What is Avant-Garde Music?

A hand drawn treble clef with too many loops.

Avant-garde is one of those terms that is so esoteric that it can become rather meaningless. To add to the confusion, it is a term that is applied to theatre, literature, music, art, architecture… even politics! In this post, I am hoping to make what is – or is not – avant-garde music a little bit clearer.

Avant-garde is unique in that it is defined by not what it is but by what it isn’t. By it’s own definition of being experimental or innovative, no one can point to an overall sound quality and say, “this is what avant-garde music sounds like,” in the same way that you can describe Ragtime as being syncopated or Thrash Metal as being impossibly and impressively fast. An avant-garde piece may be a wall of electronic noise and distortion, or it may be complete silence, such as John Cage’s 4’33”.

Does this make avant-garde a catch-all genre for anything that just doesn’t quite fit into our traditional concept of genres and sub-genres? No. There are some boxes that need to be ticked in order to qualify a piece, composer or group as avant-garde.

First, and most obviously, it must be experimental or innovative. It must break tradition! This isn’t to say that there can’t be anything traditional about it at all. The wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented to qualify as avant-garde, but it must have some new and original quality.

Second, it must take from everywhere. Natural evolution within a genre, where all of the music is developing within the same Petri dish, does not avant garde music make. Something evolved from multiple indiscriminate and/or random Petri dishes, however, does qualify.

Third, and perhaps what is the most distinguishable hallmark, is that it must reject and challenge social and artistic values, which will automatically involve it with political, social and cultural factors. It must defy mainstream culture or even seek to change that culture. Oh yes… avant-garde music has an agenda! That agenda can often lead to complete alienation of the audience if goading the audience wasn’t – in fact – the primary objective.

If you are a fan of Avant-Garde Music or are curious to hear some examples from up and coming avant-garde artist TyLean, go here and click “download,” because as Skope once said, “the originality factor is turned up high while TyLean dares to be outrageously different…”

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