Experimental Music in DC

Some background on Alex Witt’s project on experimental music in DC

The purpose of Alex’s project is to determine how genre identification affects the connections between artists. To analyze this concept, he utilizes the “experimental” community in Washington, D.C. Starting with a dissection of the term “experimental music” and the related sub-genres that fall under that category, Alex intends to showcase the variety of musical styles that somehow get gigs together and showcase the significance found in the variety. Also under observation is the role played by venues and organizations such as Sonic Circuits.

Alex first became interested in this project due to an interest in minimalism and electronic music. The chance at collaborating with fellow student Monica Burgin on the project was also a plus. He was originally interested in how the experimental community operates and how the broad nature of the music affects that dynamic.


Usually when a certain type of music is mentioned, you have a pretty good idea what it is going to sound like. If I say Hip-Hop, its fairly simple to imagine what it is going to sound like. It may not be representative of the full breadth of the genre, but you get an idea. Now try this:

Experimental Music.

What does that sound like to you?

Experimental Music isn’t immediately identifiable in our minds. We don’t know what it is going to sound like, except that it is going to be different (Myo). Yet that does not say much of about the music or the people who make it. To examine this, first it is necessary to take a look at what makes a genre identifiable.

Classifying music is tricky.

When classifying music, we tend to rely on identification of Genre. To first understand the nature of the Experimental music genre, it is essential to define genre as it pertains to music itself. For the purposes of this post, I will be referring to the definition as posited by Lena and Peterson (2008): “We define music genres as systems of orientations, expectation, and conventions that bind together an industry, performers, critics and fans in making what they identify as a distinctive sort of music” (698). This definition implies that there are multiple facets to the definitions of a genre. In the case of this study and the varied social nature of the experimental music community, I will be concentrating on the musical features of a genre as per its classification.

When classifying a musical genre via the features of the music itself, the most important aspect is a categorization of the prevalent textures. To illustrate this, I will use the musical genre of Jazz. The prevalent textural features of Jazz are: emphasis towards syncopation in the rhythm, Jazz specific harmony and improvisation. However, this does not specifically pin down Jazz. In fact, many forms of music in the 20th and 21st century feature a rhythmic emphasis of the off beats. Improvisation is common in many other forms of music, and will be touched upon later when discussing experimental music. Finally, so called “Jazz harmony” is probably the most individualized trait to Jazz, but has varied so much that it is often difficult to properly describe on a macro level. Therein lies the problem with associating music generalized genres. To properly describe the nature of some certain music you need to go below the primary genre classification. This is where the sub-genre classification comes into play. Taking Jazz into consideration, an example of this would be Bebop or Free Jazzî both of which have differing attributes which can more accurately describe the music.

For the purpose of this post I will be referring to the over-arching genre as the “Primary Genre” and the sub-genres as the “Secondary Genre.”

Another important thing to consider when discussing the nature of musical genres is the assumption that the specific features of genres will change over time. Musicians are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is under a certain genre, blurring the boundaries between classifications. However, the process of classifying the musical features of Experimental Music is different from other forms of music. As a result, an alternative approach to music classification should be considered.

Identification of “Experimental”

Like the term “Jazz,” Experimental Music as a term does not accurately describe the music being performed. It’s textural components vary immensely. Medium of musical production also varies greatly. In fact, the primary textural identifier is that it has no specific textural identifier.

Below, I have provided some links to some audio provided by the District of Noise Archives. District of Noise is an archive affiliated with Sonic Circuits that serves the experimental community in DC.

“Ad Hoc Quartet @ Pyramid Atlantic” ~ 11.16.11

ìJanel & Anthony & Violet @ Bellaî ~ 06.14.11

“Bluehouzer @ Pyramid Atlantic” ~ 12.19.10

“Borborites @ Amma House” ~ 07.04.10

Each of these examples is performed on a wide variety of instruments, and provides an even wider variety of textures. It is therefore safe to say that texture or instrumentation is not a good medium to classify Experimental music. If that’s the case, then how is Experimental music identifiable?

Experimental Music is increasingly defined by the development and variation of texture. Rather than concentrating on the more traditional aspects of music creation such as melody, harmony, and rhythm, experimental music concentrates on aspects like space, time and the density of noise. As a result, you get a lot of bleeding between secondary and other primary genres.

This chart is only a narrow sketch of the possibilities of stylistic inspiration found in experimental music. The three secondary genres listed are those that are primarily found in DC, and have a huge level of depth to each of them. The chart is not meant to be illustrative of the depth of the Experimental genre in DC, but indicative of the complexity of influence. The intended impression is that of complexity. It is in many ways too complex to accurately classify the music as a whole given the constant array of influences being received.

Preference of Artistic Consumption

Artists are often confined by the expectations of audiences and critics who are necessary for the propagation, distribution and consumption of artistic goods” (Lena 698)

Among the commonly agreed upon aspects of experimental music is that it is by nature, difficult to promote on a large scale commercial level. As a form of music, it defies conventions, thereby making it difficult to not only market, but perform. In some cases, it requires a truckload of equipment, or simply a complex array of electronic devices that may be expensive, difficult to acquire or confusing to use. This by most standards would all but doom the music to utter obscurity (Becker 32). Yet, somehow DC has a small but healthy experimental music community. To understand why this happened, it is important to look at the history and make up of DC’s scene.

History of DC’s experimental music Scene

DC’s Experimental music scene is unique because of the nature of the community around it. Compared to other cities major cities with an experimental scene, it has relatively little organizational coverage. Although Sonic Circuits is an established organization that features multiple artists, both local and international, as well as an annual festival, DC’s scene does not have the organizational development of other cities. To make up for this, the scene is heavily community run. In the words of one DC artist and organizer, Jeff Carey, DC’s scene is exists “more out of sheer will than any apparent organization” (Carey). Since there is not a huge market for this music as a whole, a lot of the scene comes from a the existence of a core audience which has only developed within the past decade. Part of the development of the core audience was the creation of Sonic Circuits which provided a chance at new venues as well as higher-profile shows. However, the primarily community oriented experimental scene has created an interesting dynamic as far as listening preferences.

DC’s Significance In reference to Genre

In all of my correspondences with musicians about the listening preferences of the DC community, a fascinating attribute began to appear. DC’s scene, unlike the scenes in many other active cities is less isolated by secondary. For example, if you were to go to an improv show, all the acts would be improv and the audience would all be improv fans. In DC, its different. You find the Jazz crowd going to basement punk shoes and the Punk crowd going to and electro-accoustic show at the French Embassy (O’Brian). This results in a community that is incredibly open to new members and musicians. The community is not only responsible for the promotion and continued stream of performances, but influence the continued development of DC’s experimental sound through the continued cross pollination with other primary and secondary genres.

How the project changed over the semester

Alex’s biggest stumbling block was hi schedule. At first, he was simply too busy to engage this project in a complete and successful manner. Also, it was somewhat difficult to get in touch with his initial crop of musicians. Once he did manage to establish contact, the project panned out nicely. Overall, his research question hasn’t changed so much. Instead, it seems he was able to determine the best route to approach it.


Alex’s biggest thanks go to the musician Myo who provided him with a really great gateway into those who have experience in the community. More thanks go to those both at Sonic Circuits and Amma House for putting on great shows. His final thanks goes to Monica for being both a sounding board for ideas and a co-gatherer of evidence.

Sources Cited

Becker, Howard. Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1982.

Carey, Jeff. Interview by Author. Email. Washington DC., April 18, 2012.

Lena, Jennifer C, Peterson, Richard A. “Classification as Culture: Types and Trajectories of Music Genres.” American Sociological Review 73 No. 5 (2008): 697-718.

O’Brien, Cory. Interview by Author. Digital Audio Recording. Washington DC., April 7, 2012.


1 thought on “Experimental Music in DC

  1. Well I found this as I was just scanning for stuff to do in DC when I come back east to visit. Interesting take I guess, but I don’t agree with the authors statement that the core audience has only developed within the last decade. I grew up in Blatimore and spent a lot of time at “experimental music” events in DC in the 80’s… so that core audience has been around for a long time… even well before my time. But glad to see things are still going strong as expected.

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