Avant-garde Music

"Without deviation from the norm, progress isn't possible."

Avant-garde music is an umbrella term for any kind of music outside the mainstream: Experimental Classical Music, Free Jazz, Progressive Rock, Alternative Rock, Alternative Indie, Avant-Garde Metal, Outsider Music, Krautrock, Noise Rock... It's experimental, eccentric, progressive, eclectic, difficult to define or pigeonhole, searching for something new and innovative and dares to take risks most commercial musical artists wouldn't even consider.

The roots of avant-garde music start in the late 19th and early 20th century when more classical composers like Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schonberg, Béla Bartók, Erik Satie, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Kurt Weill, Edgard Varčse... Started to write dissonant and more adventurous music that was far removed from the pleasant easy-listening music you would hear in salons, concert halls or on the radio. Composers tried to move away from tradition and conventions and have a more personal approach to their work. After World War II new avant-garde composers began experimenting with electronic sounds (Pierre Henry, Edgard Varčse, Karlheinz Stockhausen...), minimalistic soundscapes (Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich...) and even with plain background noises (John Cage).

Other musical genres also went in search for innovation. The Free Jazz movement were headed by jazz musicians trying out new and wild sounds, like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman...

Even rock music began moving to more experimental territories from 1966 on. Pioneers were Frank Zappa, The Fugs, The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Captain Beefheart who are seen as the forefathers of Alternative Rock, Alternative Indie and Psychedelic Rock. Even The Beatles started exploring new sounds from Rubber Soul on, culminating with their most audacious avant-garde track: "Revolution 9" on the already Genre-Busting The White Album. John Lennon and his wife, conceptual artist Yoko Ono would continue making experimental music throughout Lennon's solo career. Progressive Rock in itself became an entire movement, full of bands trying to incorporate classical music into their work, though many of these sounded far nicer in the ear than their avant-garde counterparts. A very influential experimental rock genre emerged in Germany called Krautrock, with landmark artists like Can, Neu!, Amon Düül II, Kraftwerk, Faust... Whose electronical sounds would have tremendous impact on the most experimental rock musicians of the 1970's: David Bowie, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Public Image Ltd., Talking Heads... From 1977, when Punk Rock broke through, a lot of alternative rock artists finally emerged to public attention and for a few years there was actual interest for musicians doing their own thing, devoid of what other people thought of it.

Sadly, the 1980's were tough times for avant-garde music, as MTV made commercial music with a music video attached to it the norm. Despite that the alternative musical scene kept alive thanks to names such Diamanda Galás, Sonic Youth, Laurie Anderson, John Zorn,... And by 1991 the success of Nirvana sparked new public interest in underground/avant-garde or otherwise alternative rock artists. Many artists who have never had any commercial success or interest in previous decades now became able to make a career. The arrival of Internet in the 1990's also helped making unusual music from both past and present more available between people who like listening to different and innovative stuff.

Still avant-garde is a fickle genre. Most of it will never be anything beyond a Cult Classic, but some artists have been Vindicated by History over time as being ahead of their time. The music you refuse to listen to today may well be deemed important one day. Also, it's refreshing to hear at least some artists trying to sound different and unconventional. YMMV whether you like or not and/or whether you consider that particular artist to be avant-garde enough to be considered part of the movement.

List of avant-garde musicians:


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