Avant-garde Music

At Paine Hall, March 31

Behind the flashy rebellion of avant-garde composers today there is a distinct note of despair. For while these men differ widely in their compositions and aesthetic views, they share a reluctant disbelief in the power of music to communicate anything from one person to another. Music cannot express; it can just stimulate interest.

Having cut the bond of communication with their audience, they can create contact only by arousing curiosity. They use novelty to this end. The result may be either commendable or fruitless innovation. The concert of avant-garde music organized by the Harvard Music Club presented both kinds: electronic music by Richard Maxfield and "compositions" by La Monte Young.

Maxfield has extensive musical and electronic background. Unlike the European experimenters in the field, he does not use electronic music as a medium for serial composition but as a more far-reaching attempt to broaden the listening powers of the concert audience. As such I think the best of his works succeed. His compositions remind us that music is, after all, merely sound organized by men in some purposeful fashion, and that its limits are set by its purpose. His belief that music is experience, not communication, helps to destroy the straight-jacket that social forms and traditional compositions have put on our listening habits.

He uses both kinds of electronic music, concrete and absolute. The former utilizes pre-recorded sounds of real instruments before alteration by oscillators, filters and the like; the latter includes only sounds that originate inside electronic equipment. One piece, Amazing Grace, combined the two very effectively. A mysteriously distorted bass voice boomed out a spiritual tune, while round, bloated electronic sonorities swelled up, over-whelmed it and trundled to a stop.

Maxfield's music is legitimate because its sounds and textures are not miscellaneous but on the contrary are obviously carefully selected. Unity and coherence keep the sounds from appearing random, gimmicky or incomprehensible. Continuity of tone color was particularly prominent in Night Music, where long whines, wheezes and whistles soared up one after another among balloons of deep sound burgeoning from beneath. The extra-musical connotations enhanced the experience: staccato bursts that began like machine-gun rounds softened into bird-like chirps.

As with other modern composers, formlessness is Maxfield's most glaring flaw. In order to integrate chance into form, Maxfield cuts his tape into short segments which he then fits together without plan. In Peripateia either these segments were too short or the original tape had no contrasts. I felt that the piece was static and monotonous because it lacked 'events'--that is, a sequences of random happenings that would give a sense of succession of ideas or moods. At its worst, Maxfield's music has an over-blown, almost Mahlerian grandiloquence.

But Maxfield does display a rather healthy reaction against the worship of incommunicable individual creativity practiced by some of his colleagues. Their romanticism, he feels, is merely a narcissistic exhibition of a self-assumed superiority. Maxfield has the modest aim of stimulating his audience, but yet his self-denigration cannot fully hide a potentiality for deeper expression.

The second half of the program was devoted to a "composition" by La Monte Young. It was simple. Almost soundlessly two men drew a line with two plumb bobs, walked along it, and started all over again--for over half an hour. That was all. Young does not call such proceedings music, but rather "art" in general. In his own terms, he succeeded. The act fascinated the audience, drew them to find out what was going on, to jeer, argue and go away entertained and interested. It did indeed make a mockery of our formalistic nations of what "belongs" in the concert hall.

Young's other works are similar. In one he lets a butterfly loose in the audience, in another brings water and hay onto the stage for a piano to consume and in yet another repeats the phrase "whirlpools in some far-off sea." All this aims to break the traditionalism of the concert hall and the narrowness of our aesthetic experience by means of "ideas" which are interesting in them-selves. In Young's opinion, standards external to the artist are regimentation and therefore anathema.

But Young's denial of personal expression, his consequent search for newness, and his fear of immanent boredom have brought him full circle to the idea that perhaps only in extreme repetition is there innovation. This is the logical and nihilistic end-point of the avant-gardists' idolatry of innovation and interest. Young is not looking for a new style or a fresh vision of reality but is just killing time. He is not waiting for Godot, he is just waiting.