Arab Avantgarde Music (Part 2)

12:16 pm Music

The first part of this series offered a few questions that require answers in order to be able to have a discussion about Arab avantgarde music. The questions have to do with the term avantgarde in general, with the terms Arab and Arabic, and with possible conversations that could be had based on the answers we choose to the questions raised.

I emphasized choose because there is a measure of arbitrariness and/or subjective judgment in answering these questions. This post begins the process of answering these questions.

The first set of questions have to do with the adjective “avantgarde”. Let us first observe that “avantgarde music” is a western term, used to discuss phenomena in western music, involving western trained musicians, living in western countries, in a time where other things were happening in literature, the visual arts, dance, and music. In other words, context charged the term “avantgarde music” with social, political, and cultural content well outside the realm of music. Furthermore, in the western context the term avantgarde music was used to discuss such diverse phenomena as minimalism, electro-acoustic music, free jazz, musique concrete, the work of John Cage, new age music, and free improvisation, to name a few. I mention all this to say, we should, at least in the beginning, dissociate the term “avantgarde” as a social phenomenon reflected in pioneering cultural works that push the boundaries of, challenge, defy, or even negate tradition, from what invoking that term might be suggestive of for someone who has studied western avantgarde cultural activities.

Divorcing the discussion of Arab avantgarde is necessary at this point, but it is not necessarily anything beyond artificial. A discussion of recent (20th century) and contemporary social events in the Arab world tends to have many points of contact with western social events simply because this is a time period when the west had many points of contact with Arab societies on all levels: political, economic, and social.

Returning to the term avantgarde. What do we consider an avantgarde work as opposed to a practice that is part of the natural evolution of the artistic endeavor over time? It is to be expected that, similar to many such discussions, the gray margins are pretty wide. A few mental exercises can help us sharpen the definition. Each exercise will be presented as a hypothetical question.

The question of the artist
In this exercise we examine two extreme cases: What are the characteristics of an artist who would, beyond any doubt, be considered an avantgarde artist by all educated observers? And,  what are the characteristics of an artist who would, beyond any doubt, be considered as not an avantgarde artist?

In my view, the “extremely” avantgarde artist, within an existing art-form, is one whose works depart from tradition in form, aesthetic, vocabulary, and process.

The “extremely” not avantgarde artist, within an existing art-form, is one whose works adhere to traditionally existing form(s), aesthetic, vocabulary and process.

I cannot think of any “important” Arab artists that always, in all their work, fall in either category.

What of the cases in between? For example, what of a poet who departs from the symmetrical, metered, rhymed, and topically pre-formulated practice of classical Arabic poetry by inventing a new rhyme scheme, say all the odd lines rhyme, and all the even lines rhyme but using different rhyme syllables, while adhering to the other traditional traits of aesthetic, form, vocabulary, and process? This artist may be considered innovative by some, and tasteless by others. But, few observers will consider her to be an avantgarde poet. As she continues to push the envelope shedding more and more traditional considerations of form, process, aesthetic, and artistic (not necessarily linguistic) vocabulary, there will be a point when most educated observers will consider her to be avantgarde.

This first exercise demonstrated that the question of who is an avantgarde artist is largely a quantitative question of: in how many respects and how many of the works of an artist depart from the traditions of the art form?

There remain three mental exercises that will be discussed in the next part of the series.

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