An interview with Jennie Gottschalk

By · Illustrations Paul K (CC) · Date 10/27/2016

Jennie Gottschalk is a composer and scholar currently residing in Boston. Gottschalk holds degrees from The Boston Conservatory and Northwestern University. Her teachers have included Larry Bell, Yakov Gubanov, Jay Alan Yim, Augusta Read Thomas, and Aaron Cassidy. Gottschalk’s new book “Experimental Music Since 1970” was recently published by Bloomsbury. Over the course of a week, we engaged in an email conversation about the book and her views on the last 40 years of experimental music.

VAN: Could you define “experimental music” for those that might not know what you are referring to?

Jennie Gottschalk: That’s more difficult than it seems! I think you’d get a different answer from anyone who is involved in it, and my own answer changes from day to day.

Experimental music asks questions and invites shifts in perception through the medium of sound. Its makers often seek out the dynamic relationships between sound and circumstance. It is less tied to tradition and precedent than most other types of music, but its freedoms and reframings are in themselves legacies that have been passed along and given new applications over time.  

Why now? It’s been 42 years since Michael Nyman published his survey of experimental music (Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (1974)). Why do we need a new look at experimental music in 2016?

This field has been far from stagnant since Nyman’s book was released. There are tremendous ripples of activity and whole areas of exploration that are worthy of attention. There has been a lot of good writing about individual artists, but very little study of the coherences and fascinating parallels between their practices. And there are so many people currently active in the field that what I think is most needed is not an update to the Nyman book, but a framework that can be helpful in comprehending that multiplicity.

Once I realized that this area of work mattered to me, I had to do a lot of thinking, traveling, listening, conversing, and writing to develop even the faintest idea of what it now is or how it operates. I couldn’t find the map or guide that I felt I needed, so eventually I decided to make it myself. At the same time, I hoped (and still hope) to support the field and extend an invitation to it by signaling some of its activities as straightforwardly as possible.

Your website offers an impressive amount of resources to go along with the book and experimental music in general. Did your website come first or did it grow out of your research related to the book?

I started Sound Expanse in 2008, shortly after getting my degree and long before I had any idea of the book. It’s had different functions over the years, though it’s always been focused on experimental music. Early on I did more reviews and reflective pieces. The resource guides and the listening lists to go with the book are more recent additions. The resource guides helped me in my own research, and I’ve found that they have been useful to others as well. The listening links are there to make it as easy as possible to get from the text of the book to the sound works being described in the text. I’m working on a series of interviews now that I’ll start posting quite soon. The purpose of this new project is to get a number of different points of view about experimental music. It’s been fascinating for me to hear what drew people to this field and how they engage with it.

How did your classical studies contribute to your desire to formally survey the world of experimental music? Where were you in your own practice that lead you down this road? How has doing the research for this book affected your own work as a composer and performer?

My interest in experimental music took root quite close to the end of my formal studies. I had been looking for years for what I termed “nonfictional” music, and it was the here-and-now-ness of pieces that were introduced in my final year of coursework that finally caught my attention—and held it through the writing of my dissertation (about the work of Alvin Lucier and Michael Pisaro) and beyond.

I wanted to be involved with music that didn’t take me somewhere else, so to speak, but planted me more firmly and consciously in the place where I was. That sense of presence and realness mattered to me, and I was also drawn to the apparent humility of the pieces I had encountered in their use of minimal means. Up until that time I had been most comfortable and fluent writing vocal music. The text and instrumentation (the more limited the better) were the constraints with which I felt I could work most happily. What experimental music offered me was the opportunity to work more directly with situations as such—durations, places, instruments, people—and leave room for the contingencies of those situations. I guess I’m interested in amplifying a context, rather than generating content.

I’ve only made four pieces that I would term experimental since my dissertation piece. That’s not many. But I was reluctant to take too many steps without a better sense of orientation. I feel that I have that now (and I hope the book provides similar help to others). I can point to specific subsections and say, Yes, I want to make something and set some ideas in motion along these lines. I’ve never really thought of myself as a performer, but I’m happy to be involved when I can be useful. The research process hasn’t had a clear impact there.

For me, two of the defining characteristics of some kinds of experimental music are silence, both in its presence and absence, and indeterminacy. How did silence become an integral part of (some kinds) of experimental music? Why the embrace of indeterminacy? How did these ideas help break with the past and push composers and performers towards the future?

I agree that silence and indeterminacy are significant characteristics. That’s why I’ve placed them as sections in chapter one. My historical perspective is limited, but it’s hard to avoid pointing to John Cage’s influence in both of these areas. In more recent years, the Wandelweiser network has taken up the exploration of silence, and Cage is a key influence for many of them. Many others have as well, but that’s the closest thing to a movement that I can point to.

Indeterminacy is probably the single most defining feature of experimental music, when it is understood in a multi-dimensional way. So I mean not just “the ability of a piece to be performed in substantially different ways,” as Cage put it, but openness to the effects of the space, surrounding events, interactions between musicians, the listener’s perception and subjectivity, etc. It is arguably present in every type of music, but the framing of a musical situation to foreground indeterminate elements is, in many cases, what makes a piece experimental.

What follows is definitely just speaking for myself and not anyone else. Picking up on what I said earlier about contexts and content, we’re living in some strange and overwhelming times. What motivates me in my work of any kind is the sense that I’m responding to a need, or at least trying to deal with a question that has actually been asked. Some of the most pressing questions that I’m asking myself, and that I see others asking, are about how to exist within a challenging context. Indeterminacy for me has so much to do with exploring context in all of its minute particularities.

Regarding the past and the future, I have to say I don’t think of experimental music versus other kinds of music in those terms. As one speculative example, the close listening that feels quite radical these days was probably more common many years ago, when there were fewer competing demands on people’s attention. Silence and indeterminacy are not new ideas in themselves, but the embrace of them in musical terms presents alternative ways of relating to the present. That feels very necessary to me these days.  

I know your intention was not to write the definitive textbook on experimental music, but in some ways that is what this book is. At the very least, it’s an intense catalog of many artists who practice this kind of music. I could spend years following up on the people whose work I don’t know. It is a real treat to see people included who often don’t get talked about much in classical circles, like Christina Kubisch, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and Jaap Blonk. How did you decide whose work got included in the book? Or, who was a good representative of the main ideas you explore?

I don’t think there could be a definitive text on this subject. My intention was to write a clear introduction to recent practice, but it is incredibly far from being either comprehensive or the only interesting or valid point of view.

The overall organization of the book was easy compared with the more particular questions of who to write about and in which context. I wrote about this issue shortly after the book came out. Practically speaking, I had to have come across their work in some meaningful way. I was reluctant to write about anyone who didn’t identify in some way with experimental music (or a different term for the same constellation of activities). Similarly, I didn’t want to invent intentions that were not actually there in the work. So I would tend to look to what an artist had said about their own work. When the work actually did that thing, fit within the framework that was developing, and was convincing in its own right, I tended to include it.

Before, during, and after the writing process I was concerned about leaving great people out. I know that I have, but I take some dim comfort in the fact that anyone would. There truly is an overwhelming amount of activity going on these days, and that’s a hopeful situation. What I felt I might contribute was something like a context for it—not a cultural context, but a mapping of areas of exploration. To get at your question more directly, when I found that someone’s work dealt with a topic in a rich or surprising way, I wrote about it. ¶