This word is defined as: ‘new and unusual or experimental ideas, especially in the arts.’ In this blog, I will argue that our understanding, in 2018, of this word is incorrect, at least in the realm of musical composition. What we perceive or label as new and experimental is usually neither, and our capacity to realize that something is new and experimental has itself been compromised.
I believe the problem started with the term ‘modernism’ in the early part of the 20th century. Calling a movement of music modern is not such a great idea since the word modern has a very particular definition and that definition will not carry through time with the music its describing. For instance hearing a piece by Schoenberg in 2018, written 100 years ago, and calling it modern, is silly. Then we get to a term like Contemporary classical music, which for me means anything written now, BUT if you look on Wikipedia for instance, the definition is: “understood as belonging to the period that started in the mid-1970s to early 1990”, so a piece written in 1970, 50 years ago, is considered contemporary. And of course the term I hate the most: postmodern. Which seems to mean that if you are not writing in the style of the modernists, from the early part of the 20th century, or are a minimalist or neo-romantic or some other word the critics came up with then… well, whatever - postmodern. Which in my mind is a compliment, since they can’t place your music or connect it to something in the past, and that to me IS actually Avant-garde: “New and unusual”. Back to Wikipedia: “It may be characterized by nontraditional, aesthetic innovation and initial unacceptability”. Yes, that’s what I write!
I do not describe myself as avant-garde though, because the term has been damaged. When people ask what kind of music I write, I use the term eclectic. I don’t need to tell them that I am avant-garde, that’s for them to decide when they hear my music. Was it new, unusual or experimental to them? I also do not need to say I am contemporary, new, modern etc., cause they see I am alive and I am writing music therefore by default its contemporary, new and modern. Also, those words do not actually describe the music itself. Mostly those terms put an image of dissonance and “I don’t know what the fuck I’m hearing, but I’m getting bored” in peoples heads. SO I say “eclectic”. I actually don’t love the word, the sound of it is sterile in a way, but it does describe what I do very well. looking up Eclecticism in music, there is a very negative definition on Wikipedia, I won't post any of it here cause it's dumb. But to me, the term means simply that I am influenced by the world of music, and I mean the whole world. I let those influences flow through me and compose original music with an original voice inspired by the world around me. In this day and age, where sounds from across the globe are at your computer fingertips, we should immerse ourselves in this sound and create something truly original and yes avant-garde (unusual, experimental, surprising). I tell students that one reason to listen to music from the past is not to repeat it. Same goes for all music in general, listen to what's out there, get inspired and create something new, something that has not been done before. That’s avant-garde.
I read some comments about a recent premiere by the NY Phil. Some people were complaining that the piece was too avant-garde, I was not there so I can’t comment on the whole piece, BUT from what I heard of this piece online, it could have easily been written in 1950, 60’s, 70’s and is not avant-garde at all. So my complaint to the NY Phil is why are you programming pieces of music that sound like they were written 50+ years ago and bragging that you are a new music champion. Again, I did not hear the whole piece so I don’t really want to criticize it, perhaps something happened in the middle of the piece that will blow my mind, but from what I heard of it and about it, they might as well have played a piece like Stockhausen’s ‘Punkte’ (1952-1962) or Ligeti’s ‘Atmospheres’ (1961) or John Cage’s - ‘Atlas Eclipticalis’ (1962) …or or or. I'm not saying the music sounded exactly like any of these pieces, but it sure was using a similar language, which is not avant-garde, not an unusual or experimental thing to do. Just think of going to a concert in 1918 (already The Rite Of Spring is in the world) and hearing a composer write in the language of 1850, 60’s, 70’s, and the orchestra performing, saying that we are champions of new music, laughable.
I can go on for many paragraphs here about my discontent with what we think of as new and experimental, and how music that I call ‘Cat on piano’ (cause it sounds like someone threw their cat on a piano and the cat just runs up and down the keys) is thought of as avant-garde, even though that language has been used for at least 50 years, and from piece to piece that I hear of it, the cat basically stayed the same. But I want to stop and answer the question that people usually pose to me after I deliver a similar tirade as above: ‘Well what have you written that you think is so avant-garde’?
Good question. And it's hard to answer, cause if I can say it in words I would not have to write the music. But in this blog format, I can direct you to some of my compositions that I think are Avant-garde, again defined as: ‘new and unusual or experimental ideas’.
1. I will start with an older piece of mine. this was my orchestral thesis as I was graduating Manhattan School of Music in 1994. The question I posed my self what 2 elements are as far apart musical as possible but yet share a certain spirit and are both important to me in my musical development. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Heavy Metal music were the obvious choices. The idea for the piece was that in 1913 The Rite of Spring was the first mosh pit of the 20th century (if you don't know what a mosh pit is - look it up) So I wrote a piece called ‘Pretty Maidens Slam Dancing’ where I combined larger orchestral orchestrations (a la Stravinsky) with rhythms and the energy if heaven metal music. Oh also the main melody of my piece is an inversion of the opening melody of The tie, so we are looking back to move forward. The audience that evening in Borden auditorium was definitely surprised by the unusual experiment. = Avant-garde
‘Pretty Maidens Slam Dancing’ for orchestra
Performed by the MSM Orchestra
Glenn Cortese - conductor
Video by Graham Elliott
2. I was always fascinated by electro-acoustic music, combining real instruments with electronic sounds. But what can be done that is new and usual with it. I decided to take sound manipulation to the extremes and started witting pieces I call ‘Modified’. The concept of the piece is the modification and expansion of sound. Its the extreme of what can be done electronically with timbre. I decided to create a full composition from one sound, a sound that is manipulated transformed into many sounds. I limited myself to one timbre and put a goal of creating a new kind of sound world from that timbre. In ‘Modified #1’ it was the horn, and everything you hear in this piece is a horn, even if it sounds like a drum set. Since I noted all that is going on electronically, I gave the electronic part a name: Samplestra, (an orchestra of samples). I give that name to any prerecorded elements in my music since is all noted like an orchestral score.
Modified #1 for horn and Samplestra
Performed by John Clark - horn
3. Another experiment I like to attempt is to create brand new music inspired by a short sample (figuratively and literally) from traditional music. In my violin concerto ‘Mind I Have a Question For You’ I use short samples from Pansori (Korean genre of musical storytelling). I was at a concert and was very moved to hear this music, I recorded, on my iPhone, some of the singing and drumming, on the janggu drum, and used this as source material and as samples for this Korean culture inspired chamber piece. The piece has 2 soloists in it, the first violin and a Dj.J. (digital Jockey). I performed the FDi.J. part and manipulated these short samples, they are integrated into the score with the violin and chamber ensemble, and I go in and out from very tight writing, where I have to trigger these samples at exact places, tempos, and rhythms and sections where I am freer to play with a particular sample. The Avant-garde elements here include the way the electronic part is used and integrated with the acoustic instruments, the use of traditional music and its manipulation.
Mind I Have a Question For You
Performed by Vesselin Gellev - violin,
Gene 'Noizepunk' Pritsker -Di.J.
Absolute Ensemble - Kristjan Jarvi - conductor
4. In this last example, I will show a few compositions that go under the category of taking a piece of music that is inspiring and creating a brand new piece in a completely different (you might say the opposite) genre. This combination creates a new genre in itself and a sound world that has not been heard before. unusual, experimental, aesthetically innovative and initial unaccepted = Avant-garde. But I guess you decided if that's true or not.
a. Shostakovich meets Hip-hop
Performed by Sound Liberation
b. A progression from a Mendelssohn string quartet
becomes and r&b song
Reference to the Past
Performed by Sound Liberation
c. Schoenberg meets the big band
Performed by The Outreach Orchestra
d. Mozart meets gospel meets hip-hop-meets jam
Out Come of the Wine
Performed by Sound Liberation