Sound Field


Is This Even Music? John Cage, Schoenberg and Outsider Artis

What is music? From John Cage to Legendary Stardust Cowboy, avant-garde artists have forever been pushing on the edges of what is considered music. Composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Harry Partch and outsider musicians like The Shaggs are constantly changing music.

AIRED: April 17, 2019 | 0:09:26

- Nahre how's it going?

- Hey LA.

- I got a question for you,

what is your definition of music?

Languages evolve over time.

If I wrote this message and mailed it to the 1960s,

it will be dismissed as nonsense.

Like any language, what is considered music

is also constantly changing.

When The Ramones released their debut album in 1976,

parents hated it and radio stations wouldn't play it.

But three decades later, their music was selling Diet Pepsi.

There have always been musicians and composers

that push the edges of what we call music.

- In the early 20th century some composers

began to reject conventional ideas of harmony and tonality.

And no composer did this more boldly than Arnold Schoenberg

who wrote music that was so against the times

that audiences would often boo, laugh and heckle

at his performances.

Imagine it's the 1920s,

your ears are probably more accustomed to the sounds

of composers such as Mozart.

Then you hear performance of Schoenberg's,

suit for piano Opus 25.

To most audiences it sounded like random chaos

but what was Schoenberg doing?

Opus 25 was actually the first piece composed entirely

using the 12-tone technique,

which is a compositional approach that Schoenberg invented.

Using this technique, you order the 12 tones

of the chromatic scale in a particular order

called a tone row.

So here's an example of a tone row.

The idea is to make sure that all 12 tones

are equally emphasized.

This creates a sort of democracy

for tones don't relate to a center like this.

The C clearly has more weight over the other notes.

A tone row doesn't have this.

I ended on C but the whole phrase

doesn't feel like it's in C major.

Schoenberg's rigid ideas of a tonality

never caught on with a widespread audience.

But artists from other musical backgrounds

would go on to explore similar methods

later in the 20th century.

Most notably in jazz.

- In 1961, the Bill Evans Trio recorded

and now legendary live jazz album called

Sunday at the Village Vanguard.

Do you hear those traditional ideas

of harmony and chord progressions?

Now check out this excerpt from Free Jazz,

an album released that same year

by saxophonist Ornette Coleman.

This is one of the first albums to usher in free jazz.

A movement that like Schoenberg

challenged traditional ideas of tonality.

The goal of artists like Coleman

wasn't necessarily to get each tone equal emphasis

but rather to drop all the rules

so they can express themselves as freely as possible.

You can hear it in the works of artists like Cecil Taylor,

Albert Ayler and even John Coltrane.

Soon after free jazz took off in the 1960s

three sisters from New Hampshire

also began making music that challenged traditional ideas

of tonality and harmony with a three piece band

called The Shaggs but unlike Coltrane or Schoenberg

who were pushing music from within established music scenes,

The Shaggs we're definitely pushing from the outside.

- If someone thinks The Shaggs are a bunch

of no talent hillbillies, I understand that.

Shaggs music doesn't reach out.

The way that conventional pop reaches out

and tries to, you know, grab you with a hook.

The Shaggs kind of exist in a little bit of a bubble

and you've got to get inside that bubble.

And that I think applies to the best outsider music.

It pulls you into something really unusual

and that's one of the adventures of outsider music

that I really love.

If you don't like it, ignore it.

Don't listen to me, it's okay.

- One of the most famous fans of outsider music

was David Bowie who based his Ziggy Stardust as alter ego

in part on an outsider musician

named Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

While the bulk of outsider music never ventures

beyond open mics and the record collections

of a few dedicated fans, Legendary Stardust Cowboy's music

has actually been played in space, aboard Skylab

the American space station launched in 1973.

Is that the bugle from Legendary Stardust Cowboy?


- So what happens when a composer wants to make a sound

that can't be created by a traditional instrument?

You make your own.

That's what American composer Harry Partch did.

Partch was interested in micro-tonality

and a 12 tone octave just wasn't enough.

He composed using 43 tones within the traditional octave

and created instruments out of everything

from old airplane parts to liquor bottles

so that he could play his compositions.

But no composer more boldly challenged traditional ideas

of music and confused audiences in the process

than John Cage an American whom Arnold Schoenberg described

as not a composer but an inventor of genius.

Cage knew how to play and compose

for traditional instruments but he's most famous

for writing compositions that featured sounds generated

from everyday objects.

He also pioneered the idea of the prepared piano

A piano that's been temporarily altered

to produce exotic and percussive sounds

by placing objects like screws, wood and rubber

between the strings.

- Cage left many decisions up to chance

to arrange his imaginary landscape number four,

which calls for 24 performers to turn 12 radios

to certain volumes and stations at specific times.

Cage used an ancient Chinese divination system

called the I-ching to decide what should come next.

- Although cage was making music with radios

and definitely not for the radio,

his work has influenced many well known musicians.

John Cale of The Velvet Underground was a student

of Cage and Radiohead's Thom Yorke called him

one of his all-time art heroes.

Let's find a template that is completely non musical

and then apply our musical elements into it.

A sentence from the English language or like a shape.

- It has to be like a dodecagon.

- OK let's use this word Sound Field.

The name Sound Field.

- Sound Field.

- Like S sounds like this.

- Oh

- Why don't you take sound and I will take field

- Field?

- Yeah and I won't share how I'm interpreting it

until after and you do the same 'cause we can do it.

- Ok

- You can interpret it because it looks this way

or it sounds this way, it feels this way, whatever.

- That's gonna be tight

- Let's do it.

I'm more desensitized to certain types of harmony

and certain types of textures the older I get.

Once I'm exposed to this type of dissonance,

let's talk about dissonance.

I get used to that.

And then the next time I hear it it's no longer as jarring.

- Yeah it'll make you so curios.

- Yeah kind of like food you know, when you're a kid.

The older you get,

the more exposed you are to different types of food I mean.

I remember when I was a kid,

I loved the smell of coffee because it was sweet.

But as soon as I tasted it I thought, this isn't drinkable,

this isn't edible.

You acquire a taste for it and then it changes.

- That's probably how a lot of fans of outsider

music became fans because when you first hear it's like,


I don't know anybody falls in love at the first sound.

Where do you draw the line between music and not music?

That is on the comments and please subscribe.


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