I don’t know anything about consciousness. I just try to teach my students how to hear the birds sing.
– Shunryu Suzuki
The “avant garde” is as good as dead. At least at the official, or at the very least visible level.
Granted, there is still a plethora of private acts and lilliputian movements that would suggest the contrary. Once upon a time, these micro-activities constituted the first tremors of major earthquakes shaking the artistic status quo, often to the point of seriously impacting the social aspects related to free/alternative expressions (to say nothing of society itself). There was an opposition. There was no fear of literally dying for an ideal. There was a willingness to risk in order to satisfy the inner urge of significant creation. Not anymore. Now, every small condensation of individuals affirming their belonging to the “underground” simply appears like the birth of a new trend—something that will be fully absorbed and exploited by the marketing strategies that have become the norm in this era.
Let’s take a look at the variable etymological nuances of the term “vanguard,” whose most common meaning corresponds to “an advancing army’s forefront.” Come to think about it, there is probably nothing more distant from the idea of breaking new grounds of expression than an army, and “guard” implies control, protection, defence. The exact opposite of what is commonly intended by “avant garde” would ideally do. In fact, any movement worthy of being considered truly innovative should attempt to deactivate protections, thus making the targets of their acts unsure about what they had been gathering until that moment: the treasured “values” they clutch at when the going gets tough. In an army, the vanguard is principally formed by soldiers who must quickly assess the enemy’s movements, immediately alerting the officers (the establishment, one would say) and fighting to protect that very establishment. The one thing shared with the veritable pioneers is that they might die pretty soon, most probably before an official recognition of what they did. Perhaps they will be remembered by a citation somewhere, but will be soon forgotten by the official history—exactly what happens for the large part of true inventors and similarly adroit descendants therefrom.
Incidentally, we should not bank too much on history books. After all, they were written by mere mortals. Humans are by definition unreliable, subjected to emotional turbulence, mental instability, superficial memory, easy corruptibility. The majority of historians were, and still are, instructed by people interested in carrying on with their own plans of action. Exactly as most critics nowadays are essential components of vicious circles initiated by entities in charge of controlling and channeling the public taste towards predetermined paths. In our analysis, this usually ends in a cheap marketing of the exterior aspects of what was once classifiable as “avant art.” In consideration of all of the above, the term “avant garde” should theoretically never be associated with revolutionary acts or startling gestures.
There is another side to this coin, though, more directly linked to the interpretation of the idea “looking forward” in connection to the Latin acceptation of the term “avanguardia.” Both the authentically ingenious temperaments and the equally inventive dedicated practitioners don’t really care about struggle in the name of a higher aim of some sort. Usually these artistic specimens act alone, not even completely trusting the people they might share a sort of “vision” with. Here, perhaps, lies the last surviving molecule of the creative organism that still gives oxygen to the hopefuls. There are indeed iron-willed individuals who work tirelessly in the conscious attempt to connect their practice to a superior scheme of things, in the meantime planting little seeds of awareness in receptive souls. In earlier periods there was a chance for like-minded artists to reciprocally support one another and gain the necessary strength to attack the establishment for real, as a collective. But in recent times—as we will see later—members of a hypothetical alliance may instead sabotage others of the same group when the latter’s earnestness is perceived as an obstacle in the remunerative path envisioned by the former.
In the present day, the above translates “avant garde” into “doing favours for someone instead of someone else” as a method of survival in a difficult environment. If one does not comply with certain rules, exclusion from the main circles is unavoidable. That rejection would represent a traumatic event for anyone who is eager for recognition. Paraphrasing Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, the self-defined “highest form of evolution” has mastered the craft of transforming factual errors into truths, and ineffectual artistic gestures into something profitable. What was once merely laughable and/or totally undeserving of consideration for an extremist experimental setting is now easily admitted in an expansible fortress designed to give protection to a cheap plurality. In this context, new forms of depressing careerism proliferate. To a detached eye, the results are quite easy to observe.
The few reputable artists that remain have been progressively engulfed by a mass of latecomers and impersonators. In the worst cases, the authentically resonant names are forced (or, even worse, willing) to collaborate with the latter in productions typically financed by a different type of establishment, this time tinged with “alternative” shades. In essence, they are depending on chosen organizations to thrive, or at the very least survive. This is the grey area where money, fame, media and theoretically innovative art intermingle; where decisions are made about who gets the merits (and some rewards) for something that was probably discovered by someone else, surely less inclined to politically oriented socialization; where, on the contrary, selected targets among the non-aligned are attacked in the attempt to diminish their artistic value and weight according to personal agendas that obviously remain obscure to laypeople. A sample of the latter technique can be observed by taking an attentive look at a leaflet (of which a digital copy is stored in the author’s archive) advertising the 1998 edition of the Fire In The Valley festival in Amherst, MA, which that year featured such celebrated artists as Peter Brötzmann, Joe McPhee and William Parker. In the document, a sharp contrast is noticeable between a rhetorical invitation, “we urge you to support these artists and their peers at every opportunity,” and a name in the list of hosting organizations, “Y.A.M.F. (Youth Against Milo Fine), Brooklyn NY,” unequivocally placing one of those “peers” in a very bad light.
Having set an overall and inevitably incomplete design, scenarios may change according to a given location’s sociopolitical contexts. There are places—this writer’s homeland, Italy, being one of them—where certain methods are so deeply rooted in the historical habit of mindlessly obeying the establishment’s dictates that no more hopes exist to eradicate the populace’s tendency to swallow whatever gets fed to them as “alternative.” In such contexts, a plain truth becomes an abomination.
Speaking about music, an average audience—historically mired in local traditions and necessarily bamboozled by the omnipresence of media-generated starlets—can easily be persuaded to credit artistic lightweights beyond their scarce merits. In such circumstances, well-acquainted peddlers of musical trash span across entire ranges of styles and genres—levels varying from “presumed experimentalist against the regime” to “high-profile corporate-sponsored evenings at major concert halls”—to become reasonably upscale (the actual objective of their “quest”) and admired by gullible followers believing in fake philosophies and entirely fabricated spiritual values.
Who is officially chronicling this process? Let’s sketch a proper list here.
1. Bureaucrats, producers, promoters and agents, occasionally doubling as critics (impartiality be damned) and typically linked with the subordinates cataloged below.
2. Magazine editors (who may or may not decide to appoint their wives as deputy editors) and renowned writers.
3. Erstwhile “independent” bloggers attending concerts to mingle with musicians, label owners and organizers, elbowing their way through the crowded ladder that might ultimately lead them to “opportunities.” These include reviews—heavily edited—published in the pages of hip magazines in between hundreds of equally irrelevant write-ups, or even a direct participation in the organization of events.
4. A few elected specimens—typically sheltered under the wings of big names successfully courted—who manage to carve a niche of their own. They start churning out variegated dissertations, blog posts and books about music, sound, and the so-called art of listening. In general, the contents include a series of often nonsensical abstract wanderings spiced by low-budget hints to synaesthesia, self-aggrandizing reports on experiences born from collaborations with theoretically notable “names,” psycho-sexual-sociological-pictorial-cinematic-environmental references. At best they read like a poor man’s David Toop, the obvious beacon for a “career” as an arbiter of contemporary music/art.
5. Homespun reviewers who often do not even have a decent grasp of their own language, but somehow manage to publish utter hokum about “avant garde” music in the free time left by their actual professions, invariably misspelling names and album titles for good measure.
With extremely rare and obviously welcome exceptions, most scribes are only desperately struggling for a larger chunk of sunlight. Each of their sentences implies a “this is who I am, please look at me” shout. Although some of them do know something about music, the bulk could not care less about the true essence of sound, the most valuable teacher of selflessness. Precedence is always given to a taste-making, trend-setting approach that is suggested, in most cases, by a given employer’s editorial environment. The craft of describing a record’s contents and its inherent messages, the genuine understanding of the physical components of its sounds and the analysis of the effect on the listener have been swallowed by the quicksand of a shallow highbrow vanity.
Then again, why bother to correctly express a music-related concept when every human failure on the globe is afforded the chance of opening a Bandcamp page, uploading his/her sonic rubbish and spreading it worldwide?
Let’s now fish three short flashbacks from my archive of private memories.
As an eleven year old kid—AD 1975—I attended my first concert, that of a celebrated Italian prog-rock group. All I can remember is being subjected to endless hours of leftist slogans before the start, and a lot of raised fists (including those of the group’s components as they were performing). Today, the members and relatives of this particular group belong among the lubricated wheels of a politically controlled media mechanism. They do big business as composers of horrid jingles; create sonic backgrounds for cheap reality shows from which the next six-month superstar will be born; are involved in major productions connected with song “contests” whose winner is decided in advance, based on instructions dictated by the recording industry’s mafia.
In 1993, the former manager of a radio station born in the seventies as an expression of the so-called “radical left,” today controlled by the Democratic Party, severely reproached two speakers—specifically, this writer and his fellow host—following an unwelcome on-air comment about the early output of a certain composer who happened to be on friendly terms with that particular manager, who in turn used to receive free concert tickets and other gifts from the composer. The program was canceled from the station’s palimpsest shortly thereafter.
Around 2007 I was contacted by an internationally renowned artist who was in dire need of last-minute help to gather a large number of instrumentalists for an auditorium performance of one of his scores. The organization that was supposed to stage the performance had been unable to recruit enough players in due time—in spite of having been alerted about the necessity many months earlier—and had kept the artist entirely unaware of what they were (not) doing. A cancellation of the concert was the consequence of this state of things. After new negotiations the event was finally staged a few months later.
In spite of erudite discussions continuously taking place about ways to improve the resources for experimentation, the truth is as brutally simplistic as most anything related to the ongoing process of globalization. With the worldwide crumbling of the economy and the consequent lack of money and steady jobs, the easiest way to try and get noticed—and, why not, famous—is to become known as an “artist.” To the numerous descendants of wealthy families who are active in the world of the “avant garde”—some of them even classifiable as decorous creative exemplars—we must now add bazillions of nonentities having no idea of the profound vocation linked to the act of playing, writing, painting, dancing, or whatever serious expressive variety one might think of (and frequently resorting to the time-tested strategy of actually paying for coverage). With regard to music, or whatever is definable today as such by the “specialist” media, all it takes is a modish face, a laptop, a couple of strummed chords, the ability to produce decent drones, a few hints to marketable interiority and/or nihilism and—you guessed it—useful acquaintances to become known, a total instrumental and compositional inability notwithstanding. After a short while banality inevitably transpires, essentially deflating carefully constructed façades.
Once-reliable organs of information have today turned into hype machines operating inside networks populated by all kinds of establishment-related presences. Magazines and webzines that used to do serious research within the realms of alternative genres (besides the obvious spotlights on the well-known) are now reduced to the same level of superficial mediocrity that defines the popular publication of your choice. Covers are destined to people who can barely play an instrument but who have somehow already been featured on The Late Show. Blank-eyed nobodies who speak like corporate managers in interviews are dispatched as geniuses. And why have things come to this? Many “specialists” have never studied music and probably could not spell a chord’s structure if threatened at gunpoint. Their range of “avant expertise” might be limited to thirty minutes of Morton Feldman (or, in selected circumstances, Björk). Still, they babble about everything from free improvisation to electronic minimalism without having a clue about what they’re saying. Based on their inability to decode contents or sustain a long duration, they dismiss albums gifted with veritable artistic significance as “difficult” or “wearisome,” thus putting an authenticating stamp on a vociferous ignorance. Installations—a plague that has spread in recent years—have largely become a useful psycho-acoustic means to hide a dramatic lack of substance. Photos of parties where trendy “names” and pathetic wannabes mix with wine glasses in their hands are rather easy to locate across the web. And when a retrospective view is finally warranted to an important jazz artist, that’s probably justified by a sizable grant just received from the government or some foundation.
All of the above occurs within systems where Facebook, Twitter and (now extinct) Google+ have been recording and filing every breath you take and every move you make, excluding from their search engines those who aren’t willing to honour the commandments to become a deluded insignificant mosquito in desperate search of likes and re-tweets across the planetary marshland of “social” superficiality. Ironically, the concept was sweetly synthesized years ago by the phrase “If you ignore Google+, Google search will ignore you,” originally attributed to Google co-founder Larry Page but in reality a “paraphrase” of B.L. Ochman, another member of the “G” camp.
When a genuinely independent (read “unbiased”) review appears which pinches the wrong nerve in an artist’s susceptibility, the untouchable’s reaction can sink to an all-time low. Emails containing acrid comments have been sent time and again to this writer in response to noncomplying assessments of selected recordings. Some of these inelegant lamentations came—surprisingly, but maybe not too much—from celebrated luminaries or emerging (hyped) talents. One in particular featured the artist’s personal signature augmented with “winner of the X prize for composition,” and was preceded by another email from a member of the same clique doing the dirty work of calling the reviewer to task. One would barely imagine these people even caring about a written commentary; on the contrary, their reactions do reveal an egotistic clutching at some kind of “authority” that evidently should never be jeopardized by the mere expression of a different opinion. Needless to say, but let’s say it nevertheless, publishing a non-positive review guarantees a near-certainty of not receiving promos anymore from the criticized source.
So, we’re back to square one. How can we even conceive an idea of the avant garde in what can be considered, under numerous points of view, a new dark age where each and every participant to this sad race attempts to be publicly recognized in order to gain an official certification attesting their belonging to a given elite?
An appropriate response would be silence. But that, too, has become a marketable commodity as one thinks of the numerous composers and performers who have started to employ long silent stretches in their music (which in turn becomes much easier to notate, practice and perform, just in case there’s not enough time left before an important commission’s deadline). In this particular neighbourhood, John Cage has become a voguish quote for every season, often mindlessly and in out-of-context circumstances. What’s worse, thanks to the deformation applied to some of Cage’s intuitions, many spiritually inadequate people, who would not stand a chance in situations where serious training and resounding commitment are required, now find themselves acclaimed as masterminds.
At the opposite side, the unfathomable sound worlds of a clean-handed revolutionary such as the late Roland Kayn (unsurprisingly, a man who was never really interested in preserving his artistic legacy) have remained more or less concealed for many years. Only in 2017 they were finally considered for a larger diffusion, thanks to the efforts of Ian Fenton’s Frozen Reeds imprint in union with Jim O’Rourke, who worked tirelessly on the audio restauration of Kayn’s archival material. Perhaps the long obscurity of such an essential body of work is attributable to the inherent danger contained by Kayn’s trademark sentence: “music is sound, and sound is self-sufficient.” Composer and performer are nothing, for only the sounds matter. Admittedly, such a hypothesis would be too much to bear for a good number of sacred cows and court jesters wheeling and dealing in the “avant” world of the present day. Churning out the same monthly report on trendy genres is definitely easier than attempting to synthesize the concepts underlying a cybernetic acoustic design to audiences whose attention span and ability of concentration equal, more often than not, that of a bug. Still, with careful marketing, even Kayn’s work might become merchandisable. In fact, after the publishing of the monumental box set A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound, a notoriously Eno-centric writer immediately reduced Kayn’s unaccountable complexities to the lowest common denominator of music that works nicely as ambient wallpaper in a mix with espresso machines, chirping birds and street racket.
In the meantime, government and foundation support seem to be perennially insufficient to meet ever rising expenses, as the propensity to conceptualize beyond one’s means is indeed preponderant. Here’s why panhandling via Kickstarter, GoFundMe, Patreon, or more generic mailings pleading for money under the banner of “creatively existential sufferance” has, rather sadly, become an out-and-out trend. This, by and large, epitomizes today’s “avant garde” and, indeed, the near-entirety of the “art” world as numerous artists (and, most definitely, writers) are willing to become deaf, dumb and blind for a slice of this ego-inflating pie.
Ultimately, the “avant garde”—after realizing that being cuddled by the sticky arms of the status quo is much more convenient than fighting it—is just one of the many senseless labels created to differentiate coteries contributing to the resistance of an establishment against undesirable changes. Any “avant” mountain creek is ineluctably going to flow into the polluted river of behavioural patterns and regulations that must be obeyed religiously. Much needed issues of idiosyncratic sentience and fighting against cerebral obliteration will almost assuredly be replaced by sheer avidity and nescient presumptuousness at some point.
June 3, 2019.
Originally published on the book The Idea Of The Avant Garde And What It Means Today 2 (Intellect Books), edited by Marc James Léger.