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Ornette Coleman, Laurie Anderson, John Zorn, That 1 Guy

Avant-garde Music

Avant-garde music takes in almost all of the last's century's most daring trends, each stemming from a desire to break with tradition. Through the dodecaphonic explorations of Arnold Schoenberg, the free jazz of Ornette Coleman or the experimental performances of John Cage, the genre has forged an identity at once protean, rich and prolific. Among its chief protagonists today are the likes of John Zorn, Fred Frith and Montréal's very own Sam Shalabi.

The Contemporary Avant-garde

Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern are cited as forerunners of avant-garde trends in contemporary music. Each was European, and each is now considered an important 20th-century composer. By exploring atonality and using a 12-tone compositional technique known as dodecaphony (meaning 12 tones), these composers signalled a break from the past; they also introduced serial music, which was built upon a succession of sound elements.

In the 1950s, composers such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen took up the banner of serialism and dodecaphony. With a passion sometimes bordering on zeal, they applied to all of the sound parameters specific to serialism, this new musical language.

New Technologies

During the same period, the advent of the audio tape recorder as well as electric and electro-acoustic techniques made it possible to record sound on a magnetic tape. In France, Pierre Schaeffer invented concrete music, using pre-recorded sounds from everyday life, juxtaposed and transformed through sound editing and mixing on magnetic audiotape. The Symphonie pour un homme seul, composed by Schaeffer and his acolyte Pierre Henry, is among the genre's signature pieces.

These early forms of sound synthesis contributed to the emergence of electronic music, notably through the use of synthetic sound generators. In 1951, German composer Herbert Eimert founded the studio for electronic music in Cologne.

John Cage and Fluxus

In the United States, John Cage emerged as the iconic avant-garde composer of the 1950s. His experimental art, based on improvisation and indeterminism, is intimately linked to the concept of performance: at concerts, the composer was content to let musicians create their own scores based on loose guidelines, accepting that his aesthetic of chance would give rise to "once-only" works.

The difficulties inherent in following these guidelines live, Cage believed, created a music free of formal constraint - quite in the image of life itself. To shape the sounds and appeal to the senses of audience members, Cage went as far as to insert various objects into his piano. His famous piece, 4'33, consists of a pianist sitting down to the piano and not striking a single key for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The entire piece, therefore, is composed of silences - silences of different lengths.

Cage's new aesthetic was among the inspirations for the creation of Fluxus, the avant-garde art movement that flourished in New York in the early 1960s. The collective helped to foster interdisciplinary and mixed media in the arts by drawing artists of all stripes - among them Yoko Ono.

Influences and New Currents

Ornette Coleman It was in this spirit of inclusiveness that free jazz emerged in New York, with Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane pioneering the movement in the early 1960s. Using group improvisation and casting aside traditional conventions and forms, free jazz musicians found inspiration and nourishment in the avant-garde scene and its sense of community among artists.

Out of this same period of social and artistic ferment arose the minimalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. American composer La Monte Young – a pioneer of the genre – rejected the tenets of indeterminism in favour of an economy of means and a return to tonality.

Other influential minimalist artists include Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley. Inspired by jazz, improvisation, classical and electronic music, these composers have produced compelling works marked by slow progressions, regular frequencies and the repetition of phrases.

The 1970s were the heyday of progressive rock, a freer form of music that ventured beyond the conventions proper to rock. A number of its leading artists would later gravitate to the experimental scene, among them English composer and guitarist Fred Frith, the French group Magma, and Quebec composer, musician and singer, René Lussier, a member of the Montréal-based group Conventum, one of the first Quebec groups to blend progressive rock with contemporary music.

The Zorn Phenomenon

John Zorn Since the early 1980s, American saxophonist, producer and composer, John Zorn, emerged as the standard bearer of the New York avant-garde scene. His art is a joyous synthesis of previous currents, including classical and experimental music, rock, jazz, improv, and death metal; it even borrows from traditional Jewish and Japanese music. In 1995, Zorn launched his own label, Tzadik Records, with the objective of promoting a broad spectrum of experimental music. In the course of his prolific career, Zorn has been a member of several groups, including Naked City (with Bill Frisell on guitar and Fred Frith on bass) and Painkiller (with Bill Laswell on bass and Mick Harris on drums).


In Quebec, the Festival international de musique actuelle de Victoriaville, since 1983, has given avant-garde artists from here and abroad an extraordinary showcase. Among the artists who've appeared at the Victoriaville festival are John Zorn, the Fred Frith and René Lussier duo, the Sun Ra Arkestra and Elliott Sharp, a key figure on the avant-garde music scene in the United States. Montréal guitarist Sam Shalabi (born to Egyptian parents) has been a mainstay at the FIMAV and an important figure on the local free improv scene, distinguishing himself with his versatility. Others who've highlighted the FIMAV include American Mike Patton, the American group, Tortoise, as well as the Montréal-based collective Godspeed You ! Black Emperor.

Avant-garde Plays the Festival

Lou Reed Most of the pioneers of avant-garde music in Quebec have appeared at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, among them André Duchesne, Michel F. Côté, Jean Derome and René Lussier. The latter spearheaded the 2002 show titled La Boudine du 6 juillet !, performing alongside Lori Freedman and Frank Martel. In 2006, two virtuoso improvisers – Quebec guitarist Bernard Falaise and French bassist Joëlle Léandre – delivered a command performance at the Festival.

American saxophonist and composer John Zorn had taken the stage at the Festival on several occasions, performing with his experimental groups, Masada and Painkiller. Zorn returns to Montréal in June 2010 to take part in the Festival's 31th edition. He will perform with none other than Lou Reed, former member and leader of the Velvet Underground, and Laurie Anderson, a talented musical adventurer. The couple - on stage as in life - will be marking their first appearance at the FIJM.

Van Der Graaf Generator In 2009, Canadian Steve Koven, whose music hovers between jazz and avant-garde, presented his most recent album, titled The Sound of Songs. The same year, Festival fans were treated to display of technical wizardry courtesy of That 1 Guy, alias Mike Silverman. The one-man orchestra had conquered audiences in 2008 with his "magic pipe," a homemade instrument composed of sensors, a double bass string, plumbing pipes and a cowboy boot.

Still in 2009, the great Ornette Coleman, the father of free jazz, served notice that his creative fires were burning as bright as ever. The English group, Van Der Graaf Generator, led by Peter Hammill, also marked its début appearance at the Festival, showcasing its particular blend of free-rock and progressive rock.


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