Avant-garde, Ghosts, and Innocence

We are living in an age of confusion, and of reevaluation, both politically, socially and culturally. In politics, words like radical and conservative, and even freedom and progress can have diametrically opposite political meanings, depending on who is using them and which context they appear in. 

The same confusion applies to artistic values. Forward and backward are no longer unquestionable clear directions in the field of art. I do not only refer to the neoclassical or neoromantic artists regressivly longing for the safe womb of music history, accusing modernism for being ‘old-fashioned’. Also truly innovative works of art have ingredients that was considered passÏé some decades ago, but in a constellation that makes them fresh. During the last couple of years, I have made some reflections on the seemingly banal question ‘Where is Forward?’. 

Avant-garde as puritanism

In his novel Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann has drawn an unforgettable picture of a fictional German composer named Adrian Leverkühn, who during the first half of this century sought a way out of the rut that he felt traditional music had come to. His solution was to make a music with no stylistic traces of the past, but with a strong connection to the underlying musical concepts of the old masters. The intellectual and artistic effort that was necessary to pursue this project was so immense that Leverkühn at last sold his soul to Satan, who provided him with some years of intense, but painful production which was put to an end by a violent and mystic death. This notion of painstakingly burning out the residue of the past to get to the inner core of art is central in what is often considered as mainstream modernism. It has been represented by artists like Webern, Boulez, Mies van der Rohe, with his motto ‘Less is more’, and Mondrian, whose series of increasingly abstracted paintings of trees from the first decades of this century can serve as an excellent example. 

And these strong artists succeeded in making an astonishing crystal world of pure art, extremely modern for its time, but still timeless. Gropius’ Bauhaus contains so much more of the spirit of classical Greek architecture than all the Dorian columns of socalled postmodern architecture. 

The problem comes when the goal is reached, when all the memories of the past are extinct. How does one become more Mondrian than Mondrian? 

The consequence for the followers of this path was to put Boulez’ Structures, Corbusier’s Villa Savoie, Mondrian’s Compositions and other “pure” masterpieces on a pedestal and exclaim: “Look, this is true Modernism!” And since then they have guarded it against contamination from unpure impulses such as neo-tonality, postmodernism, minimalism, figurative art and musique concrète. This stylistic cementation is of course in its effect conservative. The term modernism used in this way could perhaps be defended as a description of a historically clearly defined style, such as Ars Nova, but not any longer as a synonym for avant-garde, which denotes the artistic forefront of any given time. 

Avant-garde as laissez-faire

Let us then have a look at the opposite extreme, the “Avant-garde as laissez-faire”. In his book Silence, John Cage recalls a car journey with Morton Feldman in the 50’ies, when Feldman had found a technique of graphical scores based on indeterminacy, that made it possible to produce music considerably faster than before. 

We were driving back from some place in New England where a concert had been given. He is a large man and falls asleep easily. Out of a sound sleep he awoke to say, “Now that things are so simple, there’s so much to do.” And then he went back to sleep. 

In this anecdote Cage of course employs the Zen buddhist’s seeming underestimation of oneself that has provoked Europeans for centuries. Both Cage and Feldman put a considerable effort in defining their very personal musical worlds, although many of their pieces may have a production time that is a fraction of what the average European composer would consider as morally defendable. 

But in the footprints of these great ambassadors of Happy New Ears followed hundreds of of not-so-great composers that proudly opposed any slavery under any system, especially serialism. The problem, however, is that in sheer joy over having escaped all traditional and contemporary demands for consistency, they neglected to build a new framework, which is indispensable for making music with artistic validity. The result of this “anything-goes” attitude was hours and hours of indifferent, shapeless music that were poured over the audience by musicians that in the name of musical democracy hesitated to reject music they did not care for. This kind of “Avant-garde” is just as fruitless as the system fetishism of orthodox Darmstadt. 

Ghosts in the machine

– And if the constellation produced the banal: consonance, common-chord harmonics, the worn-out, the diminished seventh? 

– That would be a rejuvenation of the worn-out by the constellation. This excerpt from Doctor Faustus shows Leverkühn as less dogmatic 

– and in my opinion more avant-garde – than many of his collegues in real life. Many compositional techniques, with Schönberg’s twelve tone system as the first (Thomas Mann borrowed it for his novel, attributing it to Leverkühn) have been invented to avoid traditional tonality, although atonality is not always guaranteed in the same way as tonality is guaranteed in the classic-romantic tonal system. In most dodecaphonic tutorials the student is explicitly urged to avoid tonality when occuring from the interaction between atonal lines. 

A good example of these ‘ghosts in the machine’ appears in Per Nørgård’s ‘Infinity Row’, for instance in the pure form in which it appears in Voyage into the Golden Screen. From a quite simple, mechanistic system with a rising semitone as seed an atonal, chromatic web grows. Then, with certain intervals, a short melodic sequence pops up that is not only clearly tonal, it could have been written by a contemporary of J.S. Bach. And Nørgård does not lift a finger to avoid it or to cover it! But this does not make the music of Nørgård regressive. On the contrary, I feel that this music has a healthy indifference to style. The ‘Bach’ passages are not put together by Nørgård himself in the cheap postmodernist manner of glueing together clichés, they are the unexpected results of a consistent, abstracted system. 

During the last few years, in my work with the mathematical phenomena called fractals I have encountered similar ghosts emanating from my pure algorithmic clockwork. The small, innocent fractals do not have the slightest idea about which musical patterns that have existed in various styles throughout the centuries. Still some phrases occur that make the puritan in me blush and turn on all the alarms. Many times I’ve felt like an explorer crossing jungles and mountains just to end up in a place that disturbingly resembles his own back yard. The lighthearted consonance of my oboe quartet ning, one of my most ‘scientific’ and predeterminative works so far, is a far cry from the dissonant angularity of the 50’ies and 60’ies. Yet this is, in my opinion, just a superficial difference. Independently of its surface I consider ning a truly modernistic piece, heavily dependent on techniques and concepts developed in ‘classic’ modernism. 

Avant-garde as exploration

And here I want to put forward the following thesis: A music that is the negation of earlier music is not necessarily innovative, because it will carry within itself the picture of the past, although in inverted form, just as the motif is seen in the negative just as well as in the printed photograph. The really new music acts as if the musical styles of the past have not existed. 

Accordingly, during the last few years I have gradually let go of the prohibitive attitude towards what is ‘old-fashioned’. I have – consciously and inconsciously – put some of the energy I earlier used for rejecting unwanted material into an open pursuit of musical concepts and techniques that I find new and interesting. Although the prohibition against diatonic tonality and clear rhythmic pulse was felt as essential in post-war avant-garde, they are nevertheless basic musical possibilities that I do not hesitate to use, because I treat them in a totally different manner than a neo-romantic composer would do. As our friend Leverkühn puts it: A rejuvenation of the worn-out by the constellation. 

This implies a kind of exploratory innocence towards the multitude of possibilities that exists in the art of making and combining sounds. The contemporary music scene of today has in its command a vast array of expressions. Within this universe, each composer must build his or her own coherent and defined musical world, narrow or wide. I try in my own way, and I will be deeply worried the day I feel that the boundaries of my musical world are no longer moving.