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We asked Australian singer/guitarist and composer, Tony King to answer the following question...

Tony King

November 2009

The Question:
Is there a place for the Avant Garde in Music?

Response by Tony King share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

I decided to explore this question by traveling to the UK and interviewing a barking mad leading exponent of the musical Avant Garde, but more of that later.
Avant Garde music is generally perceived to be music which is thought to be ahead of its time, and I'm not talking about the drummer's enthusiasm to beat the band to the end of the piece.

The Avant Garde sprang up after WW2 which was ironic, as they had declared their own war on the traditional music sensibility.
You may have heard of Arnold Schoenberg who was one of the first to explore this area. They called it Serial or 12 Tone music.

Out with traditional harmony and in with the new 12 tone chromatic structure.

Others included Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky.

Many Jazz composers such as Bill Evans also dabbled.

They were the Serial Killers of Harmony and Structure and took no prisoners.

Lets face it if you were German or Russian and had been listening to hundreds of years of Classical Harmony that held you inexorably prisoner to the Playlist and Rules, you too would have become a Serial Killer.
Music is about context. The times create the music and also the reaction to it.

The Zeitgeist was ripe for change in 1945.

These days however, it is getting harder for the Avant Garde to rebel because the internet has provided an unfiltered means to express yourself, while the traditional arbiters of taste, ie the literati, radio stations and record companies etc, no longer control what people listen to.

Dilemma….if the purpose of your music is to shock people and rail against a perceived foe, and there isn't one anymore…what do you do?

Is this their conundrum? Is it driving them into some barkingly mad places to get a reaction? Is there a place for it? Maybe there is. Maybe they're not after a reaction and it's just about the ART.

I have my suspicions but am keeping an open mind until I meet Fuse Fothering- Gay at the Slug and Lettuce Pub in Cornwall, England.
He will help me make up my mind.

He is a vibrant hyphenated fugitive from old money, in his early 30's dressed in an argument between Tweed and Rap artist.

I ask him what he's working on and he spits out the story (along with some crisps over an improbable distance) from the Chesterfield lounge that is slowly devouring him.

"I have 12 English Spitfire WW2 aircraft lined up at Farnborough Airport along with 12 German Messerschmitts. I have tuned the engines.
The Spitfires will play Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance, the Messerschmitts will play Wagner's Ride of the Valkeryies."
I lean forward in my chair. He clearly has my attention.
You simply can't see an act like that at my local any more.

"I will record the tracks panned hard in Stereo, Spitfires to the Left, Messerschmitts to the right. Over 6 minutes I will slowly pan the music towards the centre where they meet and phase cancel the pain of WW2"

My eyebrows are running out of room in the little pub built for 5 foot Smugglers.

Are you putting it out for commercial release? I stupidly ask, trying to buy time to think of a better question.

He surprises me by saying yes.

"The CD will start with a track of 39 minutes silence. Then the music begins and continues until 45 minutes, where it stops, followed by silence til the end of the CD."

I think I see…..the War went from 39 to 45? But why the silence?

"I want people to meditate for 39 minutes about what led to it and meditate afterwards on what we learnt. The pain has been symbolically removed by the planes and music icons meeting and phase cancelling, not literally of course."

I must say that tickles my fancy. Do you consider yourself part of the Avant Garde music movement?

"I'm in the explosives industry!" he says liberating more crisps, which whistle past me this time causing a breast feeding mother to move further away.

"I blow traditions up and my music is the sound of the shrapnel landing"
Is it important to you that your ideas connect with people?

"No, I like the idea of my projects finding their own trajectory even if that means they whizz by under everyone's radar. Once you start thinking about an audience, you are not expressing yourself, only a thinly veiled need to please them."

What else are you working on?
"I have just recorded 200 Hedgehogs marching in small jackboots custom made for them."

This time I was the one liberating quite a large mouthful of Cider out my nose clearing up what had been an intractable sinus problem and simultaneously ensuring we now had the bar to ourselves.

I pressed on past the look on Fuse's face, which suggested he had explained everything.

What was the thought process behind it?

"I have recorded the Hedgehogs marching in the direction of different countries. Ireland, Germany, France, Spain etc to see how they sound moving in the direction of a place with cultural baggage and expectations."
What did you find?

"It was fascinating! The Hedgehogs had a cheeky lilt moving towards Ireland,
an insouciant je ne sais qua towards France, a humourless sense of purpose heading off for Berlin and a palpable Who Gives a Fuck mańana loping off towards Madrid"

You could really hear it?
"Don't take my word, here's a copy to listen to later"
I will.

Don't you find joy in any so called mainstream music?
"Only by accident. I never listen to the radio or TV and find mainstream music is like a child desperate for approval…compounded by an obsession with making art pay!!
Isn't that a bit harsh?
Is there nothing you like?

"I once saw an orchestra play The Flight of the Bumble Bee in a park. Their instruments had been sent to another location and they had to play it with combs and tissue paper. They were joined in performance by a million real bees. You see nature knows the difference. They would never have shown up with the real instruments., but they know the smell of adrenaline when something real is cooking!"

Later that night I lay in bed and listened to the Hedgehogs and to my utter amazement, you could hear the "Who Gives a Fuck mańana loping off towards Madrid" Fuse was banging on about.

I then tried it on shuffle play, seeing if I could still pick them. Sneaking a look at the titles afterwards I found I was wrong!

So it seems the idea behind the piece was as important as the piece, if not more so.

I found myself loving the idea behind it so much that I listened to it all night entering a surreal world that I could never have previously imagined.
It forced the listener to be involved, to be a participant in a strange intellectual process.

I reflected on the idea of the Avant Garde having a foe to rail against in the past.

Perhaps the foe has never gone away, but it is not what I thought it was.
It is not an outside influence stopping us or influencing us.

It is the self-editing, the music made for a perceived audience, the self-conscious art. The "will people buy it" devil on the shoulder. This is the real foe, and it applies to any artform.

In Fuse, I experienced a liberating reminder of where we should reach for Art.
It doesn't have to sound like spitfires but if we throw out all the baggage when we compose, like the Avant garde are committed to doing, then we have a fighting chance of doing something refreshingly unencumbered.

Yes, there is a place for the Avant Garde in music….200 Hedgehogs can't possibly be wrong.

© 2009 Tony King

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