a series of starting points

When I saw the line, “a rare negative review,” attached to a link about Experimental Music Since 1970, I assumed that it referenced the general—though by no means complete—positivity of public responses to my book so far. It turns out that Bradford Bailey was saying that in relation to his own writing, rather than to my text. “I never write negative reviews, but here I make an exception as warning.” He also wrote, “I was uneasy with this one. I hate writing negative reviews.” I can completely relate to that, and want to say first of all, then, that from my standpoint it’s useful and interesting. It wouldn’t be honest to say that I read it in an entirely detached way, but negative reactions on my part are far outweighed by an interest in the in-depth nature of this response and the opportunity that it provides to think through the larger project of presenting and discussing experimental music.

If I understand correctly, the book that Bailey hoped for would have provided a greater social and cultural context for experimental work. That is not the book that I was prepared, best suited, or most excited to write. I say in the introduction that the book is written from a maker’s standpoint, and at the outset that experimental music is “a position—of openness, of inquiry, of uncertainty, of discovery.” In my view, this is primarily a creative position, rather than a cultural, social, or political position. In writing about numerous practitioners from a maker’s standpoint, those positions sometimes come into view but they are not my focus. The book is centered around sounds, pieces, and projects. There may be a dizzying array of them, but that is part of my effort to accurately represent the field as not being dominated by a few people but as having many different voices. I wanted to point to many of those voices, and possibly did so at a pace that minimized my own voice as an author. That may be a weakness of the book, but I haven’t been convinced yet that I should regret it. My motivation for this project was to support the field by providing multiple points of entry into it. The various pieces and projects I discuss can be likened to points on a map. They don’t mark out the entire map, they aren’t the only points, and many of them could be located elsewhere. They are landmarks of certain areas of practice. I am happy for the book to be considered as a partial map, especially if it proves useful to some people in that way.

I also recognize that it is not for everyone. It was not meant to educate or change the minds of people who already have a strong sense of the field, but it could be a potential resource for them, as well as for so-called outsiders. (Aren’t we all outsiders, one way or another?) My intention was to articulate something of the richness and openness of a field which often appears esoteric and narrow. That potential openness may be a point of disagreement between me and some of its other participants.

The most provocative aspect of my book may be the title. I think of it as the simplest possible description of scope, rather than as a declaration. It is a survey of experimental music since 1970. It is not the survey, or the definitive point of view. It is not, as I pointed out in the introduction, an attempt to establish a canon, but a series of starting points—pathways on a map that no one has attempted to draw for decades. That’s a risky thing to try to make, but I felt willing to take that risk because I felt I had nothing to lose. (I have never pursued an academic position, and my income has come from other sources.) In my more defeatist moments, I told myself that if it were not useful in some way, people wouldn’t pay much attention to it. But it seems to have generated some dialogue, both positive and negative. I hope that that dialogue will lead to an articulation of other contrasting perspectives on the field, and I said so around the time the book was released.

I agree that the personal context of people’s engagement in the field is missing. I have begun a series of interviews for this site that are an attempt to get at that question. It is a very different sort of project, and not one that I could have woven into Experimental Music Since 1970. I’ll begin posting those regularly soon. I also agree that there is a bias towards work that has been written about already. I didn’t want to make assumptions about people’s projects without sufficient context. But I did not just lift quotes and put them in, but made sure to track their relevance to the sounding examples. The listening links are posted so that readers can easily do so for themselves. The sounding examples are essential, and the book is not meant to stand without them.

I haven’t taken up every point in Bailey’s review, but this post is meant as a response, not as a defense. I’m happy to continue the conversation.

addendum:

Since I drafted this post, Bailey has written a follow-up post which makes some aspects of his point of view much more clear to me. I wholeheartedly agree that collective support is infinitely preferable to infighting. I think it’s totally possible to disagree, and even drill down to the exact nature of a fundamental disagreement, without attacking people on a personal level. I wouldn’t expect someone I had never interacted with before to have an accurate sense of my motivations for writing the book. But I’m glad to see how Bailey has further articulated his own motivations, not just for writing the review but for engaging in the field. And I’ll be interested to learn more about the kinds of work he associates with a more inclusive experimental practice by reading past and future posts on The Hum.


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