What is "avant-garde"?
During last Fall's LifeLearn Beatles class, someone asked me to define "avant-garde". That is a task I have been attempting to answer for quite some time - if I am researching the Beatles and the avant-garde, I had better know very clearly what avant-garde is!
A brief and hardly formal online search provided the following definitions and characteristics:
Literally speaking, "avant-garde" is a French term meaning "advance guard", and has been widely interpreted as "cutting edge" (meaning new and innovative). This definition proves a difficult one, however, because something can only be "new" or "innovative" for a relatively short period of time before it comes standard practice. Thus, what was cutting edge last year/decade/century will necessarily differ from what is cutting edge today. In that sense, Beethoven (1770-1827) was an avant-garde artist because he was innovative for his time, even though contemporary ears do not hear his music as such.
In trying to do something new, avant-garde experimentation is doomed to failure in the vast majority of cases. Thus, the benefit of this type of aesthetic experimentation is almost always the journey (the learning process), and not the destination (the product). The American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) summarized this notion by saying, "A creator often learns as much from his miscalculations as he does from his successes" and citing "the immemorial right of the artist to be wrong" as essential to that learning process (Music and Imagination, page 76). Copland used these words to describe the development of all creators, but it is the avant-gardist who takes that notion to extremes. The price paid for that, though, is audience alienation. In their pursuit of innovation, avant-gardists often estrange their patrons. In that way, the term "avant-garde" has earned a rather negative connotation.
Another commonly accepted and often discussed distinction between pop and classical (and in this case I am extending the term "classical" to include "avant-garde") is financial: Pop music seems to consider financial success more important than classical music does. Since avant-garde music inherently challenges its listeners, it will never be able to reap the same degree of financial rewards as pop music. Nor does it try to.
Thus, when I say "the Beatles and the avant-garde", I am referring to the experimental and innovative aspects of the Beatles' output (musical and otherwise) - much of which is centered around the band's later years, when finances were no longer a concern and the band and its members were therefore free to create without concern for financial success. And, because the journey is often more important than the destination, I refer to unreleased and unpublished creative efforts that reveal the Beatles' willingness to experience and experiment, exercising that "immemorial right of the artist to be wrong".
Copland, Aaron. Music and Imagination. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1980.
It seems to be regarded as common knowledge that John Lennon was the avant-gardist of the Beatles, but in fact Lennon was not always avant-garde friendly. He often spoke disparagingly towards avant-garde art during the Beatles’ early years, saying, “avant-garde is French for bullshit” (Blaney p. 7) and frequently dismissing avant-garde artists as “fucking intellectuals.” He even said of Yoko’s own art, “I’d get very upset about it being intellectual or all fucking avant-garde" (Wenner p. 175). And when Cynthia Lennon confronted her husband over his association with Ono, John dismissed her accusations, saying, “She’s crackers, she’s just a weirdo artist. ... She’s another nutter wanting money for all that avant-garde bullshit" (Coleman p. 336).
Clearly Lennon held belligerent feelings towards the avant-garde. This was in part due to Paul McCartney’s status as the Beatles' avant-gardist - that was Paul’s territory, and John knew that, and could not impede upon it. And yet, despite his harsh words, he found the freedom of expression opened through avant-garde aesthetics and experimentation appealing. Quoting McCartney: “I was into a lot of those things, which was very strange because I was at the same time known as the cute Beatle, the ballad Beatle ... John was the cynical one, the wise Beatle, the intellectual. In fact at that time it was wildly in reverse. John would be coming in from Weybridge; he’d sit and he used to tell me he was jealous: ‘God, man, I’m so fucking jealous!’ He had to break free - which is what he did, later” (Miles p. 220). So Lennon did have some degree of avant-garde interest, but his embrace of the movement had to wait until Yoko provided the change he needed.
Blaney, John. John Lennon: Listen to this Book. Paper Jukebox, Biddles Ltd, Guildford, UK, 2005.
Coleman, Ray. Lennon. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, NY, 1984.
Miles, Barry. Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now. Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY, 1997.
Wenner, Jann. Lennon Remembers: The Rolling Stone Interviews. Straight Arrow Books, San Francisco, CA, 1971.
There are five main characters in the story of the Beatles and the avant-garde. The first two, of course, are John Lennon and Paul McCartney. At the heart of my research are two parallel dynamics that occurred between Lennon and McCartney over the course of the band’s existence: the first a shift in the leader of the group (what started as John’s band ended as Paul’s); the second a simultaneous shift in avant-garde aesthetics (what started as Paul’s experimentation ended as John’s). While the former has been written about and analyzed extensively, the latter has been largely ignored, or at best treated trivially and glossed over.
The third primary character is the catalyst for both of these dynamics: Yoko Ono. While never part of the band, Ono is inextricable from its history for her profound impact on John Lennon. The ultimate focus of my project, then, is on the artistic production and experimentation of Paul McCartney and John Lennon between 1965 (with McCartney’s early tape experiments) through 1969 (with Lennon and Ono’s Wedding Album), paying particular attention to how the avant-garde scene of the time influenced and inspired these experiments.
The two remaining primary characters are both Georges: Harrison and Martin. Both men were integral to the artistic development of the Beatles, and display significant avant-garde influence: Harrison through his connection with Indian music, experiences with Eastern philosophy and religion, and in his solo albums Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound; Martin through his classical background and education, and experimental recording techniques.
On May 9 1969 (May 26 in the US), George Harrison released an album titled Electronic Sound. The LP, representing the pinnacle of Harrison's interest in electronic and avant-garde music, consisted of two tracks, one per side: "Under the Mersey Sound", and "No Time or Space" - both large-scale electronic compositions produced on a Moog synthesizer. Though the album as a whole would arouse controversy upon release, the latter track - written, according to Harrison, "with a little help from my cats" (Krause p. 66) - aroused controversy even prior to its release.
Harrison was introduced to the Moog by Bernard Krause, best known today for his pioneering work in acoustic synthesis and later bioacoustics. Krause showcased the Moog's musical potential in a demonstration in late 1968 following a recording session by Jackie Lomax that invovled both him and Harrison. Quoting Krause: "Had I been aware that he was recording my demonstration, I would have never shown examples of what [I was] considering for [my] next album ... As I showed him the settings and gave some performance examples, Harrison seemed impressed with the possibilities" (p. 62). So impressed, it turns out, that Krause later accused Harrison of blatant plagiarism. When Harrison played "No Time or Space" to Krause for the first time, prior to the album's release, "At first I didn’t recognize the material. However, little by little I became increasingly uncomfortable, knowing that I had heard this performance before. After a few more minutes I realized that the recording was taken from the Lomax demo session I had played for Harrison only a few months earlier" (p. 66-67).
Quite understandably, the subsequent argument (recounted by Krause in his autobiography but never publicly acknowledged by Harrison) resulted in a falling-out between the two musicians. Harrison refused to acquiesce to Krause's requests not to use the recording of his demonstration; and Krause, not having the resources to take legal action, simply let it be - "But not before I had it recalled and ordered my name taken off the cover. ... Rather than reprinting the album cover, Apple simply had my name silvered over. (If you can find one of the old issues of the album, hold it in the right light, and you can still faintly see my name right there - spelled incorrectly, of course.) Although I did get credit on the inside jacket, along with his cats" (p. 67). The album was released several months later.
But the release only created further problems. Many critics, then and now, have lambasted the album for its aesthetic challenges. One such is author Ian Inglis, who in his book The Words and Music of George Harrison, wrote: "Electric Sound is nothing more than a random, unmanipulated collection of noises and effects created on his newly acquired Moog synthesizer. To attempt to explain the nineteen-minute 'Under the Mersey Wall' and the twenty-five minute 'No Time or Space' as evidence of artistic exploration, or to describe them as avant-garde or as examples of contemporary musical solidarity, as some critics have suggested is to give the tracks a status they do not deserve. There is no evidence of structure or balance, no statement of direction or intent, no sense of texture or depth to the sounds. At best, Harrison can be accused of inexperience; at worst, of pretentiousness. Either way, Electronic Sound is a pointless and rather embarrassing blot on his musical career" (p. 20). [I must say I quite disagree with Mr. Inglis - but I'll save that for another blog!]
Harrison would continuing using the Moog - and it may be heard on several subsequent Beatles tracks including "Here Comes the Sun", and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" - but he would never again attempt such an aesthetically challenging composition. In fact he later belittled his efforts, modestly saying, “All I did was get that very first Moog synthesizer, with the big patch unit and the keyboards that you could never tune, and I put a microphone into a tape machine. I recorded whatever came out” (Shapiro p. 92). He also dismissed the album entirely as "a load of rubbish" (Ingham p.132), and referred to music of this aesthetic in general as "the Stockhausen kind of avant-garde a clue music" (Anthology p. 210).
As Krause put it, "The Harrison experience was disappointing because I had different expectations of what our relationship would be and could have been. By that time, I was known as a talented synthesist, an excellent programmer, and could have been very helpful if I had been treated better" (p. 68). Krause seems to be implying that maybe George Harrison would have continued his electronic music compositions had his initial foray into the field not been so problematic. While it is enticing to wonder what Harrison could have composed had he continued, developed, and matured his craft, I highly doubt that George Harrison would ever have embraced avant-gardism the way Paul McCartney or John Lennon did. Perhaps the most damning evidence against this notion is Harrison's title Electronic Sound. At the time, that type of music had the well-established label of "electronic music" (Krause himself authored The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music, published in 1968), so the fact that Harrison chose the word "sound" instead of "music" belies his lack of conviction. Paul or John would have loved to provoke (there is an anecdote in Barry Miles' In the Sixties in which George Martin had dinner with Paul McCartney who played a recording by Albert Ayler for Martin, who - much to Paul's delight - claimed that it wasn't music, prompting the younger to launch into a lengthy "what is music?" lecture), but Harrison took the easy way out. Nevertheless, regardless of what anybody may like or dislike about the product, the fact that he tried - that he deliberately put himself in a field that he was not at all familiar or comfortable with - is a tremendous testament to his character and integrity as an artist.
Beatles. The Beatles Anthology. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA, 2000.
Ingham, Chris. The Rough Guide to the Beatles. 2nd edition, Rough Guides Ltd., Penguin Books Ltd., London, UK, 2006.
Inglis, Ian. The Words and Music of George Harrison. Praeger, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, Denver, CO, 2010.
Krause, Bernard L. Into a Wild Sanctuary: A Life in Music and Natural Sound. Heyday Books, Berkeley, CA, 1998.
Shapiro, Marc. Behind Sad Eyes: The Life of George Harrison. St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY, 2002.
This blog is a workshop for developing my analyses of The Beatles' music.