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The arrogance of Milton Babbitt is quite astonishing.  His ideas about music and the modern composer, as outlined in High Fidelity, VIII/2 (February, 1958), are as self-indulging and isolating as his music, which, from what it appears, is exactly what he wants.  It drives me a little nuts to think that a composer might actually want no one to hear [understand, enjoy] his music.  What’s the point, then?

I’m reminded of the age-old question “If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make noise?”  Well, if a composer writes a masterpiece, and no one understands it, is it really a masterpiece?  On the surface I say of course it is not; not for the annals of history, anyway.  There’s a deeper issue in there, however.  The idea that music is not enjoyed by the current or general audience does not take away the quality of a piece.  There are major works, now considered masterpieces, that were not received well at their premiere, or even for years afterwards.  One such piece that comes to mind is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1913, and which Wikipedia’s entry notes as “one of the most famous classical music riots in history” [1].  Other poorly received works are listed on Wikipedia’s Classical music riot entry.  What Babbitt writes, however, is that if a piece of music is not understood or not well-received at its premiere, the general audience is simply not ready to experience his music.  This concept seems like the ultimate defense mechanism for a composer who knows his work is not well-liked by the general audience.

Mixed into all of this discussion is a chicken and the egg scenario.  Which came first: the music of Milton Babbitt or his writings to tell you that his music is probably too elite for you?  Babbitt sets an expectation, if you read his writings first, that his music may be hard to understand and thus enjoy.  This expectation can also be taken as a challenge: “Are you smart enough to like my music?”  His comparison of modern his music to an advanced field of science, in which, as he quotes the New York Times, “there are in the world only 120 mathematicians specializing in the field who could contribute” creates musical super-elitism, the likes of which haven’t quite reached this level before.

Lastly, I want to comment about Babbitt’s comparison of music with science.  For me, science is built upon theory and then, fact.  Science explores our world around us and creates speculative and definitive answers to “Why?” in the world around us.  Sound is an area of science, for sure, as the physics of sound (as well as our anatomy) dictate what we hear and why we hear things as being out of tune or too loud.  Music (and art in general) does not fit in to science, however.  Music is an expression from within, the creation of which does not prove a theory or reside within fact.  Music is individual – it is something different to everyone around us – whereas Science presents us with rules that govern each and every one of us.  To call the expression of music a science is to box us in as musicians, and in many ways, constrain our musical boundaries.

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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.