Most of us think we know what avant-garde music is. It’s music that is ahead of its time, right? Music that sounds like music will sound in the decades or centuries that follow it.
The problem is, that definition is wrong. You see, most avant-garde music doesn’t sound like the music that will follow it. Look at the compositions of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. There those guys were, self-anointed avant-garde composers who were inventing new ways to write music – first atonal, then 12-tone. Although they produced undeniable masterpieces, like Berg’s opera Wozzeck and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, their new way of writing music didn’t have much staying power.

Arnold Schoenberg Fouls One Off
Schoenberg – who seems to have been a modest and nice man – was uncharacteristically full of himself when he wrote his String Quartet No. 2, which included a part for soprano soloist. In this quartet, he shifts away from tonal writing and whips an atonal passage on us as the soprano sings the words, “Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten” (“I feel the air from other planets”).  Zowie! Arnold just invented the music of the future, and we were there to hear it at the moment of its birth. Lucky us.
The problem is, it didn’t work out that way. Although 12-tone music kind of infected classical music for another 50 years – Stravinsky tried it, it became the “official” way for academic composers to compose during the middle of the 20th Century – but then it fizzled and good old tonal music reasserted its dominance.
There are other definitions of avant-garde music too – music that captures the spirit of its time, music that is just doggone weird, for example. But I think that something else is going on. Let’s look at a few avant-garde pieces and see if we can find a common thread.

Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda
You can really feel western music changing course in this extraordinary opera-like madrigal that Claudio Monteverdi wrote in 1624. It is possibly the first piece of music ever written that uses repeated ostinato notes to depict dramatic actions that are taking place in the text, like the clashing of swords. It could also be the earliest piece of music ever to require string players to put down their bows and pluck strings.  It still sounds revolutionary today, and it really did introduce elements that would become mainstream in the centuries to follow.
The piece is so dramatic that opera companies have staged it. Here’s one such performance, from the Netherlands Opera.

Beethoven’s Late Quartets
You know the general buzz on the late Beethoven string quartets – how old Ludwig had lost his hearing and that he was somehow able to write atonal music that anticipated the music of the early 20th Century. That’s the general opinion on these magical and otherworldly pieces, but that opinion is wrong. The late quartets don’t anticipate the music of the 20thCentury, they are something else entirely, a strange alien place that Beethoven created, and which was never visited again by anyone else.
If you don’t know the late quartets (opus 127-135) you should, because they are like nothing else ever written. Here’s a video of the Alban Berg Quartet playing Beethoven’s extraordinary one-movement quartet, the Große Fuge in B-Major, Op. 133.  

César Frank’s Piano Quintet in f minor (1879)
César Franck’s Piano Quintet in f minor also steps out of the musical continuum and goes “someplace else.” Some critics marginalize it and say that Franck was just another Frenchman who was under the spell of Richard Wagner when he wrote it. Not correct. To understand just how unique this piece is, it’s a good idea to listen to it alongside Franck’s other compositions, like his beautiful (but far more mainstream) Violin Sonata or Symphony in d minor. Did this piece change the future of music? No. But it is something completely unique.
If you don’t know it, you are in for a treat. Here’s a video.

George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique (1924)
This music was composedto be the score for Ballet Mécanique, a film conceptualized by Fernand Léger. Its pounding rhythms seem reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which was written 11 years earlier. But Ballet Mécanique is something else too – a living embodiment of Dadaism, futurism, surrealism, and probably a few other “isms” that I’m forgetting. It anticipates a lot of percussion pieces that have been written in the last few decades. It is also a really wonderful piece of music.
Here’s a nice energetic performance from our friends at the Moscow Conservatory. (Only problem, it omits the airplane engines that Antheil wanted to be part of a performance.)

So, What Is Avant-Garde Music?
I have spent time today naming a lot of things that avant-garde music is not. So now I better man up and define it in some way. I can’t come up with a neat, short definition. But I think that these are some of its traits . . .
  •       You know avant-garde music when you hear it.
  •         It’s different from other music that was written when it was.
  •         It’s doesn’t fit smoothly between what preceded it and what came after.
  •         It tells you something human and worth knowing about its composer.
  •         It’s valid.
  •         It demonstrates that its composer was wrestling honestly with aesthetic, technical, and possibly even personal issues.

That’s what avant-garde music seems to be. But what do you think? Why not take a moment to comment below.