Revolutionary Chic

David Byrne and Brian Eno have a new record, available today.

Perhaps it will be good. “My Life In The Bush of Ghosts” is decent enough – more on that later – but the free download song off the new record is decidedly ordinary. That probably would surprise a lot of people, but it shouldn’t, because the two are relatively ordinary musicians. But this post is not about them so much as about the relativity of the avant-garde.

This article about the two, and their collaboration, takes as implicit that their connections to the avant-gare, which completely mystifies me. This is not a complaint about Eno or Byrne. They do what they do well. Although Talking Heads never spoke to me much until “Speaking in Tongues,” where they became good musicians and made good music, I have many Eno recordings I enjoy, and his last record is really pretty damn good; he has great ears and great taste. But I first heard his name back in high school, when people were talking about this totally avant-garde record, this idea of ambient music meant to be part of the environment. It was totally avant-garde!

Of course, it wasn’t. Well, if all you knew of music was pop and rock, it certainly was. And for the majority of listeners and critics, music began only in the 20th century and the only music that exists is rock and pop. When I first heard of “Music for Airports,” I had already known about Satie, so this idea was nothing new. And when I first heard The Talking Heads, I had already been playing free jazz, so again, nothing new.

The avant-garde as a movement in music really came into being in the 20th century, prior to World War I, and by that I do not mean that the directed development of music reached an ultra-extreme point, but that there was a conscious effort, begun by the Futurists, to destroy the previous history of music and start it again from a non-musical basis. Since that time, there have been a variety of attempts to put the possible future of music at some point far outside the contemporary limit of tradition; George Antheil based a career on it, the beginnings of tape and electronic music, the methods of Xenakis and Scelsi, all of these were truly avant-garde rather than logical next-steps in the progressive accretion of musical knowledge. What makes the avant-garde so vital is that, as T.S. Eliot pointed out, the tradition of an art form eventually reaches that outlying point and incorporates it, and so no artists is ever totally outside the tradition. The avant-garde is literally out front, waiting for the rest to catch up.

The same is not quite true for pop and rock music; these are forms with limited possibilities for expansion, and their history tends to be circular, recycling older styles in new packages. This is because, like non-Western “classical” music, the purpose of rock and pop is mainly social, so there are constraints on what is accepted, since the point is popular acceptance. Classical music is absolute music, it exists for itself, and so can attempt and incorporate anything that works. So the idea that Brian Eno would, in a pop music context, make a record that had no words, was quiet and was not meant to draw attention to itself, seemed more than a little odd, but in the history of music, the all-encompassing history, there was nothing odd or even new about it. In fact, this has been a long-time social purpose of music, and so fit perfectly well into the pop world. Eno, and Eno and Byrne together, have shown the pop world different ways to think about pop music, which makes for more interesting listening for us all. But avant-garde? No – neither starved for this.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.