Freak Out: The 1960s Musical Avant-garde Revisited
“This is my happening and it freaks me out!” Z-man Barzel in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
The title of this essay “Freak Out: The 1960s Musical Avant-garde Revisited” invites me to explore the explosion of new ideas that permeated many forms of western musical expression in the 1960s. When I was given a new course to teach at the University of Guelph called “The Musical Avant-garde” (2002) no one could quite tell me what they meant me to teach, except that it would cover all that “difficult music” of the second half of the 20th century. By this my colleagues meant serious European art music by gold-plate composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, and Gyorgy Ligeti.
Shortly after the end of WWII, the “new music” coalesced around the Darmstadt summer courses in composition where these young European composers, cut off from each other during the war, rediscovered the music of early 20th century modernists such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and especially Anton von Webern, and were inspired by their radical ideas of creating new systems for composing music. Young European composers didn’t try to write music like Schoenberg and Webern, rather they took to heart these composers’ basic principles: the idea of pre-ordering musical elements (serialization) and the idea of treating each sound as a discrete event, independent of the sounds around it. From these two premises, all sorts of exciting new ground was opened up – from rigorous compositional control to the notion that one could choose to leave things wide open to chance - so that by the 1960s musical elements such as tone colour and texture took the place of traditional harmony in creating musical structures. Take for example the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti’s 1961 piece Atmosphères. Here Ligeti works “at a more complex level than that of individual notes and intervals, handling streams of coloured and textured time” (Griffiths 7 – liner notes). Ligeti slowly builds buzzing clusters of static sound that are at the very centre of the work’s formal organization.
Now I love the European music of this period, but as I began to try to define “the musical avant-garde” I found myself gleefully listening to a wide span of music whose experimental impulses had always turned me on. Here I’ll explore some different notions of the musical avant-garde (and its corollary – experimentalism) as they apply to music of the 1960s. We’ll visit various territories including popular music, jazz, feminism, even Canada in an effort to unpack the assumptions behind academic discourses on ‘avant-garde’ and ‘experimental’ music.
The “Freak Out” of my title, by the way, stems from Frank Zappa’s first album of the same name released in 1966 – not to be confused with Chic’s 1977 disco mega-hit “Le Freak”. As Andrew Boscardin has written “Arguably rock music's first true "concept album," Zappa's aural collage...