Experimental Drift and Historical Ecologies: British Experimentalism in the 1970s
Benjamin Piekut, Cornell University
By the early 1970s, experimental music was undergoing its second large transformation. The first took place in the 1950s, when John Cage articulated a concept based on sound, uncertainty, and spontaneity, in the process successfully decoupling his experimentalism from the more scientific valences of the term that were in play at the time. After 1967 or so, this heterogeneous grouping of musicians, texts, performances, technologies, critics, and institutions once again began to drift, leading to new configurations involving free improvisation and popular music, particularly in the British context. Recognizing and analyzing this kind of drift leads to fundamental insights into what experimentalism has been—not a “style,” but a collection of specific events and objects.
In this paper, I discuss several concepts identified with actor-network theory: translation, action-at-a-distance, performance, agency, and drift. Latour and others have detailed the problems with the term network, and these problems multiply when networks are taken out of a synchronic frame and placed into history. I instead suggest the term historical ecology for the kinds of formations that are produced by studying the past from an ANT perspective. Not only does an ecology enact different forms of stabilization and articulate different temporalities, but it also enrolls different kinds of materials and highlights the reflexive work of the analyst who must choose where to mark the limits of a given study.
Benjamin Piekut is a PhD Alumnus of Columbia’s Historical Musicology program. He studied music and philosophy at Hampshire College before pursuing his M.A. in composition at Mills College, where he studied with Alvin Curran and Pauline Oliveros. Benjamin Piekut is an author of the book Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and its Limits, 2011. Piekut‘s research interests include experimental music in the U.S. and U.K., jazz after 1950, critical studies in race and gender, improvisation studies, music technologies, and performance studies. His article, “Deadness,” co-authored with Jason Stanyek, won the 2011 Outstanding Article award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, and was named one of MIT Press’s “50 Most Influential Articles” in all disciplines. He is currently on the editorial board of Jazz Perspectives, and was formerly on the board of Current Musicology.