View Full Version : OTF – Avant or Arrière Garde

May 19th, 2013, 06:04 PM
Earlier this spring, I had a short exchange with a young French composer, Corentin Boissier, all of 17 years old and quite active on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/user/CorentinBoissier). He sent me a link to one of his new works, and I thought I would begin today’s opinion piece by sharing it with you:


Mr. Boissier sent me this link, making further reference to another composer I wrote about on my Tuesday Blog (http://www.talkclassical.com/blogs/itywltmt/922-andr-mathieu-pianist-composer.html) last year, Montreal’s André Mathieu. I’m not going to compare this new work to the concertos of my countryman. I did reply back with a polite “attaboy” and words of encouragement. I did, however, admit I had not listened to all of his compositions, and hazarded a comment that I hoped some of his other works showed a more avant-garde flavour.

As we say in my mother tongue – quelle grave erreur.

His response was, well, scathing. I posted the complete reply in the French version of this opinion piece (http://www.mqcd-musique-classique.com/forum/showthread.php?t=6851), and will share some “snippets” so we can chat a bot about what he said and what I think…

Some composers get criticized for not writing more avant-garde music. This criticism, in my opinion, is rooted in a misunderstanding of the history of music in particular and art in general. If these composers do not write more avant-garde music, it is probably because they do not believe there is progress in music or that progress in music is even possible.

Youth these days! Our first reaction to statements like “they do not believe there is progress in music” is that it flies in the face of music over the last 500 years – which, in its inner core, is nothing but an evolutionary process. From medieval music to baroque, to classical, to romantic, to modern… And even what we would call “contemporary” music also has many slants: some popular, some musicological, all are a reflection of our times. Music, it must be said, does have a timeless quality to it, and it is not improper to delve into the modes and approaches of the past.

(…)These composers who refuse the avant-garde as a guiding principle think you can only measure art in terms of emotion or the satisfaction that it brings. A work of art is accomplished when it focuses maximum artistic qualities related to expression.

I feel I should share some basic tenets, some axioms if you will, that I try and follow.

All Music has Merit. What I mean by that statement is that all music is the fruit of the creative process, and it has – at the very least – the merit of having undergone a gestation process and come to life. These processes, inspirations, feelings, are sometimes very personal, and may not necessarily resonate with every listener, but music has merit, and deserves a listen.

Disliking Something Does Not Mean That It Is Not Good. No more than liking something makes it good. In a way, it’s a lot like food: if we only ate what our kids like, our diet would be made almost exclusively of fast food and snacks. These may taste good, but are they good for you? What of green vegetables and other things that may not necessarily be our kids’ first choice on the menu?

All Tastes Can Be Acquired. I was once a kid myself, and I can assure you broccoli wasn’t a favourite. But as you get older, and find ways of preparing it, broccoli can be quite tasty. The key is that you have to accept that the Food Guide says you should strive for a balanced diet composed of all four food groups.
Is this a nutrition lesson, or a musical commentary?

Well, it is a musical commentary – as a serious music lover, one has to try and balance out one’s musical menu. We all love Opera here in this community, but it’s not just about opera. Same goes with musical styles. One may not be necessarily turned on by Varèse and Stockhausen, buit one should try and lend an ear to those composers, and you will be amazed at what you will discover.

(…) In music , the term avant-garde suggests that there are "traditionalists" and those who are looking to the future. They talk, for example, of romantic and post-romantic, of neo-classicism, of before and after Schoenberg, etc.. Again, I think it is an intellectual illusion. Throughout history artists and musicians in particular, have never wanted one thing: Harmony, that is to say, the beauty in the service of man (often giving thanks to God). They recognize that beauty is eternal, it is of all times.

Later this month, we will reach a significant milestone in music history, the fateful night when The Rite of Spring was created, 100 years ago this coming May 29th. It would be foolish to think that, however significant an event this was, that music made a sharp turn that night. In fact, the late Romantic tradition was still alive and well: Sergei Rachmaninov and Erich Korngold are two names that come to mind when it comes to composers who continued in the late Romantic style post-Rite. It is not to say, however, that the musical establishment necessarily continued to show much support for those composers and in particular to young composers like Korngold and – a few years later – Mathieu. Anachronic. Dinosauric. Arrière garde composers.


If there’s something I can’t stand, it’s musical snobs – not that I find many in this or any of the forums I hang out in. I think that most “true blue” music lovers like all kinds of music, from baroque to blues, from Rock to Romantic. Most people I have encountered in these parts seem to live by my previous tenet #3 – try everything once and make an effort to gain something out of all musical experiences.

Everything in balance – that’s another way to look at it. In his own way, Stravinsky himself tried his hand at many styles of music, he had a neo-romantic period (early works and the Firebird), his rebellious phase (The Rite of Spring and other like works around the First World War), a neo-classical phase (his symphonies and The Fairy’s Kiss) a neo-baroque phase (the string concertos and Pulcinella), and he even dabbled in jazz and 12-tone. To call Stravinsky a one-trick pony would be simply wrong.

Is Romantic music dead? Ask the film industry – one can’t mistake the Award-Winning scores of Maurice Jarre and John Williams with the music of John Cage or Philip Glass. Again, music is motivated sometimes by the process, sometimes by inner-feelings. All of it has merit, and as such worthy of our attention.

Back to Opera next time!

May 24 2013, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will feature a new podcast "The Paris Symphonies - Part 3" at its Pod-O-Matic Channel (http://itywltmt.podomatic.com/). Read more May 24 on the ITYWLTMT Blogspot blog (http://itywltmt.blogspot.ca/).

May 19th, 2013, 06:33 PM
Well, it's clear that music (Western music, undeniably) *evolves*. And there is an "evolutionary" process, which composers from a period leaning on what previous composers have done. In your own words: From medieval music to baroque, to classical, to romantic, to modern…

However, this is not, in my view, *progress*. Mozart is not more *advanced* than Bach, or Wagner than Mozart, or Stockhausen than Wagner. Art is art, and though music express itself in a diachronic sense, its merit, its intrinsic value for the listener, it's synchronic.

Now again, people live in their own times. Outside from Conservatory exercises, nobody writes now music the way Handel or Mozart did (from a technical point of view, I mean). There is no way to negate this. On something nearer to the 21st century, Korngold, writing Late-Romantic or Post-Romantic music in the 1920s was as contemporary, as Berg writing Wozzeck. To compose today a piece the way Korngold or Berg did, it's certainly possible, but unless rescued by genius, rather inane.

On your three 'basic tenets' I fully agree with the second and the third. About the first, I won't go as far as to consider *all* music has merit. At the very least, I would add 'some' between 'has' and 'merit'. :)