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American Experimentalism


This seminar begins with an examination of the "ground soil" for the experimentalist movement — Emerson, Thoreau, North American phenomenological and pragamatist traditions in philosophy (William James, John Dewey) as well as Native American cosmological and experiential frameworks (Heȟáka Sápa/Black Elk) — before moving into the writings of Charles Ives and Harry Partch. Analysis of works by these composers as well as works by such composers as Conlon Nancarrow and James Tenney follow. Finally, we consider the term «experimentalism», whether it is an apt description of aesthetic concerns and artistic practices and explore its social, political and philosophical significance in relation to other avant-garde movements.




Week 1: Introduction to the seminar


Week 2: Ives, Essays before a Sonata (Prologue, Thoreau, Epilogue)

Emerson, Self-reliance, from ‘Essays: First Series

Thoreau, Sounds, from ‘Walden’


Week 3: Wilshire, The Primal Roots of American Philosophy: Pragmatism, Phenomenology and Native American Thought, Preface, Chapters 1 – 2

Ives, Some Quarter-Tone Impressions


Week 4: Partch, Genesis of a Music, Preface to the 2nd Edition, Author’s Preface, Part I

Dewey, Art as Experience, Chapters 1 and 5


Week 5: Kandinsky, Concerning the spiritual in art
Wilshire, The Primal Roots of American Philosophy, Chapter 12

Cameron, Avant-gardism as a Mode of Cultural Change

Week 6: Nicholls, Avant-garde and Experimental Music

Nyman, Towards a definition of experimental music

Taruskin, The Scary Purity of John Cage

Week 7: Gann, The Music of Conlon Nancarrow

Wannamaker, North American Spectralism

Week 8: Tenney, Meta-Hodos (optional)

Partch, Genesis of a Music, Parts II – IV (optional)

Week 9: Attali, Composing, in ‘Noise: the political economy of music’

Bourdieu , The production of belief

Decerteau, Believing and Making People Believe

Week 10: Presentations

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