‘avant garde’ and ‘Avant Garde’: A Practice-Led Investigation

The above image comprises the cover of the 1983 edition of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle by J.R. Eyerman, superimposed onto a photo of Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square taken by Micha Theiner (edited by Michael D. Atkinson and Alannah Marie Halay). Image credit: Kasimir Malevich, J.R. Eyerman, Micha Theiner, Michael D. Atkinson, Alannah Marie Halay

On Thursday 8th December 2016, composer Alannah Marie gave a talk at the University of Leeds which discussed the disparity between ‘avant garde’ and ‘Avant Garde’, which is also the subject of her Ph.D. thesis. She defines the former as the act of being genuinely progressive and ‘new’, and the latter as the institutionalised condition of a recuperated progressive attitude which makes ‘experimentation’ into a style which must be adhered to in order to achieve success in the world of contemporary music.

Alannah’s abstract for the talk is as follows:

‘avant garde’ and ‘Avant Garde’: one term denotes artistic progression, the other describes a fixed concept. Both fuel artistic practice. The terms are easily and often confused and this goes someway to blurring the boundaries between being progressive and adhering to a style. This talk examines and compares these two definitions by way of an introspective examination of the compositional process. Investigations involve a series of forced attempts at being avant garde (progressive); however, as will become clear throughout this talk, forced attempts at being progressive are destined to fail due to the inescapable phenomenon of Meno’s paradox that, instead, explains the existence of the Avant Garde as a fixed concept. Theoretical research suggests that this is symptomatic of the way current society is organised. This talk explores ways in which compositional practice can work with the societal status quo in order to be avant garde in the progressive sense.

Composer Alannah Marie giving her talk at the University of Leeds

Alannah sites her practice-based research within a broadly Marxist aesthetics, with the work of Theodor W. Adorno constituting a great deal of the theoretical underpinnings. Moving from Adorno’s conception of the ‘aging’ of artworks (from his essay ‘The Aging of the New Music’, appropriately utilised), through his divided notion of naïveté, which Alannah expertly sets up as the nexus through which the malaise of contemporary compositional practice, and artistic practice in general, falls into its self-ensured trap.

The young composer does not stop at the Frankfurt School, however, as she breezes through Heidegger, citing Meno’s Paradox as the groundwork for the hermeneutic frameworks which, for her, are the inevitable result of the restrictions she discusses. For Alannah, style is based on the hermeneutic frameworks between the familiar & the unfamiliar, and between creative freedom & restriction.

She is critical of the ‘compositional space’, confirming in answer to one of my questions her evident Situationist bent, when she tells me that she believes society must change in order for art to change, once again returning to the historical materialist underpinnings of her work.

What I have not mentioned thus far, though, is quite how brave such a talk actually is. According to Alannah, art in bourgeois society is institutionalised and populated by specialists existing in an echo chamber. Being a composer herself, she is quite self-critical on this count, recognising the institution that surrounds her, and her role in it. She stepped into the lion’s den, as it were, to give this pathbreaking talk to some for whom the institution is all.

In her own words:

This was the first time I’d spoken about my research since completing my thesis so I was interested in how it would be perceived. Because my topic is so specific, yet covers an area that does not have universal terminology, I have to be very clear how I am defining certain terms like ‘new’ and ‘avant garde’ and ‘style’ amongst others. One query someone raised was, if something is not genuinely ‘new’ and so adheres to a prevailing ‘style’, ‘what if it is new to me?’, the implication being where does one draw the line between what is new and what is not. Therefore, I think it is important to reiterate what I mean by ‘new’. Yes, the term is vague (as Dahlhaus explains, it both denotes one-off incident in time and a whole epoch), but in the instance of my talk (and PhD), I interpret it as that ‘vanguard’ forward-thinking attitude the Avant Garde claims to adopt. I also think such a ‘newness’ is impossible within the current epoch and Western societal structure. After the talk, somebody queried whether or not claiming to deliberately compose in a naïve way is risky. It is important to understand what I mean by ‘naïve’. To be ‘naïve’ such that one adheres to current norms under the false guise of being ‘new’ is detrimental to the progression of art: it ceases to move forward but instead perpetuates itself meaninglessly. However, being ‘naïve’ to current norms so that one can overcome pre-existing knowledge of such norms and go beyond them comes closer to being genuinely avant garde (as in genuinely ‘new’). It involves tricking oneself not to be influenced by current norms. Of course simply doing this is impossible because one is always influenced by pre-existing knowledge. This is a phenomenon explained by Meno’s paradox.

If the questions and comments at the talk’s close are anything to go by, Alannah has caused people to think – something she, and her music, do brilliantly.

For more information on Alannah Marie, visit her website at www.alannah.co

Author details: Mike Atkinson; Mike Atkinson is a Masters student of critical theory at the University of Leeds, undertaking research projects in the vein of Western Marxism and philosophy, and, in particular, aesthetics.

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