251D: Discussion 2

Using Kramer's Chapter I of The Age of the Avant-Garde as a point of departure, we are now prepared to make a distinction between avant-garde works and those which are merely experimental.

For the 'normal' condition of our culture has become one in which the ideology of the avant-garde wields a pervasive and often cynical authority over sizable portions of the very public it affects to despise. That it does so by means of a profitable alliance with the traditional antagonists of the avant-garde- the mass media, the universities, and the marketplace- only underscores the paradoxical nature of the situation in which we find ouselves. (P. 4).

Although the avant-garde begins with an adversary position, this opposition is merely to the status quo, the established middle class values and complacency of the previous generation. Avant-garde artists actually reaffirm the basic traditions that underpin an art. However, one art may borrow from another.

The more creative, countervailing impulse cleaved to quite different values, and foremost among them was a virtual obsession with the past- (P. 11).

T.S. Eliot in his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent reaffirms this position: that avant-garde artists feed on the general tradition, while, at the same time drive change into the presently acceptable norm.

The aesthetic principle upheld in this essay thus placed tradition at the very center of artistic consciousness, in an intimate, symbiotic relation to the innovative function in art (P. 14).

The real distinction with experimentalism lies in the relationship with tradition, and ultimately with the permanence of effect that avant-garde art works have on the culture. In his discussion of Berlioz, Charles Rosen in The Romantic Generation reaffirms many of these general principles. While negative criticism still abounds in the 20th century (e.g. Boulez and Stravinsky, P. 545) regarding the music of Berlioz, there is an overriding polish to the works, and Rosen indicates that a piece like The Trojans really reconciles avant-garde technique with academic ideals (P. 543). The surprising chord combinations and simultaneities, irregular surface phrase structure, and interrupted accompaniments of many of the examples of which produce thwarted expectations in the listener which are still effective today (thereby relegating a piece like Fantastic Symphony to the permanent avant-garde).

I we examine the opening of each of the movements of the work, we find ambiguities in the sense of downbeat and periodicity of phrase. The reiterated eighth-note triplets in Movement I provide the only tactus, and that is interrupted by the fermata over the sixteenth-note rest, which relegates the phrase to the unmeasured. The timbral and harmonic alterations in the Movement II opening produce a similar unnerving effect, and it is as though two different musics are being set out at once. The ambiguities of The March to the Scafold Movt. IV operate in a similar manner: the string figures almost deny the preeminence of pitch and virtually erase the boundary between pitch and non pitch (e.g. the timpani tuned a minor third apart and the closed position chords in the double basses). When the big theme arrives, its metric organization is obscured, and the first half note (the high F) sounds like a downbeat. In Movement V all these attributes reach their peak, particularly in the timbral combinations and registral doublings.

Chapter I of Peter Wollen's Raiding the Icebox addresses once again the relationship between the succession of innovative movements in the early twentieth century and modernism. He perceives that often myths are created as a springboard to artistic innovation. The myth of Orientalism (highly charged eroticism, oriental despotism, etc.) gave rise to the work of such artists as Bakst, Poiret, or Matisse. However, they were superceded with the removal of ornament, one of the chief elements in each of their work, with the first wave of modernism which grafted on the machine aesthetic. Wollen affirms the self critical and inward directed focus of modernism (á la Greenberg) in its development:

Modernism wrote its own art history and theory from its own pont of view. P. 17.

Wollen also sets up a the succession to surrealism through the convergence of cubism and industrial technique. Often such changes occur through the rejection of instrumental reason within the avant-garde (P. 24). It is really this apparent abnegation of superficial reason, with a revolt against the establishment that forms the basis of the avant-garde scenario.

One last point: although the opening of such works as Ligeti's Grand Macabre or Xenakis's Metastasis still shock us, they have an underlying logic, bound to tradition, that gives them permanence. Xenakis uses a slow ramp or crescendo glissando in the strings, while at the same time giving us an irregular mark with percussion. The simultaneity of these two conflictng elements generates the initial excitement of the work. Both experimental and avant-garde artists take risks in the formation of their works, but the avant-garde artist always has some grounding (often suffused or concealed) with the great artistic tradition (often transplanted from another art). The obvious conclusion is that avant-garde works have a concreteness and visceral directness that may be missing in the preemiment abstraction of modernist works or the diffuse structural bases of merely experimental works.