The Rise of Experimental Music in the 1960s is a crash course in the American and British avant-garde. The 2005 BBC film is assembled with a series of phone conversations between musicians interspersed with footage of Mozart’s 18th-century game of chance, which entails arranging an orchestral piece via rolls of the dice. It’s a fittingly unusual format for the subject matter, setting a playful yet scholarly tone for a discussion that looks beyond traditional composition techniques.
Through a series of punnily titled sections such as “Serial Killers,” focusing on Stockhausen and Boulez, the history of Western experimental music is traced chronologically. The film’s most interesting passages arrive with archival footage of a pre-bearded Terry Riley performing “In C,” John Cage beaming onstage while wearing insect antenna, Cornelius Cardew’s graphic score interpreted on a cheese grater, and the joyful flubbing of the Portsmouth Sinfonia.
It’s no surprise that a mainstream project such as this would simply reinforce the canon, yet it’s still shameful to see Yoko Ono as the only non-white musician discussed in the film. History has been rewritten in the 15 years since its release, with overlooked innovators such as Julius Eastman finally included in the discussion, but sadly you won’t find him here. For a truly boundless look into experimental music, an updated version of this documentary could replace the names we’ve been taught for decades with those who have never had an opportunity to rise.