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?