The Two Avant-Gardes

My own research and study into the quote-unquote avant-garde has revealed two distinct poles. There’s the avant-garde of privilege, the avant-garde that primarily emphasizes quote-unquote art for art’s sake aesthetics above everything else. Then there’s what I would call the populist or the radical avant-garde. In America, I think those two kind of poles happened during the late ’50s, and through the ’60s and early ’70s. I think the privileged avant-garde really wanted to create this wall between social activism, political radicalism, and aesthetic radicalism, whereas there was no distinction, say, between members of the Black Arts Movement and the Black Liberation Movement. The Panthers brought Sun Ra to be a guest faculty member at the University of California in Berkeley. There was a kind of recognition that the politically and artistically radical were two heads of the same coin. I’ve always identified myself with these movements; expanding humanism requires new forms. It requires new expressions and new vehicles to express those ideas and those feelings. To me, the quote-unquote utilitarian value of the arts of any discipline really is about expanding and deepening human feeling, the human soul, and the human imagination. And that imagination is critical to any progressive political or social movement. I often say that our responsibility is to make politics a creative and artistic process, and to make the arts politically committed. So I’ve never seen a separation between the role of experimentation and the vanguard role of politics. All those things are inextricably interrelated and mutually necessary.

– Fred Ho, being interviewed by Frank Oteri

Nice distinction, and a refreshing change (as Frank was prompting him to make) from the kind of Cardew-style antithesis of populism versus the avant-garde. I’ve interviewed Fred, and praised his wonderful music, and he can be impossible to deal with, but I like the way he thinks. I once published, in the Voice, a long interview with African-American composer/violinist Leroy Jenkins, in advance of the premiere of Jenkins’s oratorio The Negro Burial Ground. At Jenkins’s performance I ran into Ho, and apologized that I was going to have to miss a performance he had coming up. He shook his head and sighed, “New music is a white man’s game.” Well, maybe, but I appreciate the changes Ho is trying to bring about.


  1. says

    Fred’s a little confused here.
    I doubt, for example, that Cardew would disagree that “the politically and artistically radical were two heads of the same coin.” I doubt also that either the Sonic Arts Union, or Steve Reich, or Fluxus, or Christian Wolff (to cite different yet overlapping vanguardists) wanted to “create this wall between social activism, political radicalism, and aesthetic radicalism.”
    So who is he criticizing? Were the “privileged” Henze and Nono not sociopolitically radical enough for him? Is he referring to the students (and grand-students) of Roger Sessions, most of whom would consider ‘avant-garde’ an insult?
    Also, his comment comparing “Basie, Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and so forth” to Steve Reich and Philip Glass (as bandleaders) is so illogical it isn’t even wrong. [To belabor the obvious: dance bands from the ragtime era onward all had similar instrumentation. Many fine jazz composers never lead one. Reich and Glass did not write for standard ensembles and thus had to start their own.]
    Sorry if this is a bit intemperate. The intersection of aesthetics and society is ill understood and worth thoughtful discussion, and I get riled when people who might have something valuable to contribute just sling the same old BS instead.
    Eric Grunin
    KG replies: Well, one could quote Cardew deliberately distancing himself from what he calls the avant-garde: “I have discontinued composing music in an avant-garde idiom for a number of reasons: the exclusiveness of the avant-garde, its fragmentation, its indifference to the real situation in the world today, its individualistic outlook and not least its class character (the other characteristics are virtually products of this).” And while Sessions might have disavowed the label, there was (and remains) certainly an “academic avant-garde” with Babbitt and perhaps now Ferneyhough as extreme endpoints, who want to advance the musical language as in a vacuum with little regard for public reception. I guess there are different ways to divide the pie, but that’s what I took to be Fred’s meaning. I certainly see your point on the Ellington/Reich confusion. I wouldn’t have touched that one.

  2. says

    Slinging the same old BS, I think, is precisely what Mr. Ho is getting at. From his perspective, innovations are almost always discussed in a way that makes it seem like everything was invented by the white, male, Euro-centric establishment. So from a solely classical music perspective, yes, Reich and Glass were doing something very new in deciding not to center their work around the orchestra and starting their own groups; Henze and Nono are extremely socio-politically radical. But the classical establishment tends (to put it mildly) to omit the similar developments occurring outside itself. If one already feels excluded from that establishment, especially because they are not, say, white and of European descent and not exclusively involved in classical musics, then it probably does seem like slinging the same old BS when you hear about ‘innovations’ like ‘leading your own ensemble’ when that’s been going on in jazz and rock since the beginning of the genres. To talk about it in classical music without referencing that whatsoever makes it sound like Reich and Glass pulled the idea out of…. thin air? Of course, not. Even they would probably admit that themselves. But the radio program he was listening to did not, and that was the problem. It perpetuates a lie of omission; since jazz and rock originated outside the white establishment, not mentioning it comes off as racist, even if it is inadvertent (which is probably more frustrating than blatant racism). Then, whenever some not white male Euro-descent person points out how not white male Euro-descent people are left out of the narrative and gives examples of who could be included to give a fuller picture, someone one chimes in intemperately with a list of more white male Euro-descent people who are just as radical and innovative but also weren’t mentioned. Just because Mr. Ho didn’t list every last white guy who falls in the camp of “the populist or the radical avant-garde” doesn’t mean they automatically fall into the wall-creating camp. Who’s confused? Who’s slinging the same old BS?

  3. Rodney Lister says

    [Do] Reich and Glass and Riley and Young have all that much regard for public reception[?] It seems to me that they didn’t, and if they had, they would have got less respect all the way around. I don’t have it here with me at the moment, but I seem to remember some one from that camp (however much I shouldn’t use that term) quoted, admiringly by you in Down Town Music, saying more or less “the public can go to hell.” (Not a direct quote, of course.) It seems to me to be using a double standard to complacently assert that a Babbitt or a Ferneyhough, persuing their convictions with a certain kind of determination in the face of uncomprehension or, for that matter, revulsion, should be pilloried for a lack of concern for public reception, while a Young or a Reich, evincing exactly the same attitude should be some kind of hero.
    KG replies: Pardon me if I find about a dozen unacknowledged assumptions in your response, Rodney. Reich said at the beginning of his career that “Obviously music should put all within listening distance into a state of ecstasy.” La Monte is anxious about and heavily focussed on his music’s reception, to the point of trying to over-control it. Cage said the purpose of music was “to quiet the mind and render it susceptible to divine influences,” and wrote at voluminous length about how he hoped his music would change people. And Riley? Good lord, I’ve never seen a composer so solicitous about making connections with the listener, except for perhaps Pauline Oliveros. And did I pillory Babbitt and Ferneyhough? By simply stating that they evince a disdain for public reaction, is that in itself an insult, rather than a pretty plain statement of fact? Is that something that reticence should dictate remaining silent about? If so, wouldn’t that prove my point?

  4. says

    Reich is quite candid about the classic Coltrane quartet being something that inspired him to start his own groups. He has talked about this many times in interviews.
    And it’s not just or even primarily about the instrumentation It’s about the composer being able to work with a stable group of players over an extended period of time, so that everyone develops the skills needed to play the music and develops a sympathetic relationship with everyone else in the band. Also, the composer learns to write in a way that maximizes the specific strengths of all of the players (not just, for instance, one individual soloist).
    Speaking as a bandleader, this is something that takes a lot of time and a lot of patience but is definitely worth doing. It is also something that is looked at with incredible suspicion by grant committees — “oh, this person is just working with the same bunch of guys all the time, there can’t possibly be anything new happening there.” When it’s precisely the familiarity with a stable personnel that allows you to try to push the boundaries of what they are capable of doing.
    KG replies: Well, Coltrane, maybe, and it’s interesting to know Reich says that. Ellington’s great achievement, as chronicled in a hundred history books, as I hardly need tell you, was putting together an ensemble of individuals for whose specific personalities he could compose. It seems to me that the significance of the Reich/Glass ensembles was almost the opposite: open instrumentation, not only were the personnel interchangeable but even the instruments: didn’t matter whether Jon Gibson played flute or sax, or whether Barbara Benary replaced him on violin, or whomever. To me that was a new ensemble concept with no parallel in jazz – almost the opposite of any jazz ensemble concept, a tight, indistinguishable, notated fusion of whatever instruments were available, no individual personalities sticking out at all – though if jazz’s logistic aspects of forming your own ensemble inspired them, well, fine.
    If people just want to credit someone in jazz for the origins of minimalism, the more obvious influence is Coltrane’s sheets of sound technique from the Black Pearls period, which La Monte and Terry explicitly imitated in the early Theater of Eternal Music improvs. That jazz-to-minimalism narrative is well documented, quite audible on recordings, and acknowledged by all the principals. But I do fail to see why the novelty of the Glass/Reich ensembles can’t be brought up without dutifully mentioning Ellington’s infinitely better-known, arguably superior, and very different achievement.

  5. Rodney Lister says

    Well, I suppose you could consider it all a disdain for public reaction, but isn’t that some other side of the same coin as being committed to what one does? If the public reaction to Reich or Young or Riley or Cage was not/had not been positive, should they have dropped that and done whatever they thought would elicit a public reaction? And how would they know what would elicit a positive reaction anyway? They basically know what, as it were, what tickles them. All those people Reich, Ferneyhough, Riley, Cage, Babbitt, and Glass are serious composers trying basically to do what they find most satisfying, all of them against some opposition and negative reaction along the way, and all of them at some cost. I don’t see why they all do deserve respect for that.
    KG replies: I wouldn’t attempt to speak for anyone besides myself on such a personal issue, but I can’t see a reason in the world why commitment to what one does can’t coexist perfectly peacefully – thrive, in fact – in connection with a solicitousness for public reaction. I have certain things I am determined to get across in my music, things that are just me – certain kinds of rhythmic effects, types of voice-leading and melody, even political points. On those, I will not compromise one millimeter. Some people are resistant to my basic ideas, and I just have to wash my hands of those people. But in my early music, I often found, through audience feedback, that the ideas I was so fond of weren’t getting across, weren’t being perceived. I listened to how people reacted, especially nonmusicians, and I’ve learned a lot about how to package my ideas so they can be auditorially understood. I’ve been using the same rhythmic ideas since 1975, but through a continual process of woodshedding and clarification, I’ve reached the point that casual comments from audience members now reveal that people get the point much more than they used to, and like the music better. Wouldn’t my not caring whether my ideas got across or not indicate rather a *lack* of commitment?
    From what I’ve read in his interviews, I gather that Reich has a basically similar attitude. And, if you read Cage’s writing about his music in the 1940s, he changed his entire style because people weren’t getting what he was trying to do with the nine Indian emotions he was trying to express. He was obsessed with public reaction, and changed course based on it. Perhaps there are composers who can’t work that way, or shouldn’t for some psychological reason or another. People’s brains work differently. But if most composers are indeed impervious to audience feedback as a means of clarifying their intentions, I would have to consider that terribly unfortunate.

  6. says

    I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say the personnel of the Reich or Glass ensembles were interchangeable, exactly — it seems to me that there were (and are) a lot of highly trained musicians who could never hack it in those groups — but your points about the individual personalities being sublimated and the open instrumentation being very distinct from jazz practice are certainly well-taken.
    But I also think yours is a much more sophisticated and nuanced argument about what makes the early Reich/Glass ensembles innovative than the usual story. Which is — as presented in the NPR piece Fred was responding to — is a sort of breathless “OMG, Reich and Glass are classical composers, and yet they actually dared to start their own bands! Isn’t that innovative?” I think we are justified in responding to that argument with a resounding “meh.”
    KG replies: Well, I don’t know what the original NPR piece was about, but that NPR would exhibit absolutely no insight into matters musical just seems par for the course. And I didn’t mean Glass’s performers were interchangeable with other musicians, but literally with each other: you look through those early recordings, sometimes it’s one group of personnel, sometimes a slightly different group, but it remains the same music. Doesn’t really matter which of them could make the recording date.