Points of Contact: Settler Colonialism and Experimental Music in North America

James Harding, in rethinking the discursive histories of the theatrical avant-gardes, argues that “nothing more aptly characterizes [them] than the moments of contested intercultural exchange at their colonialist birthings” (2013, 138). Across the spectrum of the performing arts, the political economies of avant-garde practices have been driven by their directionality—either rectilinear or circuitous paths that carve out a territorial dialectic of centre and margin, which have remained entangled in unfolding histories of Western imperialism across the globe. In North America, the emergence of an experimental music tradition that came to maturity in the post-Cagean foment of the 1960s staked a claim on sound as but one component of a broader intermedial matrix, and it is a tradition whose unity and coherence has been productively called into question (Lewis 2006; Piekut 2011, 2014). Yet despite a recent shift towards decentring experimental music from its provenance as the institutional avant-garde’s Other, there remains a timely opportunity to turn critical attention towards its unique heritage in North America as an expression of settler-colonial culture.

In considering a larger field in which the material and discursive practices of experimentalism operate inseparably from this context, this paper argues two points: First, that these practices, as taken up by indigenous experimentalists intensify the possibilities of experimental music’s efficacy—the valences it otherwise misses in North America’s present era of political recognition, redress, and reconciliation; Second, that settler-colonialism, which “elides the space between metropole and colony,” (Tuck & Yang 2012) has produced a range of affordances for experimental music to articulate its own coloniality in North America. I suggest that four registers define where indigeneity and experimentalism meet in what I call their “points of contact”: technology, authorship, alterity, and modernity.


Jeremy Strachan is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Scholar in the Department of Music at Cornell University. His research on experimental and modernist music in Canada appears or is forthcoming in Twentieth-Century MusicIntersections: Canadian Journal of Music, Circuit: musiques ContemporainesCritical Studies in Improvisation and elsewhere. His PhD thesis on Udo Kasemets (1919–2014) was supported by an AMS 50 Dissertation Fellowship.