Whatever Happened to the Avant-Garde? January 15, 1979

Perhaps the most interesting thing about avant-garde music at the moment is its scarcity. Of course, plenty of concerts around New York are billed as the latest, newest, most adventurous thing, but real, tough-minded, grassroots experimentation has become rarer and rarer. Most of the new music I hear lately is semi-classical, nostalgic, relatively accessible, derivative, influenced by jazz and popular idioms, or in some other way aimed at a relatively general audience. Even at the Kitchen, where only a few seasons ago one could count on hearing fresh approaches to electronic circuitry, severely restricted types of minimalism, odd experiments with acoustics, and other types of basic musical research, one is now more likely to encounter light evenings of performance art, pop-classical fusions, or the kinds of modern dance programs that are also presented in four or five other places around New York. The change was inevitable. After all, the ’60s could not go on forever, and it is quite remarkable that they lasted as long as they did. During this unique period, when a large segment of a population was genuinely interested in the ‘freaky’ or ‘far out,’ some highly innovative artists were able to gain acceptance much sooner than they normally could have. But the pace was bound to return to normal sooner or later. And now that we have reached a point where genuine innovation is about as rare as it was in 1955, it seems worthwhile to reflect on how we got here.

One reason for the shift has had to do with retrenchment in commercial music. If the Love of Life Orchestra or the A-1 Art Band or Theoretical Girls or Earl Howard had come up in the ’60s, they would probably have been able to find a toe-hold in the record industry. Now, however, the commercial labels take no chances, which means that such musicians have to look elsewhere for support and exposure, and often they end up in the same lofts, galleries, museums, and avant-garde festivals that originally served only the more severe forms of experimentation.

Another factor is the evolution of performance art. After many years of intermedia activity, those trained in the visual arts now frequently present performances rather than exhibiting objects, and like the semi-classical music groups, they have no outlets in the commercial world. But they also have few outlets on the museum-and-gallery circuit, so they too end up on experimental music series even though their work is generally not very experimental or very musical.

Funding policies have probably also had an influence. Theoretically, institutions or concert series concerned with innovative music are not judged by their attendance records, since their goal is not to convert the masses but to provide a showcase for the not-yet-acceptable. But all the same, committees tend to be more impressed by forums that have growing audiences, and program directors who are dependent on grants generally feel some pressure to increase their box office if they expect their grants to increase concomitantly

Much of the trend has to do with the same generation gap that has been observed in all areas. With jobs more scarce, recent college graduates are obviously more concerned with making a living, less concerned with revolutionizing society, and not at all anxious to do time in a garret for some more-or-less abstract cause. Things were much different for those of us who participated in early civil-rights demonstrations, identified with the free-speech movement, and had to deal with the draft. In that era one could always fall back on one of the readily available jobs in teaching or social work or computer programming, so making a living was not much of a challenge, and spending time trying to put together some idealistic, experimental, unprecedented sort of music could be an attractive alternative, despite the poor financial prospects.

The music of rugged individuals can still be heard. In fact, in browsing through the columns I have written in the past year, I noticed that they included reviews of works by eight composers who are involved in basic research of new ideas, as opposed to the development and popularization of older ones. But I also noticed that all eight of them were approaching 40, if not 50.