1. Events
  2. 2016
  3. October
  4. ‘Ideological Constructions of ‘Experimental Music’ and Anglo-American Nationalism in the Historiography of post-1945 Music’




‘Ideological Constructions of ‘Experimental Music’ and Anglo-American Nationalism in the Historiography of post-1945 Music’




Speaker: Ian Pace, City, University of London

Series: Department of Music Research Seminars


Since the publication of John Cage’s essay ‘Experimental Music: Doctrine’ of 1955, a dichotomy has informed a good deal of historiography of new music between ‘avant-garde’ and ‘experimental’ musics, especially following the publication of Michael Nyman’s book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond in 1974. Nyman very clearly portrayed ‘experimental music’ as a fundamentally Anglo-American phenomenon, allowing almost no European composers into his pantheon. This opposition was itself foreshadowed in various writings of John Cage and Morton Feldman, and since the appearance of Nyman’s book has remained a prominent ideological construct, even feeding into other oppositions such as ‘high/low’ music, ‘uptown/downtown’ or ‘modern/postmodern’.

In this paper, I trace the history and development of the concept of ‘experimental’ music in several types of literature published in Europe and North America from the 1950s until the present day: general histories of music of this period, histories of American music, the writings of Cage, Feldman and Wolff, secondary literature on these figures, and other work dealing specifically with ‘experimental music’. I argue that from the late 1950s onwards, there was such a large amount of cross-fertilisation between composers on either side of the Atlantic that the opposition is unsustainable, but its perpetuation served an ideological and nationalistic purpose. Above all, by portraying a group of British and American composers as occupying an aesthetic space at an insurmountable remove from a (simplistic) picture of a European ‘avant-garde’, this facilitated special pleading on the part of the former for programming and other purposes. Even as some writers have grudgingly conceded that a small few continental European composers might also be considered ‘experimental’, they have constructed them as utterly on the margins of a perceived European mainstream to such an extent as to question their very ‘Europeanness’. Remarkably, this opposition has also been continued by various European writers, especially in Germany.

I also argue that the rhetoric of ‘experimental music’ has some roots in mythologies of the US frontier which have informed constructions of its canonical musicians. In place of this, I stress the strong European (as well as American and Asian) provenance of Cage’s thought and work (via that of Duchamp, futurism, Dada, the Bauhaus, Joyce, Satie, Varèse, Webern and Meister Eckhardt), and suggest that Feldman’s romantic, anti-rational individualism can be viewed not only in a clear lineage from nineteenth century European aesthetic thought (not least in Russia), but also in stark opposition to Cage’s anti-subjectivism. And finally I paraphrase Cage’s preface to Lecture on the Weather (1975) to argue that the music of the U.S.A. should be seen as just one part of the musical world, no more, no less.


Ian Pace combines dual careers as a pianist and musicologist. As a pianist he has played in over 25 countries, given over 200 world premieres, and recorded over 30 CDs. He has a strong association with new music, from the classic compositions of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Xenakis, Cage, and Feldman and others through to many later figures such as Ferneyhough, Lachenmann, Radulescu, Dusapin, Barrett, Dillon, Walter Zimmermann, and not least Michael Finnissy, whose complete piano works he performed in 1996, and whose (much expanded) complete piano works he is performing during a series in 2016. As a musicologist he specialises in various areas of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music (especially music and the musical infrastructure in post-1945 Germany), music under fascism and communism, critical musicology, the Frankfurt School and Marxist aesthetics, comparative performance studies, and musical education and institutions. He has been Lecturer in Music and Head of Performance at City University since 2010. He is also a frequent blogger on musical and political issues, and is active as a campaigner and researcher on abuse in musical education.

Share this event

When & where

5.30pm - 7.30pmWednesday 12th October 2016

AG09 College Building City, University of London St John Street London EC1V 4PB United Kingdom