In The Shadow of Ideals
It would have been raining. A boundary of water beyond walls. A memory nearly lost in the fading body of a rapidly disappearing youth. I was waist-high. My mother, sitting next to me with a stack of LPs. Four inches from which everything departs. Five words where it all starts. Hands coming to rest on an expanse of brown. Blonde on Blonde. “This is where it’s at.” A few sentences more, explaining that when she was young, there were two kinds of people: those who liked Dylan, and those who liked the Beatles. She dug Dylan. Time swallowed everything else. The seeds for a life spent trying to understand the self.
It seems unlikely, despite her brilliance, that my mother fully acknowledged the power of her words—indicating that there was an us and a them, and that music holds ideology, expressing who we are, marking our place in the world. It’s where we’re at. For years they lay unacknowledged in the channels of memory, silently guiding a boy from childhood, through his narcotic teens, and into an adulthood, which currently rests in its 40th year—still looking for himself and others— for common ground within organizations of sound.
This is where the journey comes to rest—years spent in an ever-darkening world, more than half sheltered by the musical avant-garde. These words– the avant-garde—resonate in different ways to different ears. These objects and actions, within the larger body of human creativity, remain relatively unacknowledged. Many within and without prefer it that way. My work as writer and critic—attempting to offer attention, insight, and context to this social and creative proximity, which has given so much—is fueled by something else. Frustration. Not only are the objects of the avant-garde divided from the larger body of society, but the context is radically divided from within—the lines all too often carved by the powers of privilege, entitlement, and class— the very things the avant-garde has historically set out to dissolve. It is a realm riddled with paradox, within which the voices and ideas of one culture, ethnicity, and gender are isolated from the next. Even here, the problems don’t end. There is the question of what is viewed to be authentically avant-garde, around which we witness the gathering storms of whiteness, Eurocentricity, and the patriarchal male. What began as a world of ideals, has a sickness in its heart.
Avant-garde music is not an aesthetic. It is an ideal, from which sounds follow.
Music is a product of the people, cultures, social proximity, and experiences from which it springs. As such, it carries a trace of each of these elements. It is who we are and where we are, and thus inevitably bears some image of our hopes, dreams, and ideals. It is the interface of these elements within a music, which often determine our primary relationship with what we hear. Do we understand the musical language before us? What is our relationship with the people, proximity, and experiences from which it springs and indicates? And, are we sympathetic with the hopes, dreams, and ideals which it presents? Remarkably, the result of this complex decoding of meaning—we are of the same and want the same—could be expressed as simply as getting out on the floor to dance. It could also be a screaming revolt. Despite the seemingly simple ways in which we express our relationship to what and whom a music signifies, for those of us interested in these things beyond just “trusting our guts,” a bigger question remains. Why do we like what we like, and how do we trust our ears?
Try as we might to locate taste in the abstract realms of aesthetics and emotion, music comes from somewhere. It is of the people who create it: a voice and marker for their place in the world. As such, it is impossible to extract critical harmony (what we like) and critical dissonance (what we don’t like) from who we are and whom we hear. The subsequent relationship is a means to catch sight of our own ideals. Do we only listen to people like ourselves, with similar experiences, hopes, dreams, and ideals? Or, do we cast our ears far afield, attempting to acknowledge, understand, empathize, and establish common ground with those very different from ourselves? Whichever the case, within what terms do we engage?
Musical objects and their languages express sociocultural proximity and experiences; they are a means through which we acknowledge, understand, empathize, and establish common ground with those like and unlike ourselves, as well as understand aspects of ourselves. Because of this, it is important to critically evaluate if what those objects say is true, and if they are representative of that which they purport to speak.
The process of judging a music’s authenticity usually begins closest to home. If it doesn’t speak to the direct community to which its creators belong, if it doesn’t resonate with who they are or how they understand themselves, it is unlikely to find an audience whose enthusiasm will propel it into greater social consciousness. The music will remain unacknowledged and obscure.
Historically, the challenge would have largely ended there. Music’s ability to travel great distances is a relatively recent occurrence. Before the development of audio recording and playback technology toward the end of the 19th century—excepting for the factors of travel activated by the Industrial Revolution and pools of immigration toward geographies like the United States—musics tended to remain within fairly specific localities. In the age of mechanical reproduction and distribution, this is no longer the case. Musical languages evolve at an ever quickening pace, increasing the probability of encountering something unfamiliar and new. We now constantly intersect with voices from places we’ve never been, and hear of experiences we’ve never had, with technology offering the ability to leap-frog the initial stage of collective critical evaluation. It is possible to hear something across great distance, which purports to speak of a people and sociocultural proximity, but which does not reflect who they are.
This leaves us with the obvious question: Can we evaluate the authenticity of a music that speaks of a sociocultural proximity not resembling our own? For example, can a white guy from New England (like myself) judge a field recording (made by another white guy from New England) of an indigenous music from Ghana? In the immediate sense, absolutely not. There is no way to ever fully bridge the gap. However, there are basic critical tools, processes, and observations that can get us closer. To follow the above example, I could first acknowledge the direct proximity of the vehicle for this music’s distribution, and whom that distribution serves. If, for example, this music is associated with ceremony or ritual, the people who make it are unlikely to listen to a recording of it. It has a different purpose within their culture. Thus, the tastes and motivation behind the decision to capture and distribute this music can be presumed to more closely resemble my own because the person capturing it occupies a sociocultural proximity more similar to my own than that of this music’s source. Therefore, this recording, if not the music on it, was made for people like me.
Our relation to a music almost always begins with a process of recognizing elements that are shared with what we already know and like. The more of these elements that appear, the more likely we will intuitively form a bond with what we hear. Thus, continuing the example above, my understanding of what I hear—and how I choose to relate to it—has already been modeled by two stages of sympathetic subjectivity: those of the recordist and myself. Neither of us, however, can claim any direct relation to the immediate proximity from which this music springs. In the instance that I enjoy what I hear, I am in the first stage of appreciation, responding to shared elements: familiarities that resonate with me, but which I am unable to understand on their own terms. The music has been cast in my image by the filter of my own experiences, sociocultural proximity, tastes, and expectations. At best, I can attempt to reduce the influence of these factors and hope to better meet this music on its own terms. Understanding to what degree what I’m hearing is authentic is dependent on the level of developed understanding I possess. Thus, while I could never understand this music entirely on its own terms, I could, through the process of listening to a broad range of realizations of music from the same proximity, recognize shared or disparate elements in order to roughly understand how representational it is of the broader body of music to which it belongs.
Music, of course, is more than a mark of proximity and expressive voice. It is more than a tool to activate relation and acknowledgment. It provokes and expresses consciousness, emotion, and ideas—the very things that offer proof of our humanity. Great music is often categorized by its ability to speak across the divisions imposed by proximity (temporal, geographic, and cultural). It is timeless and collectively moves us toward common ground within states of emotion, elevated consciousness, or thought. In so doing, these musics establish empathy and dissolve temporal, geographic, and cultural dislocation. They help us acknowledge difference and observe what we share.
That said, music can also lie. In such a case, the common ground it establishes can foster inauthentic encounters and model generalized perceptions that are not representational or honest. It can betray us. This further highlights the need to evaluate authenticity within a broad context, which allows for its transience.
It is well known that certain rhythms and harmonic relationships trigger pleasing responses in the listener, a strategy that underscores a great deal of popular music—the formula for hits. The desire to please gives way to the potential to assert influence and power, essentially to become a dominant voice within a social and cultural landscape. This is why music connected to this impulse often grows from the practices of appropriation, artifice, pastiche, and profit motive, almost never sounding of its precise moment and time. Its appeal has been proven. Through its inauthenticity, this kind of music obscures or alters our perception of the sociocultural proximities from which it purports to spring. It is, even if not intending to be, anti-democratic. It appropriates the power of collective and representational voice.
By recognizing the relationship between proximity and authenticity, we arrive at the question at hand: How do we evaluate the authenticity of a music that attempts to divorce itself from proximity, moving toward the realm of pure ideals, and thus, through its very nature, will always be unfamiliar and unknown?
How do you judge the authenticity of an object of the avant-garde?
The avant-garde’s foundations were laid by the Modernist belief that the processes of human creativity—the arts—can contribute solutions to society’s problems. One of the fundamental components of Modernism is its quest for a universal, democratic creative language to be spoken and interpreted across numerous social and cultural proximities, which can establish the building blocks for collective communication, representation, and understanding. It aims to strip away our perceptions of difference and offer a means through which everyone can express and communicate on equal terms. As such, the avant-garde’s inception belongs to a philosophy that is fundamentally invested in, and propelled by, a hope for progressive change.
The term avant-garde is a French military term, translating roughly to “advance guard,” but is more easily understood in English as a scout, or first wave, in an offensive—the first person or persons to go over the hill. Its deployment within creative proximities relates directly to the Modernist investment in the notion of progressive change through creativity and developmental language. For change to happen, one must go first to seek and instigate it. The avant-garde act or object seeks only change and indicates the culmination of that change: freedom.
The avant-garde presents a unique problem within the critical evaluation of the arts. Its quest for change is transient, culminating as the image of some form of freedom. If it ceases to move, it is no longer avant-garde. It has become something else (while often continuing to be named that thing). As such, when fully realized, the avant-garde is always moving into the unfamiliar and unknown. It attempts to extricate itself from all proximity—proposing a form of expression that belongs to nowhere and everywhere, to no one and everyone. But, like all musics, avant-garde languages are a product of those who create them. As such, they will inevitably carry a trace of the proximities and experiences from which they spring. It is the attempt to speak beyond the perceptual difference carried by proximity, with the character of the ideology they embrace, which defines them as what they are.
Evaluating the authenticity of a piece of avant-garde music is arguably the most complex challenge a critic could face. Given the diversity of practices and proximities within this broad creative territory, it helps to focus on the roots of what can be recognized as an ideological fracture within the American musical avant-garde—the schism between the improvised musics which uncomfortably fall under the banner of free jazz, and the ideas and practices of John Cage, from which a great deal of avant-garde music currently descends. The ideas, ideologies, and strategies of most other traditions, even in instances in which they possess a more immediate root, like rock, folk musics, electronic music, etc., can be seen to relate, in some form, to either or both.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that John Cage’s Silence, arguably the most influential body of text in avant-garde music, was published two short years after Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come: an album that appeared in 1959 and laid the roots for the movement of free jazz. Coleman’s groundbreaking effort could be understood as the first stage of the emergence of the African-American creative voice into the territory of the musical avant-garde—attempting to extricate itself from proximity, entering a perpetual state change in the service of an image of pure freedom. It’s impossible to know if Cage was directly responding to the presence of Coleman and the music that quickly sprang up in its wake, but his words within Silence lay the groundwork for a structural division within the musical avant-garde that remains today.
This division rests on two simple words: experimental music. Since Cage’s introduction of this term, it has been freely applied to nearly all musics displaying attributes of the avant-garde, with one exception: free improvised music made by African-American artists. Even artists of other ethnicities and cultural paradigms who directly descend from, or belong to, the free jazz tradition—improvisers from the United States and Europe (John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Chris Corsano, Derek Bailey, Keith Rowe, Peter Brötzmann, Han Bennink, Mats Gustafsson, etc.), those from Korea and Japan (Okkyung Lee, Kaoru Abe, Akira Sakata, etc.), or any number of other countries—are often cast within the proximity of experimental music rather than that of free jazz. Or, in some instances, they are perceived to bridge the two. This is further enforced by clear racial distinction within the catalogs of a great many record labels, where these records are filed in record stores, contexts for live performances, and what is chosen for inclusion in texts exploring and documenting the history of experimental music.
Yet Cage’s definition for experimental music—roughly, a music for which, at inception, the outcome is unknown (Cage 1961:69)—can be easily understood to apply to nearly all avant-garde musical approaches of the last 50 or so years. So, why not call it all the same thing?
The answer is simple—the tension between the avant-garde and proximity. To be liberated from proximity is to enter the realm of pure ideas and ideology—the perpetual change in search for an image of true freedom, pursued by the avant-garde. Maintaining a distinction by segregating African-American free improvisation into an associative sociocultural proximity, while presenting experimental music as a diverse global practice, effectively infers that music made by African-Americans is less authentically avant-garde. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Historically, much of Cage’s distinction between these two arcs of practice has been associated with the difference between indeterminacy and improvisation. Despite having used it heavily during the beginning of his career, Cage railed against the practice of improvised music for decades, stating that it expressed the elements he hoped to limit in music: self and emotion. Then, surprisingly, he returned to it during the last years of his life, making it easy to wonder if there might have been another issue at hand.
With Cage, context is everything. Among the many thoughts and ideas expressed within Silence is an oft-quoted and revealing statement, the first of many expressed during his career that attempt to undermine the perceived value of jazz: [Jazz] “derives from serious music,” but “when serious music derives from it, the situation becomes rather silly” (Cage 1961:72). While there is a great deal to contend with here alone, what tends to be overlooked is that he immediately goes on to make an exception for William Russell, a white artist and composer who played jazz and incorporated its elements into his broader practice. The inference of race and sociocultural proximity is impossible to ignore. What he allowed for Russell mirrors the contemporary allowance for what is perceived to be experimental music, offered to free improvisers who are not black. If avant-garde music presents an image of freedom, Cage’s image of freedom appears to have not been for all.
Before progressing any further, we must account for one basic truth. Many African-American avant-garde artists explicitly locate their practice within the African-American social and cultural paradigm and proximity, a distinction that became particularly notable during the 1960s and ‘70s with the rise of Afrocentric and self-determinist social and political philosophies. This begs the question of whether the segregation between free jazz and experimental music is self-imposed, or if African-American artist’s association with sociocultural proximity is a tangible limitation on their music being authentically avant-garde. The answer in both cases is no. Nearly all avant-garde musics can be seen to carry the trace of proximity.
When addressing any African-American music, we must also acknowledge the historical presence of theft and appropriation. Jazz, R&B, the blues, and rock & roll have all been a victim of these practices, in each case obscuring accurate attribution and undermining the right or ability of African Americans to democratically express their voice within the larger social and cultural landscape of the United States. Thus, African-American avant-garde musicians have been saddled with the task of defending and representing their sociocultural proximity while attempting to extricate themselves from the same proximity in the search for the ideals of the avant-garde. Despite this remarkable challenge, they produced a musical language that is currently played in every corner of the globe, free of distinct sociocultural proximity, with nearly all artists acknowledging a common African-American creative root.
Within the realization of any avant-garde music, there are inevitable successes and failures. Within these degrees, we can catch a glimpse of the challenges faced by those who create it, as well as what is at risk when it goes wrong. When perceived as avant-garde, a musical object becomes bound to the expectations of the avant-garde—through its movements, it reaches toward an image of freedom on which we can base our own. If its notion of change retreats rather than forging ahead, then so too will our own. If its image of freedom is not pure, nor will ours be.
This raises a central concern of this text—distinguishing between differences in ideology, expressed by musics that sound similar. Within the breadth of what is perceived to be avant-garde music, there are countless individual realizations, each within the process of their creation, embracing different ideological positions, which give way to specific visions of freedom. Yet, it is entirely possible for two works that are realized within the parameters of extremely different ideologies to have an aesthetic appearance, which is more or less the same. For example, a work realized with a notated score, which allows for almost no freedom of expression on the part of the musician, and an entirely improvised work, encouraging completely free expression on the part of the musician. When keeping with the foundational definitions of the avant-garde, a work realized through a notated score cannot be regarded as authentically avant-garde. It is something else, lacking a proper name, which presents a similar appearance. Not only does it fail to present a viable image of freedom, but it cannot move forward and change. To confuse it with an avant-garde object, and in so doing binding it to the expectations of the avant-garde, not only fails to acknowledge its virtues, but muddies the perceptual waters of what an avant-garde object actually is. This is why all music that is perceived to be avant-garde must be addressed beyond aesthetic terms.
In this light, neither those musics that descend from the ideas of John Cage, nor those falling under the banner of free jazz, should be taken at face value. Simply utilizing the syntaxes of an avant-garde language does not signify that an object or action is authentically avant-garde. What defines the degree to which it is authentic is its location and alignment with the principle ideologies that define an avant-garde pursuit.
Free jazz is a proposal for a new form of democratically activated freedom, existing beyond dialectical organization.
While it is entirely possible for free jazz to become an inauthentic realization of avant-garde music—for example, if a band leader were to severely limit an ensemble’s ability to freely improvise and express, or if a player were to become authoritarian, refusing to listen, converse, and instead blast over those with whom they play—these instances are incredibly rare because of the self-governing collectivist values that lay at the foundation of this music. Even in instances where artists come together and are guided by the vision of a “leader,” the work they ultimately create, when it meets its own ideals, involves the equal expression of every voice. Rather than establishing consensus with one dominant voice or a majority while limiting the voice and agency of the remainder, as in most contemporary realizations of social and political democracy, it proposes a dialogical form of organization, where all are allowed equal representation and the ability to speak at once and as one.
This image of freedom stands in stark contrast to the one presented by Cage. His definitions, and the ideas associated with him, have influenced huge swaths of the avant-garde practice following in his wake. Increasingly, however, the ideas and music he placed into the world were not authentically avant-garde. As such, the totality of his legacy is among the most complex negotiations in this territory of sound.
Because Cage’s definitions and ideas have been so widely adopted among artists and fans, it has become difficult to extract his ideology from what avant-garde music is understood to be. When viewed from afar, Cage’s principle outline for experimental music is sympathetic with the foundations of avant-garde music: the realization of a music “free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and ‘traditions’ of art” (Cage 1961:59)—thus unburdened by the forces of proximity, offering a universal language through which all could communicate democratically.
In the service of this hope, he deployed a carefully outlined series of practices—indeterminacy and chance operations chief among them—and incorporated a range of sonorities that were relatively free of historical musical association, namely tape, electronics, objects, silence, “prepared” instruments, etc. Nearly all of these practices had historical precedent within avant-garde music before Cage deployed them, and are often seen to signify the becoming of the avant-garde in music. But, they are in no way a part of its defining character.
Avant-garde music is an ideology, from which sounds follow. It is not an aesthetic. Had the ideology which underscored Cage’s ideas and proposals been sympathetic with that of the avant-garde, his vision would, arguably, have been the most authentic and complete realization of an avant-garde ideology in history. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
Cage’s proposal for avant-garde music, and thus his vision of freedom, exists under heavily mediated terms, created by, and for, a very narrow sociocultural proximity. Unlike Muhal Richard Abrams’ introduction of the Schillinger System—a composition method that sought to allow all composers and musicians, regardless of skill level or education, the ability to create—into the AACM, or Douglas Ewart’s attempts to engage school children in the act of free improvisation, Cage enforced careful control over who he perceived to be qualified and capable of creating avant-garde music—almost always the privileged, highly educated elite. His vision of experimental music was not conceived as a universal democratic language accessible to all, but rather one which mirrored and enforced the same notions of privilege and hierarchically consolidated power, which the avant-garde had been conceived to dissolve. This process became even more pronounced toward the end of his life, when he distinguished certain artists as the inheritors of his legacy while leading sharp attacks on others, as in the well noted cases of Julius Eastman and Glenn Branca, whom he perceived to betray his vision.
Through his writing and lectures, as well as how he managed the realization of his music, Cage took great pains to define the broader territory of sound to which he saw himself belonging. He set strict parameters around what could and couldn’t be incorporated in his definition of experimental music practice, stating “chance operations are a discipline, and improvisation is rarely a discipline” (Kauffman, Cage and Alfred 1966:46). This raises an important distinction— one touched upon above—which underscores much of Cage’s thinking: the difference between improvisation and indeterminacy. Much of Cage’s explicit concern with improvisation was its lack of limits on the performer’s ability to express their own emotion and experience. In Cage’s vision of indeterminacy, a degree of freedom is offered to a musician within a strict set of parameters enforced by a composer or conductor. The expression of self is suppressed. There is no such thing as free indeterminacy.
Cage’s authoritarianism over the realization of his works also extends to those with whom they interact—the audience. This can be clearly seen within what is arguably his most famous and influential work, 4'33", composed in 1952, during which a pianist sits silently at a piano. Critically, this work is understood to activate the audience’s awareness of the ambient sounds of the room and those they themselves make—the musicality of naturally occurring sonorities being framed in a musical context. For many, it is seen as a symbolic liberation of music from its previous definitions. In reality, it is authoritarian, effectively holding the audience hostage by disallowing their contribution to the conversation. It allows for chance, but under carefully controlled terms. Yes, the audience unwittingly makes the “music,” but there is no opportunity for the music to listen, respond, or interact. It is the appearance of a freedom, which is not freedom at all.
The final concern with the authenticity of Cage’s vision of the avant-garde returns us to the composer’s continuous disparaging comments about jazz, extending from the beginning of his career to the end. It’s easy to see why Cage might have been threatened by free jazz. Its vision of freedom, and thus the degree to which they could be perceived as avant-garde, far outstepped his own. But music always comes from somewhere, and in a truly democratic context—one which seeks individual and collective freedom—everyone has the right to equal expression of voice. It’s hard not to see Cage’s attempts to undermine the perceived value of jazz as being locked within the larger delineations of race and sociocultural proximity of the United States: Who is allowed power and the right to speak and have their voice acknowledged with value? Who is allowed to reach toward being truly free? Like nearly all creators of inauthentic music, Cage sought to become the dominant voice in a landscape, and in so doing obscured and altered our perception of the proximity from which he sprang. What Cage stole was the true ideology of the avant-garde. As such, his actions and ideals appropriate the power of a collective and representational voice. That voice is our own.
Not yet out of my teens, I entered the world of the avant-garde, searching for the unknown—a vision of freedom and common ground.
I journeyed across the north side of Chicago and plunged south to the Velvet Lounge, encountering open arms and community everywhere I went. I experienced the us, the who we are, and the ideology that my mother’s words had implied. As I was then, I remain now—seeking the unknowns of self within voices like and unlike my own, trying to listen, acknowledge, and understand. Yet, increasingly the avant-garde presents an image unsettlingly close to my own: privileged, heteronormative, and white. The isolated inheritor of undemocratic power. It is a context divided not only along the lines of race, culture, class, and education, but gender as well, with women not only underrepresented and rarely receiving equal pay, but often actively derided and undermined by their male peers. We are divided and, if forgetting the necessity of change, shall fall. The avant-garde is not an aesthetic choice. It is the pursuit of an ideal on which others can build. It is an image of freedom, which, once glimpsed, can be pursued. Like all music, it is the people who make it. It is proof of our humanity, collectively moving us toward common ground. One must ask, how did our world of ideals come to have this sickness in its heart? Is it embedded in the words we choose, and are these words, sounds, and practices aligned with what we truly pursue? Is our freedom for everyone, and under what terms?