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.
- 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.
- Why don't you take sound and I will take field
- Yeah and I won't share how I'm interpreting it
until after and you do the same 'cause we can do it.
- 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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