Why we don’t need the Avant-garde anymore (guest article by Jake Bellissimo)
It’s my pleasure to introduce a new voice in the Bad Blog of Musick: young composer Jake Bellissimo will voice his opinions, recommend weird and unusual music and talk about his views on music for our English-speaking readers.
Why We Don’t Need the Avant-garde Anymore
by Jake Bellissimo
“Oh, they’re an experimental composer.”
“They’re on the forefront of the avant-garde.”
“I’m really into avant-garde music.”
These are all phrases that you hear on a regular basis if you frequent any sort of music community. Started as a term with French origin (literally translating to “advance guard”) to mean the basis of music, art, film, and literature that was on the “experimental side”, avant-garde has slowly become a synonym for what we refer to as “new music”. However, there are a few ways in which labels such as avant-garde or experimental bring up complications in the art music community.
In order to go deeper, we must define what avant-garde is…and that’s the first issue. Avant-garde is not a descriptor for a specific practice or discipline of music. No; instead, avant-garde refers to the fact that the art isn’t part of a specific school of thought. Avant-garde simply references that the community observing or documenting the work is aware of traditional ways of creating, but the piece itself falls outside of those parameters.
This may seem like a minor discrepancy—is this really important to think about? Perhaps not; the world of art-music is such a specific niche it’s easy to take a step back…but it’s also incredibly dense, and there’s no harm in analyzing the way politics work.
Which brings me to my first point—if the definition of avant-garde is simply not something, then how do we define “something”?
The answer is simple: Western art-music, with an emphasis on Western. This traditional, aristocratic art form has dictated almost everything we perceive about music, whether it be scales, notation, or how certain societies digest and distribute their own culture.
Which brings us to the loft-era 60s of downtown New York City, focusing in on the composer Henry Flynt**. His “hillbilly ragas” were an attempt to create a new type of American folk music. He is a good example of a composer that believed in the (very common) concept of “the most primitive is the most avant-garde”. Labeled primitivism, it was an artistic movement that pervaded the ideas of many American composers, eventually gaining mainstream exposure through the work of La Monte Young and John Fahey.
Flynt was a self-described “art activist” and rejected concepts of high culture, classism, aristocracy, and Lincoln Center. He and his colleagues would gravitate towards a type of music that drifted between art-music and folk music in a manner that was what they believed to be truly authentic.
The problem with this is the perspective from which they were viewing things. Due to the fact that they considered themselves part of the avant-garde community, everything they endorsed or were fascinated by fit a certain criteria. Naturally, this idea of primitivism began to pervade other cultures—a large part of avant-garde thought has been incorporating “outsider” practices into works, whether it be scales, dancing, instruments, or vocal techniques.
However, due to the “the most primitive is the most avant-garde” train of thought, this started a practice of appropriation. The same term that defined the pinnacle of academic thinking now refers to a large community of theorists and composers who bastardize other cultures in an attempt to join communities together.
Which begs the question—why do we continue to act like it’s anything more than that? You could argue that the new music community is mainly a product of Western art music and you would be correct. It’s clear that the system itself is antiquated and unnecessary, but acknowledging that doesn’t excuse what comes out of it. In this day of the World Wide Web, it seems absurd that we still try and hold on to these narrow-minded classifications for music.
(I should note that this is a separate discussion from the purpose of documentation of cultures in fields like ethnomusicology. I’m not arguing against that, rather simply advocating for a stronger collective consciousness regarding our handling of other musics.)
Sure, when you go to any conservatory you will study a specific practice, typically that of Western art music. But why, then, do we standardize our culture to quite literally appear as “Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Serial, and everything else”? You could say that it isn’t standardized, but concepts of “music education” direct back to strictly Western principles without allowing the option for other things unless it falls under “world music”.
That is why I dislike the term avant-garde. Through attempting to represent a wide variety of people it becomes moot. It is a community of people who are interested in many different types of music who pride themselves on their forward-thinking and daring attitudes with regards to shocking audiences and developing philosophies. If this is true, then why do composers filter their work through the system of euro-centric, aristocratic art music?
From my own experiences (being a white composer whose only education has been through this lens) it’s easy to point out the passiveness of the classical composition community. It’s very common for composers to be inspired by music of other cultures, only to take ideas and re-introduce it into Western music as “experimental”. Not only is this just lazy composition, it is more importantly imperialistic due to improper sourcing and frequent downplay of influences in the final presentation.
If people who are purporting the future of new music want it to be culturally relevant to this day and age, they should consider an alternative. We need to be able to understand that the system has always been broken, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fix it. The past 100 years of music has been more global than ever with the Internet connecting people from all around, and it’s become clear that—even though we’ve found great success through how things have been run up to this point—we should find an alternative to standardizing it. Implying that everything that isn’t traditional Western music is avant-garde just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
The world is fine with the dense, complicated music that is present in academic avant-garde communities. Now we just have to make some room to be fine with the world.
**FULL DISCLOSURE: Henry Flynt is one of my favorite composers, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun analyzing or criticizing his political views.