The 1960s marked a crucial political moment for Latin America, and aesthetic responses resulted in a broad range of musical experimentation. A new book, “Experimentalisms in Practice: Music Perspectives from Latin America,” seeks to broaden the traditionally Eurocentric interpretive framework applied to experimental music traditions.
The book includes essays about experimental practices in Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Cuba, Costa Rica and Colombia and among Latinos in the United States. An accompanying website contains pictures, documents, music and video links.
“By focusing on elite and popular musical practices by Latin American and Latino musicians, the book contributes to decolonizing the Anglo-American and Eurocentric tradition that has defined experimentalism in narrow nationalist terms for decades,” said Alejandro Madrid, Cornell professor of music and co-editor with Ana Alonso-Minutti of the University of New Mexico and Eduardo Herrera of Rutgers University.
The definition of experimentalism – often contrasted or conflated with “avant-garde” – is debated among scholars, and the editors are more concerned with the performance of experimentalism rather than defining it. As they write in the introduction, “we are primarily concerned with what happens when experimentalism happens.” They emphasize that there is no universal experimental sonic experience, but rather each experimental expression arises from the “specific music traditions and shared habits of listening” of a particular musical context.
The book has four thematic sections. The first, “Centers and Institutions,” addresses experimentalism amid the politics of the Cold War era in the 1960s and 1970s. The second section, “Beyond the Limits of Hybridity,” examines experimentalism among popular musicians and includes a chapter by Madrid and Pepe Rojo analyzing a 1999 album by a Mexican rock band, “Experimentalism as Estrangement: Café Tacvba’s ‘Revés/Yosoy’.”
“We wanted to show how the album forces audiences to hear fantastic new possibilities in the sounds the band created. By emphasizing the centrality of locality, the album is also an attack on the music industry of the 1990s,” Madrid said.
The third section, “Anti-Colonial Practices,” looks at how experimentalism may “engage, reproduce or challenge colonialist and colonizing projects.” The fourth, “Performance, Movements and Scenes,” examines the aesthetics and political concerns of a theater troupe in Mexico and intermedia artists in Argentina.
Associate professor of music Benjamin Piekut wrote the book’s afterword, “Locating Hemispheric Experimentalisms,” showing how John Cage’s connections with the European avant-garde helped to cement a U.S.-centric concept of American experimental music.
“Tracing the history of a term like experimentalismreveals a multiplicity of hemispheric histories and meanings,” Piekut said. “The essays in this volume detail and analyze this multiplicity in a lateral rather than linear way, sensitive to the ruptures, disjunctures and asymmetries across which discourses and techniques move or get invented anew.”
This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.