I dare to say that everyone interested in experimental and avant-garde music came to discover these unconventional styles through a mix of in-depth research and pure chance.
In my case, it happened while exploring the ambient music realm.
Some branches of ambient are closely connected to the avant-garde; the bridge between the two is the minimal approach to composition initiated by Erik Satie and John Cage and defined by the works of Philipp Glass, La Monte Young and Steve Reich, among others.
The artiste who opened the door to avant-garde music for me was Giacinto Scelsi, a mysterious Italian composer who focused extensively on developing pieces based on single notes, using subtle variations in dynamics and harmonic allusions.
The haunting, immersive soundscapes created by Scelsi using such a basic sonic palette helped me understand the value of less-is-more in music; this encouraged me to explore sonic works that let the listener interpret what they hear, which I believe is the objective of most avant-garde compositions.
Avant-garde is, as you might guess, a fluid and undefinable music genre, often branching off from long-established styles like classical or jazz music to push the boundaries of what’s considered the status quo at the time.
However, something that all avant-garde composers have in common is a relentless exploration of the aesthetic of the genre: these are the sonic explorers to whom we owe the last century of new music styles.
Karlheinz Stockhausen’s influence on electronic and experimental music still resonates today, while Cage’s radical innovations in what we consider music pave the way for a variety of music genres, from dance music to contemporary classical.
Satie’s minimal compositions are cited as the earliest explorations of ambient music, or, as he used to call it, “furniture music”.
Let’s find out more about the history of avant-garde music and how you can start listening to this incredible genre.
A DEFINITION OF AVANT-GARDE MUSIC
It’s easier to define avant-garde music by explaining what it isn’t. In all art forms, the term “avant-garde” describes a piece of work that falls between traditional aesthetics and pure experimentation.
Talking about music, traditional aesthetics are the invisible confines that make a song sound pleasant and understandable to a broader audience.
On the other hand, experimental music is often a genre that completely ignores the framework provided by traditional music and explores soundscapes that don’t have much in common with what came before.
The boundaries are often blurred, and as the music and the audience’s taste evolve, so is our interpretation of the new sounds we hear.
When first explored in the 1940s, musique concrete was definitely an experimental and ground-breaking genre: today, most artistes working in this field have an avant-garde approach when creating new works.
Speaking of rock music, the 1970s were a fantastic decade of experimentation and innovation.
Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother were undoubtedly avant-garde albums, as they used the framework of Western music to broaden the scope of what was considered “rock”.
As a rule of thumb, you should consider avant-garde as a form of innovation of an existing genre and experimental music as a standalone form of music that aims at breaking ties with the past.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF AVANT-GARDE MUSIC
The evolution of avant-garde music encompasses so many music genres and is so volatile it's almost impossible to define fully.
However, there are undoubtedly some composers and albums that led the foundation to what today we consider avant-garde.
My interest in minimal electronic music leads me to start the history of the avant-garde with French composer Satie.
A precursor of minimal, ambient, and cinematic music, Satie was the first 20th century composer to move away from traditional Western classical music to a form of sonic impressionism that will influence the entirety of contemporary music until today.
The minimal aesthetics of Satie evolved into ambient music and greatly affected the contemporary classical genre, with both legendary composers Brian Eno and Cage referring to Satie as a great source of inspiration.
That leads us to the composer who expanded the borders of contemporary music more than anyone else in the 20th century.
With Cage, the concept of musicality loses its importance altogether.
Although classically trained, Cage developed his unique composition style that included prepared pianos, as well as everyday tools like radios and kitchen items. His objective was to challenge the idea of music and introduce the concept of chance in composition, making each performance de facto unique.
One of Cage’s most famous and controversial pieces, “4.33”, involves four minutes of silence that allows the listener to focus on the acoustic elements provided by its surroundings.
Cage’s rejection of tonality and harmony, as well as the element of randomness in his composition, paved the way for a new way of making music that was never explored in humanity’s millenary music tradition.
The consequences of Cage’s experimentations had an impact on all the most established music genres, from classical to jazz to rock music.
In particular, free jazz – with its total absence of tonality or time patterns, became, in the 1960s, one of the most crucial examples of how music can evolve outside the traditional framework defined by its history.
In rock music, examples of an avant-garde music approach to the genre abound, especially throughout the late 1960s and early 70s.
At the time, artistes focused on how music could blend and transcend traditional standards by combining different genres and advocating the most boundless freedom of expression.
This was a wonderful time for experimental rock music, so if you’re not familiar with it, go on and listen to Pink Floyd’s experimental years (from 1968 to 1970), Zappa’s endless discography (but you can start with Joe's Garage), Tangerine Dream and the incredible kosmische musik scene.
This will give you an idea of how vibrant and influential those years have been for contemporary music.
AVANT-GARDE MUSIC’S CONTEMPORARY INFLUENCE
What’s avant-garde today will become accessible and enjoyable to larger audiences in the future. In the same way, many artistes today draw inspiration from what was considered ground-breaking up to the 1970s.
I’m far from assuming I can list all the artistes who today are advancing the frontiers of music.
However, what I can offer is my view on some musicians who I believe represent the essence of avant-garde exploration in today’s music scene.
I’ve always loved William Basinski. His ability to deconstruct and blend sounds using tape loops has become the blueprint for artistes who make music using found sounds, field recordings, and old analogue recordings.
His vast discography includes albums that draw inspiration from Satie’s works (Melancholia) to intricate ambient soundscapes reminiscent of Eno’s works (Lamentations); however, it’s with his Disintegration Loops that Basinski truly brought to life a new concept of music.
Inspired by the tragic events of 9/11 and drawing inspiration from the mesmerising sound layers of ambient and drone music, Disintegration Loops features haunting soundscapes that highlight the volatility of the human experience as a whole through nostalgic and decaying sounds.
Since his time as a member of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ryuichi Sakamoto has relentlessly pushed the boundaries of his music, transcending genres with every release.
His collaborations with Alva Noto and Christian Fennesz brought to life some of the finest cinematic compositions.
At the same time, his prolific solo career is a testament to his research on introspective, intimate music that can still resonate with a large audience.
Not unlike Sakamoto, the leader of Radiohead, Thom Yorke, has also defined his career on the concept of exploration outside the traditional notions of rock music.
Radiohead was one of the first bands to fully embrace the evocative power of adding electronic elements to their creations, resulting in the now-established hybrid electroacoustic approach we often hear in alternative rock music.
Aside from Radiohead, Yorke has been able to explore different genres through collaborations with innovative producers such as Four Tet and Burial, enriching his discography and showing once again his boundless approach to creativity, typical of the avant-garde artistes of old that defined today’s contemporary music.
Cover Credit: Alessandro Bosio/Alamy Stock Photo
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Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.