Where is the Vanguard? On the unbearable difficulty of defining the “avant-garde,” a passage from Bolaño’s 2666, and a half-assed defense of Arnold Schoenberg

I

“History is always written from the sedentary point of view and in the name of a unitary State apparatus, at least a possible one, even when the topic is nomads.” –– Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

For those interested in the “avant-garde,” “experimental music,” “the sonic frontier,” whatever you want to call it, it is worth looking to the past for points of opening, the apertura where possibilities are created and foreclosed. As we examine those points of history, what we see is something ossified, closed off from us as we see its linear progression from the past to the present to the future. This is the model of history that many of us accept unquestioningly: time is a straight line, the past is fixed and we are on a clear trajectory towards either salvation or destruction (or perhaps both). But like William Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

It is necessary to look back on these moments of potential change to rediscover those possibilities we now see as closed off (“lines of flight” in Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology). The seeds of the new are buried in the remains of the old. This is part of why the simple breakdown of music as “progressive” or “reactionary” is in reality much more complicated. It’s a bit of a paradox: in order to create something new, it helps to have a solid understanding of that which already exists. Whenever we try to create something new, we face the inevitable boundaries of our time and place. Of course, that’s not the only way to create something new, as many “outsider” artists prove. But it certainly helps to have a map and a guide for exploring the caverns of the unknown. 

When Walter Benjamin was advancing this line of thinking in his Theses on the Philosophy of History and The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he was thinking about political and cultural forces at large. While the latter certainly has much to say about music, the relationship between music and other forms of art is knotty and complex, and I have no desire to untangle that mess right now (maybe some other time). But we can at least use this as a guideline for understanding the notion of the “avant-garde” as we enter the third decade of the 21st century.

My question is, is there such a thing as the avant-garde anymore? It certainly doesn’t seem like it. Perhaps this is hindsight talking: it’s easy for us to look back on Cage and Burroughs and Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage as the major figures of the American avant-garde (insofar as it ever existed), but were they recognized as such during their lives? We may say now that these artists were unrecognized geniuses (ugh), that their art had a place within some broader cultural wave and aesthetic vision, but any innovative artist can only rely so much on these trends. The creative process is messy, and the more ambitious the messier. As a historical document these works appear fixed and perfect, but in their time they were complicated, half-baked, crass, incomprehensible, nothing but noisy pablum and nonsense. Unfinished pathways become part of the landscape, and accidents seem like masterstrokes. I cannot think of a single great work that emerged cleanly from nothing with no edits, mistakes or compromises on its grand vision. 

One of my favorite anecdotes on the contingencies of the creative process comes from Phillip Glass’ memoir. In the early rehearsals for Einstein on the Beach, the four-hour abstract opera that gave him the fame and money to quit his night job as a cab driver, he instructed the vocalists to sing counts (1, 2, 3, 4…) and solfège (do, re, mi…) as a placeholder for the real libretto. One day someone asked him if those were the words and he said “…yes.” And thus we have Einstein’s libretto, composed in a fraction of a second. 

It’s an interminable paradox: the moment any sort of “avant-garde” is recognized by figures of authority, has clear leaders and codified aesthetic goals and manifesti, it is no longer the vanguard. It becomes an artistic and cultural institution, just like any other already-existing institution, confined by the very forces that brought it into existence.

I consider myself fairly well-read in terms of what’s happening in art, and I have no idea what the hell is happening in terms of the cross-genre avant-garde right now. I have a fair idea of what’s happening musically in terms of the avant-garde: the outer reaches of computer music, algorithmic composition and real-time signal processing, granular synthesis, harsh noise and drone, the most abstract and transfigured of pop, rock, hip-hop and dance music, etc. But in other genres? Nothing. The most radical poetry I’ve ever read that doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard to seem “postmodern” are the latest works from J.H. Prynne like To Pollen, who is British and over eighty years old––hardly an exemplar of the American vanguard. (He deserves a look-into: what I found the most striking is the way he deliberately writes without placing words into a syntax where the words “make sense,” just letting each word float in space radiating its own meaning, like a linguistic version of Williams Mix.)

Of course, this isn’t a dismissal of those hitherto avant-garde movements. Like I said at the opening, the possibilities for the future are buried in the remains of the past and we can still learn a lot from those earlier artists. (I usually cut things off around the turn of the twentieth century, however, just for the sake of my sanity and retaining some “relevance.”) One finds germs of what we now call “postmodern,” which is just an increased skepticism of modernism’s fundamental precepts than a rejection outright, in the novels of Joyce (Finnegans Wake), the symphonies of Gustav Mahler (intertextuality, the fracturing of totalities and the denial of a piece of art as self-contained), the art of Dada and Fluxus (irony, art as a medium for philosophical discourse, works themselves questioning the nature of their own existence), or early cinema (by its nature experimental since most early filmmakers had no idea what they were doing and had to create film-language from nothing). I don’t know enough about Architecture to say what works of the early twentieth century presage postmodernism––maybe the Watts Towers? 

I still have much to learn in each of these various non-musical fields (please hit me up if you have suggestions or just want to talk shop), but let’s move on to the one non-musical field I have at least some comfort with: literature. 

II

“Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze a path into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” –– Roberto Bolaño, 2666

(CW: this book deals with some heavy subject matter, since its central focus is the murder of hundreds of young women. It is described in realistic and brutal detail, so it is just as horrifying as the reality of the stories it is based on. It certainly isn’t light summer beach reading. And if you are upset that I am including a content warning, please stop reading this right now, get over yourself and grow the hell up.)

Before I went back to grad school, I finished reading 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. Funnily enough, I believe I started reading it after receiving my second Pfizer vaccination, though I was too tired to remember anything: I was awake about five hours that day and couldn’t stand to eat anything. Later that summer, I picked it up again and was able to finish the whole thing. 

It’s a great book and definitely worth the read. Don’t let its length and subject matter dissuade you. For those who don’t know, I’ll give a basis synopsis. 2666 contains five intertwining stories that converge on the Mexican border city of Santa Teresa, where hundreds of women have been murdered. The stories are thus: a group of European literature professors are scholars of an obscure and reclusive German writer named Benno von Archimboldi (note now decidedly un-German his name is) and track him to Santa Teresa based on a rumor; a writer living in Santa Teresa named Amalfitano talks to himself, guides the professors through the city and fears for the safety of his daughter; a Harlem journalist named Oscar Fate travels there to cover a boxing match and learns of the killings while getting a peek at the dark underworld of Santa Teresa; the police try to keep up with the murders to no avail; and we finally learn about who Archimboldi is and why he was rumored to be in Santa Teresa. 

2666 isn’t a mystery novel where everything is solved at the end, nor does it offer any real explanation for why this is happening. There are however things you can extrapolate based on context and clues. For instance, many of the young women who are killed work at the maquiladoras, massive factories that sprung up in the wake of NAFTA to build cheap goods for consumers in the States while paying Mexican laborers next to nothing. It is implied that they were killed for attempting to unionize or protest against their atrocious labor and living conditions. But some women who are killed are much older, and have no connection to the maquiladoras. Some women are sexually abused prior to their deaths, some are not. Some women appear to be involved in the drug trade or prostitution, others not. Some may be suicides, the women despondent and hopeless. There also appears to be some sort of evil energy converging on the city, though much like in life, it is not the sort of thing that can be explained or even described in much detail. It is just a faint sensation that something is deeply, deeply wrong with this place. It leads us to wonder whether we are actually dead and this is what hell is like––hence the title, 2666, a year in the far future that bears the mark of the beast. 

When I was reading, I imagined much of the book taking place in the dark, in the middle of the desert, cold and arid, far away from anything so gunshots and screams fade into the ambience of midnight. The scenes that take place at day were hot, sun-drenched and abrasive, through streets empty with nothing but trash and vermin. There seems to be no reprieve, either. There is nothing to do in Santa Teresa other than go to work, eat and drink at the cantina, and die. 

What makes it all the more terrifying is that Santa Teresa is based on the reality of Ciudad Juárez: there really have been hundreds of unsolved murders of young women in Juárez (370 murders from 1993-2003 according to Amnesty International and hundreds more missing, though the number is likely much higher; a cursory search occasionally shows numbers in the thousands). Sometimes women go missing only for their bones to be discovered in a mass grave years later. All the descriptions that make up Part IV of 2666, “The Part about the Crimes,” are taken from real cases from Juárez. The maquiladoras bring immigrants from across Mexico looking for work, and thus new victims. Juárez has one of the highest murder rates in the world: this study by Seguridad, Justicia y Paz placed Juárez fifth in the Americas for murder rate at 85 murders per 100,000––for comparion, the city where I live has a murder rate of about four per 100,000. Unfortunately, the persistence of the narco wars and political corruption mean that the dire situation isn’t looking up any time soon. 

There is much more to say about 2666 and Bolaño’s work in general (I have been recommended The Savage Detectives as his other great novel), but for the rest of this I would like to focus on one theme that seems pervasive throughout the novel: the meaning of writing, the experience of being a writer and the importance of literature. It’s clear that this preoccupied Bolaño at the end of his life before he died of liver cancer at the age of fifty, reflecting upon his life as a writer. We can mythologize the final works of a creator as they act as a capstone to the rest of their work and thus carry an added mystique. Some invite this interpretation, some have it thrust upon them. But nonetheless, this is what I found within 2666. And, in all honesty, I was at a point in my life when I began to take writing much more seriously as a craft: I was writing every day (!), starting Continuous Variations and reading a lot as well. I was primed for this sort of reading of the book. 

I would like to focus particularly on the passage quoted above. It comes during Part II, “The Part about Amalfitano,” and while uttered by the narrator, based on context it is clearly supposed to be Amalfitano’s thoughts. Out of the entire 800-page novel these three sentences stuck out to me, so they must mean something important, at least to me. 

The comparison of writing to fighting is an interesting one. To spar is to play fight: it is practice, with a defined set of techniques and strategies. It is structurally sound, with decades and centuries of masters passing their wisdom down upon their students on what to do: how and when to strike, block, parry, how to move and keep your balance, and most importantly, when to step down and cede defeat, taking a blow to the ego rather than the body. True combat, on the other hand, is MMA, or any honest-to-god impromptu fight: it is messy, there are almost no rules and you will get seriously hurt even if you emerge victorious. You also have to be prepared for anything, and things will not be fair and balanced like they were in class or in the safety of a gym. Your opponent may be much larger and stronger than you; they may be significantly faster, quicker and more agile; they may have a knife or gun; they may have their buddies join in on the mayhem. That is to say, that it isn’t fun to watch. It isn’t the stylized fighting you see in Raging Bull or Rocky or Creed with strong sound effects and timely musical cues, with a rapturous dramatic arc with glory and disappointment. It is more like the landing on Normandy in Saving Private Ryan: a desperate, improvised struggle for survival, where victory only comes at a great cost. Nothing can truly prepare you for that. In a real fight, you don’t have the time to put your gloves on and set your stance: it is rather do something right now or you will die

Writing has rules too. There are time-tested conventions for how one ought to write, ingrained from a young age through systemic education. Bolaño, as a high school drop-out, also clearly had some thoughts on this, and you can hear this come through in an amazing passage near the end of Part I where Amalfitano offers some strong words to the critics about the literati establishment. But if writers only worked within the pre-defined boundaries of that which already exists, how can anything truly new come about? We would just have new permutations and personalized interpretations of the classics, and wouldn’t that get boring and a bit pointless after a while? 

Without those, “great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze a path into the unknown,” there would be no new art, no new possibilities, just the acting-through of a yet-to-be resolved Hegelian Dialectic. There could never be any new dialectics, just the ones we already have coming into stasis. And like he says, it is terrifying. Anything that is truly new is never met with rapturous applause. Most often it is a combination of bewilderment and anger, with only a few who “get it,” and a few more who may not “get it” but nonetheless find it interesting and worthwhile––ultimately the more useful of the two, since they don’t delude themselves into thinking their existing schemas can already account for this aberration of norms. Bewilderment and anger should not be artistic goals in and of themselves: many shock-artists, contrarians, influence-peddlers and all-around charlatans make it an artistic end and end up becoming just as depended on the whims of their day, just in its mirror image. This is where Kanye West as his most insufferable finds himself. They assume that since people are upset at them, they are doing something right, when really they are just being mean and insensitive if they don’t consider who they are upsetting and why and whether it is worth upsetting that particular order.

What Bolaño reveals in this passage is a deep discomfort or self-consciousness about the nature of writing. The most important and revolutionary writers work against the conditions and prevailing wisdoms of their day, and make no friends in doing so. The only thing this isolation guarantees is the chance, often after one has left this plane of mortal existence, to spark a radical change in human thought, or at least a necessary re-orientation. Truly inventive works may reveal their genius in time, once the rest of the world has caught up with what they set out to do. Reactionary critics will continue to lambast them as “destroying the foundational principles of beauty,” or “threatening the very essence of art,” while returning to the tried-and-true classics without questions what made those classics so important in the first place. Critics can also reach into the past and re-contextualize the things that happened before, and often it is only in hindsight that we can recognize how important something was. 

III

“…although it is Gustav back at the Jacobistrasse who raves (nobody gonna pull an Anton Webern on him) to a blinking American lieutenant-colonel, ‘A parabola! A trap! You were never immune over there from the simple-minded German symphonic arc, tonic to dominant, back again to tonic. Grandeur! Gesellschaft!’

‘Teutonic?’ sez the colonel. ‘Dominant? The war’s over, fella. What kind of talk is that?’” 

––Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

With respect to these lines-of-flight, Schoenberg was only one of many composers who sought to break with tradition to create something fundamentally new. Whether they succeeded is another question entirely, and not one that is as simple as a yes or no. For Schoenberg and his most prominent students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, these lines-of-flight remain within a fundamentally Austro-Germanic musical tradition; one can only seek to transcend the boundaries one perceives. Their music was revolutionary and upsetting, but they still arranged Bach and quoted Wagner; they still wrote in classical genres and forms like Sonatas and Rondos, Passacaglias and Chaccones, String Quartets and Symphonies. Webern was a scholar with a keen interest in Renaissance music, and Schoenberg often cited Mozart as a major inspiration.* To an extent that was a conscious decision on their part: you can only go so far before you reach complete chaos, and they used these structures purposefully to create a semblance of order. Even Webern’s “Symphony,” which is only nine minutes long, excludes most of the brass, woodwind and percussion, and is probably his most austere and restrained serial piece, even that uses very conventional forms to couch its music.

But even then, this is reductive. The most extreme and radical music of the trio––Schoenberg’s pre-serial atonal music such as the incomplete Moses und Aron, the opera Erwartung and parts of Berg’s opera Wozzeck––pushed so far that even Schoenberg reigned himself in by creating new pitch structures, this time centered on the tone row rather than on tonal hierarchies. I also believe that our perceptions of the “authoritarianism” of serialism and the serial method comes less from Schoenberg himself than from the later mid-century serialists such as the notoriously catty and incendiary Boulez and his fellow Darmstadt composers. He did not force his method upon his students, only teaching it to those who were interested; and while he was often polemical and dismissive of more conservative styles in Weimar Germany he didn’t proclaim that, “all nonserial composers are USELESS” (guess who wrote that one?). There have been many other composers since then who either use serialism or some facet of serialism for radical expressive effect. The most popular examples are the tone rows that appear in the more restrained (and popular) composers of the twentieth century, including Britten, Shostakovich, Copland, Bernstein and Dutilleux to name a few.

These lines-of-flight created by these three Austrian men were not the only ones at the beginning of the twentieth century. In France, Erik Satie and Edgard Varese (who would later emigrate to the US) experimented with a more playful approach to sound composition, and they would play their own influence on the music to come. There are other oddball figures like Geroge Antheil and Bela Bartok. There were the Italian Futurists like Luigi Russolo who penned manifestos and also presaged the coming timbral composition. In the States, Henry Cowell virtually single-handedly minted the American avant-garde. And let us not forget jazz, an epochal musical revolution born from the American south, from Blues, Ragtime and Second Line, absorbing Tin Pan Alley tunes, modern classical music, Diaspora music south of the States, West African music, modern pop and countless other things. And what music better exemplifies this desire to transcend its own bounds than the post-Bebop jazz of Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane? 

I did not include Stravinsky in this schema for a reason. I agree with Adorno’s assessment of Stravinsky’s work broadly, even if I have even greater problems with the racist, elitist bastard himself. Stravinsky’s musical aesthetic was not concerned with creating new lines-of-flight, but rather reigning in those other lines-of-flight into something that is easily managed and controlled. He eventually came over to the serial methods, sure, but only after he was able to figure out how to fit it into his totalizing musical language. He wasn’t interested in creating music that pushed against the classical tradition; he was interested in “Stravinsky…but with weirder harmonies!” I still admire much of Stravisnky’s work, especially his early Ballets from The Firebird to Les Noces and his first forays into atonality and serialism in works such as Agon. But much of the music of his between those two periods just feels stilted and too restrained to me.

There may have been riots at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, but the Parisian concert-going elite turned around almost immediately and gave Stravinsky a lifetime of fame and success. Meanwhile, when protestors shut down a concert of new works by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern the next year (the so-called Scandalkonzert), they were dismissed as cranks and radicals who were destroying the foundations of art by the Viennese elite. Also, note how productive he was in the years between 1914-1918. While his fellow composers put down their pens and staff paper to fight and aid their nation’s war efforts, Stravinsky conveniently enough found himself in Switzerland to live out the war in relative peace and quiet.

My point is, rather than taking Schoenberg at his word for how he saw his music fitting into the “German Dialectic,” maybe we should see his music as what it is: a single pathway out of the inferno of the early twentieth-century. Like any radical or revolutionary motion, it contains as many dead ends, false escapes, loopbacks and all-around messiness as it does any hope for a future. And even despite that, it’s not like his music is unlistenable garbage. While his serial works are difficult, and I find Berg and Webern a bit more interesting as composers, his late romantic works like Verklärte Nacht are utterly beautiful in their tense and evocative harmonies––which were famously too much for the Viennese musical intelligentsia of his time, who said the inverted ninth chord he used near the opening “didn’t exist;” if only they knew…

He is a practitioner of what is called “prescriptive music theory,” as opposed to “descriptive” theory. There is a misnomer about the former. Some people think it means that one ought to write according to those rules––probably because our schools teach functional harmony as prescriptive when much of it is descriptive theory of the common-practice period from later theorists, Rameau excluded. It’s far more useful to think of prescriptive music theory as a theory for what is theoretically possible. Only the most cynical and authoritarian musicians would take theory as gospel and deny themselves any creativity and agency in the creative process. Works of art are not algorithms or perfectly-laid out schematics, but organisms that have their own complex and obscure logic. Schoenberg himself understood this, as did his students. Their use of the row was purposeful rather than scattershot: to create a semblance of harmonic order that avoided tonal implications. All of them broke their own rules if it suited the music: “don’t compose using my method, learn my method and then just compose” (quotation of Schoenberg via Leonard Bernstein). The row also freed their musical thinking to put more focus on gesture, texture and timbre. That is the real implication of the serial method, as many of the great post-tonal composers understood. Their music isn’t great because of how it conforms to some theory that already pre-supposes that music’s greatness. It’s great because of how it moves with and against these systems, creating dramatic gestures, novel timbres, rich timbres and new approaches to listening to music. Unfortunately many theorists like Milton Babbitt and Allen Forte advance exactly the opposite mode of thinking, which is why reading Forte analyze Webern is one of the most torturous things any music student can do.

I still feel Schoenberg’s legacy haunts the last hundred years of musical history. The linear pathway through that “German Dialectic” from Bach through Beethoven and Wagner to Schoenberg is history now. So why look back on it? Well, why do composers, audiences, musicians and critics still feel the need to dismiss Schoenberg as a stodgy Teutonic authoritarian, as if his legacy is only kept alive by academics who have no understanding of real music, the music the people want to hear? And if twentieth century politics has taught us anything, it is to be skeptical of any uncritical invocations of “the people.” If Schoenberg’s music was truly irrelevant, people wouldn’t even know his name, much less care about what he has to say. 

Especially in a moment like now, the idea of a unified “people” struggling against a tiny elite is baffling. There are a million elite cliques overlapping and cohabiting among us; everyone has their own personalized canon. How can anyone make a claim (at least on a cultural basis) to know who “the people” are? I like Schoenberg; am I not part of “the people”? Who decides what is included and excluded from this schema, and upon what basis? Do not misunderstand me: I’m not arguing that Schoenberg should be as popular as Tchiakovsky and Beethoven and that the masses are too stupid and ignorant to understand true genius. That is a naive and grossly elitist point of view and anyone over the age of sixteen should know better. I’m more distraught that other musicians and so-called arbiters of discerning taste should be so dismissive of one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, merely because his style isn’t marketable. 

We may not see the vicissitudes of the “free market” as having any sort of biases, and if we do we just accept them as the way things are, as natural as the laws of physics. Popularity (i.e. sales figures) determines what art is the most important and relevant, not people locked away in their ivory towers. But of course there is so much left out of these schemas and inherent biases. We privilege the whims of those with lots of money to spend, either as individuals or as demographics and taste-publics, and the billionaires whose names adorn concert halls care more about the hall than about the music happening inside the hall. The avant-garde may be condemned to unpopularity by its nature, but it doesn’t have to be condemned to irrelevance or complete abandonment by a society. A culture without that challenge to its mainstream is doomed to repeat the same mistakes, re-litigate the same controversies and argue about pointless nonsense while the world turns around them, taking slow steps into a real future instead of trying to revive a foreclosed past. If it feels like nothing matters anymore since nothing will ever change, then the choices are to either accept defeat, or struggle against that thing that terrifies us all.

Many composers and musicians still find something in Schoenberg worth preserving––or worth repressing. For me, that is enough reason to re-evaluate his music. This whole thing may sound very defensive on my part, and I’m not doing myself any favors by writing an essay about why Schoenberg isn’t just a dead white guy only grad students and pretentious aesthetes care about. But I feel strongly about it, and if nothing else I can at least try to help others see what I see in him. 

*There’s a fascinating essay by Adorno where he argues that Berg is in fact the most radical of the three, despite being considered more “accessible” and “Romantic.” You can find in in his collection of musical essays Quasi una Fantasia. I give Adorno a hard time, but that essay is fascinating. Similarly, Adorno’s criticisms of Stravinsky heavily influenced my own thoughts on the composer’s work.

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