The Value of the Avant-Garde
“The avant-garde (French, 'advance guard' or 'vanguard', literally, 'fore-guard') are people or works that are experimental, radical, or unorthodox with respect to art, culture, or society. It is frequently characterized by aesthetic innovation and initial unacceptability...The avant-garde pushes the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo..." - Wikipedia
There are various definitions and arguments among critics about what constitutes avant-garde music as a genre; I don’t care about that.
For me, any kind of avant-garde music reveals and causes you to question your unconscious presuppositions about what it is that constitutes music. It's provocative and challenging, sometimes offensive. If you have to ask, “Is that music or noise?” - then it's performing its basic function.
I think that uncovering and questioning presuppositions is a valuable thing in any endeavor and that’s one of the reasons I like my music and guitar playing to be influenced by the avant-garde.
An example of avant-garde music would be John Cages’ 4’33”, a composition which instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during its entire duration. Here's the sheet music for the first 2 of 3 movements:
Cage conceived of it as a piece consisting of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed. It was the epitome of his idea that any sounds may constitute music (it was also an expression of his study of Zen Buddhism).
In a 1982 interview, and on numerous other occasions, Cage stated that 4′33″ was, in his opinion, his most important work.
Incidentally, 4’33” has been covered by Frank Zappa, with royalties paid for a 4-minute, 33-second track of silence.
Check out an actual classical performance of this piece:
Here's audio of Frank's version:
"That’s ridiculous!" you might say. But is it? Frank Zappa didn’t think so - or maybe he did.
Do you find it difficult to sit and listen to this? Yes? Why is that?
I hear all kinds of things when I listen to it; the primary one being my tinnitus.
Another thing I hear is the voice in my head that keeps going on and on about this and that, what-not and what-have-you. I tell it to shut up and a struggle ensues...for the next 4 minutes and 33 seconds.
So in listening to 4’33” I mostly hear myself. How Zen!
Another purpose, in my opinion, is to cause you to examine your presumptions about “what is music.” How it sounds, or doesn't, isn't the point.
"I don't often listen to John Cage, but when I do, neither do my neighbors."
On the other end of the sonic spectrum, think about Jimi Hendrixs' use of feedback or reversing the tape to get his backwards guitar sounds, or setting his guitar on fire while it was still plugged in...with the band accompanying:
Was the resulting sound part of the music? Or was it just noise?
Jimi said he did it to steal the show from The Who after losing a coin-toss that resolved a backstage argument over who would open for whom.
No deep avant-garde thought, just random chance, ego and showbiz schtick.
Van Halen's’ use of extreme whammy bar effects would be another example of an avant-garde characteristic embedded in popular music.
I could go on...John Lennons’ Plastic Ono Band, many of Frank Zappas’ records; Uncle Meat and Freak Out to name a couple. Avant-garde elements are present in the Beatles, Pink Floyd and King Crimson.
Back in the 70's and early eighties I got way into tape looping, inspired by "Frippertronics."
I experimented with creating actual, physical tape loops with 4-track reel-to-reel tapes, razor blades and scotch tape. Myself and a good friend who owned the gear would make 4-track tape loops that ran the length of the house and jam to them. I listened to Robert Fripps’ stuff along these lines a lot. I still have a file cabinet drawer full of 4-track reel-to-reel recordings of loops I did - and no easy way to listen to them now.
Here's a tune of mine from my Sound Tracks CD called There is a Way. Though not loop-based (the backing track was created with guitar volume swells into a digital delay), you can hear the Frippertronics influence:
It could be argued that the digital delay is a loop - albeit a very short one. Loops are now commonplace in pop music; especially in Hip Hop, Rap and various forms of Electronica, but back in the 70s, tape-looping was avante-garde, i.e. the "advance guard."
In jazz the examples are multitudinous; Sun Ra, John Coltrane and Archie Shepp among many others. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew has all kinds of avant-garde elements going on.
An especially strong influence on me personally was jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s concept of Harmolodics; group improvisation, no time signatures, no key signatures, no defined harmony or song structures. All elements - rhythm, melody, harmony, tempo, dynamics, different instruments etc. had equal place and evolved as the musicians interacted with one another.
It required the musicians to listen and respond to each other on a consistently intense level from beginning to end.
I saw Ornette Coleman on a television talk show one night (I think it was Letterman but not sure). His band had two of everything. Two drummers, two guitar players, two bass players and Ornette. They were set up in the round, facing each other; a couple of them had their backs to the audience. I’m sure the sound they produced had never been heard on a talk show before...ever!
Guitarist Pat Metheny exposed Ornette Coleman to his (Metheny) considerable mainstream audience in 1986 when they collaborated on the album, "Song X." It was categorized as "Free Jazz."
I've listened quite a bit to James Blood Ulmer who was the guitar player for Ornette in the early 70s. Check out Fat Mama; there’s an approximately 2-minute intro of a free-form Ornette-esque harmolodic wall of sound that segues into a funk groove on a 12-bar blues form where he sounds like a cross between John Lee Hooker and Jimi Hendrix:
Another guitarist with strong avant-garde elements who has influenced me is the Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal. He recorded a lot on ECM in the 80's. There were lots of ECM artists that had distinct avante-garde tendencies; Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette come to mind.
Here's a little over 30 minutes of Terje; if you can hang through the whole thing, it runs the gamut from the most chaotic wall of intense noise to some of the most beautiful, atmospheric sounds from any guitarist you're likely to hear:
Some avant-garde remains avant-garde (John Cage, Ornette, Sun Ra) so, in the literal sense of the term, it doesn’t come ”before” anything, it doesn’t become mainstream in-and-of itself.
However, its influence on those who have ears to hear is evergreen. It works its way into the mainstream in various and subtle ways - thus it is "avant-garde."
For instance, Robert Fripp has worked extensively as a session musician and collaborator, notably with David Bowie, Blondie, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Daryl Hall, Midge Ure, Talking Heads, and David Sylvian. He also contributed sounds to the Windows Vista operating system. Frippertronics was worked subtly into much of the above artist's mainstream pop music. And yes, if you ever used Windows Vista, you were hearing Robert Fripp!
There are many examples of the jazz avant-garde actually becoming mainstream; Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus come to mind; their music is now part of the standard repertoire. When it was created it was on the fringe, controversial and rejected by many mainstream jazz musicians and critics - now look!
By definition, the avant-garde is not for everybody. In fact, by definition, it's not for most people. But everybody benefits from it, sooner or later.
As a musician, I'm open to anything that will give me vocabulary, ideas and inspiration to continue to grow in my abilities to express myself, and the Other.
And that is the value of the avant-garde.
He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
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