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Monthly Archives: January 2012

I have begun reading Kyle Gann’s American Music in the Twentieth Century and just completed the first chapter, “Forefathers”.  Although many names are tossed about throughout the chapter, the primary focus is on Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, and Charles T. Griffes (considered merely a ‘contemporary’ to the first two).  Two major things jumped out at me about these composers:

  1. All three composers are from the New England area (CT, MA, and NY, respectively).
  2. Neither Ives nor Ruggles made their primary income from musical composition, and it sounds like Griffes struggled to make a reasonable income out of it.

It is remarkable how geographically concentrated “early” American music was.  Even with the fledgling country consisting of colonies along the East coast, American music seems to be largely defined by those composers within the New England Region, specifically New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York with schools such as Yale, New England Conservatory, and Harvard being frequently mentioned and the orchestras of Boston and New York leading the way in premieres.  The only real exception to this geographic focus seems to be Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who was born in New Orleans, but much of his music was heavily criticized by the New England elitists.

Having listened to much of Ives in the past as well as a little Ruggles, this music no longer sounds new to me.  I think back to the first time I heard “Three Places in New England” and I recall thinking about how something like this work even gets thought of.  Hearing the stories of the musical experiments by George Ives (Charles’s father), where he, supposedly, would have two bands play on opposite sides of a space at two different tempos with different pieces of music, I can see how Charles was used to this “tonality.”  Putting this idea into the context of the avant garde and experimentalism, the idea of placing two (three or more?) layers of the same piece (or different pieces), the same tune (or different tunes), at the same tempo (or at different tempos), in the same key (or in different keys), at the same time is the epitome of what experimentation is.  I love the idea of having two bands march past each other playing different tunes; what surprised me the most is that this sound is familiar.  We’ve all been to those parades where we can still hear the band that just past and the next one is approaching, or sitting in a concert hall before a performance where the musicians are warming up (practicing their part?) on stage before the tuning note (or during!).  As atonal and “modern” as the sounds coming from an orchestral work of Charles Ives are, they’re amazingly reminiscent of those moments in our lives when we experience the cacophony of sound produced by two or more players playing two different things at the same time.

The music of Carl Ruggles inspires me less.  I hear atonality as an attempt to specifically avoid tradition, whereas with Ives I hear atonality more as the next step in the evolution of tradition.  Having just listened to “Sun-Treader”, I am reminded of the opening of some 1930s horror film – or even the background to a particularly creepy episode of the X-Files.  I can’t place my finger on it, but this music, much more so than Ives or the Varese that I’ve heard, reminds me of movie music more than performance material.  Perhaps with more listening I might be able to come up with a more concrete ideas as to why…

Avant Garde – Experimental Music – Modernism – Vanguard – Bohemianism – Post-Modernism.  Aren’t these terms all basically interchangeable?  It depends on who you ask…

After reading up on Avant Garde in Grove Music Online as well as Experimental Music and Avant Guard on Wikipedia, I have more questions about the topic than when I started.  Labels on art have generally-accepted definitions, however works of art that stand out in time often don’t fit nicely into these labels.  A prime example is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1808) – is this a Classical composition or a Romantic one?  There are elements of both genres throughout this masterpiece; could not the audience of that time have even labeled this work ‘Avant Garde’ (had the term been used to classify artwork at the time)?  Did Beethoven not push ‘the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm’[1]?

Classicism and Romanticism have sets of defined rules, including time periods, for categorizing works as one or the other (or neither), as do Baroque and Rennaisance and Serialism.  Avant Garde comes with no clear label.  The French translation of “advance guard” gives us the most clear interpretation of the term, but also allows us to use it freely throughout time.  Specifically, when discussing art, the “advance guard” would be those composers, artists, or performers that push the current boundaries of what has already been defined.  I think back to those masterpieces of music that the line between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ has been broken: Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Beethoven’s Symphonies,  Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Each of these works could be Avant Garde to the current time period.

Why, then, is Experimental Music separated out?  It seems to me that Experimental Music is Avant Garde music, however Avant Garde music is not Experimental Music.  Most of the major transitions of style in art were driven by experimentation.  John Cage offers the most precise distinction of what can be classified as experimental: “an experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen.”[2]  I like this definition because it plays on the idea of the unpredictable – art is not limited by the artist, but rather, by the precise and random occurrences of what happens during (and possibly after) the performance.  4’33” is a good example – it is never exactly the same, as nothing except the presence of the performer(s), the time of the performance, and the assumption of an audience has been defined.  The artwork is that which occurs during the performance at that time on that day, thus is impossible to predict what will happen.

A paradox occurs as we discuss the Avant Garde.  We’re looking back in time at what once happened and are labeling it Avant Garde for being ahead of its time or at the front of a [political, cultural, artistic, etc] movement.  But anything we label as Avant Garde, is, by definition, no longer Avant Garde.  If we’re able to see a work as new and unique, it can be labeled Avant Garde – until others begin to use the same technique(s), and then: It was Avant Garde and a new genre has been defined.

But what’s all the fuss about, really?  They’re just labels… the art itself doesn’t (shouldn’t?) care what we call it.