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Experimentalism Otherwise

The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits

Benjamin Piekut (Author)


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In Experimental Otherwise, Benjamin Piekut takes the reader into the heart of what we mean by “experimental” in avant-garde music. Focusing on one place and time—New York City, 1964—Piekut examines five disparate events: the New York Philharmonic’s disastrous performance of John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis; Henry Flynt’s demonstrations against the downtown avant-garde; Charlotte Moorman’s Avant Garde Festival; the founding of the Jazz Composers Guild; and the emergence of Iggy Pop. Drawing together a colorful array of personalities, Piekut argues that each of these examples points to a failure and marks a limit or boundary of canonical experimentalism. What emerges from these marginal moments is an accurate picture of the avant-garde, not as a style or genre, but as a network defined by disagreements, struggles, and exclusions.
Benjamin Piekut is Assistant Professor of Musicology at Cornell University.
“[Piekut has] widened the epistemological boundaries of his area of study, encouraging and enabling further scholarship on experimental music and its ontology. Richly deserving superlatives, it is a memorable, exciting, rigorous, and beautifully written book of considerable importance.”—Edward Crooks, University of York Tacet
“This is an important book, and should be part of every academic music library; it shows an alternative way to approach experimentalism and experimental music, and, indeed, it offers a largely uncommon approach to music historiography.”—Clemens Greeser Notes (Music Library Assoc)
“Objective, insightful prose”—All About Jazz
“An original and important book. . . . Impressive in its scope. . . . Most commendable is the manner in which the author has wrestled with so many disparate sources to produce a concise and focused account, but one that also manages to retain some of the messiness of his subject. . . . It is exciting to imagine what Piekut will come up with next.”—Thomas Fogg Current Musicology
“Experimental Otherwise crafts a surprisingly strong narrative.”—Dave Cantor Skyscraper
“Benjamin Piekut takes scholarship on late twentieth century music to new heights with this inventive and compelling study of the networks of experimental music. Weaving a historical ethnography of performances, practices, sounds, and subjectivities together with insights from recent social and anthropological theory, uncovering new perspectives on key figures from John Cage and Henry Flynt to Carla Bley and Charlotte Moorman, he gives us ‘actually existing experimentalism’ free from idealization or dilution.”

—Georgina Born, author of Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde

“Ben Piekut’s methodologically astute ‘history of actually existing experimentalism’ provides a brilliantly focused, yet ultimately expansive interrogation of the musical networks that flourished in New York City around the year 1964. Engaging, insightful, and important, Experimentalism Otherwise is certain to prove an indispensable reference not only for musicologists, but for anyone interested in the tangled cultural history of the period at large.”

—Branden W. Joseph, author of Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage

“Buttressed by interviews with surviving participants and close examination of scores, texts, images, and ephemera, Piekut erects a framework within which the sometimes poignant, sometimes absurd network of semi-failed interactions that defined the space of ‘experimental music’ can take shape in the mind of a delighted reader. Experimentalism Otherwise deftly escapes the hagiographic mode: figures like John Cage, Henry Flynt, and Charlotte Moorman appear in its pages as scrappy improvisers of aesthetic contingency, not plaster saints of the avant-garde. This is late-twentieth-century music history as it ought to be written!”

—Robert Fink, author of Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice

“Experimentalism is never only that, is the meta-argument of Experimentalism Otherwise. With a focus on participants of four moments in four explicitly experimental music scenes in a single year and in a single city, Piekut ‘follows the actors’ not only to their appointments with the new as isolated from other events, but along historically grounded routes too ordinary to have received prior notice. In doing so, he achieves something of an anti-‘experimentalism for experimentalism’s sake’ historiography of select New York experimental music events of the 1960s. That this gripping analysis of historical experimentalism is so rich with difference and contradiction, so illuminating of the challenges of producing the ‘new’ in the ‘now’ is precisely due to Piekut’s diligence in opening a world of the ordinary where we didn’t expect it. This book is a revelation of the relationship between ordinariness and newness that will change how cultural historians think about experimentalism.”

—Sherrie Tucker, author of Swing Shift

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