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Old dogs and new tricks

The impact of the avant-garde.

I called my dad today to get his opinion on some things about music. 

Yes, he’s Gary Briggs of Briggsy Boys fame; part of the highly lauded duo that play dim Sutherland Shire pubs and clubs about twice a year. Their setlist is a tapestry of 70s and 80s hits that set the sticky dance floor alight with the wayward legs and arms of forty-somethings. One such gem is Stone Temple Pilot’s Plush, which my dad thinks isn’t popular enough to perform but my uncle likes too much to take off rotation. Uncle Mark is two years older so he wins. 

“What do you think about 4’33? The silence piece?” I’d asked him. John Cage’s 4’33 is a one of avant-garde’s biggest hits – a piece made entirely of rests, or silence, so that the everyday sound of the performance space form the music made.

The answer was unexpected. 

‘Aw, it’s not music. Silence isn’t music.’ 

I was thrown. I panicked. I weaponised the only example I could think of on my feet, to make him feel a bit silly. 

“What do you think about MC Hammer, then?” “Huh?”

“Stop.”

“Wh-“

“Hammertime.”

My dad stuck to his guns.

“Well, it’s a pause. The music happens around it. It’s not the music.” 

I’d found here maybe our sole musical point of contention, besides the ‘offensive’ timing of Radiohead’s Pyramid Song – the value of the avant-garde, with a disregard of convention in favour of the conceptual.

Avant-garde, by nature, is in complete opposition to popular music genres. It thrives on subversion; it looks at the status quo and ruins it. As a result, it’s not widely embraced outside its community.

But it doesn’t lack value’ because of its limited appeal, as my dad would suggest. His case was that 4’33 is purposeless, because the sounds would exist whether they are framed by a score or not. They’re not music. And he doesn’t like it. 

However, I’d argue that my dad is somewhat already an unwitting fan of avant garde. He loves the introductory laugh in The Police’s ‘Roxanne’. The laugh isn’t music per-se, but it’s a fundamental part of experiencing the song. Without John Cage, we wouldn’t as readily hear it as musically vital. 4’33 shows us musicality in the mundane. 

Artists that create within more popular fields of music — rock, pop, and indie – engage with the  avant-garde to spur innovation and momentum. They take a specific element of avant-garde music and repurpose it; becoming a way to powerfully reshape genre as it’s recontextualised. Often popular genres water down the avant garde for mass appeal, but nevertheless the song is  imbued with genre-pushing, boundary-shattering potential. Every artist said to revolutionise their genre does so with the tools presented to them by the avant-garde.

Exhibit A is Sufjan Stevens. With the release of his 2005 album Illinoise, he revolutionised contemporary folk. With wonderfully rich orchestration and lyrics about longing that tear at your heart, it’s easy to see why. Folk has never been heard like this before. 

But minimalism has!

Sufjan’s complex instrumental layering violently evokes (or ‘blatantly rips off’, as users on the Progressive Rock Music Forum argue) composer Steve Reich’s 1976 piece Music for 18 Musicians – an hour-long venture where gossamer chords unfold gradually across time. Yes, it’s long, but absolutely decadent. Across that time, you feel like you’re swimming through the rich textural tapestry Reich has created for you.

Now, ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ isn’t quite avant-garde itself – it wades in the water of contemporary classicism and minimalism. We must make one more leap before Sufjan connects with real avant-garde. 

We’re lucky! Reich does the leap himself. 

Reich’s early work begins with tape experimentation. The 1965 piece It’s Gonna Rain uses these words played in unison on two seperate tape recorders. They slip out of sync as a result of the imperfections between the two machines; in the piece, you hear all of the possibilities in the combination between the two tracks before they fall back into unison with one another – something known as phasing.

Reich translates this into a more traditional musical format with Clapping Music, which lends its rhythm to the main musical phrase in 18 Musicians. Phasing is done texturally here – each chord in this piece is held for two breath cycles. The texture shifts and wavers, each chord feels alive as different layers are drawn in and out of the aural space. The elements at play in Reich’s early tape works remain resolute in his pièce de résistance: the work unravels slowly. We find ourselves in a new section before we’re really able to recognise it, pointing at the tape desyncing that gradually transports us to a completely new sonic world.

Stevens’ Out of Egypt shimmers with the subtle textural shifts behind its melody. Instruments weave in and out of prominence, emulating Reich’s sound in 18 Musicians almost to a T. 

Illinoise was undeniably influential – it ranked first in Pitchfork’s Top 50 Albums of 2005 – and with it, Sufjan Stevens has earned himself a throne on the court of indie folk music. Even his latest release, Convocations, waves at Brian Eno and early computer music. Sufjan owes his debts to the avant-garde for his position as an innovator of the folk genre. 

Avant-garde’s grip is so strong it extends prominently into greater pop culture. Remember that massive SNL video, Dear Sister? Where Andy Samberg, Bill Hader and Shia LaBeouf shoot each other in a cutting parody of the The O.C? The crux of this video falls on the repetition of Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek, which has cemented its place in comedy history.

Heap takes her cues in digital vocal harmony from Laurie Anderson and her unexpected hit, O Superman. Where Andreson felt the track demanded a ‘Greek chorus’, her vocoder creates harmony that adds a grandeur to her lyrics in contrast to the simple, solo looped background vocalisation. 

Heap uses this harmonising for similar effect – the acappella style forges a remarkable rawness as the harmonies interplay with her main vocal line. With Anderson’s first foray into popular music as an influence, Heap is able to create an intensely striking piece . Infamously, Jason Derulo’s debut single Whatcha Say samples Heap’s track,connecting a singer known for singing his own name with the rich and complex history of the avant-garde. Wild.

Laurie Anderson married Lou Reed, the frontman of 60s art rock band The Velvet Underground – who are also  deeply enmeshed in the history of the avant-garde. Their manager was Andy Warhol, who joins the avant-garde’s rejection of preconceptions about high art.

The Velvet Underground takes John Cage’s concept of the prepared piano and gives it a unique flavour. The piano in their song All Tomorrow’s Parties is prepared with paperclips so every chord glitters. Sufjan also borrows this in his track, ’Futile Devices’. A short tape-muted note from the piano sparks notions of something not fully realised – it sounds like a piano but isn’t quite there yet; musically granting him the sense of yearning he’s so famous for stirring lyrically. 

Cage’s original construction of the prepared piano isn’t quite as sensitive as his descendants. Required listening here is Sonata V: it sounds like when you accidentally try to force a second DVD into your DVD player. It’s strangely wonderful to hear such harsh sounds from an instrument lauded for mellow clarity – this is the instrument upon which Claire De Lune was written. With Cage’s innovation, he breaks the idea of the piano. It becomes its own rhythm section, and produces sounds that are utterly unique.

Both of these artists water down elements of the avant-garde. They sparingly selected a single way of piano preparation so that the original sound of the piano isn’t totally eclipsed. It delicately pushes the boundaries of their respective genres,subtly immersing themselves within popular music while also firing innovation in them with their masterful presentation of the new sounds. 

Tori Amos uses prepared piano, sampling in hip-hop has roots embedded in Pierre’ Schaeffer’s musique concréte. The whole genre of lo-fi; where aural imperfections arising from production is vital to its sound, owes some kind of debt to 4’33. 

I texted my dad again when I began to write, to give him a fair hearing about 4’33. He clarified he could see some ‘mindfulness’ value in sitting and reflecting on the silence, but that was it.

I fought back. Looking at just ‘silence’ overshadowed the essence of 4’33; where everyday noise and chatter is elevated to the status of music. 

In my final wave of assault I called on the very songs he had given to me in order to make my point. The laugh in Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf, the city noises the Pet Shop Boys spliced into West End Girls. I’m using his own weapons against him. 

He began to consider this. 

‘There’s a Cold Chisel song called Saturday Night which has a whole lot of background noise, It’s a fundamental part of the song. Whenever I picture that song in my head, all the background noise is in it.“ 

I think that’s the furthest he’ll budge.

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