How experimental composers of the Avant-Garde created new theories of sound manipulation through Media Technology.

John Cage

John Cage

Experimental music is distinct from classical forms of composition because it does not adhere to prescribed rules of harmony, melody and rhythm. Instead, it puts forward musical ideas with the intention of expanding the received understanding of the medium. This essay will chart the ways in which experimental composers of the avant-garde manipulated sound, and evolved our understanding of what classifies as music. Through an examination of their compositions and writings, I will argue that for figures such as John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer, Steve Reich, and Brian Eno, the process of making music was inherently a theorisation of sound. I will also argue that the media technologies which they adopted, were the catalysts for their radical approaches to composition. However, I will begin by investigating the conceptual intentions of Cage’s music, using his piece 4’33” (1952) as a case study. From the perspective of Friedrich Kittler, I will then examine how the phonograph’s invention gave birth to the world of recorded sound. Finally, I will investigate how the evolution of magnetic tape enabled composers like Schaeffer, Reich, and Eno to reinvent how sounds could be combined and layered through musique concrète, phasing, an ambience.

            For John Cage, musical composition was a medium for theoretical experimentation, as much as it was for technological experimentation. For much of his career, Cage manipulated time and space in his music, conceptually. Cage’s compositional theory was centred around ‘a process of circumscribing parameters within which any number of sonic events might be allowed to occur.’[1] This is reflected in his philosophical preoccupation with the I Ching, and concepts of indeterminacy, which attempt to remove the instructions and ego of the composer, and leave the outcome of the composition to chance. Cage’s pragmatic, almost scientific approach to generating sound,  is outlined in his 1955 definition of experimental music, ‘not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as an act, the outcome of which is unknown.’[2] Fundamentally then, the act or experimentation for Cage was not to prove an intended outcome with his parameters, but simply to break new sonic and conceptual ground through the act of experimentation.
            Cage’s most famous composition, 4’ 33” deals precisely with this issue, deliberately harnessing the performance space as the piece’s primary instrument and using time, simply as a framing device to invoke heightened awareness of the space. The original score for the piece indicates three movements under which is simply marked ‘TACET’, meaning ‘remain silent’.[3] This simple instruction places the acoustic emphasis onto the ambient noise of the physical space, rather than the performer, thus enlisting sounds from the audience the shuffling of feet, or the hum of traffic outside, in the place of explicit instructions from the composer. This piece signals what Michael Nyman calls a ‘radical shift in the methods and functions of notation’ and cites it as the first example in Cage’s work where ‘something other than a ‘musical thought’ […] is imposed through notation’ (Nyman, p. 4). Cage’s definition of ‘experimental music’ is consistent with Nyman’s reading, distinguishing experimental music from ‘fully structured and notated contemporaneous compositions’.[4] Cage’s experimental pieces find their structural coherence elsewhere, through the concepts which generate them, and the questions they ask. However, Cage was aware that his intentions were not always clear to his critics or even to his listeners; ‘what can be analysed in my work, or criticized, are the questions that I ask. But most for the critics don’t trouble to find out what those questions I ask are.’[5] Therefore Cage’s music, like much of the avant-garde, was self-consciously subverting popular expectation.
            Cage’s new ideas in composition deliberately manipulating either space or time, but often affected both, as in the case of 4’33”. He reduced the function of live performance down to its most basic elements; attention and intention, thus forcing us to re-evaluate our assumptions of what qualifies as music. Julian Dodd argues that 4’33” is a work ‘about music’ which ‘encourages us to discern the aesthetic features of environmental sound, without being a work of music’.[6] Instead he classes it as ‘a work of conceptual art’ because the performer is not ‘following the composer’s instructions’ to explicitly ‘create sound’ (Dodd, 14:02). This reading of 4’33” ushers in a key problem for classifying experimental music, especially when considering the role of media technologies, which we will come to investigate. To what extent are automated systems, like looping, phasing, and feedback considered music? Is a composer’s pre-existing intention or methodology for a given experimental piece enough to imbue ‘noise’ (or lack thereof), with the same cultural gravity and reverence afforded to compositions, derived from ordered patterns of melody and counterpoint? Simply put, must a piece adhere to compositional rules and performance conventions in order to qualify as music? This is what Dodd is arguing in favour of, but cultural interest in conceptual music and visual art says otherwise. If a piece expresses an intention, designed to make us confront assumptions, it attracts attention. Moreover, I would argue not only that it is deserving of our attention, but that it stands on the cutting edge of our definition of music. Cage was responsible not only for initiating a new way of understanding and appreciating the intention behind a piece of music, but also for becoming its champion in popular culture. Therefore, as historical figure, oft-cited by those who carried on his experimental legacy, he represents a landmark shift in continuum of Western music.
Friedrich Kittler

Friedrich Kittler

By using nothing more than manipulation of expectation and convention, we can see through Cage then, how the role of the composer began to align with that of the theorist, out of a necessity of reinvigorate compositional traditions. However, it was the emergence and popularisation of technical recording media, such as the phonograph which began to facilitate these new theoretical intentions in experimental music. In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Friedrich Kittler writes that ‘engineers and the avant-garde think alike’.[7] He elaborates on the how the phonograph enabled the very first manipulations of sound, opening the doors for consumers and composers alike, to become theorists and manipulators of sound. He writes of Edison’s 1877 phonograph demonstration that he ‘turned the handle faster than he had during the recording in order to treat New York to the sensational pleasure of frequency-modulated musical pieces’ (Kittler, p. 35). This exemplified what Kittler calls ‘time axis reversal’ whereby a sound, recorded in a linear format can be re-conformed at will, resulting in a simultaneous change in pitch (Kittler, p. 35). Thus Kittler argues that ‘the phonograph […] allows ears to hear the unheard-of’ (Kittler, p. 35). Sound had never previously been pitched or stretched, and before the phonograph, music was a transient phenomenon, replicable only though memory or notation. Consequently, Edison’s prototype not only made time physical and repeatable in the grooves of the disc but also revealed the hidden intricacies and patterns, latent in the auditory landscape.  As if to predict the birth of experimental music using technical media, The Colombia Phonograph Company wrote in 1890, that:
The phonograph can be used as machine for composing music simply by allowing consumers to play their favourite songs backwards: "A musician could get one popular melody every day by experimenting in that way". (Kittler, p. 35)
In this way, we can see that Edison’s early innovations as an engineer, and Kittler’s observations as a sound theorist, demonstrate unity of thinking with the experimental musician. Kittler also builds upon the philosopher Guyau’s argument to suggest that ‘frequency modulation is […] the technological correlative of attention’, because it naturally holds our attention by revealing un-heard details (Kittler, p. 35). I would further suggest that the re-timing of recorded sound and music, facilitates our natural tendency to look for patterns and even to create them where they do not exist. Consequently, through media technologies, experimental composers would look for musical order in nature, and even force musical order into existence through manipulation.
Pierre Schaeffer

Pierre Schaeffer

It was composers such as Pierre Schaeffer who would first make this a reality and reap the benefit of the phonograph’s conceptual impact on experimental music. By introducing the idea of recording and manipulating sound in time, Edison’s phonograph became the proof of concept which allowed magnetic tape to succeed. Thanks once again to an engineer, Fritz Pfleumer, whose ‘Magnetophone’ was first demonstrated by AEG in 1935, magnetic tape became the medium of choice.[8] Kittler suggests that it was tape’s unique capacity for ‘storing, erasing, sampling, fast-forwarding, rewinding, and editing’ which made it such a versatile medium for experimentation (Kittler, p. 108). Pierre Schaeffer’s transition from the phonograph to tape, to develop musique concrète, exemplifies tape’s superiority. De Reydellet notes that ‘his initial experiments involved sounds recorded on phonograph records, but he switched to magnetic tape recorders as soon as they became available’.[9] For Schaeffer, tape looping facilitated the ‘collection (and compilation) of synthetic and sampled materials’, which was the underlying concept of musique concrète (De Reydellet, p. 11). Additionally, tape’s greater manipulability, and its capacity for overdubbing and layering, allowed Schaeffer to theorise sound as multi-dimensional, rather than on a single temporal axis, enabling him to create soundscapes which did not exist as part of the natural aural landscape. His collection Cinq études de bruits (1948), sampled noise from trains, toys, saucepans, and canal boats, looping and layering them, to create rhythmic patterns which varied in pitch and speed. Carlos Palombini writes that ‘these pieces shed light on the great possibilities afforded by the use of sampled sounds as compositional material.’[10] Schaeffer’s piece Étude noire (1948), uses sampled sounds from pianos which also incorporate natural reverb, thus using sound to manipulate the listener’s perception of sound in space.
William Basinsky

William Basinsky

What becomes clear about tape, when listening to Schaeffer’s compositions, is that it put three new medium-specific characteristics at the disposal of the experimental composer; simultaneity, space, and degradation. Schaeffer’s reverb suffers from the characteristic distortion and artefacts of magnetic tape. But rather than view this as an error, Schaeffer deliberately incorporated degradation as a compositional tool (a technique which would much later be adopted by William Basinski on The Disintegration Loops (2001) to create the unofficial musical elegy for 9/11). Undesirable side-effects became the theoretical subject of interest in Schaeffer’s pieces. In this way, Palombini sees Schaeffer as ‘an artist and a technician, and, […] an intellectual, […] capable of articulating the artist's and the technician's experiences’ (Palombini, p. 14). I argue therefore that Schaeffer embodies the intersection between composer and theorist, characteristic of the avant-garde. However, in distinction with Cage, who relied more heavily on conceptual ideas to manipulate space and time in his music, technology was the instrumental factor in Schaeffer’s theorisations of ‘noise’ as music.
Steve Reich

Steve Reich

Tape’s capacity for simultaneity was to be further developed in the New York avant-garde scene of the 1960s. Malsky writes that through the first half of the century, the role of the composer has been, by convention, constrained though standard music notation’, but that ‘the introduction of the magnetic recorder and tape represented a moment of limitless auditory possibilities.’ [11] Uptown Minimalist composer Steve Reich was influenced by the presence of Schoenberg’s Serialism and Stockhausen early electronics, as well as west coast ‘new music’ figures like Terry Riley.[12] Schwarz writes that by 1962, ‘Reich had begun experimenting with tape and like Riley he was especially drawn to repetitive tape-loops’ (Schwarz, p. 58). Reich’s experiments with multiple tape tracks yielded ‘unforeseen rhythmic combinations’ such as It’s Gonna Rain (1965), in which two simultaneous loops of the same phrase, played at minutely different tempos, gradually slip out of sync. Reich called this discovery ‘phasing’ and described it as ‘a seamless, continuous, uninterrupted musical process’ (Reich quoted in Schwarz, p. 61). The piece would not have been possible to conceptualise, before the emergence of technical media such as tape.  
Phasing became Reich’s ‘primary compositional tool’, using it to produce his subsequent compositions Come Out (1966), and Piano Phase (1967), which applied phasing to two musicians rather than two machines (Schwarz, p. 61). Each of these compositions were centred around the manipulation of time and simultaneity. Through these pieces, we can see how an unforeseen characteristic of technical media was discovered and reapplied to live performance, yielding a new theory of sound. However, with, Pendulum Music (1968), Reich began to engage with ideas of space and degradation in his music, much like Schaeffer. The piece was based around ‘allowing four microphones to swing above four upturned speakers so that the feedback would gradually slow down from a rapid pulsation to a long, motionless drone’, and was classified by Reich as ‘process music’ (Schwarz, p. 68). This type of spatial experimentation signalled a point of maturity for technical media in avant-garde music. Composers like Reich were now theorising the physicality of sound produced by technology in both the time and space axes, and using automated mechanisms to determine their compositions. Amplified feedback was adapted into an instrument, whose rhythm and melody were governed by physics. There are clear parallels to be drawn then, between Reich and Schaeffer. Both composers made the decision to re-interpret noise as music; to seek out patterns where others saw chaos. 
Brian Eno (Left)

Brian Eno (Left)

The experiments of the avant-garde influenced a new generation of composers, who re-defined the use of media technology, at the cutting edge of pop and rock music. Brian Eno’s contributions carried forward the legacies of Cage, Schaeffer and Reich. His music for me, is the culmination of avant-garde experimentation. What Eno perfected, starting with his development of ‘ambient music’, was the use of media technology to simulate and manipulate auditory space. His compositions are expansive, textured landscapes, designed to be played in specific physical environments, or to evoke the auditory sensations. Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983), defines the concept of music being written for space, in the most literal sense. It was inspired by the 1969 moon landings and composed for the film For All Mankind (1989), which features footage from the Apollo flights.[13] The tracks are dark, reverberant and layered with decaying sounds, designed with ‘the idea of zero-gravity’ in mind (Eno, 2009). Eno’s philosophical writings on the nature of sound, demonstrate that the necessity for the experimental composer to also become a theorist of sound, was now established. In The Studio as a Compositional Tool (1979), Eno echoes earlier writings on sound; ‘recording makes repeatable, what was otherwise transient and ephemeral’, noting how the mixing studio liberated music from ‘the time dimension and put it in the space dimension.’[14] For Eno tape was the catalyst for experimentation because it was ‘malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren’t’ (Eno, p. 128). Eno’s philosophy then, centers around an appreciation for the significance of recording as the catalytic shift in our understanding of time, echoed in Schaeffer and Reich.
But at the core of his compositional theory, is the belief that direct interaction with technology eradicates any ‘transmission loss between you and the sound – you handle it. It puts the composer in the same position as a painter’ (Eno p. 128).  I would extend Eno’s argument, to suggest that media technologies, both digital and analogue, allowed for the democratisation of the compositional process. Not only is recording technology more accessible than learning standard notation, but it is also able to express an infinite number of sounds and musical ideas outside of the language of solfege and scores. This was predicted by Cage in 1937 who was theorising even without the aid of technology; ‘electrical instruments will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard.’[15] Eno writes; ‘you can’t imagine a situation prior to this where anyone like to me could have been a composer. It couldn’t have happened. How could I do it without tape and without technology?’ (Eno, p. 127)
            This debt of gratitude to technology it seems, is unanimously expressed across the spectrum of experimental musicians which I have examined in this essay.  Therefore, I suggest that it was the democratisation of media technology which took place over the course of the twentieth century, which had the greatest impact on our modern conceptualisation of music. Through the experiments of composers like Cage, Schaeffer, Reich, and Eno, sound expanded both specially and temporally. It took on depth and simultaneity; it multiplied and degraded, starting from grooves and spools, eventually maturing into digital signals. Movements in twentieth century avant-garde music, from indeterminacy, and musique concrète, to minimalism, and ambient music, were not only embodiments of new ways to create sound, but also representative of musicians becoming theorists of their craft. They were informed by technology and conceptual experimentation, and driven by a desire to expand the definitions of sonic art. Without these technical and theoretical innovations from the avant-garde, music may never have broken free into the expansive sonic universe which we now continue to explore.  
Works Cited
Bernstein, David W. & Hatch, Christopher. Writings through John Cage’s Music, Poetry, and
            Art, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2001.
Cage, John. ‘Experimental Music: Doctrine’, Silence: Lectures and Writings, Middletown, CT:
            Wesleyan University Press, 1994.
Cox, Christoph and Warner Daniel,  Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. New York:
The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008.
Cross, Lowell. “Electronic Music, 1948-1953.” Perspectives of New Music, vol. 7, no. 1, 1968,
            pp. 32–65., <> [accessed 3 May 2017].
De Reydellet, Jean. “Pierre Schaeffer, 1910-1995: The Founder of ‘Musique
            Concrète.’” Computer Music Journal, vol. 20, no. 2, 1996, pp. 10–11.,      <> [accessed 1 May 2017].
Eno, Brian, ‘Brian Eno: The night something fictional and fantastical became real’, The         Guardian, 8th July 2009,            <>            [accessed 1 May 2017].
Julian Dodd, ‘Is John Cage's 4'33'' music?’, TEDX Talks, 6/8/13  14:02
            <> [accessed 2 May 2017].
Kittler, Frederick. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986.
Malsky, Matthew. ‘Stretched from Manhattan’s Back Alley to MOMA’, in Music and
            Technoculture, ed. René T.A. Lysloff et al, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press,      2003.
Manning, Peter. Electronic and Computer Music, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Nyman, Michael. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University
            press, 1999.
Palombini, Carlos. “Machine Songs V: Pierre Schaeffer: From Research into Noises to
            Experimental Music.” Computer Music Journal, vol. 17, no. 3, 1993, p. 15,
            <> [accessed 2 May 2017].
Patterson, David W. John Cage, Music Philosophy and Intention, New York: Routledge, 2002.
Schwarz, K. Robert. ‘Steve Reich, Minimalist’, Minimalists, London: Phaidon, 1996.
Sheppard, David. On Some Faraway Beach, London: Orion Publishing, 2008.
[1] David Sheppard, On Some Faraway Beach, (London: Orion Publishing, 2008), p. 58.
[2] John Cage, ‘Experimental Music: Doctrine’, Silence: Lectures and Writings, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994) p. 13.
[3] Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1999), p. 3.
[4] Austin Clarkson, ‘The Intent of the Musical Moment’, Writings through John Cage’s Music, Poetry, and Art, ed, David W. Bernstein, and Christopher Hatch, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2001), p. 66.
[5] John Cage quoted in David W. Bernstein, ‘John Cage, Arnold Schoenberg, and the Musical Idea’, John Cage, Music Philosophy and Intention, ed. David W. Patterson, (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 38.
[6] Julian Dodd, ‘Is John Cage's 4'33'' music?’, TEDX Talks, 6 August 2013 14:02 <> [Accessed 2 May 2017].
[7] Frederick Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986), p. 46.
[8] Lowell Cross, “Electronic Music, 1948-1953.” Perspectives of New Music, vol. 7, no. 1, 1968, pp. 32–65., <> [accessed 3 May 2017].
[9] Jean De Reydellet, “Pierre Schaeffer, 1910-1995: The Founder of ‘Musique Concrète.’” Computer Music Journal, vol. 20, no. 2, 1996, pp. 10–11., <> [accessed 1 May 2017].
[10] Carlos Palombini, “Machine Songs V: Pierre Schaeffer: From Research into Noises to Experimental Music.” Computer Music Journal, vol. 17, no. 3, 1993, p. 15, <> [accessed 2 May 2017].
[11] Matthew Malsky, ‘Stretched from Manhattan’s Back Alley to MOMA’, in Music and Technoculture, ed. René T.A. Lysloff et al, (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2003), p. 252, 254.
[12] K. Robert Schwarz, ‘Steve Reich, Minimalist’, Minimalists, (London: Phaidon, 1996), p. 56.
[13] Brian Eno, ‘Brian Eno: The night something fictional and fantastical became real’, The Guardian, 8th July 2009, <> [Accessed 1 May 2017].
[14] Brian Eno, ‘The Studio as a Compositional Tool’, Audio Culture, Christoph Cox, and Daniel Warner, (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008), p.127.
[15] John Cage, quoted in Peter Manning, Electronic and Computer Music, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 15.
Merrick Winter