john cage’s variations II performed by a mariachi band, with insight into related themes


A few days ago I did something unprecedented. I wrote a negative review. This is practice that I abstain from as a matter of principle. I prefer not to detract from anyone’s work, regardless of my feelings toward it. I also believe that my limited time is better dedicated to championing things I love. In the case of Jennie Gottschalk’s recently published Experimental Music Since 1970, I made an exception, but took no pleasure in it. I felt awful for slighting her ambitious effort, but there were reasons why I wrote what I did. I stand by them. I purposefully posted the review late in the day, when few people usually to take note – hoping to strike a balance between the need to assert my position ethically, and not wishing it to be widely read. As with everything, I would rather people come to their own conclusions about my subjects. My hope failed. During the last few days, the review has been caught in a social media storm – picking up enough traffic that I can only assume that it represents a substantial amount of the book’s potential readership. I have watched with awe as dozens of people (many of whom are mentioned in the book) took cause to attack me for my thoughts and position – taking aim at its subjectivity, and attempting to character assassinate my intellect, knowledge, or romanticism. Interestingly, almost none had yet read the book (I would have been excited to hear their thoughts on it, and why they liked it), while the few that had, tended to agree with me, chimed in their support, and in many cases emailed me directly thanking me for my brave position and stating that “those things” needed to be said. I’m sure many from both camps remained silent – including both Jennie and myself. As I wrote, I was well aware that I was venturing out on the wire, and that I would likely ruffle feathers – but it should also be remembered that the avant-garde (within which experimental music falls), is a place of extreme positions, and intends to provoke discourse as much as anything else. This is what I sought.

The experimental music world is a small place. It’s marginalized, and needs collective support rather than infighting. What I provoked is the last thing I could have hoped for. More than anything, I’m saddened that my one detraction has gained more attention than many of the things I passionately promote.

One of the few problems that I face within the experimental music community, is the tendency to defer toward a few dominant voices – those who purport to know what it is and define its borders. It’s a difficult subject, so this makes sense, but it doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable or appropriate. After 25 years of listening to, researching, participating in, and collecting this music, I could still make no claim to these things. I’m not sure anyone could. The past and present is always growing, changing, entering new contexts, and being re-framed. Even if you manage to capture its history, and despite having built a record collection that creeps into the tens of thousands and read countless books on the subject, I can personally make no such claim, the present and future are still unfolding and altering themselves. The review I wrote was clearly the result of a personal and subjective position, but it also set out to present an alternate view. I felt that the book had some serious flaws, and that no one would point them out, or call them into debate and discussion. I was afraid that many readers might naturally defer to its authority, or those who supported it.

One of the central hopes for my efforts via The Hum, is to encourage more people to enter this remarkable world of sound, and help those who are often marginalize by strong voices or positions, to see the worth and importance of their own. I don’t want to exist in a world with few voices – be those of The Wire, academics, composers, musicians, record labels, critics, my own, or any other singular position. I want to exist in a world of many – one which embraces openness, diversity, and a democratic representation of people and ideas. Is this romantic, as one of my review’s detractors so pointedly wrote? Of course, but it is a corner which I will continue to fight, advocate, and believe passionately in. In other words, I was hoping to encourage others to talk about a subject which we all have access to, and to remember that their is no single view (mine or otherwise).

This should offer some transparency toward understanding why I wrote the review I did. While I was disappointed that Gottschalk did not sculpt a book that more people would engage with and find exciting, or one which offered more context and insight into the artists she discussed, my issues were slightly more complex. I was deeply concerned by yet another book which frames these practices, ideas, and sounds as being primarily drawn on the positions of Cage, and other white men. We have enough of this, and I feel that it is far from an accurate representation of our current reality. The problems I was faced with when reading seemed to draw from very minor oversights. On one hand, you could see why she would frame the context as she did, when intending to offer it as a sequel of sorts to Michael Nyman’s 1974 text Experimental Music : Cage and Beyond. The problem is that Nyman clearly states at the outset of his text that he is only attending to the Anglo-American traditions which drew from Cage. Gottschalk does not clarify this, and thus despite her attempt to qualify inevitable omissions, in conjunction with the book’s title, she implies by default that she is being far more inclusive than she is. It is impossible to understand a books perimeters and limitations if you don’t define them clearly. It is not enough to say what it isn’t or doesn’t do, you must state what it is. Were this to exist in a vacuum, we might be able to forgive it, but it enters a condition which systemically neglects a great number of people and positions – the result of which is the gain of some, and the neglect of many. In other words, she is promoting the dominant world view – even if she didn’t set out to. Truthfully, I don’t think she did. My greatest concern with Experimental Music Since 1970 seems to be the result of an unfortunate paradox. Gottschalk attempted to be as inclusive as possible, and by so doing failed to be inclusive enough. Experimental music is one of the most democratic, diverse, and inclusive musics I can call to mind. Particularly in the period following 1970, it has flourished (all be it in small communities) in every corner of the globe, and has achieved remarkable equity and representation of gender, ethnicity, and cultural positions and backgrounds – not to mention realizations within an incredibly broad range of musical idioms. When I envision this music, I am presented with a very different reality than the book depicts. I see the whole world with its many people and distinct ideas – not simply those who draw on the Anglo-American tradition which Nyman described in 1974. Our world has changed for the better (at least in this regard), and should be celebrated and championed for these accomplishments, not narrowed. As I said in my review, Gottschalk made good strides toward being more representative than other similar sources, and here again is that paradox. It was my view that she tried to include too many people within a very narrow selection of Western practices – many of whom are minor figures, thus for the sake of economy could have been passed over. By pursuing the areas she did with such rigor, she sadly missed the larger view. Of course it’s impossible to include everyone and everything, but to my mind it makes more sense to allow a smaller number of people represent a larger body of practices and sources, while giving yourself time and space to explore them.

When I stated that Gottschalk lacked love for this music, it was only intended to indicate that she does not assert it. Beyond what I outlined above, what I really wanted from the book was more of her. I wanted to hear her voice and thoughts. I wanted to hear her explain the significance of her subjects – not descriptions of practices. Like much of the book’s potential readership, I’m already aware of these things. I wanted her to tell me more than I already knew. Beyond that, I am sorry if my thoughts did Gottschalk efforts a disservice. It wasn’t that I didn’t want what she offered, I simply wanted more. I wish she had taken more time, was more representative, took greater consideration of what she was delivering and to whom, and was clear about the actual character of what she depicts.

While my mind was wandering over these subject, this video came into my mind. It is a document (with commentary) of John Cage’s Variations II being performed by a mariachi band. I fell in love with it when I first saw it. It breaks the hermetic seal of where Cage (and much of experimental music) is generally framed, placing him into the hands of a Mexican musical tradition. Remarkably, it manages to provoke the response that the composer’s music once did, but has been largely lost through historicization and intervention. Though silly, it captured some of the spirit of why I love this world of sound – that it belongs to no one, is always changing, and filled with endless surprise.

-Bradford Bailey


John Cage – Variations II (performed by a mariachi band)

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