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The Sporting Life
being experimental in NYC
by: Valerie Kuhne - November 10, 2012


The Sporting Life [i]*

The word “experiment” is derived from the Latin “ex-perimentum,” which means to try, to attempt. The word “experience” shares the same root, and it basically refers to “what we learn from experimenting.” Apply this funny twist to experimental music, and the following is suggested: the definition of experimental is impossible to pin down, as this process of trial and error applies to all experience.

Oddly, defining oneself as an “experimental” musician has become extremely popular in the past few years. While the etymology of experimental certainly leaves room for this claim, it does not capture the reality of what truly experimental musicians do.

To be an undeniably experimental musician – to belong to what is commonly referred to as the “experimental scene” – a band or artist must be focused on music as a pure and unforeseeable experience: music that’s thoroughly raw and free from preconceived notions and genres music that begins and ends with the experience of listening, creating, performing, remembering, reflecting and everything in between. It is difficult to imagine a more personal process – one that requires a great effort on behalf of its audience, demanding a listening experience that matches the intensity of the creating experience.

This is what makes experimental music so poignant for us: as our readers surely know, living and working as a musician in this city is hard as nails. Living and working as an experimental musician in this city is a hundred times harder.

We All Move to Brooklyn [ii]*

A few days before I started writing this article, I learned of a serious fight involving NYC drummer Kevin Shea and the son of the owner/talent buyer of an East Village venue, iconic for its historical interest in avant jazz and experimental music. The owner wanted the musicians to pay her $50 bucks since no one came to hear them. The owner’s son punched Kevin in his left eye when he refused. The musicians chased him into Tompkins Square Park. [iii]*

In Manhattan, the following conditions seem to underscore venues opening their doors to experimental music:
1. Poor organization, location and/or reputation force the venue to desperately and
haphazardly fill empty nights.
2. The venue can’t get a liquor license.
3. They are John Zorn.

In Manhattan, experimental musicians bother to play said venues for the following reasons:
1. They are from Europe.
2. They are in College
3. They don’t know John Zorn.

It’s tempting to blame the loss of a desire to explore new modes of musical communication on the irrationality of venue owners who drag art down with them. Indeed, as consumers, we tend to fetishize marketing to the degree at which an idea feels incomplete, untamed and childish if it lacks the structure necessary to keep it short, package it, plug it in two sentences, and describe it over cocktails. When you try to get a word in, a note out and a message past the programmed cacophony of our “Information Age,” you will feel that you’re up against a slave driver, and the unspoken minority reacts by talking to themselves, in freely improvised code.

In the case of experimental music, the code is intentionally obscured to the point of pure reflexivity. Like taking it upon yourself to create a new language for your child – as opposed to teaching them their native tongue – and then laughing in the face of humanity when the child can’t express its needs. Herein lies the truth of experimental art, spread-eagled and hoarse: it embodies humanity’s basic inability to communicate its deepest needs. Transitively, experimental artists portray a child-like obliviousness in understanding that this breakdown in communication, and little more, describes the reality of what they practice: They say what they say because they can’t say what they really want to say.

Two years ago I decided to put myself in an uncomfortable position. I armed myself in the few years of experience that I had gigging as a cellist in NYC. I brashly swallowed an opportunity to transform the café that I was working at into a legitimate venue, and discovered what it means to be a full-time curator of experimental music.

If you’re a curator of experimental music, you blame the problems with venues and the problems with artists on exclusivity: It floods public perception. It brainwashes musicians. It’s a deadly rash. Case in point: I can count the active experimental “promoters” in this City on one hand. Compare that to your average indie-head talent buyer, and the ratio peels in at about 200/1. This is not because other genres of music are cheap. It is because they understand that exclusivity kills.

The Unconscious Imitated by a Cheesecake [iv]*

Experimental music operates under the principles of spontaneity. There is no association, idea and chord too absurd. There is no known structure worth adhering to in ritual. In an experimental context, your work is rated relative to the speed and capacity of your imagination and reflexes. You live your life in avoidance of the question: Who are your influences?

The fact is everything that we want to be listening to is breaking down. Influence has overcome musical propriety. Blame Pandora or praise the coordinating gestures of Modernism, either way, it is happening. You hear it bold and garishly in Hip Hop (the birthplace of sampling). You face it slightly desperately in the new generation of Classical Musicians (see LPR’s Wordless music series). Mostly and most elegantly – you hear it in electronic music, because the element of newness here is... newer (see Tim Exile’s “Family Galaxy”).

Yet music has always been mutating, extending and overtaking. So why have we convinced ourselves otherwise? Why have the most experimentally minded among us decided that deconstructing a genre is a necessarily exclusive process?

I’ve toured the world, and experimental communities are strong in their intimacy. New York has an experimental community dozens of times larger than anywhere else. Sadly, the community is fractured – subject to the same scene-driven mentality dominating other genres. Their music can actually withstand being broken down into cliques due to corporate marketing of audience surplus.

I’m baffled that this subdivision exists in the experimental community. Maybe it’s something we ate.

Have You Seen That Movie “Untitled”?

A consequence here is that experimental music has become characterized simply by lack of audience. This is a problem for everyone. Nobody knows what’s going on underneath commercial success. As much as I’d like to accredit an intrinsic lack of curiosity and deafening self-interest on the behalf of those who aren’t bothering to tune in, I can’t. Life is driven by curiosity, anticipation and surprise. The question is how we share and how the simple act of sharing congeals when faced with corporate appeal and the need to prove financial capability. It’s a pickle. On one hand, you have a group of musicians opting out of the system, focusing on the creative process and vying for a more substantial human currency that deepens as it flails. On the other, you have systems in place to generate hype, interest and attention, and frankly they work. The problem is that they’ve been appropriated by capitalist logic. Neither produces a particularly desirable mating call for the musically savvy.

Alien Suns [v]*

Experimental artists have achieved notoriety, and groups of these artists have pulled together to resonate beyond their more accessible colleagues. I’d be hard pressed to find a New Yorker who wasn’t familiar with (or at least pretended to be familiar with to save face) Laurie Anderson, Sun Ra and Moon Dog. Regardless of what aspiring record execs and teen daydreamers wish to believe, it’s never so much a question of marketing content as it is proliferation and outstanding character (it doesn’t matter whether this character is offensive or diplomatic it just has to be big).

A current example to consider might be The Residents. Besides being prolific, they are systematically inclusive. Their M.O. is structured to include as many cursory artists and freaks as possible. A habitat has been created, generative like a biosphere, where the odd grows odder, and music breeds theater and theater performance art – primal and running around with gigantic eyeballs on heads (except for Mr. Skull, he wears a skull). The cameos multiply as rapidly as the production value. There’s nothing pretentious about it. That’s the beauty. The worst that can be said is that it’s weird and weird doesn’t even mean anything. It’s a grammatical and syntactical tick, merely signifying that you don’t know what to think, which is perfectly awesome. That’s more than the point of this experimental confabulation: It’s absurd, and if you let it, this quotient for surprise will feed your human soul forever.

I might refer to The Resident’s success, and I wouldn’t be referencing it in economic terms at all. They are successful because they’ve rallied a meticulously talented crew of artists and lunatics to collaborate with them. They’ve cultivated excitement and surprise, and structured their progeny in a way that’s not only functional, but singular not only singular, but otherworldly from the standpoint of the spectator.

I don’t want to imply that experimental music needs to be histrionic. However, stimulation is crucial – no matter how understated one’s approach to performance. It’s a personal choice how one chooses to conceive the theatricality of their music relative to the spirit of the times. Although, regardless of the content, art should aspire to affect as many people as possible, not by embellishing or decreasing the message conveyed to fit a standard, but by expanding and refining toward a greater universality: experience as totality. Expression is reciprocal – give the audience a chance to experience the music as directly as the musician.

The Freegans of the Music Industry

In a recent post on The Super Coda blog, I asked what experimental musicians were willing to sacrifice for their art. Why it is they don’t bat an eye in subordinating their lives to professional misery and infested apartments if it means a few extra hours per week to craft projects. On a grand scale, the answer to this question is obvious – creating is rejuvenating and life affirming. It’s the only tool that we have to sooth and shift the narrative of personal habit, social fear and disdain. The logical progression of this philosophy (and clue towards a healthy society) is to share this process.

It has come to pass that familiar modes of sharing have become outdated. Sharing becomes progressively more problematic while facing the Internet. The fact that being a musician now, in NYC, requires an amount of work previously unheard of is not to be shunned. It just means that you have to work harder, and create a structure, a community and audiences that respond to the same creative urgency you do. You create a way of working, building and exuding that is as creative as the music itself. New contexts must be imagined which almost force people to pay attention. Art is growing more difficult, but it is also simply growing. As with most things, this reality is exaggerated if you live in NYC.

So let it be said that musicians must sacrifice for the strenuous task of generating passion. They learn the ways of surprise, interest and intellect, and recognize these qualities in the world, especially in fellow musicians, even if they veer with dissimilar rhythms. They sacrifice for a realization of sound and performance that is bigger than them – the creators. They sacrifice because their work is worthy of being received by the world and because the world is smarter than it realizes, and deserves to hear music that celebrates this fact with electronic bleeps, cacophonous asymmetry, dissonance – raw, curious and absurd.

Otherwise they’re sacrificing for alienation, which is...very boring.


[i] An absurd title, to be sure - also the name of the legendary record released by Diamanda Galas and John Paul Jones in 1994.
[ii] Tongue and cheek title of one of Natti Vogel’s tunes.
[iii] Note: Since this article was first written, the son of the venue owner who punched Kevin Shea in the face was arrested and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.
[iv] A chapter title out of William S. Burrough’s Cities of the Red Night.
[v] Also the name of Rachel Mason’s recently performed rock opera.

"Stimulation is crucial, no matter how understated one's approach to performance. It's a personal choice how one chooses to conceive the theatricality of their music relative to the spirit of the times."

The Sporting Life

what it is

An article about the struggles of being a experimental musician in NYC and beyond.