Saturday, April 17, 2010


Euurgh God, avant-garde music. Isn't it all just a bit... weird and intense?

Well yes, it is. But you could say the same about a lot of modern art, and it's actually quite easy to 'get' modern art.

We look at a Pollock or Francis Bacon, and while we might think it's boring, serene or ridiculous, or worry that we don't understand it, we can certainly see it. And this at least means we can set about intepreting it (even if all we come up with is, "well I could have done that").

The canvas defines the art's parameters, so even the craziest and most chaotic scrawlings are contained. It's a totally different story, however, with contemporary classical music and jazz. Sound is boundless - everywhere and nowhere, and constantly shifting. And I think that this is why we tend to be so severe in our views on 'avant-garde' music.

We use mental rules to interpret complex sensory stimuli; for instance, we like to group things that feel similar or are close together. Melodies that move in little steps sound unified and structured, whereas those that repeatedly make huge jumps between high and low notes sound fragmented and random. Regular rhythms create coherence, erratic ones confusion. The use of certain scales allows harmony, the use of others dischord. In each of these pairings, our brains interpret the former as music and the latter as noise.

Of course, I am not for a minute bemoaning dissonance or tension. Playing with the listener's expectations is a central principle in music, and balance and resolution are essential. A composer must not lose coherence, but must also avoid outright predictability and create interest.

Yet some pieces of modern music simply do not allow you to follow them. In my view, these compositions are bad music. I don't really care if the piece can be justified by some musicologist: its organisation may be technically valid or 'correct', but if it is only present in theory rather than audibly perceptible, you have a serious struggle on your hands to convince people that it's music - or music to which they might want to listen.

For the most part, however, the melodies and rhythms of modern classical music and avant-garde jazz are not random and erratic - there is a pattern in place. But it might not be what we're used to. And so there's no point trying to listen to it in the same way as you would to Mozart. Instead, we should try to approach these pieces in the same way as we would a paint-spattered canvas or big block of red.

This is obvious - even Ross Geller advised that his work should be thought of as "sound poems" rather than songs - but too often we refuse to do it. But why can we bring ourselves to apply different rules to Rothko as we do to Rembrandt, but not to Berio as we do to Bach?

Is it because music intrudes in a way art does not? You can move on in a gallery; you have to endure at a concert. Is it because we're used to putting in no effort with pop music, whereas even accessible art is seen as worthy and more highbrow? Is it just because modern art is more established in the mainstream than modern music?

Whatever the cause, it could pay to look at avant-garde music in a more tolerant and forgiving light. Even if the only response is "well I could have done that."

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