A Point In Space And Music: The Dimensions Of The Avant-Garde

I firmly stand by the belief that the avant-garde is a nexus, a point in space where no genre can actually exist, like an aural black hole. Everything that music stands for is gathered in this single point, so therefore it is every genre and none at the same time. If you want to put it in spiritual terms, it’s Zen, or it’s the Tao. Now, I’m not saying that this is some religious experience, or that if you don’t listen to experimental music you’re somehow “lesser” than people who do. Whatever music makes you happy, regardless of distinction or genre or any sort of description is much more important than anything I could ever say.

Also in thinking this, though, comes the idea of exploration—a topic that I’ve elaborated upon a few times in the past. There are a lot of music fans that don’t stop with a single artist; they expand and explore and grow their tastes. I’m no different—I started off as a Metallica fanboy who bought single tracks off of iTunes, and now my CD collection just hit 400 releases. And on my journey, I’ve come to realize that avant-garde/experimental music stands as the final frontier of sound—it’s where musicians are testing every single tradition and upheld belief in the book, examining it, putting it up to the light and, more times than not, dismantling and/or changing it to reflect their own thoughts on it. This may seem like a trite argument—of course the avant-garde is cutting edge, one might say, even from an etymological standpoint (avant-garde coming from the French word for vanguard). However, not everyone is aware of that. One of my favorite Simpsons jokes is when Moe the bartender renovates his establishment into a hip, modern joint, full of eyeballs on TVs and hamsters spinning on wheels, and in defense he calls it all “postmodern”. Homer and the other barflies ask what this means, and Moe simply says ,“You know, postmodern—weird for the sake of weird.” What I’m trying to say is that our viewpoints can sometimes be disjointed—what we view as strange and stupid might be in fact deep and introspective in such a way that it’s completely alien to us.

So, where am I going with this? Exploration and awareness go hand in hand, and while the journey through music (and life) is solely your own, it doesn’t mean you can’t have help on the way. The more I think about this style of music, the more I can see it being more or less divided into three distinct modalities or methodologies—composition, sound art, and improvisation. Now, before you say that I’m contradicting myself by attempting to establish genres in the avant-garde, here me out: these are not genre tags, at least not in a traditional sense. In my inkings on writing this article numerous titles came to me—bodies, schools of thought, pillars—but none of these seemed right. Schools would be confusing, as there are schools of experimental music, such as the Berlin School, which showcased some of the earliest electronic music, like Tangerine Dream. Using the term “pillars” made it sound like Buddhism, which, again, didn’t seem right. It’s not about overthinking—it’s about applying enough logic and common sense to a situation to better understand it. This isn’t dogma; it’s simply an option, a way to understand something that can be oftentimes enigmatic. Therefore I’m using the word dimensions. Like in geometry, a dimension doesn’t fill up a space: it’s a way to more easily understand space—for example, you’re reading this on what is technically two dimensions—length and width. With regard to music, these dimensions don’t necessarily have incontrovertible implications—that is, no single artist here is definitively one thing or another. Like I began this article with, avant-garde music is technically representative of every genre and therefore none. An artist like John Zorn, for example, is known for his free improvisation, but also has a reputation as a composer. He’s not just one or the other—he’s both. However, the music he plays can have different methodology behind it, and that is what I’m trying to map out here.

So, without further adieu, these are what I view as the three dimensions of avant-garde/experimental music.

Composition

This is perhaps the weakest link in this trinity, as composition technically exists through all music. It’s quite literally the root of music, because even though we have free improvisation, the entire idea of that relies on composition—or, rather, the rejection of composition.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I was loathe to put anything that even remotely smelled of the categorical because, again, this is not a taxonomy. Composition in this case refers to any sort of distinct adherence to form or pattern that is unlike the traditional way of composition. This could include serialism (which has been covered nicely by my fellow writer Dave Tremblay), microtonality, minimalism, what have you. Even graphic notation, where standard music notation is rejected (such as Wadada Leo Smith’s personal form, which he calls Ankhrasmation) can be considered composition—it’s nonetheless directing players in a particular way.

Again, composition has been dividing greatly since the beginning of the 20th century when Stravinsky (linked below) and Schoenberg (among others) were beginning to branch out into more experimental territory. I’m not going to go into it more, because composition in all of its forms is a subject that has already filled libraries’ worth of books, and has been a constant conversation in music criticism since day one. If you want a TL;DR, though: composition, in this case, refers to music that is written an/or controlled in a manner that either rejects or augments traditional music theory.

Improvisation

While we do control music, it doesn’t always mean that we have to adhere to a certain form of control. This where improvisation comes in. Like the dimension preceding it, improvisation should be self-explanatory to a certain degree—it’s where composition, in a sense, ends. Classical music has sometimes allowed for musicians to play what they feel like at certain times, and this notion has exponentially increased since those times with jazz, a genre that is largely dependent on a player’s own improvisational skill as opposed to following exactly what’s written down on a score. Free jazz and the advent of free improvisation only expanded this further, to the point of completely eliminating any and all forms of traditional music theory. Composition is, in a way, like relying on the mind to filter the heart, while improvisation is doing the exact opposite by using the heart to filter the mind. A composer like Beethoven will use a certain compositional technique to direct the ear towards an emotion (for example, the foreboding notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony), while a free jazz player like Ornette Coleman will use a certain emotion to direct what notes he’ll play. (This isn’t to say that composers aren’t drawn to create based on emotion—just listen to Penderecki’s “Threnody To The Victims of Hiroshima” if you don’t believe me.)

Sound Art

This dimension is, in a way, the black sheep of the family. It doesn’t deal with composition nor improvisation, but I feel like it nonetheless belongs here as a methodology for musicians. Really, though, sound art is just that—using sound in a creative way. It doesn’t necessarily fall into either of the other dimensions, which makes it its own dimension. It’s a little tough to describe this without using specific examples of genres—though genres such as field recordings, plunderphonics, sound collage/sculpture (such as Amon Tobin‘s ISAM, linked below), musique concrète, tape, glitch, noise, and electroacoustic music would be great examples of what has been done within this modality. The idea, however, is very much the same in all of these genres, in that you’re (in a sense) looking beyond creating something with certain compositional aspects or simply playing whatever comes to you at the present moment (improvisation) and instead focusing on the idea of sound. Like John Cage once said: “There is no noise, only sound”. It could easily be controlled by either of those other dimensions, but that’s not really the point of Sound Art—it’s more about collecting sound and using technology to manipulate sound in a way that isn’t always outright musical.

In Conclusion

As I’ve repeated: these are dimensions. To say that music exists in a vacuum is to be grossly misinformed, and although that phrase often refers to outside events (i.e. politics and the state of the world at large) influencing music, it can also apply here, to these modes of thinking. I like to think of these dimensions as standing in a triangle, like a strange magnetic field with three poles. It’s not like an avant-garde artist is going to completely hug one single pole—sometimes they shift positions. It’s more as if all three of these dimensions pull on an artist in certain ways—they don’t necessarily need to follow one or another, and they could be in the middle for all I know. It’s not as if somebody hasn’t combined one or two or all of these dimensions, either. For example, Ikue Mori’s music utilizes samples executed via drum machines that could technically be a sort of sound art, but she also freely improvises with it at some points (best showcased in her work with John Zorn, such as Hemophiliac and the Electric Masada albums). The Necks are a trio of musicians whose music is completely made up on the spot, but also adheres to a certain minimalist element, taking a tiny bit from composition. Masami Akita, a.k.a. Merzbow, is essentially considered the founder of harsh noise music—yet, his work also encompasses free improvisation elements, such as his collaboration with Mats Gustafsson and Baláz Pándi, Cuts. John Zorn’s Masada project, while having heavy moments of improvisation ultimately stands as a “songbook project”, requiring certain compositional elements to be used such as staves and scales. Aleatoric music and game pieces harness the power of improvisation by putting it under the control of a few certain rules. William Basinski literally used the decay of old tapes to create his Disintegration Loops series, and yet while that falls within a sort of sound art territory, the tapes were taken from music that was composed, and subjected to a sort of control scheme by Basinski.

All of this is to say that these are not rules or laws of physics or dogma of any kind. This is a lens to view a genre of music that can be incredibly difficult to break into, but also holds some of the most rewarding music ever made (in my opinion). It’s supposed to make things a little easier to understand, and help you find music that you might be interested in. To be fair, this barely scratches the surface for what is possible with this type of music; I purposely left out things like performance art, mostly because it bled into different mediums of art that weren’t completely aural. If you don’t like free improvisation, don’t listen to it. If you want to turn on some of Stockhausen’s musique concrète, go for it. The path you travel is always yours, but it doesn’t mean you can’t stop and look at a map along the way.