issue 15 :: July 2008

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Survey: Avant-Garde Music

What is the nature of Avant-Garde Music today (2007-2008)?

Jeph Jerman

“I don’t think “avant-garde” exists in the 21st century. When I hear the term, I think of the historical avant-garde of the 20th century. If I were to think of an equivalent for contemporary music, it would be underground, experimental and/or improvised music or sound art that challenges traditional ideas about music making in some way.”
Sharon Cheslow

“Whatever it is, I’m sure the next hundred years will be far more interesting than the past hundred years.”
G.X. Jupitter-Larsen

“Let me begin with two questions: 1. How many of us do still believe in a linear musical history?  2. Were does the answer to question one leave the notion of avant-garde? The following is my answer to question two: The nature of avant-garde today (musical or other) is that it does not have a singular anymore, but must be spelled “avant-gardes” — a plural consisting of many singular efforts. There may also be an avant-garde that nobody follows (if you think it from its military origins), maybe even an avant-garde consisting of one single person (like, say, Morton Feldman or Conlon Nancarrow), and nowadays, this is perfectly honorable, maybe even a sign of greatness. I guess the more dedicated among us keep continuously advancing, albeit not in a straight line, and with no idea if anybody in the regular troops will follow.”
Bernhard Günter

“Personally, I’m not a big fan of using the term “avant-garde” in the present tense. If we look at how certain so called avant-garde artists or works took 30, 50 or 80 years to develop a sincere appreciation (where people stop, look and study the effects and meaning of what happened and why), then I guess the same applies today. It’s hard to know what the future holds for the present day. History has its perverse way of delivering unexpected folds and morphologies. Are you and I doomed fall into the sidelines or will some kids in North Korea come calling on us when we’re 70 asking us to recall stories of the glorious underground music of the 1990s? Will there ever be another Stockhausen figure in music or will great influence come only in the form of computer code? Lately my solace comes in exploring the paths of individual ideas and how people react to them. Yet broad appeal is never a goal. I’d rather fall into the cracks rather than getting carried away in the tides.”
John Grzinich

“Hand made and home grown instruments in the hands of artists and performers working with new notation have greatly enriched what is available to musicians today. Avant-garde or underground or new music whatever nomenclature you prefer the scene is very rich.”
Alison Knowles

“As has always been the case, but to an even greater degree now — particularly in light of the fact that a true avant garde is met with resistance — avant garde music is nothing but a marketable genre. That stated, a genuinely resonant (and thus rare) avant garde can still, as ever, be found in the concerted efforts of the individual practitioner, regardless of genre.”
Milo Fine

“From my perspective, the avant-garde music scene is in serious need of fresh energy. (I think it’s important to stress how much this statement comes from a personal and perhaps uninformed vantage point.) I feel that many of the once-adventurous forms have become calcified into an endless range of sub-sub-genres, each of which contain unstated but seemingly rigid sets of “rules.” Free improv, loop-based rock drone, modern classical, laptop glitch, pure field recordings, etc. all seem to have become lost in their own dead-end cul-de-sacs. I’m not sure if new forms and ideas have arisen. Ideas which are ambitious, demanding and extravagant. Ideas which require new venues, new participants, new listeners, new forms. Maybe they’re out there and I’m just unaware. I hope so! It’s easier than ever to make work, with the availability of personal studios and online distribution. But I haven’t been hearing much from “avant-garde” circles which makes my heart beat faster.

“On the other hand, it’s probably true that most listeners are like me, omnivorous and interested in hearing things that break expectations of any particular form. On a given day, I might listen to Swedish metal, American psychedelic folk, Ethiopian funk, Nigerian funk, the latest Timbaland track, and an RLW album from 10 years ago. From any of these sources, I might find inspiration for my own work — the way Sly and the Family Stone vocals are distorted and muffled in just the right way — the hypnotic repetition of women’s voices in Fela Kuti’s music —the wonderful use of sampling and fragmentation in The Books’ albums — the bizarre natural monotony of a Rolf Julius piece — the always astounding shimmery beauty of gagaku...

“At the same time, my own “consumption” of music has dwindled. Especially when I’m actively composing (as now), I have little time to casually listen. I hope that in my own work, I’m able to meet some of my own high expectations...”
Seth Nehil


This Canadian company is not what I expected when I searched for a photo of the “avant-garde.”

Josh Ronsen

The nature of avant-garde music is historical today. It was a military term used in the early 19th century by artists who believed they could act as an agent of change through the “power of the Arts.” Who believes this now? Technically the term means the advancing edge or  leading position of a trend or movement, but that presupposes a single center and single, unified forward motion...all ideas that pretty much don’t apply to today’s music/art world. If anything, I would think that our ’new music’ culture isn’t one of advancement or forward motion in any kind of teleological sense, but rather is  much more human and creative in nature, characterized more as bricolage where we create our own mythologies, aesthetics, and personal styles by combining ideas taken from many places and disciplines as we find them and as they have meaning for us, individually.

Bill Thompson

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