What Is Avant-Garde Music?


n. New and experimental ideas and methods in art, music, or literature;
A group of artists, musicians, or writers working with new and experimental ideas and methods;

adj. Favouring or introducing new and experimental ideas and methods.Oxford English Dictionary

“The avantgarde (from French, “advance guard” or “vanguard”, literally “fore-guard”) are people or works that are experimental, radical, or unorthodox, with respect to art, culture, and society. … The avantgarde pushes the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo …” – Wikipedia

In this mini-essay, I will attempt to bumble on about the massive, multi-headed hydra that is avant-garde music. The key phrase in the above quote is “New and experimental ideas and methods”. But these are of course relative to the time in which they arise. In his day, Beethoven was considered “avant-garde”, as was Debussy in his, and Schoenberg and Stravinsky in theirs.

Today, the avant-garde is associated with Postmodernism. In Schoenberg’s and Stravinsky’s inter-war heyday, it was Modernism. But what they have in common is a complete rejection of the tonal system that had dominated music from the Baroque to the Post-Romantics: the basing of a piece around a tonal centre (key), making well-defined excursions from that key to related keys, and generally returning at the end to a firm re-establishment of the home key. The sonata-principle is founded on such practice, and sonata form ruled music from the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century.

Among the first to rebel against the common practice were Claude Debussy (Prélude à l’Après midi d’un Faune, in which he used a whole-tone scale for the first time), Igor Stravinsky (Le Sacre du printemps, with its polyrhythms and bi-tonality), Arnold Schoenberg (who banished tonality altogether through atonality and soon afterwards developed the 12-tone row to replace key as the anchor for a piece, beginning with his 5 piano pieces, op 23 of 1923).

Other noted exponents of this particular avant-garde include Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Olivier Messiaen, Luciano Berio, Luigi Dallapiccola, Bruno Maderna, and Iannis Xenakis (who helped pioneer the use of electronics in music). They represent the Modernist avant-garde, which flourished from the 1920s to, roughly, the 1970s.

Postmodernism in music has had a tendency to soften the perceived harshness and prolixity of Schoenberg’s serialism, introducing greater freedom in tonal language along with a leaning towards minimalism. Consonance has been reintroduced into much 21st century music, with particular attention being paid to the harmonic series and “sound for sound’s sake”. Deep investigation into instrumental sonorities and harmonics has taken place.

Notable post-modern composers include Per Norgard, Kaija Saariaho, Sofia Gubaidulina, Hans Abrahamsen, Thomas Adès, Henryk Gorecki, Witold Lutoslawski, John Tavener, Philip Glass, and Arvo Pärt, many of whom may best be characterised as “reactionary” in relation to serialism and atonality, some continuing the avant-garde tradition of using electronics extensively.

To listeners who lack musical maturity and experience, much of the avant-garde seems intolerably dissonant and impenetrable. This need not be the case for those who are willing (and able) to discard tonal preconceptions and immerse themselves without prejudice in this very different sound-world. It requires “new ears” – not to mention good quality audio equipment!

And then you get to Noise:

Noise music is a category of music that is characterised by the expressive use of noise within a musical context. This type of music tends to challenge the distinction that is made in conventional musical practices between musical and non-musical sound. Noise music includes a wide range of musical styles and sound-based creative practices that feature noise as a primary aspect. It can feature acoustically or electronically generated noise, and both traditional and unconventional musical instruments. It may incorporate live machine sounds, non-musical vocal techniques, physically manipulated audio media, processed sound recordings, field recording, computer-generated noise, stochastic process, and other randomly produced electronic signals such as distortion, feedback, static, hiss and hum. There may also be emphasis on high volume levels and lengthy, continuous pieces. More generally noise music may contain aspects such as improvisation, extended technique, cacophony and indeterminacy, and in many instances conventional use of melody, harmony, rhythm and pulse is dispensed with.” – Wikipedia

Whilst this Blog has the tagline “Avant-Garde Music Reviews,” I believe that Noise is the Avant-Garde music of the day. So I will write about it.