Adieu, Avant-Garde

Adieu, Avant-Garde

The discussion following Colin Holter’s recent post, “The Urgent Needs of Now” has been rather interesting to follow as it has evolved into a question as to exactly what might constitute the current equivalent of an avant-garde movement in experimental music. It strikes me that a new movement founded on rebelliously original experimentation might be impossible today.

No matter what path of experimentation a new composer might attempt to clear, it has been previously explored at great length—generally by composers several generations removed. Microtonality? Partch. Noise-based compositions? Varèse. Electronic sounds that are impossible to create through acoustic means? Been doing that too, for nearly 100 years. Works that assault the audience or involve self-mutilation? Done and done. Silent musical compositions? Done. In short, it appears to me that any artist who maintains primogeniture as a foremost concern is bound to fail. I believe that our generation’s contributions will be incremental rather than revolutionary. We are living in an era of consolidation.

Despite the previous paragraph, and somewhat paradoxically, I still believe that originality of expression remains the utmost goal of the composer. It’s just that in today’s world the personal stamp of any given composer will be a variant on the works of those who came before. Our theater pieces and multimedia events; our robot orchestras; our installation art and all other forms of what we previously dubbed the “avant-garde” place themselves within a historical context and recall the works of our forbearers. Of course we still can create highly idiosyncratic pieces, but their lineage will remain clear to those with historical memory.

Thus, it appears to me that a true avant-garde experimental music cannot exist. The obsessions of the 20th-century revolutionaries simply don’t translate into today’s artistic climate. An audience that has seen it all begins to ask whether the individual piece means something to them rather than whether the piece is groundbreaking. First and foremost, we ask if it works as music. To me personally, this is a bit sad. I’ve always been a fan of the experimental in art, and I continue to grope hopefully towards under-explored parts of our musical cave. But I do so in the belief that nothing I do will be truly original. Still, I hope that I am wrong—that I will live to hear an utterly original music that pushes beyond what I believe to be possible.

Certainly the movement discussed in Colin’s article is designed as an amalgam, an alloy created within a culture that grants us nearly equal access to all possible sounds. As such, it seems very much of our time (and yet, not my personal path), and yet this quality also would appear to make it an unlikely candidate for the title of the new avant-garde. So, I wonder: What of today’s music will be revealed as the true heir to the avant-garde? Will any of today’s music be revealed as an heir to the avant-garde?

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33 thoughts on “Adieu, Avant-Garde

  1. composerprov

    Adieu Avant Garde
    Because these experiments have already been done doesn’t mean we can’t continue to develop each genre or style further. It’s not about needing to come up with yet another new thing. It’s about taking what’s already been initiated and going further with it. Composers like Debussy took traditional tonal practices to the next level, differentiating it from most everything that came before it. It wasn’t something new. It was a continuation of something that came before. That’s how I see our continuing the types of avant garde music you refer to. We need to explore it further because we’ve changed, society has changed. Creating music that came out of the early avant garde but placing it in today’s environment makes it close to new all over again.

  2. colin holter

    Thanks for picking up this ball, David.

    Briefly, I want to agree that the notion of an “avant-garde” itself is a historical one that may no longer be useful or meaningful except as a sort of crowbar with which to jack certain ideological ATM machines of their cultural capital. I also want to recommend this very short article by Martin Iddon, which offers a thoughtful and well-sourced argument about the avant-garde.

  3. pgblu

    If rebelliously original experimentation means what I think it means, it has never existed. I don’t equate, as you do implicitly in your second paragraph, novel techniques with originality. To say, “Minimalism, meh, it’s been done” is to ignore that what minimalism actually means to us is constantly changing, and the way we respond to it also should change. The fact that a new minimalist piece that furthers the ‘debate’ about minimalism still goes bada-bada-bada-bada-bada-bada-bada-bada- is not necessarily its most important attribute.

    So far I’m just re-iterating what composerprov said. Just more flippantly. But there’s something else to think about here. We ought to be thinking of musical ‘progress’ as a two-part phenomenon. The first part ended when composers drilled down to the most basic building blocks of music, whether that means (as in serialism) the individual pitch, duration, timbre, dynamic; or (as in electronic music) the sine tone, its spatial position, etc.; or (as in the more recently flowering instrument-specific deconstruction school) the parameters of sound-making such as bow speed, bow pressure, finger position, etc.

    What avant-garde means after that ought to somehow reflect the fact that any sound, no matter how compellingly it is couched in some arbitrary system, can at any moment be blown apart into its constituent parameters. To deny sounds their ‘parametricity’ after the null-point is a bit like trying to get back into the Garden of Eden.

  4. jhyde20

    Back in the 80’s Ben Johnson talked about the present being a time to figure out how to make good use of the staggering variety of musical materials that had been discovered since the end of the romantic era (from some East (SF) Bay paper. I wish I could cite it).

    Pushing back the frontier is great but if we don’t have time to get to know what has been discovered, are we really any more that tourists?


  5. holbrooke

    David, I think it’s fair to ask: If there currently is an avant-garde, and you sure you would have crossed paths with it by now? Are you sure you would recognize it if you saw it? What makes you thing so?

  6. Wang Jie

    -“To rebel against history is still to be part of it.”

    and since an enormous portion of Avant Garde flourished on the experiment of musical materiel…

    -“Control of materiel is not really control. It is merely a device that brings us to the psychological benefits of the process – just as relinquishing control brings us nothing more than the psychological benefits of the non-systematic approach. In both cases, all we have gained is the intellectual comfort of having made a decision – the psychological comfort of having arrived at a point of view.

    Wang Jie

  7. smooke

    interesting responses
    Thank you for your responses. I’m hoping that we can have a fruitful discussion here.

    To composerprov: I completely agree and hope that this spirit came through in my original post.

    To holbrooke: This is exactly what I’m asking. I would HOPE to have crossed paths with an avant-garde because it’s certainly where my aesthetic predilections lie. But how would I recognize it today? This is exactly the discussion I’m hoping to spark. What do you think is the current avant-garde? I seriously want to know.


  8. jaybatzner

    A future full of lazy musicologists
    Why are we talking about this now? Shouldn’t we just write what we will and let the musicologists duke it out 150 years from now? We are setting the stage for generations of lazy musicology grad students! No wonder they don’t want to talk about contemporary music. We are doing all the labeling for them!

  9. pgblu

    Morton Feldman
    To Wang Jie:

    I like those Morton Feldman quotes as much as you do. Can you tell us how you think they are connected to this discussion?

  10. lawrence

    As usual, David, I wholeheartedly agree with you, but with a somewhat different slant.

    1. Techniques, like people, always have antecedents. All of the things you attribute to the 20th-century avant garde (microtonality, composing with noise, new technology, physical violence) are as old as music itself. What we have mistakenly called avant garde is really work that flies in the face of current assumptions, not work that is unprecedented.

    2. Originality, as you have said yourself, is not a matter of new techniques, but a matter of identity. Although we all have antecedents (in the form of countless generations of parents whose sacrifices, assistance and helplessness made us possible), we each have an original combination of genetic makeup and experience that can potentially make our work different from anything the world has heard before. You are a sublime example: your early immersion in the punk/goth scene has left an indelible mark on your music, yet I don’t think anybody would mistake your work for its antecedents – you have inflected it with your own temporal and organizational preferences. That makes you an original, in my book.

  11. woody

    I find the basic questions here superficial at best. Isn’t this basic idea of “newness” and “progress” deeply rooted in the history of modernism?

    As a starting place, there is a large body of writing on the avant-garde and its relationship to the modernist project, maybe starting with Clement Greenberg or Frankfurt school writings like Adorno.

    “Originality of expression remains the utmost goal of the composer” seems quite historical as well. I think looking at the arts in general is useful, where in the 60s so many artists challenged the basic concept of “expression” and the relation of the work to “self”. Was John Baldessari making art?

    Also, siting creative activity as modernist formal development is problematic. We end up with terms like “extra-musical” for worldly things we feel aren’t contained by the frame of music. If privileging “newness”, one possibility is to reconsider the borders of “music” or various sites of musical activity, considering contemporary ideas surrounding relational aesthetics or performance theory.

  12. Joseph Bertolozzi

    Just because we can’t imagine the next new music doesn’t mean it’s not coming. We just don’t see it yet and it’s no reflection on us.

    Landini couldn’t conceive of ending a piece with a major third.

    Haydn would never have ended a work with an added 6th in the final chord.

    Composers before Stravinsky could not have predicted the violence in “Sacre” much less conceive of it being any type of future norm.

    Schoenberg and his school could not conceive of music going back to tonality.

    Cage composed with silence…now there’s really nothing left, correct?

    Rejoice for it is coming!

  13. mclaren

    It always comes as a stimulating refreshment when doyens of the serious contemporary music community shift from willful distortions to outright lies. The change of pace gives a real pick-me-up to the discourse, and privileges the hermeneutics in a postmodern repurposing of the precession of simulacra that just makes you want to say “What a load of unbelievable horseshit!”

    The claim that “All of the things you attribute to the 20th-century avant garde (microtonality, composing with noise, new technology, physical violence) are as old as music itself” remains a flat-out lie. It’s a classic lie by implication. Everyone knows it. Everyone snickers behind their hands at it. But no one seems to want to point this fact out. So, as usual, it falls to me.

    Fact: no one ever heard music in 15 equal tones per octave until Ivor Darreg started composing. That was something genuinely new in music. Claiming otherwise is a lie.

    Fact: no one ever heard trumps fluidly transforming into snare drums until John Chowning did with the computer music piece Turenas from 1972. That was something radicaly new in music. Claiming otherwise is a lie.

    Fact: no one ever set one melody speeding up from a tempo of mm=40 to a tempo of mm=200 at the same time another melody gradually slows down from a tempo of mm=200 to a tempo of mm=40 until Conlon Nancarrow did it in Canon X. That was shockingly new in music. Claiming otherwise is a lie.

    Fact: no one ever created music by cutting and splicing tape together until the tape composers did it in the 1950s. That was startlingly new in music. Claiming otherwise is a lie.

    Fact: no one ever built a whole orchestra of just intonation microtonal non-western instruments until Harry Partch did it in the 1950s. That was breathtakingly new in music. Claiming otherwise is a lie.

    One of the oldest and cheesiest scams in the serious contemporary music community is the infantile and despicable effort to trivialize and marginalize any composers create anything radically new and fresh and innovative by falsely claiming “every new trend has precursors” and thereby lying by implication.

    “Precursors” don’t even begin to approach the shock produced by these kinds of innovations in listeners and other composers alike — and the shockwave continues today. Someone who’s never heard a Nancarrow player piano piece will wind up as blown away by it today as listeners were in 1969 when the first Nancarrow LPs hit the record shelves.

    This kind of dishonest effort to marginalize the vibrant creativity of contemporary composers remains as contemptible as it is pathetic. It’s the standard response of the burnouts and no-talents, a typical reflexive backlash employed by the dead-enders with nothing to contribute to new music.

    Everything is a precursor of everything else: a bacterium is a precursor of human beings. To smugly imply thereby that a human being is not radically and drastically different from a human being is so stupid, we need new words in the English to adequate describe just how stupid that sort of sophistically Jesuitical casuistry really is.

    At a certain point, a difference in quantity changes into a difference of quality. Stick a couple of cells together and you get Volvox. Stick three billion neural cells together, and you get Shakespeare. Pro tip: Volvox cannot write Hamlet…Shakeseaper can.

  14. dalgas

    The number of truly new discoveries in music has actually been very small, and almost all related to material gains. Everything else has basically been there since the beginning. What we’ve been doing these past couple thousand years is progressively *allowing* what was already there, but couldn’t be allowed for whatever mysterious cultural reason.

    It’s like those little Advent calendars you get when you’re a (Catholic) kid; you open a door, then another, and another, until eventually all the doors are open. We did that at an ever-faster pace through much of the last 200 years, reaching a point somewhere in the 1950s-60s where we pretty much allowed any action concerning any sound (or ‘silence’) to be considered music. Once you’ve opened any door it can’t be closed again. It’s all open now; you can only go back and revisit each or any of the doors, but that’s it. There’s still infinite room for exploration, but it’s all within what’s been touched already.

  15. holbrooke

    What do you think is the current avant-garde? I seriously want to know.

    I have no idea. I figure I’m too old (32) and well established to even begin to know where to find it. I too seriously want to know.

    But I am sure it is out there. It just seems impossible that a world exploding with unbelievable innovations in genetics, the internet, bioengineering, performance enhancing drugs, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, etc. would not also be bursting with musical innovation. I think the coming developments are so extraordinary (probably harnessing most of the fields mentioned above) that people like us who are engaged in pretty ordinary kinds of music making are not equipped to even recognize the avant-garde as music at all.

  16. smooke

    I agree
    @Holbrooke: Yes, I agree. Perhaps it’s lurking in the gaming world? Actually, now that I think about it, if it isn’t already, it should be.

    Is there anyone out there who can point me to avant-garde computer game composers?


  17. lawrence

    mclaren, your points are excellent, and your manner of presenting them is vivid. Not that I agree with either, but that’s both of our privileges.

  18. lawrence

    Here’s the thing. Smooke said that you can’t do something new with microtonality because Partch already did microtonality. I think that’s kind of a defeatist attitude. Partch could have looked at centuries of tuning experiments and said, “Well, tuning experiments have been done, so I can’t do anything original there.” But he didn’t. Did he invent the idea of new tuning? No. Was he an original? Absolutely.

  19. marknowakowski

    Why all this concern about finding a new avant-garde? Why, by definition, is relentless boundary-pushing a thing to be grasped unto itself? Isn’t this how we managed to alienate the majority of our audiences in the first place? This approach may have brought us much interesting music and a radically expanded sonic vocabulary, but it also relegated us to a position of cultural irrelevancy. You write:

    “An audience that has seen it all begins to ask whether the individual piece means something to them rather than whether the piece is groundbreaking.”

    Very wise and perceptive! I am grateful to have become a composer at precisely this time; finally, we can seek meaning in our work again. Great article.

  20. Armando

    An audience that has seen it all begins to ask whether the individual piece means something to them rather than whether the piece is groundbreaking. First and foremost, we ask if it works as music.

    This strikes me as an ideal situation.

  21. TV

    It seems to me that the avant-garde is patting itself on the back for some break-throughs in the 20th century, which clearly took place quite a while earlier.

    “Microtonality? Partch.”
    Not really. Microtonality is a component of Arabian maqam tradition dating back to the 5th to 7th centuries CE (incidentally, where the root of the word “music” also comes from, with the written treatises of Al-Kindi, 9th CE, using the term “musiqa”). In Wikipedia, you can read the following:

    “The 24-tone system is entirely a notational convention and does not affect the actual precise intonation of the notes performed. Practicing Arab musicians, while using the nomenclature of the 24-tone system (half-flats and half-sharps), still perform the finer microtonal details which have been passed down through oral tradition.

    Maqam scales that do not include quarter tones (e.g. Nahawand, Ajam) can be performed on equal-tempered instruments such as the piano, however such instruments cannot faithfully reproduce the microtonal details of the maqam scale. Maqam scales can be faithfully performed either on fretless instruments (e.g. the oud or the violin), or on instruments that allow a sufficient degree of tunability and microtonal control (e.g. the nay or the qanun, or the Clarinet). On fretted instruments with steel strings, microtonal control can be achieved by string bending, as when playing blues.

    The exact intonation of every maqam scale changes with the historical period, as well as the geographical region (as is the case with linguistic accents, for example). For this reason, and because it is impractical to precisely and accurately notate microtonal variations from a twelve-tone equal tempered scale, maqam scales are in practice learned orally.”

    “Noise-based compositions? Varèse.”
    This is probably the most debatable item, since one can argue both pro et contra that this is a genuine development of the 20th century. However, those who’ve had the pleasure of encountering bagpipes and other forms of drones might argue that the concept goes back in history to these instruments and the pieces by Anonymous played on them, at least. And I wonder if people really didn’t think of imitating the random sounds of nature before the more “structured” essays of, e.g., Beethoven, Vivaldi and Biber.

    “Electronic sounds that are impossible to create through acoustic means? Been doing that too, for nearly 100 years.”
    Correction: Been doing that since ca. 1748 (or possibly even earlier), when the Denis d’or instrument invented Václav Prokop Diviš (1698 – 1765) is first documented. According to Grove Online:

    “The Denis d’or had 14 registers, most of which were twofold, and its complex mechanism fitted in a symmetrical wooden cabinet equipped with a keyboard and a pedal. It was about 150 cm long (5 ft), 90 cm wide (3 ft), and 120 cm high (4 ft). Basically, it was a chordophone not unlike a clavichord — in other words, the strings were struck, not plucked. However, the suspension and the tautening of the numerous metal strings (which, it is said, numbered an astonishing 790) were much more elaborate. The ingenious mechanism, which had been worked out by Diviš with painstaking mathematical accuracy, was such that the Denis d’or could imitate the sounds of a whole variety of other instruments, including chordophones such as harpsichords, harps and lutes, and even wind instruments. This was mainly owing to the exceptional responsiveness and combinability of the stops, which permitted the player to vary the sound in multifarious ways, thereby generating far more than a hundred different tonal voices altogether. But the most special feature was that Diviš (temporarily) charged the iron strings with electricity in order that the sound quality might be enhanced — “purified”, so to speak. This was an absolute novelty at the time. Additionally, he installed a gimmick so that, any time he wanted, the player could be given an electric shock.”

    One might wish that audiences had the same option to use on performers playing contemporary music today.

    “Works that assault the audience or involve self-mutilation? Done and done.”
    Yes and yes, going as far back as at least Jericho, when music was used to assault the audience according to the Old Testament. These and similar instances of music used in war and hence assault on audiences and involving, no doubt, also cases of self-mutilation in the process, such as psalms sung by flagellants, hardly need expounding.

    “Silent musical compositions?”
    You’re probably referring to Cage, Klein, Acton or Schulhoff’s 1919 In futurum. Allais is debatable as a contribution to modern music.

    However, I would argue that the concept goes much further back, at least to Kepler’s 1619 Harmonices Mundi, which assumes inaudible harmonies to exist in the form of musica universalis. Arguably, the concept can be traced through the renaissance to ancient greek philosophers. While there are no compositions per se, the fixed repetitions of celestial movements could be considered as determining a movement’s length.

    It seems to me that the argument you put forth in your blog is when something was notated in a score for the first time. Not the actual sonic innovation itself.

    Cage (or whoever) notated – NB! for the first time! – 4.33 minutes of silence in 3 movements, thus he gets credit for “inventing” silence as a musical form. And so on and so forth.

    Permit me to say that this is like taking credit for making the sun rise in the morning or the shifting of the tides, simply because you have observed it. Cage may be given credit for annotating 4.33 minutes of silence in a score, but he hardly invented the concept, nor does it belong solely to the panoply of the 20th century soundscape (or lack thereof).

    When this slightly longer and less ethnocentric view of music is taken, today’s music will be revealed as the true heir to the avant-garde of the rise and behavioral modernity of homo sapiens, as established over the past 50,000 years.

  22. donalfonso

    A few thoughts, if I may.

    My inner musicologist prefers the term “avant-garde” as a historical label: Stockhausen was and always will be avant-garde, just as Bach was and always will be baroque.

    I suggest this not just for the sake of tidying up the terminology, but also because I find that those who continue to use the term “avant-garde” as an ongoing signifier of (legitimate) newness tend to come packed in their own ideological juice. Often, they cling to modernist values — that a contemporary work must be “original,” or “challenge” the listener, or “advance” the art — as the yardstick by which music should and will be judged until the End of Time. These are the specific tenets of a specific historical period: modernism (which is no longer modern). They represent neither the way things have always been nor the way they must always be.

    As for the crisis of newness, I’m not too worried about it. I take encouragement from the minimalist movement of the 1970s, which found strikingly new ways to use major and minor chords, several decades after the modernists dismissed these sonorities as “exhausted.”

  23. smooke

    Indeed, I think that we’re getting at some interesting points here. I hope that just because something has been done before that this should not stop us from searching for individual and expressive ways to push the boundaries still further. However, I also think that the teleological view of artistic history can be counterproductive.

    I’m most intrigued by TV’s examples of how ancient some of these ideas truly are. Thus, it might be that idea of an avant-garde was probably always a bit self-serving and historically inaccurate. Or, as donalfonso says, best considered as a style period designation.

    All of these responses are definitely giving me a lot to think about (or should I say alot to think about).

  24. allenlowe

    fascinating discussion, would that I could receive this amount of stimulus from the jazz world.

    all I can add right now is that I shy away from the description of my music as “experimental,” which implies I am mixing together elements to produce some unknown quantity. I generally know what I am getting.

  25. lawrence

    I love these discussions of “The glass is half empty, half full, made in China, needs to be cleaned, has a chip in it, reminds me of my aunt Gertrude” etc.

    To TVs list, I have to add that noise-based composition is definitely not a new phenomenon in the 20th century. It’s hard to imagine that any instruments, including bagpipes, predate non-pitched percussion.

  26. lawrence

    And yet, Varese’s accomplishment is no less singular. In a culture that saw noise-based composition as the most primitive form of music-making, he elevated it to a level of sophistication that could only be called Modern.

  27. TV


    I was actually thinking about adding drums, percussion, rattles, etc. to my list, but then decided against it, since the rhythms they produce are not random, though the pitches may be.

    Perhaps that was too random a choice.

    Mr. Smooke,

    I think that you are right about many avant-ideas being a style period designation. It would seem that – to once again turn my view back to history – the avant-garde movement made the same mistake as composers in the baroque period did. Baroque composers/critics often praised how much music had “developed” since their youth or since the past generation. This sounds odd in our ears today, since we appreciate the different stylistic periods for the innovation they brought with them on its own terms, rather than seeing it as a progression. Indeed, when one compares the 1640s with the 1770s, one could even speak of musical regression, since composers of the latter decade almost completely stopped using minor keys and chromaticism as compositional techniques, considering them as either “tiring” or “old-fashioned.”

    The avant-garde, by its very designation, makes a similar error in supposing that there is some kind of hierarchichal “progress” in the development of musical styles.

    Our enjoyment today of medieval, renaissance, baroque, etc. musical styles in brilliant performances by musicians specializing in those periods of music would indicate that the contrary is true.

  28. Kyle Gann

    David, in general and in principle I rather agree with you, although I think as to details McLaren scores some very good points. But I will add that Partch (and Young and Johnston) barely cracked open the door on the world of new things that could be done with aspects of microtonality that the Arabs and Indians never explored. I will be so arrogant to assert that I’ve done some things in that area that only a relative handful of composers are capable of understanding yet. And Nancarrow barely started some explorations into polytempo music that we can spend decades investigating. On a more culturally specific basis, Indian music offers a huge area in the field of rhythm that we in the West have hardly begun to understand yet. This may, indeed, move the idea of the avant-garde to a rather restricted technical level.

  29. colin holter

    Let others make that decision;
    They usually do.

    Do they, though? It seems like they haven’t – in fact, they’re withholding judgment on that very question – and that’s why we’re having this conversation now.


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