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Violin master Malcolm Goldstein laughs when he is reminded that his work is considered experimental music. It's not that he rejects the label. Instead Goldstein, renowned worldwide for virtually reinventing the way the violin is played, responds as if the classification is too simplistic an explanation for what he does. It's loaded as well, with the assumption that experimenters have little technique.
"'Experimental' to me doesn't mean anything," he guffaws. "I agree with Edgard Varèse the French composer ... who said 'I know exactly what I'm doing.'"
What Goldstein has been doing since the early Sixties is extending his classical technique by exploiting all the possibilities of sound that live in his instrument. He says he began to veer from the traditional manner of playing violin when he toured Europe with an Egyptian dance troupe. He discovered that the troupe's musicians were making dramatically different sounds by improvising, playing unwritten notes. They bent the notes in expressive ways that seemed to respond spontaneously to the dancers performing onstage.
The experience prompted Goldstein to embrace improvisation as a technique to breathe life into music. "It changed my life," he says. "It opened me up to thinking about the richness of life and sound all around us."
That philosophy has led him to new insights that have taken him back to the elemental roots of violin music, which can be found in ancient Arabia.
Goldstein describes his process as listening, really listening to the minute intricacies of sound. Not just the sound he creates while bowing his violin, but the sound that is all around him at any given moment.
As a result he's built compositions based on a series of improvisations that incorporate the sounds of interstate traffic, rumbling thunder, the clang of a metal pipe being thrown across a floor, and chain saws. Yes, chain saws.
He blends the textures of the spontaneous babel with his response on violin. On the 1999 release of his own compositions, The Seasons: Vermont, the mix of textures is violent, meditative, looming, and seemingly discordant. That is because he embraces the concept of noise.
In fact Goldstein describes environmental noise as a naturally occurring element that is too often dismissed by musicians. He says that the way to appreciate the sound of, say, construction or a screaming baby is to slow down and hear the intricate elements of that sound.
"Noise is a more complex tonal material," Goldstein says. "If you take a usual musical tone you find that every sound is made up of many tones. Noise has an even more complicated ratio of sound."
Working with that premise, Goldstein found that the tones of his violin were charged with hidden textures and sounds. Since playing the instrument in the traditional manner tends to bowl over these variables, Goldstein decided to slow down and explore the infinite possibilities that lay literally at his fingertips.
"I began to hear [noise] as melody," he says. "Melody that incorporates texture." Such textures may take a leap of faith to appreciate as far as audiences are concerned, and Goldstein acknowledges that enjoying his music requires an open mind.
Gustavo Matamoros, artistic director of the 16th Annual Subtropics Experimental Music Festival, says Goldstein fits perfectly into the mission of the event.
"The festival itself represents an access to ideas and forms of expression that are not readily available in the community," he says. "We offer a different type of experience if you're willing to go for it. Maybe you have to be an active listener. It's not for insiders -- we're calling for experimental audiences who are in a constant experiment."
The working theory is that the more audiences listen and understand the new music, the more they will support it. Venturing into what Goldstein calls "open improvisations" can feel like a free fall; the listener is sometimes zooming in unknown directions at blinding speed.
Creating music without the tenets of song construction, without the harmonic variances that figure symmetrically in traditional music theory, is the bulk of the work of experimental composers. Musicians such as Goldstein work with a set of principles that are consciously devoid of principles, except perhaps the free-associated reflections of what's going on in the mind and at the moment.
If there is a way to capture the inner workings of the human imagination in the same way a photograph captures the image of a chair, music may be the best instrument. Just as a well-constructed song -- for instance, "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" -- could reflect a mood, so too the abstruse and nonsymmetrical musings of experimental music can sketch out the subconscious, subliminal stuff that lives in humans.
Though it may not sound like song, or music even, the composers who work in the wake of John Cage and John Coltrane are the arbiters of unknown expressive possibilities. Of course there is no explaining of the human spirit. And if you look up the music of various composers in this genre, you're likely to find the words "without category."
"Experimental music is an attitude," Matamoros posits. "It's the attitude to go beyond and learn more from the evaluation and experience of art. What's exciting about it is that you're in front of something that is unbelievable, and you get to connect things that we don't usually connect."
What Goldstein connects to is the idea that all music, all sound lives inextricably not just in the human psyche, but in the human anatomy as well. In that realm he identifies more closely with folk music than with classical.
Where the classical tradition is drawn from a narrow focus on expression, Goldstein explains, folk music is drawn from a penetrating response to the artist's environment. As a result the musician must take in as much as he gives out.
To best illustrate what he means, Goldstein paraphrases Jean Genet, who wrote about Palestinian soldiers improvising songs while in the desert in his book Prisoner of Love.
"Genet observed that new music is not something that is invented," Goldstein says. "But rather it is something that is inpeople, and all a composer does is to make apparent the external things that are already in people."