How weird can music get?
In the Baroque era, composers like Bach and Vivaldi made sure to avoid straying too far from the rules they knew and the sound they were expected to create. The Classical era began to push a few boundaries, but it was the Romantic era and figures like Beethoven who truly introduced the bizarre to music via powerful portrayals of emotion and a newfound freedom in style. By the 20th century, this freedom had expanded, becoming one of the primary motivations in the work of almost everyone in the classical world.
Once upon a time, the listener expected music to be rooted in one key, with predictable rhythms and accessible melodies creating something they could hum as they left the concert hall. After the Romantic era had pushed musical boundaries and the composers of the Second Viennese School (Schönberg, Webern and Berg) began to incorporate true extremity in their work, there came a point early on in the 20th century in which the average listener would expect to hear nothing less than every note of the chromatic scale.
One of the earliest examples of full atonality in classical music is Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Not only does its free atonality ensure there is no discernible tonal centre heard at any point, the Sprechstimme technique creates a bizarre vocal performance where the voice sits somewhere between singing and speaking. The Der Kranke Mond (The Sick Moon) movement in particular is written for unaccompanied flute and voice, creating a sparse, unsettling texture that reflects the story of the piece. While it remains pretty shocking to the unsuspecting ear today, this wasn’t even close to the furthest Schönberg was willing to push musical boundaries.
A few years later, he would develop serialism. Centred on a desire to avoid tonal hierarchy altogether, no note (of the standard 12 note chromatic scale) could be repeated until every other note had been heard. This creates the incredibly jarring yet emotionally intense sound heard in pieces like String Quartet 3 which became commonplace in the classical repertoire of the 20th century. This system permeated the work of his students, Berg and Webern, and was taken forward by many other composers who took the technique to heights Schönberg was never quite able to reach.
Multiple serialism was the next logical step for the technique. Essentially, it applies the serialist technique to multiple parameters, such as intervals, rhythms and dynamics on top of tonality and melody. Milton Babbitt’s Three Compositions For Piano and Pierre Boulez’ Structures 1A For Piano were amongst the first to take the system to this length, though Berg is credited with the first instances of its use. The sound the technique provides is even more aggressive than 12-tone serialism, and to the average listener, is likely to sound totally random. With nothing close to tonality, no discernible pulse and the sudden movement between loud and quiet dynamics, these works border on emotional experience than pleasurable listening.
As the boundaries of modernism were pushed even further, the work of Xenakis and Stockhausen became a cornerstone for musical strangeness. Xenakis is known for a multitude of truly unique works, including Terrtektorh, which placed members of the orchestra amongst the audience, as well as various complex electronic pieces, not least the indecipherable noise of Polytope de Cluny. Similarly, Stockhausen produced a catalogue of forward-thinking pieces; Gruppen, for example, was written to be played by three orchestras at the same time. He also produced his own strand of electronic Music Concrète (collages of recorded sound). These were particularly jarring in sound, merging field recordings into long collages that remain almost incomparable to the classical compositions of just 30 years previous. Without following a score or understanding his creative process, Stockhausen’s 1952 Etude, for example, sounds like very little more than an assortment of distorted sound.
At the same time as Stockhausen and Xenakis, John Cage was perfecting his own distinct brand of modernist music. Rather than focusing on pushing the boundaries of composition, he questioned the very nature of music. His most well-known composition, 4’33”, is entirely silent. The piece has plagued the minds of theorists since its conception. Is 4’33” music because it formalises silence? Is it not music at all? Was this the piece that gave spark to the idea that everything is (or at least, can be) music? This isn’t the only silent work (Schulhoff’s In Futurum, for example, is designed to be completely silent despite its detailed, complex score) but it’s certainly the most well-known.
Cage is also remembered as the inventor of the prepared piano. The scores for these Avant Garde pieces, such as the acclaimed Sonatas And Interludes For Prepared Piano present the performer with table of instructions that describe exactly how to ‘prepare’ the piano. This includes the creation of dull, thudding percussive sounds caused by placing rubbers between strings, metallic sounds that come from the introduction of screws and nails, and various combinations of rattling, detuned and surprisingly normal timbres. Even the composition of these pieces took on an experimental approach. While Cage billed them as dances, the complex rhythms and unmelodic melodies made sure these pieces were about as undanceable as possible. Even the structure of each piece was developed from a series of numbers, from which Cage devised proportions and fractions which were in turn organised symmetrically.
On top of everything else, Cage was known for his popularisation of indeterminate music. With pieces built around chance, the performances yielded vastly different results every time they were attempted. His 1951 Music Of Changes (inspired by Morton Feldman’s own use of chance in his work) used the Chinese divination system I Ching as the basis for its decision making process. The performer would begin by consulting the I Ching to choose a sound from a chart, before applying duration and dynamic to this sound through a similar process. As such, a piece of music is composed entirely through a combination of choice, luck and randomness. As with his Sonatas And Interludes For Prepared Piano, the structure comes from proportions created using random sequences of numbers. A huge variety of indeterminate work stemmed from Cage’s Music Of Changes, ranging from game pieces that create their music through, as you might expect, what is effectively a game played by performers, to electronic music crafted from synthesisers and sequencers that are able to produce true randomness a composer isn’t theoretically capable of.
When modernism became the driving force behind 20th century classical music, postmodern composers began reacting. In many ways, the music of postmodern composers might seem a lot less ‘weird’. The early 20th century neoclassical works of Poulenc and Stravinsky, for example, payed homage to the work of those who came many years before them. They added modern twists to things like rhythm and harmony, but as a whole, it’s a style much more familiar to the ear than what Cage and Xenakis were busying themselves with.
Minimalism took a similar opposition to the frantic, futuristic approach of modernism. Composers like Phillip Glass and Steve Reich began to work simplicity, repetitiveness and consonance into their music, providing relief to those who wanted an ‘pleasant’ listening experience once more. Many early minimalist pieces were long and highly repetitive, but due to the more consonant melodic and rhythmic construction, they have a distinctly more accessible sound. Of course, there was overlap between modernism and postmodernism. Terry Riley’s In C is a well-known piece of minimalism, but it is primarily built on the principles of indeterminacy. Various musical cells (which mostly sound consonant when played over each other) are moved between at the discretion of the performer. This means the piece sounds different in every performance, but avoids the jarring and complex sound of most modernist indeterminate work.
However, as neoclassical styles did in the earlier years of the 20th century, postmodern composers in the latter half began to engage with music of the past to a particularly extreme degree. This includes the use of quotation and polystylism, something modernism was vehemently opposed to. George Rochberg and Mark Anthony Turnage are particular proponents of stylistic eclecticism. Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 3 saw the composer move away from his established serialist techniques and towards engagement with a variety of styles, including the classical harmony of movement 3, the Bartokian motifs of the 4th movement, and the dramatic chromaticism of the 5th. While this style was just as unexpected in the classical world (if not more) as anything modernist composers were doing, it was met with an extremely negative response from classical purists.
Eventually, classical composers even began to engage with popular music. Phillip Glass released a trilogy of symphonies built on David Bowie’s Berlin album trilogy. The first and second reworked musical ideas from the albums Low and Heroes, while the third (premiered in 2019) used the words of Bowie’s Lodger. While these pieces have received mixed critical opinion (oftentimes viewing Bowie’s original with more worth), recent years have seen classical composers dig deeper into ‘low’ art. Mark Anthony Turnage based his piece Hammered Out on the melodic content of Beyonce’s Single Ladies, much to the confusion of critics and dismay of the crowd at London’s Royal Albert Hall. While pieces like this might sound less weird on the surface simply due to their more agreeable sound, the merging of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms would have once been just as shocking as the extreme dissonances of modernist music. As such, the postmodern can certainly be placed amongst the weird world of classical music.
While the likes of Cage and Stockhausen were working on pushing the boundaries of classical composition, by the 1960s, popular music had overshadowed the classical world with its accessibility. However, in comparison to the hundreds of years of development the classical world underwent, it took a comparatively short time for popular artists to start incorporating the unexpected into their output.
As you may expect, The Beatles were amongst the first to truly introduce the Avant-Garde to popular music. Of course, jazz had undergone rapid developments (with Ornette Coleman inventing free jazz way back in 1960) but it was Revolver that first took forward-thinking experimentation into the mainstream. In 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, along with Pink Floyd’s The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and Frank Zappa’s Absolutely Free, developed three distinct strands of mainstream musical madness. The Beatles managed to work in endless experimentation, while Syd Barrett masterminded Floyd’s noisy improvisation and psychedelic soundscapes, and Zappa fed his band, The Mothers Of Invention, a diet of polystylism and complex compositional ideas. Focusing in on three defining 1967 tracks (Within You Without You by The Beatles, Interstellar Overdrive by Pink Floyd and Brown Shoes Don’t Make It by Frank Zappa), the importance of the year can really be felt.
Within You Without You sees George Harrison bringing the sounds of India to The Beatles. Despite being the only member of the band performing on the track, Harrison performed sitar alongside an authentic Indian ensemble full of tabla, dilruba and tambura. Compositionally, he engaged with the Indian rhythmic cycles such as the 10-beat Jhaptal and 16-beat tintal, the Khamaj Thaat (an Indian scale) and a structure built on the alap and gat, rather than verse and chorus. While the likes of Ravi Shankar were gaining worldwide recognition, the idea of bringing such eastern ideas to the biggest attraction of the west was a hugely bold musical move. Interstellar Overdrive took a different approach, but one that creates an equally unique sound. The instrumental opens with a pre-written chromatic riff, before exploding into many minutes of free form sound and improvisation, fronted by the gritty guitar of Barrett. The fact that a track centred on abstract noise worked its way to no. 36 on the Rolling Stone list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs Of All Time is seriously impressive, and very much representative of the era. Can you imagine something like that appearing in the charts in 2020? Finally, Brown Shoes Don’t Make It shows off Frank Zappa’s obsession with polystylism and experimentation. The track, of course, is happy to work free improvisation in. However, Zappa wasn’t afraid to take the postmodern technique of polystylism even further. He incorporates rock, classical, psychedelic and jazz styles into the 7-minute run-time of this unique track. If you can keep up with Zappa’s bizarre approach, then you’ll be able to uncover over 100 albums worth of material, each stranger than the last.
In the years after 1967, progressive rock exploded in popularity. Pink Floyd released Atom Heart Mother, an album fronted by the 23-minute long, brass-led instrumental title track; Zappa progressed even further to drop Uncle Meat; while the likes of Van Der Graaf Generator, King Crimson and Genesis each approached the progressive landscape from a different perspective. Complexity, grandeur and length became the norm in popular music and you were the odd one out if you weren’t releasing a concept album. Listening back to the inaccessible virtuosity of this era now, it’s genuinely hard to connect the popular music of today to the extremes we were surrounded with 50 years ago.
When the 80s came around, ‘weird’ music all but disappeared from the mainstream. Even Pink Floyd left behind their days of free improvisation and concept album genius and became a relatively unremarkable stadium rock band. Of course, the charts had the newfound sound of Kate Bush dotted here and there, while the remains of prog fizzled out slowly, but as a whole, ‘weirdness’ was relegated to the underground. In Scandinavia, extreme metal rose from the ashes of punk, while the dance music of Europe slowly took more and more experimental turns.
In Sweden and Norway, the early 80s gave birth to black metal, a genre whose backstory might be even more bizarre than its sound. By 2020, the world of extreme metal is widely known and its aggression and volume has turned from an underground outlet for aggression into a multitude of subgenres, many of which are able to fill arenas with devoted fans. However, characterised by intentionally lo-fi recording, exceptionally aggressive drumming and distorted guitars, guttural vocal shrieks and an otherwise unheard of commitment to satanism, black metal was (and remains) a particularly strange avenue for musical expression. While Venom coined the term through their 1982 album Black Metal, it was Bathory’s self-titled debut that is deemed by many to be the first true release in the genre. Tracks like Hades are chaotic, loud, and filled with as many commitments to creating an overwhelming sense of evil and dread as the band could manage. Beneath these releases, the genre was marred by (proven) accusations of satanism; church burnings were common amongst the members of even the most prominent bands, while suicide and murder wasn’t exactly rare. One particular example comes from the band Mayhem. Their original lead vocalist, lovingly nicknamed ‘Dead’, committed suicide in 1991. His bandmate Euronymous took pictures of his body for the cover of their Dawn Of The Black Hearts live album, while apparently making a necklace from pieces of his skull. The very same Euronymous was murdered two years later by Varg Vikernes of Burzum, another band in the black metal scene. It’s no surprise, really, that black metal is one of the most emotionally charged genres in music history.
As the decade progressed, bands like Death and Cannibal Corpse morphed the sound of black metal into death metal, while grindcore simultaneously developed from the heaviest recesses of punk, and doom metal dialled the tempo down further across every release. Every subgenre has since taken on a life of its own, whether through the cross-contamination of progressive rock and death metal shown in the work of Opeth, the artistic abilities of deathgrind bands like Cattle Decapitation or the dramatic extremes reached in Sleep and their 63-minute long track/album Dopesmoker.
Despite all of this, classical composer John Zorn is responsible for taking extreme metal to one of the weirdest places it has reached (so far). Taking influence from the polystylism of the postmodern movement, he is the composer/saxophonist of two highly experimental extreme metal bands. The 2009 album Guts Of A Virgin by his band Painkiller merges the hardcore assaults of grindcore with explosive barrages of saxophone improvisation, blues breaks and overdriven noise soundscapes. Damage To The Mask is a particularly interesting example of extreme polystylism, opening with a drum solo that doesn’t know whether to play a laid-back, funky jazz groove or an aggressive grindcore blast beat. The saxophone solo that follows desperately tries to match the agonising distortion of the overdriven guitar beneath, creating an unexpected mixture of timbres. Despite appearing over 40 years later, there is an unmistakable connection to the work of Frank Zappa, suggesting that while extreme metal never made its way into Zappa’s music, his influence was certainly felt in extreme metal.
As mentioned above, extreme metal has become so well established that many of its subgenres exist firmly in the mainstream. In 2019, masked 9-piece Slipknot made it to no.1 in the UK and US album charts with We Are Not Your Kind, while Glastonbury Festival itself opened its doors to the likes of Gojira and Venom Prison the very same year. But no matter how popular it gets, the prevalence of satanism, guttural growling and a commitment to creating as a heavy a sound as possible remains just as unique as the progressive rock of the early 1970s.
On the opposite end of the musical spectrum, the 80s also saw the development of dance music. While classical composers had worked on various electronic pieces, these were typically built on algorithms created to produce complex, hard to follow noise. Producers of dance music like house, disco and new wave aimed to provide pounding 4/4 patterns, danceable rhythms and memorable melodies. For a while, it was all relatively straightforward and you’d be hard pushed to find anything overwhelmingly ‘weird’. However, by this point, the world was already familiar with German 4-piece Kraftwerk, and their debut album Autobahn. Despite being fronted by a 22-minute lament about German motorways and rounded off by a collection of instrumental electronic experiments, the landscape of popular music at the time allowed Kraftwerk to develop international recognition. As such, producers that came after them knew they could push the landscape of electronic music as far as they wanted.
In the 90s, progressive house remained firmly in 4/4, but began to stretch the running time of pieces and experiment with jazzy keyboard improvisation and hazy, trance-like sections found in the early work of Leftfield; G-funk took funk to gangsta rap, with classic funk samples combining with rap and deep bass to create the influential releases of NWA; and hardcore worked with the fast tempos, distorted sounds and industrial influences found in the work of Marc Trauner.
However, when dance music abandoned its ‘dance’ mantra, it was finally able to become as weird as always wanted to. The somewhat patronisingly named ‘Intelligent Dance Music’ was pushed forward by artists emerging in the 90s such as Aphex Twin, The Orb and Squarepusher. The latter has dropped albums with a multitude of different sounds, whether it’s unaccompanied bass guitar, electronic jazz fusion, or his aggressively complex drum and bass experimentation. His 2001 album Go Plastic opens with arguably his most accessible tune, My Red Hot Car, and even that is full of glitching vocals, sudden rhythm and tempo changes and forward-thinking production choices. Wander further into the release, and Greenways Trajectory provides a seven-minute collage of sound, complete with breakbeats, jumpy samples and a middle section built on the slow bit-crushing of a hellishly aggressive moment of pure noise.
Despite this, Aphex Twin may well have been the most forward thinking of all. He released the biggest album in the IDM genre, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, before going on to remix Krzysztof Penderecki’s modernist classical work Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima. With this, he created a piece full of white noise, explosive shifts of style and tone, on top of the explorations of the compositional extremity the original classical piece already possessed. Eventually, there ended up being a few instances rather difficult to distinguish between the experimental electronics of classical composers like Xenakis, and the ‘dance’ music of Aphex Twin. In particular, Windowlicker (released in 1999) creates sound using visual imagery. A spectrogram of the song shows a visual mathematical spiral being created with the sound we hear, while the end of the track uses an equation (ΔMi−1 = −αΣn=1NDi[n] [Σj∈C[i]Fji[n − 1] +Fexti[n−1]]) to project an image of Apex Twin’s face; the clunking sound of which can be heard within the track’s unpredictably experimental final moments.
There is arguably just one artist who bridges the gap between extreme metal, experimental electronic music and polystylistic progressive rock. The little-known French producer Igorrr has taken one of the most unusual (and very, very weird) approaches to music one can imagine. He accurately labels his music as ‘Baroque-core’. Merging just about every genre you can think of (while prioritising death metal and Baroque music), Igorrr is sitting on a catalogue full of incredibly strange releases. From his album Nostril, Unpleasant Sonata samples Jean Philippe Rameau’s Pièces De Clavecin, modulating the melodies and glitching its way through instrumental passages. When combined with the brutal shrieks and blast beats of death metal and a brief glimpse into the world of jazz piano, the resulting sound is something you’ll never hear in the mainstream. In terms of polystylism, this is about as weird as ‘popular’ music can get.
Between the 1980s and early 2010s, most of these experimental styles stayed firmly in the underground. The processed chart pop of the 2000s made sure experimentation was firmly removed, with simple, easy to listen to, low-concept tunes dominating the charts pretty much without exception. It is only recently that weirdness has finally reared its head once more in the public consciousness. In the latter 2010s, the hardcore hip-hop group Death Grips turned heads with their experimental, glitchy approach to hip-hop, while Kendrick Lamar showed the world how free jazz can interact with hip-hop in his 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly. Similarly, bands like King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard have re-introduced a Pink Floyd-esque psychedelia to indie rock (they also unexpectedly released a straight-up thrash metal album in 2019), and, most recently, Billie Eilish has drawn incredible parallels with Kate Bush through the release of the eerie, industrial, minimalist When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? in early 2019.
Of course, beneath the surface, experimental and boundary-pushing music exists in troves. However, through these recent returns to experimentation, it seems that the popular music landscape is begging for a return to the unique feats of far-out composition the early 70s were famous for. How weird will the music of the future get?
Dan Peeke has balanced writing about music, film and culture for the likes of Kerrang! and GamesRadar with work as a composer and photographer. Find him at his website or at @danpeeke.