According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Music is “Vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion” or ‘A sound perceived as pleasingly harmonious’. As said, music is often thought to be something that is supposed to be pleasing. The definition attempts to clearly delineate between good musical sounds from supposedly bad or ugly noise. Whereas the fields of painting and other arts have been redefined by various abstract ideas like Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and various others that have changed the mass’s conception of art, music has been remained relatively tame, at least in the general people’s minds. But is that all there is to music..?
The Renaissance was an era in the history of European music, that pretty much decided on a lot of factors that have continued to dominate most of music, even to this day. Concepts like Harmony, Triad chords, four beat groupings of rhythms were all loose concepts evolving during Medieval times. The influence of the church and its dominance over Europe, helped standardize and generalise all these concepts as a rule of thumb, to be used all over musical treatises. Eras like Baroque, Classical and Romanticism, only helped to strengthen these very ideas and build upon them. However, the 20th Century saw a few composers and musicians, who dared to challenge these rules. They toyed with the central most ideas of what and what doesn’t constitute music. Slowly but gradually, they chipped at each little rule, and norms, existing in the musical zeitgeist. By the 1950s, the whole movement was served with its cherry on the pie, when John Cage wrote his groundbreaking piece 4’33”, where the musician and the audience, would just listen to all the sounds around them, while not intentionally contributing any sound themselves, for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. This is the story of the Avant-Garde - the outermost edges of music, the sort of music, which a lot of people may not even accept as music.
The story starts somewhere at the end of the 19th Century when a few composers like Claude Debussy, decided to not use the centuries old tradition of using the Major & Minor scales as the basis to write music. Claude used other exotic scales like the Whole Tone Scale. Soon, younger composers realized that you could get away by using notes that do not adhere to the particular key a piece is written in. Russian composer Igor Stravinsky wrote a piece The Rite Of Springs, in 1913, that relied more on tribal sounding rhythms, with unusual harmonies, that were considered very dissonant at the turn of the century. The next big name to emerge was Arnold Schoenberg, who invented a new concept in music called Atonality, where the music was broken free of all shackles that a Key Signature would impose. He also helped the evolution of a system called Serialism, where all the twelve notes of the western chromatic scale is used.
The next avant-garde composer to rise to prominence was John Cage. Taking the ideas forward by a gigantic step, John challenged almost every detail of music to have been understood. Firstly he challenged the timbres used in classical music. He changed the sound of a piano by putting erasers, screws, and other household items on the strings of a piano, which he christened Prepared Piano. He also wrote pieces that were written for just percussion instruments involving no idea of melody or harmony possible. He soon challenged the whole concept of what a composer is, by giving up his will and writing music based on chance. In his piece ‘Music For Changes’ from 1951, all the notes were decided by rolling a dice, and letting fate compose the music. He also wrote ‘Water Walk’ which was a piece where the instruments were household items, radios and a piano. It all culminated with his magnum opus 4’33”. Often misinterpreted as a silent piece, John actually instructs both the performer and the audience to listen to all the sounds emerging naturally. While playing the piece, we should not make any intentional sound on our own, and simply learn to accept all sounds that may occur, without reacting to it. Only when we truly learn to accept these sounds, is when the beauty of it all emerges, and the lines between ugly sounds and beautiful sounds begin to blur and fade away. The chirping of a bird is as beautiful as a Mozart symphony. The sounds of a drill from a construction site are as empowering as the riffs of Black Sabbath. The howl of the wolf is as painful as a bluesman from Mississippi.
However, Classical music was not the only genre that took the Avant-Garde ideas forward. In the late 50s, a lot of Jazz cats were dissatisfied with the fast-paced bebop music that was popular in the generation before them. They were looking for fresher paths to take. Some took to modal playing, some took a socio-political stance, some went into playing odd time-signatures, but some also took to avant-garde. Unlike Classical music, Jazz is a predominantly improvised form of art. Improvisations were done based around chord progressions that were decided priorly, and held performances together in a proper structure of Head and Solos. In 1959, Ornette Coleman released an album called ‘The Shape Of Jazz To Come’ without a pianist, whose role was usually of keeping the progression together and holding ground. Without chords underneath Ornette and trumpeter Don Cherry were free to improvise without any restrictions. Free Jazz as it started getting called, soon caught up. It even moved out of the territory of Jazz, and was simply being called Free Improvisation, where musicians would make any sounds that they willed to make. The jazz ensemble Henry Cow, and members either in or associated with it evolved Avant-Garde Music. Today these artists like Fred Frith, Derek Bailey, John Zorn and others are at the forefront of Avant-Garde Music holding the banner high with countless albums, performances, thriving amongst a cult following.
In the field of Rock, Avant-Garde started having an influence in the mid 60s, especially with the advancement of studio recording technology. Multi-track recordings were possible, and countless effects were being invented to accentuate emotions that Rock N Rollers wanted to express. Frank Zappa, a virtuoso guitarist, influenced deeply by the early 20th century composers, spearheaded the movement, with several albums like Freak Out, We’re Only In It For The Money, and Lumpy Gravy. Psychedelic music was an eventual outgrowth of Avante-Garde, where musicians would experiment with sounds without any concern for what is acceptable as music, and what isn’t. John Lennon married Yoko Ono who was a former student of John Cage. And when the pair released three albums of experimental music, made up of just sound collages, Avant-Garde suddenly popped its head out into the limelight. It even showed up on The Beatles album as Revolution 9, often considered one of the most bizarre songs on a Beatles album. Not to mention, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was an album made up by mixing several genres of music, including the Avant-Garde outro of A Day In A Life. Former art student Syd Barrett, formed his own band Pink Floyd, who were soon crowned to be the face of psychedelic rock. Just like Lennon, Syd also experimented with sounds and song structures on The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, as well as his two solo albums The Madcap Laughs & Barrett. There were several other bands and artists who were toying with similar ideas, like Velvet Underground, King Crimson, Jimi Hendrix Experience, etc. In the 80s Avant-Garde Rock had a resurgence as No Wave, with bands like Sonic Youth and countless other bands taking another step into the territory of Avant-Garde.
Today the elusive genre of Avante-Garde, even though being almost a century old, is often scoffed at and treated with a cold stare, as if to accuse us of a lack in creativity or skill. But we see throughout, all the greatest minds of the 20th and 21st century musicians have accepted, practiced and propagated the idea, that music need not have any limitations. Right at the edge, of what society accepts as music, thrive a cult of Avant-Garde musicians who are still pushing boundaries further than we could ever imagine. They ever challenge us listeners and musicians alike to go beyond what is accepted, and look for inspirations and meanings where you least expect it. These are the people who chose to take the path less trodden, who stood up against the status quo, who chose to play the music that they wanted to play, and have emerged as legends almost like a mythological deities whom we can revere and follow in their footsteps at the outer edges of Music.