Is there a musical avant-garde today?

A study day at City, University of London, on Friday 21st of July, 2017.

Location: Room AG08, College Building (entrance via St John Street)

Keynote: Jeremy Gilbert (University of East London). Study day panel: Alexi Vellianitis (University of Oxford), Adam Harper (City, University of London) and Rachel McCarthy (Royal Holloway). Confirmed speakers include the above and Max Erwin, George Haggett and Lauren Redhead.

What would it mean to talk of ‘progressive’ music today? Applied to the past or, especially, the present, the term ‘avant-garde’ has largely fallen out of favour within the academy, both as a description of and an imperative for new music. Yet much contemporary music – whichever combinations of limited terms such as ‘art’, ‘popular,’ ‘classical’ or ‘commercial’ might apply to it – defines itself, if often all too implicitly, in ways most often associated with avant-garde movements: a focus on stylistic complexity and innovation, and an antagonism towards aesthetic norms and the predominant modes of political thought and practice associated with them. But can such a concept still have currency for musicologists and composers?

The aim of this Study Day is to stimulate a broad, interdisciplinary conversation about how, if at all, to talk of an avant-garde in musical cultures today. For the purposes of this conference, the term ‘avant-garde’ is fluid, but is broadly defined as a particular idea and praxis of a music more progressive than certain others.

We invite scholars and practitioners from different fields to address the ways in which musical avant-gardes today are both practiced and discursively constructed. Topics for discussion could include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Might there be one, distinct avant-garde (as our title suggests) or many? Should there be one or many?
  • How is the avant-garde politically motivated, and how does it contribute to discussions about race, class, and gender? Is it necessary that the musical avant-garde be a mouthpiece for social and political issues, or can these remain indirect, implicit?
  • Is the musical avant-garde located within ‘classical’ or ‘art’ or ‘popular’ or ‘experimental’ music, or none of the above? Can we (still) locate avant-gardes within, variously, art-music, bohemian, bourgeois, academic, urban or minority cultures? Is a musical avant-garde synonymous with an ‘underground,’ a ‘counterculture’ or a ‘subculture’? Is the avant-garde merely a Western concept or can it be discerned elsewhere? To what extent are all such distinctions even useful?
  • What is the present relationship between avant-gardes, patronage, and institutions? Should avant-gardes avoid direct interaction with capital and other forms of social organisation, or should they embrace them? How do musical avant-gardes interact with and condition physical space? How do they relate to emerging technologies
  • Ultimately: is progression in musical aesthetics a possible or desirable goal? What might we demand of a musical avant-garde, and what might it demand of us?

We gratefully acknowledge funding from the Royal Musical Association.

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