils Interval by Katie English
I’ve been unsure about the term experimental since I was doing a gig in a room above a pub some years ago. A man popped his head around the venue door and asked what sort of music was on tonight. I replied ‘sort of experimental, electronic stuff’. ‘Oh, like the Rocky soundtrack?’. The woman next to me who was halfway through telling me how great my music is for doing yoga to guffawed and I said not quite, a bit more chilled than that, and he shrugged before wandering back to the pub. But while personally, I wouldn’t put ‘Eye of the Tiger’ in the experimental bracket, he did get me thinking.
Admittedly, all music genres are open to a fair amount of interpretation but ‘experimental’ is a minefield. Technically, anything is experimental when it’s new l so it’s odd that the term has generally come to mean, if not a definite sound, then certainly a generally accepted ‘vibe’. Having said that, it’s such an open term; to ambient types ‘experimental’ can be something a bit noisier than the average, to jazzers it can mean something even more noodly and abstract than usual and to pop-heads it can be as simple as using something that isn’t a guitar or a time signature that isn’t 4/4.
The ‘devil’s interval’ of a tritone was feared by many in medieval times yet a modern listener wouldn’t blink to hear it. Most would know it as the plaintive cry of Tony to Maria in West Side Story – a fairly corny tune to our modern ears but in times past it would have proved controversial. In 1913 Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring left audiences bemused at best and angry at worst but you’d be hard pushed to find a John Williams score that doesn’t owe at least something to it. All this just leaves you feeling that everyone got a little lazy with the word experimental – it kind of fit what a bunch of acts were doing in the 1960s but no one bothered to take a step back and think that in 10 years’ time it wouldn’t sound so experimental.
As a composer, the term leaves me cold. Fair enough, I begin a piece by experimenting but by the time I’ve written and recorded the finished tracks, I’ll have worked and reworked and practised, played the tunes live and worked on them some more to the point that they’re no longer experimental. And yet plenty of people would class my work as experimental, simply because it doesn’t quite fit into any one genre. I can understand the reasoning behind it, as with ambient (No drums? Ambient!) and so many other vague genres it’s easier than trying to explain something that doesn’t fit neatly into a pop/rock/jazz/hip-hop box, especially to someone unfamiliar with whatever you’re trying to explain. However, after that briefest of exchanges above a Winchester pub, when you get a reaction like that it does make you realise it’s probably not quite as specific as everyone likes to think it is.
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Image credit Spencer Imblock