The generational emblem
In the 20th century, each generation of artists aims to distinguish itself from the previous one. This is both an attempt at self-understanding and in search of a foothold, both very legitimate undertakings. And it has resulted in a reoccurrence at approximately 40 years intervals of distinctive movements, where a distancing to preceding concept of art and the institutions and societal structures that upheld them was the main and proper artistic aim. As avant-garde, they are a rejection of the immediately preceding concepts of what is right, established and informally official. Anti-art, conceptual art, shock art, transgressive art etc. are examples of such branches that has come about as a result, but also more subtle and less disruptive styles are abundant.
In avant-garde music, this has led to an enhanced concept of sound together with the procedures for its production. As a result, music-making nowadays of both classical and non-academic origin is concerned not only with the elements of melody and harmony and with their articulation over time, but also novel factors pertaining the wider acoustic environment being it natural, cultural or artificial. Electronics, chance, ambient sounds, field recordings, algorithms and computer driven systems are just a few and all valid means, with enhanced forms of musical notation and unorthodox playing techniques coming about, just as the inclusion of theatricals, video, lighting, space and choreography has made today’s music into a very hybrid art-form.
The individual project
In this spirit, the avant-garde artist must be a creative genius that is individualistic and different. And since the significance of avant-garde is its concepts, the conceptual intervention gives priority to the idea and its mise-en-scène above anything else. In consequence, the appreciation moves into the immaterial realm of the idea, and this inevitably relegates the listening and the entire sensory faculty to a secondary role.
This has brought the cerebral dimension in music to the fore, since the musical experience recedes when the audience is required to use the thought-process to establish the inherent message – essence, substance, significance, implication – of what is being performed: The novelty of an instrument, of a performance technique, a formal feature, the introduction of extra-musical elements.
Scraping a string with a dried vegetable; preparing an instrument for use by smashing it, chopping it up or setting it on fire; the execution of any of this as a performance; extremely short duration, extremely long duration, absence of any sound, sound as an immobile mass that covers everything; an audience of four or less, unlimited live audience; robots or automobiles as sound sources, ship sirens, planetary movements; big data, the author’s unconstrained personal drama - all and much, much more is a valid point of departure for the musical avant-garde work where meaning is assigned the audience’s deliberation of the ongoings.
The inner conflict
But the professional artist must remain approachable, and this is avant-garde’s inherent elusiveness for him: if the work is so independent, different and disparate that it becomes impenetrable for any effort to decipher and appreciate it, then its author becomes a solitary figure – isolated, bizarre and ultimately irrelevant: a failure.
And to add insult to injury, it also means that as the ambitious artist embarks on creating a completely new set of rules and conventions for his work, he also creates the very basis for his work’s undoing as an avant-garde project, because it is deprived of its core spirit and essence of a true disruptive agent as soon as it is accepted as art, being it from the art-circuit of venues, academics or audience.
As a result the artist is coerced to use his proposed avant-garde persona as a spring-board for professionalization. The strategies that alleviate his isolation has increasingly happened within the audience’s cognitive dimension rather than the artwork itself, since this is where the artist can make sure that there is the desired effect upon his audience. If not a communication of the sense or substance of the art-work, at least it can aim at the senses as a form of widened trompe-l'oeil that is meditated by technology and soft science: creating suspension, confusion and a shock that provides a surprising sensorial experience which will leave the audience fascinated, appalled, intrigued and – ultimately – marveled.
The lack of regard for and acceptance of existing norms that is the hallmark of avant-garde is now long gone, and so is its various corrosive methods. Instead, by softening his avant-gardist aims and methods and instead playing into a market-place, the artist allows his ambitions to be absorbed by the business and career models that surround art, and art history’s rationalism transforms the work into a cultural specimen that can be placed alongside other exploits, to be examined, evaluated and monetized. The avant-garde dimension recedes, and, rather than dominating the discourse, solitary elements from the musical avant-garde have instead gradually found their natural place in the common language and overall evolutive development of music.
Avant-garde no longer represents a change of paradigm, nor does it represent a paradigm for change, because it has since long been sacrificed by the artists in the process of competence, accomplishment and faultless efficiency.