Experimental music thrives on ambiguity, but within its subgenres and subcultures the boundaries of percussion are seemingly limitless and at times undefinable. It builds on the legacy of the Futurism movement, which, situated at the intersection of technology and art, made an early impact on what is now considered noise music. The movement sought to break the boundaries of sound in the 19th century, shocking audiences that were used to the homogeneity of classical music with a burgeoning avant-garde sound influenced by the industrial revolution and filled with obscure found sounds and effects.
Today, experimental music ranges from the erratic tempo shifts and droning chords of krautrock band Faust; the decibels of Joan La Barbara’s multiphonic vocal techniques shattering conformities; to the silence of John Cage’s “3’44”, which left a piece eternally open to interpretation. Then there’s La Monte Young, who established an important component of systems music and droning, while England's Throbbing Gristle (a part of the drone cult Coil) spawned the next generation of avant-gardes making harsh noise, new wave, and ambient indie music. But where does it come from, and where is it going?
Luigi’s Russolo’s The Art of Noises was an important component of the Futurism movement and Musique Concrète before the term was coined.
Inspired by the found sound concerto of colleague and composer Francesco Pratella, Russolo, then a painter and poet, wrote The Art of Noises: a manifesto about experimenting with sound that would come to define the Futurist movement. Russolo would go on to create a funnel instrument called the Intonarumori, meaning ‘noise intoners,’ that would replicate an eerie and screeching sound, today considered the first ‘noise’ music. The Intonarumori included 27 acoustic instrument boxes that made various sounds through a cardboard cone. Could these mechanical sounds be turned into music? That was Russolo’s revelation, of which he wrote:
“For years, Beethoven and Wagner have deliciously shaken our hearts. Now we are fed up with them. This is why we get infinitely more pleasure imagining combinations of the sounds of trolleys, autos and other vehicles, and loud crowds, than listening once more, for instance, to the heroic or pastoral symphonies.”
Within the Intonarumori, two octaves’ pitches were controlled by a crank to emulate machine guns, scraping metal, and cars sputtering. A chaotic orchestra, the Gran Concerto Futuristico of 1917, ensued in front of an audience of two thousand people, and emphasized the values of Futurism: industrialism, neo-technology, and a social and arts movement creating mediums beyond its time.
Musique Concrète originated from Pierre Schaeffer in Paris and is considered the first use of sampling. Having been trained as a radio engineer for Radio France in the early 1930s, he was able to freely explore sound effects and their possibilities. The station allowed him to use their equipment to create this sonic atmosphere, changing speed, timbre, and playing sounds backwards. Schaeffer was also an avid writer and founded the Studio d'Essai in 1942, which became a music center as well as a central part of the French Revolution. In 1948, he wrote Symphony of Noises with Pierre Henry, and detailed preparing for it in his book, which explains Schaeffer collecting found objects such as bicycle horns, door bells, alarm clocks, coconut shells, and clappers. Schaeffer was already calling himself and other composers “Concrète Musicians” and Symphonie of Noises is his first example of Musique Concrète. Schaeffer and Henry also founded the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète in 1951, then using a tape recorder to manipulate sound using magnetic tape. Schaeffer would disdain and be discouraging towards his work at the end of his life, concluding that there was no escape from traditional musical structures. But his methods would go on to influence a whole generation of music-makers.
Composers like John Cage carried on these groundbreaking sounds, developing the 25-tone ro and instrumental experimentations, including the silent composition “4’33,” found sound composition “Water Walk,” “Music of Changes” inspired by the randomization in I Ching’s divinations, and crowd participating composition “Variations I.” Cage also invented the concept of prepared piano where he would place inanimate objects onto the strings, and took his ideas all over the world with him. Although he stopped performing in 1970, Cage continued to write music and become a seminal figure in the underground avant-garde until his death in 1992.w and dedicated his life to unconventional compositions.
Bleeps and Bloops, Yodeling and Hums
The San Francisco Tape Music Center was established in the summer of 1962, born out of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music by composers Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick. The original studio, above the SFCM, was minimalistic but aimed at experimental recordings and a watering hole for artists searching for collaboration and equipment. The Center held live concerts and parties that at the time were controversial; this was the pre-Haight Ashbury counterculture’s commercialism and a subculture that consisted of music nerds expanding beyond the lines of Beatles pop, swing jazz, and classical music. Those subcultures would soon convene and create a dense San Francisco art scene on various sides of psychedelia–both the organized chaos and the orderly, the avant-garde and the soon-to-be Woodstock crowd, and making noise for the sake of creative freedom and anti-authority. The Tape Music Center’s colleagues included Don Buchla, creator of the Buchla Box, and Morton Subotnick, considered one of the first electronic artists who aided Buchla with his invention of the synthesizer that was controlled by touch plates.
Subotnick recorded the first electronic album on a major classical label, Silver Apples of the Moon, thats novel bloops likely inspired by Karlheinz Stockhausen, attracted both the club and space-age crowds produced by the Buchla synth that was shipped from California to New York where Subotnick had a residency at New York University. Subotnick also worked with Pauline Oliveros at the Tape Music Center, who used her droning vocal techniques as mental relief from sociopolitical stresses of the late ‘60s; humming with an accordion strictly on the A chord that provoked a dissonant Om, and inventing non-verbal communicative exercises. Oliveros would also work with Steve Reich on his debut album New Sounds in Electronic Music, whose title speaks for itself; Reich’s use of tape manipulation on loop with a frenetic and repetitive pulse and taking that with him throughout his 60-year career.
Morton Subotnick would collaborate and marry vocalist Joan La Barbara–whose vocal techniques would change how the voice is used in music. La Barbara’s extended vocalisations can be heard on her 1976 debut album Voice is the Original Instrument and 1977’s Tapesongs. Her vocals sound between the ululations of a Latin song and cooing wild birds caught in a spatial chamber, echoing a chopped-and-screwed opera. La Barbara was classically trained, distorting that vocal training experience, expanding what vocals could do, influenced by Cathy Berberian’s erratic vocal work with composer Luciano Berio in the 1960s. Berberian used that vocalization in multiple genres, including covering the Beatles, and using various styles.
A yodelling sigh echoes on free jazz tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’ “The Creator Has A Master Plan” and comes from Leon Thomas’s glottal-stop vocals. Thomas also uses the techniques in his 1969 album Spirits Known and Unknown, subtitled as New Vocal Frontiers. His work with Sanders is prominent, but on his own Thomas represents those frontiers with a style that isn’t novel as it is distinct and emotive–deriving influence from Pygmy yelli yodelings and introducing sounds beyond jazz scat vocalizations. Thomas would call this method "soularphone," stating that his voice was given to him by his ancestors.
As experimental vocals and droning combined, drone music was becoming a part of the New York City avant-garde scene, influencing subgenres no wave, minimalism, and Lou Reed’s noise album Metal Machine Music. La Monte Young is considered a forefather of drone music, also known as dream music, influenced by Indian classical music. Young would define his work with the dream chord, a set of four specific pitches, G-C-C♯-D, that were inspired by the droning sounds of telephone poles Young would hear growing up in Bern, Idaho, Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone-technique, and the Just Intonation’s tuning a pitch at a fraction. This method can be heard in his compositions “Trio for Strings,” “Brass” and “The Four Dreams of China.” Young alongside artist Marian Zazeela now runs the longstanding installation Dream House in downtown Manhattan.
The Grandchildren of the Avant-Garde
One of Pierre Schaeffer’s students, Éliane Radigue, took drone music and created ambient sounds on her 1970 album Vice-Versa, etc… altering the feedback from two tape recorders to create minimalist droning just a year before attaining an ARP 2500 synthesizer, in a pre-Brian Eno ambient era when the genre didn’t have a name.
Brian Eno was a few years late, joining glam rock band Roxy Music’s in 1970 as a “technical advisor” turned keyboardist and tape reel extraordinaire. Four years later, he would classify ambient music as an almost-household term through a series of solo albums, the first artist to label their music as such with 1975’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, and producing other ambient series with multi-instrumentalist Laraaji, Ambient 3: Day of Radiance–using a dulcimer and a zither that Laraaji turned electric that is layered to sound just as ethereal as the musician’s message of spreading light.
Music for Airports uses the splice loop taping on a 24-track edited to be at half speed in addition to an ARP 2600 synthesizer. Eno had previously released 5 albums prior and two of which, Another Green World and Discreet Music, have songs hinting towards the future of his music. Eno would later produce three albums for new wave band Talking Heads, and collaborated with lead vocalist David Byrne on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in 1981, in what is considerably the first commercial record to use sampling. Eno and Byrne owe world music that has influenced their individual music for this album, which is controversially seen as cultural appropriation—taking from polyethnic sounds to create something that is simultaneously industrial and primitive. Eno would also be inspired by Miles Davis’ 1974 double album compilation Get Up With It that includes 4 years of sessions dedicated to Duke Ellington. The album stylistically shows early hip-hop, jazz funk, fusion, and progressive rock with improvisations and Latin undertones–Miles putting down his trumpet for an frenetic electric organ on certain tracks, and whose playing reverbs with dark and emotive improvisations rarely unheard of from a mainstream jazz artist at the time, showing Davis’ exploration into electronic sounds.
In Portsmouth, England, a pathologist and an archaeologist's mutual love for the band Tyrannosaurus Rex led to one of the more experimental records entering the ‘80s, Renaldo & the Loaf’s Songs For Swinging Larvae, after dropping off a tape at art collective The Residents’ label Ralph Records in San Francisco. The album uses clarinet, bouzouki, scalpel, hacksaw blade, glockenspiels, mandolin, bamboo, guitars, and vocals that are all looped through tape manipulation to sound like a spindle of 8-bit computer games, synthesizers, and drums. The backwards vocals sound between a malfunctioning soundboard and a hyperactive Nickelodeon animation’s soundtrack, and perhaps exactly what a pathologist and an architect with those stage names might make; Renaldo and the Loaf map out their textures but never quite point in any sort of genre’s direction. Yet, it is pre-electronica, and as the decade went on more experimental sounds would attempt at making organic use of sounds that are twisted invertedly, a preferred manipulation that landed their three-part music video onto MTVs video roster.
That same year, Laurie Anderson’s Big Science made it big with the hit single “O, Superman,” using harmonizing vocoders, glass harmonicas, bagpipes, Farfisa organ, accordions, horn instruments, and found sounds as percussion. And in Los Angeles, CA, art collective World Imitation Productions members put together the band Monitor. Their visual art included photocopy mail art and installations around L.A. which included planting artwork throughout Disneyland theme park. Monitor was WiMp’s way to put music out there coherently and, as stated by WiMp, to: "translate the World Imitation collage aesthetic into sound. In 1981, Monitor’s self-titled LP was released and experimented with ethnographic field recordings of African percussions, creating loops out of certain phrases the band would transcribe and adapt into drum beats.
New York’s no wave scene in the ‘80s was a reaction against punk and new wave, and teetering between nihilistic electronic music and noise experimentation, that sometimes implemented saxophones. Bands such as DNA, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, and Theoretical Girls came out of the scene. Theoretical Girls’ composer and guitarist Glenn Branca went solo and broke the boundaries of the no wave’s minimalism, influencing bands around like Sonic Youth–playing louder sounds on his debut symphony Symphony No. 1: Tonal Plexus in 1983. Branca has a pummeling and mesmerizing drone to his sound, creating a guitar centric symphony with chords repeating until it erupts into cacophony, while focusing on intonation. 17 years later, Symphony No. 13, “Hallucination City,” for 100 guitars enhanced Branca’s sonic theories, hiring 100 guitarists each playing at a different tuning to the same note for 70 minutes. It’s a build-up of harsh noise that would be comparable to classical compositions, but obscure to classical composers for its unrelenting and transcendent brashness.
Some of these scenes would converge with hip-hop at the time of its mainstream introduction, mainly through the turntable experiments happening uptown in the Bronx.
A Record Scratch Makes a Futuristic Movement
The late ‘70s into the early '80s at Sugar Hill Records was a groundbreaking time, with the release of what is considered the first commercial hip-hop song “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang. A few years later, a man and his turntable would influence a whole genre with the song “The Message.” GrandMaster Flash grew up in the Bronx, collecting transistors off the streets and creating a sound system fit for his record scratching loops on two turntables. He called it the “Quick-Mix Theory,” that looped songs and drum breaks. Flash was also influenced by DJ Kool Herc’s “Merry-go-Round'' break-beating method that took two of the same albums and repeated breaks.
Other DJs on the scene like Grand Wizard Theodore, who created the scratching method, and Afrika Bambaataa would be influenced by one another’s techniques, but the whole of the emerging genre would alter for life, carrying on in pop music, rock music’s hip-hop collaborations, and EDM genres like drum-and-bass .
Russolo’s Futurist movement may not have predicted the experimentations heard over the last 100 years. But the culmination of these artists’ work daring to defy, or simply searching for a sound unheard of before, are what influence the boundless genres that exist in modern music.
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Writer | Gabby Castellano
Gabby Castellano is a music journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. She mainly focuses on music history subjects, but is always down to write your band’s biography. Gabby also enjoys wandering around New York City, throwing DIY events with friends, creating video and sculpture art, and listening to free jazz with her cat Luna.