Room For Avant-garde

By Sean Lee

In 1952, pianist David Tudor sat at the Steinway piano at the prestigious Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock New York to debut John Cage’s new piece “4’33.” The audience, eagerly waiting the experimental classical composer’s new composition, was shocked to see the pianist merely shut the keyboard lid and sit in complete silence save only for a moment halfway through to open the piano lid, marking the end of the first movement.

This piece has since become notorious for challenging the very definitions of music with Cage himself stating the audience “missed the point.” “There’s no such thing as silence,” he says. “What they thought was silence, because they didn't know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds.”

The necessity of the avant-garde, a niche genre that seems at times overtly self-indulgent, is that it is in a constant relationship with the mainstream. In the 20th century, tonality as the basis of western music came into question. Composer Arnold Schoenberg first experimented with this notion when he invented the 12 tone system – a method of composition that completely disregarded the need for melody, choosing rather to arrange the 12 notes of the diatonic scale into a mathematical matrix that predetermined the order of notes for the entire song.

The next logical step in musical innovation was to question the very need for logical order as Schoenberg’s successors Cage, Anton Webern, and Pierre Schaeffer tested whether there was a need for linear movement in music at all. Cage experimented with silence and microtonal music of the east, Webern tested the boundaries of noise, and Schaeffer introduced the technology of tape loops. Each of these composer’s innovations have influences that reach us today, nearly six decades after their musical contributions.

Cage’s original intent with his venture into silence was an anti-commercial one stating, “[I wish] to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. It will be three or four-and-a-half minutes long – those being the standard lengths of ‘canned’ music.” However the irony of the avant-garde is that it pushes human notions of music to familiarity. Cage and Webern’s compositions introduced the notion of noise (the scuffling of shoes, the patter of rain, the distant subway whistle) to a level of high art meant to be consumed.

Brian Eno tested this concept in 1978 with his minimalist album “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” with the purpose of relegating all background or ambient noise to consumable music. Eno occupied the unique position of being both an experimentalist and a mainstream artist playing synthesizer in 70s glam band Roxy Music and later going on to produce rock megastars U2 and Radiohead later in his career. The producer’s straddling of both the avant-garde and the mainstream worlds became the model for how we consume intellectual musical developments today: create compositions that test the listener, but also sneak it into their everyday consumption.

Whilst the Cage-inspired Eno was pushing the boundaries of pop music, Schaeffer’s technological advances gave way to a different area of the mainstream. Schaeffer belonged to the avant-garde tradition of musique concrete – a form of experimental music that argued that already recorded or completed songs could still be formed into a new piece independent of the original source. Within this tradition, Schaeffer became one of the first innovators of tape collages – pieces of music that were entirely constructed out of other already recorded sounds.

His technological innovations gave way to electronic based composers like the avant-gardist Steve Reich who first tested music free from acoustical instruments and disco king Giorgio Moroder who utilized percussive loops in hits by Donna Summers. Ultimately, Schaeffer’s ideas gave birth to hip-hop, with chopping and sampling being the very essence of musique concrete. While hip-hop heads could argue that hip hop’s origins from African drumming and the dance scene of the Bronx couldn’t be further from upper class European classical composers, Schaeffer’s musical contributions heavily influenced keyboardist and engineer Don Lewis who invented the TR-808 drum machine, a staple instrument of the genre.

The necessity of the avant-garde is that it prevents musical stagnation in the mainstream. By testing the extremes of the listener’s ear, it weans us away from the spoon fed music that is Top 40. Without the innovations of forward thinking music, we would not be consuming the jarring noise of Kanye West’s Yeezus, the EDM tinged bass drops of Taylor Swift’s 1989, the chopped samples of any Lo-Fi Hip-hop playlist, nor the jarring trap samples on SoundCloud today. They thought of it nearly sixty years ago. It took us a little bit longer.

This piece is by Sean Lee. Follow him on Twitter @Sean_Lee.

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