Arab Avantgarde Music (Part 3)

1:34 pm Music, Music Theory

In part 2 we started a series of mental exercises the goal of which was to establish the rules for how to have a discussion about avantgarde music in the Arab context. In this post we will contemplate two more mental exercises and draw conclusions from them that will bring us closer to that discussion.

The question of the work
What are the characteristics of a work of art that would be considered, beyond doubt, as avantgarde?

Answering the question with regards to the work of art is similar in some ways but fundamentally different in others from the discussion about the artist. When discussing the artist, we relied on the context in which the artist works as the standard against which we judge whether or not she can be considered as one whose work and vision are avantgarde. When we discuss individual works, we are acknowledging that a given artist can produce both traditional and experimental works. Do we measure the works to other works by the same artist, or only to The Tradition? The answer may seem obvious: Of course we compare them to The Tradition, and not to other works by the same artist. However, let us examine what may be not-so-obvious aspects of this sound logic.

The case for comparing a new work by an artist to The Tradition, is that while an artist may depart from her earlier interpretation of the tradition to a new one, if the new interpretation is still traditional, it should be considered as a natural growth process of the artist and not as pioneering, or breaking new territory. What is not-so-obvious about this way of thinking is that we are, in effect, discarding the fact that not all artists have a vast breadth of education in the tradition, especially contemporary and avantgarde. In other words, an artist who hasn’t been exposed to prose poetry, but has otherwise a great talent and craftsmanship may invent prose poetry on her own, one hundred years after it had been originally invented. In the modern world, where reproduction technology of visual, audible, intellectual, and literary works is readily accessible to so many, missing any recent developments in any idiom is but a slight possibility. A half a century ago, not as slight. A century ago, quite likely. However, we cannot apply this thinking blindly. It is much more likely to find an American composer who has not been exposed to the sound and tuning of the Kulingtang, than it is to find a Manila born composer who hasn’t. Furthermore, many, if not most, conservatories and music departments across the world teach John Cage, or, at least, mention in passing twentieth century atonal western classical music. Few music departments in the west teach Abdo Dagher or any other music in depth. Musicology programs can be considered an exception, but it is questionable whether those have much direct influence on most artists. Largely, what happens in the musicology world stays in the musicology world.

The question of the observer
A listener who is hearing contemporary pop music for the first time, having only heard Arabic art music, and never been exposed to sixties and seventies European and American pop, cannot be blamed for not recognizing that modern Arab pop music should be heard in two contexts at the same time: Arabic music in general, and western pop. The observer’s reflections on the music she is hearing will depend very much on whether or not she recognizes this multiplicity of contexts. In other words, not being aware of one or more steps in the evolution of a musical tradition, may make the work of a certain artist seem more revolutionary that it actually is. Since we have concluded in part 2 that there is a large quantitative component to the tags attached to artists, the missing steps could be significant enough to change a tag from creative to visionary, revolutionary, or avantgarde.

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