Avant-garde music

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"Avantgarde music" redirects here. For the record label, see Avantgarde Music.

Avant-garde music is music which is at the forefront of experimentation or innovation in its field. It may critique existing aesthetic conventions, reject the status quo in favor of unique or original elements, and deliberately challenge or alienate audiences. The most commonly cited example is John Cage's 4'33" (1952),[1] which instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during the entire duration of the piece.[2]


For more details on this topic, see Avant-garde.

Avant-garde music may be distinguished from experimental music by the fact that it adopts an extreme position within a certain tradition, whereas "experimental music" lies outside tradition.[3] In a historical sense, some musicologists use the term "avant-garde music" for the radical compositions that succeeded the death of Anton Webern in 1945.[4][verification needed] Don Michael Randel writes that this period began with the work of Richard Wagner,[5][clarification needed] whereas Edward Lowinsky cites Josquin des Prez.[6][clarification needed] The term may also be used to refer to any other post-1945 tendency of modernist music not definable as experimental music, though sometimes including a type of experimental music characterized by the rejection of tonality.[4]

Classical and contemporary music[edit]

Although some modernist music is also avant-garde, a distinction can be made between the two categories. According to scholar Larry Sitsky, because the purpose of avant-garde music is necessarily political, social, and cultural critique, so that it challenges social and artistic values by provoking or goading audiences, composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, George Antheil and Claude Debussy may reasonably be considered to have been avant-gardists in their early works (which were understood as provocative, whether or not the composers intended them that way), but the label is not really appropriate for their later music.[7] For example, modernists of the post–World War II period, such as Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, György Ligeti, Witold Lutosławski, and Luciano Berio, never conceived their music for the purpose of goading an audience, and so cannot be classified as avant-garde. Composers such as John Cage and Harry Partch, on the contrary, remained avant-gardists throughout their creative careers.[7]

Popular music[edit]

See also: Avant-pop music

The 1960s saw a wave of avant-garde experimentation in popular jazz, represented by artists such as Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane and Miles Davis.[8][9] Rock artists who have incorporated avant-garde elements into their music include[example's importance?] Pink Floyd,[10] Roxy Music,[11] Frank Zappa's close friend Captain Beefheart,[12] the Velvet Underground,[13] and The Residents.[14] During the late 1970s, post-punk artists rejected traditional rock sensibilities in favor of an avant-garde aesthetic.[15] In 1988 the writer Greg Tate described hip-hop music as "the only avant-garde around, still delivering the shock of the new."[16]

See also[edit]

Contemporary/classical music

Popular/traditional music


  1. ^ "Avant-Garde Music". AllMusic. 
  2. ^ Kostelanetz, Richard. 2003. Conversing with John Cage. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-93792-2.
  3. ^ David Nicholls, American Experimental Music, 1890–1940 (Cambridge [England] and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990): 318.
  4. ^ a b Paul Du Noyer (ed.), "Contemporary", in the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music: From Rock, Pop, Jazz, Blues and Hip Hop to Classical, Folk, World and More (London: Flame Tree, 2003), p. 272. ISBN 1-904041-70-1
  5. ^ Don Michael Randel, "Modernism", The Harvard Dictionary of Music, fourth edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003). ISBN 9780674011632.
  6. ^ Edward Lowinsky, "The Musical Avant-Garde of the Renaissance; or, the Peril and Profit of Foresight", in Music in the Culture of the Renaissance and Other Essays, edited and with an introduction by Bonie J. Blackburn with forewords by Howard Mayer Brown and Ellen T. Harris, 2 vols. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989) 2:730–54, passim.
  7. ^ a b Larry Sitsky, Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde: A Biocritical Sourcebook (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002): xiii–xiv. ISBN 0-313-29689-8.
  8. ^ Anon. Avant-Garde Jazz. AllMusic.com, n.d.
  9. ^ Michael West (April 3, 2015). "In the year jazz went avant-garde, Ramsey Lewis went pop with a bang". The Washington Post. 
  10. ^ Stephen Thomas Erlewine. "Pink Floyd". AllMusic. [incomplete short citation]
  11. ^ Stephen Thomas Erlewine. "Roxy Music". AllMusic. [incomplete short citation]
  12. ^ The Independent[incomplete short citation]
  13. ^ Jon Dolan (October 27, 2013). "Lou Reed, Velvet Underground Leader and Rock Pioneer, Dead at 71". Rolling Stone. 
  14. ^ Rolling Stone
  15. ^ Bannister, Matthew (2007). White Boys, White Noise: Masculinities and 1980s Indie Guitar Rock. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-7546-8803-7. 
  16. ^ Chang, Jeff (2005). Can't Stop, Won't Stop. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 410 – via Print. the only avant-garde around, still delivering the shock of the new (over recycled James Brown compost modernism like a bitch), and it's got a shockable bourgeoise, to boot 

Further reading[edit]