The Unusual and the Simple

Defining the Avant-Garde with Cage, Glass, and Reich

Avant-garde is a term used to describe art, music, and literature of an experimental and innovative sort.

Coming to the fore after World War 2, this type of music was radically different from traditional forms. It was often produced by electronic means, relied on chance in its composition, or was distinctly peculiar in some way (Norton/Grove 40).

Much of the art music produced in the mid-twentieth century can be categorized as Avant-garde.

The term Modernism is also used to describe music of this kind. If one were making a chronological list of the art-history periods, then Modernism would follow Romanticism. This means that Avant-garde is a species of Modernism.

But both Modernism and Avant-garde are broad stroke concepts, so further subcategories are needed. To wrap your head around the bewildering cavalcade of music that is the twentieth century, you need to know definitions of the following styles and techniques: (1) serialism, (2) atonality, (3) minimalism, and (4) indeterminacy.

There are others, of course, but these four will due to outline the boundaries of the Avant-garde. Here are the definitions (lightly reworded and consolidated) from Webster’s New World College Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary:

  1. Serialism: the twelve-tone system or technique of composition in which notes sequences (called tone rows) are constructed without regard for traditional harmony
  2. Atonality: in composition, the organization of tones in which notes of the chromatic scale have equal importance, without relation to a tonal center or key; the absence of tonality
  3. Minimalism: movement in art, dance, music, etc., beginning in the 1960s, in which only the simplest designs,  structures, forms, etc. are used, often repetitiously, and the artist’s individuality is minimized.
  4. Indeterminacy: the state or quality of being inexact in limits, nature, etc.; a piece of music not yet settled, concluded, or known.

By the 1960s, the early forms of Avant-garde music championed by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, like serialism and atonality, were being usurped by newer forms of Avant-garde music like minimalism and indeterminacy.  

Prominent exponents of these newer forms included John Cage (1912-1992), Steve Reich (born 1936), and Philip Glass (born 1937).

Two of these three composers—Reich and Glass—are of an American art-music category known as Downtown Music. 

Cage was part of this scene, but he was a generation older. He can be thought of as an elder statesman of the Avant-garde style. These details about chronology are somewhat pedantic, so you can probably just think of all three composers—Cage, Glass, and Reich—as belonging to the same category of musician.

Downtown Music

The term, Downtown music, refers to the art and music scene happening in downtown New York City (Manhattan) beginning in 1960 and connected to an art gallery started up by the now famous artist, Yoko Ono. The name, Downtown Music, referenced the fact that most “classical music” performed in NYC in the 1960s happened uptown at the Juilliard School or at Columbia University (“Downtown music” para 1 and 2).

The Downtown music scene roughly overlapped with the 1960s generation of beatnik writers and folk singers. Members of this generation included Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Paul Simon, William S. Burroughs, Ken Kesey, and Joyce Johnson.

That’s an extensive list of names, but if you want to get a real feel of this important generation of American art, then read all their Wikipedia pages.

In any case, the bohemian subculture that formed around this scene embraced all that was Avant-garde and modern. If one were to affix two adjectives to the music produced by the bohemians of the New York City music and art scene, then it’d have to be unusual and simple.

Cage, Glass, and Reich


John Cage was born in California in 1912. He was a smart kid who excelled at all things scholastic. He grew up to become one of the most influential American composers of the twentieth century. He developed a style that focused on randomness, electronic sound, and the nontraditional use of traditional instruments (such as the prepared piano). Conveniently, Cage’s ethos about music pretty much sums up the definition of Avant-garde (Nicholls chapter 1).

In line with the idea of indeterminacy in music, Cage believed “the ability for a piece to be performed in substantially different ways” was an important component to its aesthetic. The idea (defined above) was known as indeterminacy in music; it represented a type of musical free will (“Indeterminacy (music)” para. 2).

This means a performance of John Cage’s work could be a collaboration between the performer and the composer. This was a revolutionary concept for art music because, up until this time, the composer was the final arbiter of the musical content. With indeterminacy in music, the performer had some say.

An important piece by John Cage was called Sonatas and Interludes. It was composed for the so-called prepared piano and was written in 1938. This means, to play Sonatas and Interludes, the player must place screws and bolts of varying sizes between the strings of the piano to drastically alter the timbre of the instrument. Cage explained as much in his “Table of Preparations” that accompanies the piece. Here he writes: “Mutes of various materials are placed between the strings of the keys used, thus effecting transformations of the piano sounds with respect to all their characteristics” (Turek 517).

Another Avant-garde artist from the Downtown music scene was Steve Reich. Reich was partly responsible for developing the modern style called Minimalism. By using drones, repeated musical patterns, overlapping rhythms, and simple harmony, Reich composed music that sounded like meditative trances (“Downtown music” para. 2).

In Reich’s music, the knotty dissonances and complex structures of serialism and atonality are wholly absent. The replacement–consonant sounds which played out like an auditory time-lapse photograph–required much less intellectual work from the listener. Reich’s music is seductive in its ease of listening. Try it out; it’s great.

An important example of this seductive-musical-time-lapse idea is Reich’s piece called Music for Eighteen Musicians. This piece was written between 1974 and 1976 and features—true to its name—a score composed for eighteen musicians playing pitched percussion, piano, clarinet, and other instruments. There is also a vocal part. The effect of this piece is truly mesmerizing.

Yet another American composer of the Downtown vanguard was Philip Glass. Glass too was a minimalist, but unlike most of his Minimalist colleagues, he was trained in traditional harmony and composition, so he considers himself a Classicist. True to this label, Glass has produced many symphonies, concertos, and chamber pieces (“Philip Glass” para. 1 and 2).

Beginning later in his career Glass began writing film scores—one of the most important outlets for modern composers

For his film score efforts, Glass has been nominated for several Academy awards. Some films that he’s written music for include: Hamburger Hill (1987), Candyman (1992), Secret Window (2004), The Illusionist (2006), and many others.

Although Glass’s career spans many genres, much of his music is much in the Avant-garde style. One such piece is “Labyrinth,” which was a track on his 1988 album called 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, science fiction opera for actor, soprano & instruments.

“Labyrinth” takes the notion of ethereal to new heights. It’s an appropriate piece to listen to if you want to meditate, relax, or sleep. It sounds like a liquid dream being squirted into your ears. Enjoy.


The music of the twentieth century exists on a scale and scope—in terms of sheer quantity—that dwarfs even the effusive Romantic period. To study this vast catalog of human music making, musicologist must use four streams of evidence:

  1. Notated music
  2. Pictures of musicians and instruments
  3. Writings about music
  4. Physical remains (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 5)

Not only is there more of these four things (probably more in the first ten years of the twentieth century alone) than all other previous centuries combined, but there is also a new stream of musical evidence that came to the fore during the twentieth century: the audio recording.

For the ubiquity of audio recordings and the mind-boggling density of musical artifacts, it will likely be centuries before twentieth-century music can be thought of objectively or categorized properly. In my opinion, when all is sorted out, the Avant-garde movement will be thought of as a curious oddity.

Works Cited

Burkholder, P.J., Grout, D.J., Palisca, C.V. A History of Western Music. 9th ed. W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 2014.

“Indeterminacy (music).” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 24  April 2016.

“John Cage.” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 24  April 2016.

“Downtown music.” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 23  April 2016.

Norton/Grove. The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music. Ed. Sadie, Stanley. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994.

Nicholls, David. John Cage. American Composers Audiobooks, 2012.

Penguin Encyclopedia. Ed. Crystal, David. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

“Philip Glass.” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 24  April 2016.

Turek, R. Analytical Anthology of Music. Second Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1992.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Edited by Michael Agnes. IDG Books Worldwide, Inc., 2000.

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