A Sonic Introduction to Avant-Garde Music: Stream 145 Minutes of 20th Century Art Music, Including Modernism, Futurism, Dadaism & Beyond

Avant-garde com­posers of the 20th cen­tu­ry have left a vex­ing lega­cy, begin­ning per­haps with one of the cen­tu­ry’s first min­i­mal­ists, Erik Satie (1866 –1925), whose career illus­trates a cen­tral para­dox of exper­i­men­tal music: it can seem to most of us total­ly inac­ces­si­ble, alien, and frus­trat­ing, yet it is also a per­va­sive influ­ence on the sound of our every­day life.

For exam­ple, we are like­ly to nev­er encounter, much less could most of us endure, the full mea­sure of Satie’s 1893 Vex­a­tions, a short piece “melan­cholic yet dead­pan, eccle­si­as­ti­cal yet demon­ic, strange­ly lack­ing direc­tion,” and meant, writes Nick Shave at The Guardian, to be “repeat­ed 840 times.” Long thought an iron­ic joke, in 1963 John Cage took up the chal­lenge and with a “relay team of pianists, includ­ing John Cale,” staged a marathon per­for­mance at the end of which only one per­son remained in the audi­ence.

Then we have the Satie of Gymnopédie No.1, a mov­ing com­po­si­tion we’ve heard count­less times in films, tele­vi­sion shows, din­ner par­ties, restau­rants, etc. This piece and oth­ers like it, argues WFMU’s Ken­neth Gold­smith, mark the birth of Ambi­ent music, or what Satie puck­ish­ly called Fur­ni­ture Music. “Today,” Gold­smith writes, “Fur­ni­ture Music is unavoid­able,” and every­one from Bri­an Eno to Aphex Twin to “the entire Muzak phe­nom­e­non… owes a debt to The Vel­vet Gen­tle­man.”

Both the acces­si­ble and dif­fi­cult strains of the eccen­tric French com­pos­er have been equal­ly influ­en­tial, and “just about every rad­i­cal musi­cal move­ment” of the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry “can trace its roots back to Satie.” As we move through the century—encountering the work of Dada artists, Futur­ists, sym­phon­ic mod­ernists, and musique con­crète and ear­ly elec­tron­ic pioneers—we find an enor­mous breadth of exper­i­men­ta­tion, both strange­ly intim­i­dat­ing and often strange­ly famil­iar, giv­en how per­va­sive its influ­ence on film and “fur­ni­ture” music as well as on con­tem­po­rary com­posers.

If you’re new to the dis­so­nant and play­ful inno­va­tions of artists like Satie, F.T. Marinet­ti, Kurt Schwit­ters, Arnold Schoen­berg, Karl­heinz Stock­hausen, Györ­gy Ligeti and oth­er provo­ca­teurs and rad­i­cals of the ear­ly decades of the last cen­tu­ry, you could hard­ly do worse by way of intro­duc­tion than the dou­ble com­pi­la­tion album above from LTM Record­ings. Titled A Young Person’s Guide to the Avant-Garde and con­sist­ing of 26 tracks in total, the com­pi­la­tion includes an excerpt of Igor Stravinsky’s scandalous—for the time—1913 The Rite of Spring, and John Cage’s per­plex­ing 1952 work of silence, 4’33” and begins with a mer­ci­ful­ly brief 3‑minute ren­di­tion of Satie’s Vex­a­tions. (If you need Spo­ti­fy’s free soft­ware, down­load it here. If you have any prob­lems play­ing the embed­ded playlist, please click on this link.)

We also have music from names we typ­i­cal­ly asso­ciate with visu­al art (Mar­cel Duchamp, Fran­cis Picabia) and film (Jean Cocteau). And you will sure­ly rec­og­nize the final piece, Ligeti’s “Atmos­pheres,” from Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The col­lec­tion, writes The Tre­buchet in their review, “sub­tly hints at the fact that film sound­tracks are the clos­est thing we have to grand com­po­si­tions these days, and in fact the seeds for change were plant­ed long ago dur­ing the era when Con­ti­nen­tal artists and musi­cians took an inter­est in the emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies of auto­mo­biles, planes, and film.”

Then, of course, there were emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies of sound. A Young Person’s Guide (pur­chase a copy online here) ends with Ligeti in 1961, and only hints at the elec­tron­ic avant-garde to come with a 1953 com­po­si­tion from Stock­hausen. This is a shame, since the elec­tron­ic rev­o­lu­tion in music opened doors for so many female exper­i­men­tal­ists like Pauline Oliv­eros, Daphne Oram, and Eliane Radigue. As it stands, the col­lec­tion gives us an all-male line­up of artists—and one sure to pro­voke excla­ma­tions of “What about [insert name here]!”

It’s an under­stand­able reac­tion to an ambi­tious but lim­it­ed sur­vey. For the ama­teur or “young per­son” just dis­cov­er­ing this musi­cal his­to­ry, how­ev­er, A Young Person’s Guide to the Avant-Garde offers a rich, com­pelling, and fre­quent­ly con­found­ing selec­tion that can serve as a stur­dy spring­board for fur­ther study and explo­ration. Those so inspired to hear more can find it in the mas­sive archive of The Avant-Garde Project.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Avant-Garde Project: An Archive of Music by 200 Cut­ting-Edge Com­posers, Includ­ing Stravin­sky, Schoen­berg, Cage & More

The Music of Avant-Garde Com­pos­er John Cage Now Avail­able in a Free Online Archive

The Women of the Avant-Garde: An Intro­duc­tion Fea­tur­ing Audio by Gertrude Stein, Kathy Ack­er, Pat­ti Smith & More

Hear the Exper­i­men­tal Music of the Dada Move­ment: Avant-Garde Sounds from a Cen­tu­ry Ago

Meet Four Women Who Pio­neered Elec­tron­ic Music: Daphne Oram, Lau­rie Spiegel, Éliane Radigue & Pauline Oliv­eros

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Guilherme Carvalho says:

    That’s quite the jump in time from Cow­ell’s Aeo­lian Harp to Cage and Stock­hausen in the 50s. This is a nice com­pi­la­tion, but I do won­der what the inten­tion was with those last four pieces — they realy don’t seem to fit with the rest of the list.

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