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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.