It is a simple question, and one that seems to bear an obvious answer: What is music? But for a group of fifteen students at the University of South Carolina’s Honors College, the answer to that question has become less and less definite over the last six months.
These fifteen undergraduates are musical novices, having never before learned an instrument or performed music live. However, after joining USC’s Experimental Music Workshop, along with five graduate students of music, the students quickly found their own creative voices and have now toured as performing artists in cities such as New York City and Baltimore.
To these students, the definition of music became less rigid. Simply put, music to these students became just sound, and the meaning that listeners attach to sound.
“Most people don’t know what ‘experimental music’ means,” explained Greg Stuart, who founded the workshop in 2009 and teaches at the USC School of Music. “It’s music which somehow investigates how music is put together, what music can be, and tries to look at the forms, the materials, the performance, the practice of music, to take them in some kind of unforeseen and new direction. That can sound sort of scary initially if you haven’t experienced the music before, but it can be really interesting and create a space where you can use all your powers of perception in an expansive way to have an experience with listening and sound that can be really impactful.”
With support from Dr. Ed Munn Sanchez, the Honors College’s Associate Dean, fifteen students who had long thought they were not musically inclined were taken under Stuart’s wing and introduced to the realm of experimental music. Utilizing household objects such as metal bowls, plastic containers, and sandpaper, the students began to question not only their own own abilities, but also their own definitions of musicality.
“These students display a true willingness to take risks,” said Sanchez before a recent group performance. “Most of them are not going to have a career in music, but they’re participating in a fascinating experimentation with musical style.”
Now, those students have toured nationally, performing experimental music in six different states this semester. In September, 701 Center for Contemporary Art hosted the group’s first local performance, “Gravity Waves,” in which they treated a packed audience to their presentation of “Ricefall (1)” and “asleep, desert, choir, agnes,” two experimental compositions by renowned New York artist Michael Pisaro, who not only attended the show, but joined the students in performing his works.
Allowing rice to trickle and drop into a variety of household containers, the students created a warm, soothing sound like rainfall. Although it was far from a typical musical showcase, audience members were mesmerized by the emotive performance, seemingly in a trance.
Stuart said the students were concerned how they should behave and what expressions they should show on their faces during the performance. “There’s no hierarchal decision where everybody has to look like ‘x,’” he explained, noting that no two people would even drop rice into a container in the same way. With experimental music compositions, those personalized stylistic flourishes are what make each listening experience unique and fulfilling for the audience.
The crowd at the September performance at 701 Whaley was unexpectedly large, with audience members sitting on three separate sides of the workshop group. Stuart noted that this meant there were at least three individualized listening experiences in the same audience, as the sound would vary in the way it carried to different parts of the room.
“You have this block of sound that offers up many different waves, and ultimately each person has to figure out their own way to get inside that sound,” he said. “Each listener can explore the music in his or her own way—it doesn’t demand a particular kind of hearing. It’s just sound available for people to make use of it.”
During “Ricefall (1),” no member of the audience bore the same expression; some looked poignant and reflective; some looked intrigued; some look invigorated; some seemed to find a sadness in the music; and some appeared very calmed and almost meditative. For many who were in attendance, it was their first time attending a experimental music concert. Stuart recalls his own first experience hearing this unique genre.
“I won’t say I just liked [experimental music] immediately,” acknowledged Stuart. “I find it to be really curious, like how does this work as music? Initially, it was so different from the things I’d been doing and heard up until that point, sort of like hearing a language you’ve never heard before and wanting to figure out how that language is put together and used.”
Experimental music seeks to understand the musicality of sounds around us, with less regard for traditional rhythms and melodies and instead an intense focus on the emotionality that sound can stir in the listener. Using pine cones and leaves, food like rice, bowls, wooden objects, metal brushes, and other found objects, the USC group seeks to stir a creative and enlivening experience for each member of the audience.
Accompanying the fifteen students who performed with found household objects were five graduate students who played traditional instruments, such as guitar, to accompany the experimental musicians. “I played one of the flute parts,” said Philip Snyder, a graduate student. “Performing the instrumental parts of Michael [Pisaro]’s music feels like tapping into a surging wave of possibility. To me, it is similar to walking through a forest…I get the sense that there is a process that has already been happening, like the environment has been active for an immeasurable duration of time. And then to play a note within that is like stepping on a twig in the woods. I become, momentarily, part of a sonic environment that was already in motion and will continue more or less unchanged afterwards.”
It was clear during the performance that many audience members felt equally challenged and impacted by the performance. Indeed, these seemingly “non-musical” Honors College students have challenged expected answers to the question, “What is music?” The question before them now is, “What next?”
Judging from the reactions of concert-goers at their September performance, Stuart and his students are optimistic that there may be a repeated audience interested in experimental music in Columbia. He notes the diversity in the crowd of their last Columbia performance, with attendees ranging in age and attire. “It seemed like people had a great time. It’s pretty unconventional music, but people loved it.”
For Stuart, his next step is to discern if the workshop can continue finding open-minded and interested audiences locally, or if the tour is officially over. “I really think there is an audience for this music, but this is genre is further off the radar for most people…We obviously did this big concert tour, which was a lot, but I’m hoping we can play more regularly and become more known in Columbia just for doing concerts of experimental music,” said Stuart. “There was obviously big interest in that show at 701, and it would be a dream scenario to do a performance in the fall and the spring.”
The students also felt like the Columbia art scene warmly welcomed them and eagerly anticipate what will come next for them. “The large turnout at the [701 Whaley] show speaks to the open-mindedness to and support for art in Columbia,” said Snyder. “It is truly an honor to be part of such an amazing community. As a student, this town has fostered my creativity and enabled me to develop as an artist…. To tap into that kind of immanent energy is a truly exciting experience.”