Abstract: Since the publication of John Cage’s essay ‘Experimental Music: Doctrine’ of 1955, a dichotomy has informed a good deal of historiography of new music between ‘avant-garde’ and ‘experimental’ musics, especially following the publication of Michael Nyman’s book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond in 1974. Nyman very clearly portrayed ‘experimental music’ as a fundamentally Anglo-American phenomenon, allowing almost no European composers into his pantheon. This opposition was itself foreshadowed in various writings of John Cage and Morton Feldman, and since the appearance of Nyman’s book has remained a prominent ideological construct, even feeding into other oppositions such as ‘high/low’ music, ‘uptown/downtown’ or ‘modern/postmodern’.
In this paper, I trace the history and development of the concept of ‘experimental’ music in several types of literature published in Europe and North America from the 1950s until the present day: general histories of music of this period, histories of American music, the writings of Cage, Feldman and Wolff, secondary literature on these figures, and other work dealing specifically with ‘experimental music’. I argue that from the late 1950s onwards, there was such a large amount of cross-fertilisation between composers on either side of the Atlantic that the opposition is unsustainable, but its perpetuation served an ideological and nationalistic purpose. Above all, by portraying a group of British and American composers as occupying an aesthetic space at an insurmountable remove from a (simplistic) picture of a European ‘avant-garde’, this facilitated special pleading on the part of the former for programming and other purposes. Even as some writers have grudgingly conceded that a small few continental European composers might also be considered ‘experimental’, they have constructed them as utterly on the margins of a perceived European mainstream to such an extent as to question their very ‘Europeanness’. Remarkably, this opposition has also been continued by various European writers, especially in Germany.
I also argue that the rhetoric of ‘experimental music’ has some roots in mythologies of the US frontier which have informed constructions of its canonical musicians. In place of this, I stress the strong European (as well as American and Asian) provenance of Cage’s thought and work (via that of Duchamp, futurism, Dada, the Bauhaus, Joyce, Satie, Varèse, Webern and Meister Eckhardt), and suggest that Feldman’s romantic, anti-rational individualism can be viewed not only in a clear lineage from nineteenth century European aesthetic thought (not least in Russia), but also in stark opposition to Cage’s anti-subjectivism. And finally I paraphrase Cage’s preface to Lecture on the Weather (1975) to argue that the music of the U.S.A. should be seen as just one part of the musical world, no more, no less.