Conceptualizing Experimentation in Experimental Music in Light of Experimental System


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date22 Nov 2017


Experimental music has been engaging more vivid discussions in recent years. The question from which my research originates is — how can a specific experimental practice in experimental music be described? To develop this question into a more specific and solid research, I decided to discuss selected works of experimental music and corresponding discussions by the musicians in light of the specific conception of experimentation by Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. Rheinberger conceptualizes scientific experimentation as experimental system. The core question of this dissertation is therefore as follows: In what ways is the discussion of the practices of experimentation in experimental music in light of experimental system insightful? This discussion is important because it tests whether the valorization of experimental music can be related to something specifically experimental.

Studies on experimental music, most of which focus on social historical conditions where particular musical scenes emerged, are insufficient in working out a specific experimental practice. Various publications about the tools and techniques of experimental music offer insight into the variety of practices, but they do not build on a specific conception of experimentation. Experimental music is claimed to be valued for its position as cultural force, for its development of means of production or means of expression, or simply because it is considered valuable music. Nevertheless, the discourses of experimental music, with its various proposals about the value of experimental music, do not define how the value is associated with a specific experimental practice.

This dissertation intends to shift the angle. I discuss the practice and interpretation of experimental music as an experimental practice, which happens to happen in the field of music. The major argument in this dissertation is to make this shift of angle clear and show the value of such a shift. By shifting the focus from experimental music studies to the study of experimentation, I suggest that experimental music should be re-approached with the assumption that musicians enact experimentation in experimental music. I take experimentation — and not the aesthetic conditions of music — as the center of my study of experimental music in this dissertation.

Unlike the discourse of experimental music, the discourse of scientific experiments conceptualizes experimentation in a way that allows the description of the models of experimentation. In the discourse of science studies and philosophy of science, the role of experimentation is discussed vividly. While the exact role of experimentation in scientific research is disputed, it is generally accepted that experimentation has a valuable role in the scientific endeavor. I take Rheinberger’s conception of experimental system as a description of the productivity of scientific experimentation.

Such approach is motivated by the idea that the research on scientific experimentation gives insight into practices of experimentation, which can also be applied on experimentation in music. Even so he develops the concept in line with scientific research in Biology, the concept he has developed does not depend on a specific conception of scientific research. I therefore suggest that it is possible to describe experimentation in music in light of Rheinberger’s conception of experimental system.

The idea that experiments are valuable because their epistemic productivity, as Rheinberger proposes for scientific experimentation, can also be traced in the discourse of experimental music. The writings and interviews of the musicians about their own work form the source materials for my discussion of experimentation in music. I discuss two cases where the musicians, namely John Cage, and Lejaren A. Hiller and Leonard M. Isaacson, have written about their ideas on their work and one musician, David Tudor, who did not write about his ideas, but has made some statements about his music in interviews. I choose to discuss Cage and Hiller because of their discussion of experimentation in music in their writings. The third case study allows me to look at what can be interpreted from the experimental practice, on which limited information from the position of the musicians is available. The first two cases imply a tension between my interpretation of the works and their representation of their works. The third case, on the other hand, allows me to show how a more specific interpretation of a musician’s practice can be made when the musicians practice is read in light of experimental system.

My research attempts to show that the valorization of the practice of experimentation as potentially epistemically productive is helpful to critically reflect the musicians’ interpretation of their works. It shows that detailed knowledge of the practice of musicians is necessary to follow their interpretation of their own music. The structural conditions for an epistemically productive experimental practice, as described by Rheinberger in his conception of experimental system, can be applied on music as long as their non-scientific frame of interpretation is accepted.