1 | Sean Albiez – ‘Avant-Pop’. Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World Volume 11. p. 35-38
In the broad field of popular music since the 1960s there have been a number of musical artists who have
breached the boundaries between art music and popular music. These are musicians who locate themselves
creatively in a liminal space between and beyond the fields of contemporary classical music and the many
popular music genres that developed in the latter half of the twentieth century. Such artists are difficult to
characterize in terms of genre; however, in the twenty-first century the term ‘avant pop’ has been used
increasingly, for example in media coverage, as a way of identifying the experimental sensibility,
idiosyncratic approaches and alternative strategies evident in their music. The formulation suggests this is
music that balances avant-garde traits with musical practices that are drawn from across the broad field of
popular music. Avant pop is music whose avant-garde approach evinces a disregard for what may be viewed
as mainstream genre and commercial norms. It appears progressive and rule breaking in a modernist manner,
probing form and structure and traversing the boundaries between music, sound and noise. Through its non-
hierarchical and eclectic incorporation of instrumentation, timbres, textures and stylistic traits from classical,
rock, jazz, electronica and pop music it also appears strikingly postmodern. At the heart of avant pop is
experimentalism, where recognisable musical and genre conventions are abandoned in the pursuit of an
individual artistic vision and a desire to create something new and original through paradoxically combining
extant musical and stylistic materials.
Background and First Appearances
In the 1960s, as pop and rock music increasingly gained cultural weight and significance, and began
to question its subordinate status as mere commercial entertainment, many musicians began to look to the
resurgent post-war musical avant-garde for inspiration. But this was an avant-garde with much earlier roots. In
the early twentieth century, the modernist European musical avant-garde had begun to dismantle the settled
understanding of what music was and could be. Before and during World War I, early visionaries such as
Edgar Varèse in his desire to create and organise sounds that had previously been unheard in musical works,
Luigi Russolo who wished to make all sound and noise available as musical material for performers and
composers, and Schoenberg who attempted to supplant traditional tonality with a radical pantonality, all
contributed to the rethinking of the fundamental assumptions of what constitutes music. In the interwar period
other radical ideas were propounded that explored the potential of new technologies for achieving Varèse and
Russolo’s musical visions. Moholy-Nagy suggested music no longer need to be performed, and composers no
longer needed to rely on interpreters of their music, if they were able to directly etch works onto gramophone
discs. Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch at the end of the 1920s explored the potential of sound on sound
overdubbing and recording speed manipulation of gramophone discs for musical works. In the Soviet Union,
Arseny Avraamov and Evgeni Sholpo, and in Germany, Rudolf Pfenninger and Oskar Fischinger,
experimented with composing music on the optical soundtrack of film stock. Underpinning this musical and
technological exploration was a modernist desire for the musician to inscribe or record the precise, original
2 | Sean Albiez – ‘Avant-Pop’. Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World Volume 11. p. 35-38
musical ideas that they wished to communicate in an unadulterated manner. This would be achieved in such a
way that the stultifying conventions of traditional music could be challenged through the manipulation of all
sound materials, to move beyond the timbre limitations of the classical orchestra. During and after World War
II, Pierre Schaeffer in France began to experiment with a portable recording device, sound mixers and
multiple gramophone turntables, microphones, audio filters, reverb and sound effect records in a Radio France
studio. In combining a number of electronic or natural sound objects, or concrete sounds, Schaeffer began to
more fully achieve in the late 1940s in what he termed musique concrète what earlier avant-garde composers
had predicted and experimented with in the previous three decades.
With the arrival of increasingly sophisticated sound production and reproduction technologies in the
post-war period, in the 1950s and 60s academic electronic music in its electronic and electro-acoustic forms
gained a high profile beyond avant-garde circles. Pioneers and practitioners such as Karlheinz Stockhausen
and John Cage became widely recognised cultural figures, drawing interest from musicians in the popular
music field. Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s interest in electronic and experimental music in the mid-
1960s meant that the highest profile pop band of the period, the Beatles, led the way in integrating elements of
avant-garde practice into popular music. The 1966 song ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ that combined tape loop
techniques drawn from Schaeffer’s musique concrète with the manipulation of Lennon’s voice using electro-
acoustic processing is one of the earliest avant pop productions. The song self-consciously balances avant-
garde compositional and production ideas with the short song format of popular music. In 1967’s ‘I Am the
Walrus’ the Beatle’s further developed avant-garde techniques, incorporating live found radio sound into the
track, as well as exploring the combination of pop and classical instrumentation. However, it was on the 1968
track ‘Revolution 9’, an 8:22 musique concrète style tape-composition inspired by Cage and Stockhausen that
Lennon, working with George Harrison and Yoko Ono, took the experimental aspects of the band to its
furthest extent. The track was more avant than pop, but demonstrates how the boundary between the avant-
garde and popular music began to evanesce in the 1960s. This is most clear in the work of the Velvet
Underground, whose avant-pop integration of the drone minimalism of La Monte Young, beat generation
lyrical imagery, 1960s pop and pop art became increasingly influential for European artists and scenes in the
1970s and 1980s. In Germany, the late 1960s saw the emergence of what is now known collectively as
krautrock. This was avant pop music of a highly experimental nature, drawing from free jazz improvisation as
much as German academic electronic music, and the Anglo-American experimental pop/rock of the Velvet
Underground, Frank Zappa and Pink Floyd. From this milieu, Tangerine Dream, Can and Kraftwerk emerged
and proved influential touchstones in the following decades for electronic and experimental avant pop.
The 1970s and 1980s
Through the 1970s it was in the broad field of progressive rock that avant pop developed further. The
term progressive rock encompasses a large swathe of artists. On the anti-commercial fringes were European
bands who were self-consciously experimental and avant-garde and who distanced themselves from the
3 | Sean Albiez – ‘Avant-Pop’. Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World Volume 11. p. 35-38
mainstream rock industry, groups such as Henry Cow (UK), Stormy Six (Italy), Samla Mammas Manna
(Sweden), Etron Fou Leloublan (France) and Univers Zero (Belgium). These bands, like many German
krautrock artists, resisted the hegemony of mainstream Anglo-American rock and looked to their own national
art, classical, modernist and folk music cultures for inspiration. In the same period, British progressive rock
artists such as Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Yes and Genesis gained an amount of commercial
success while similarly combining music from a range of musical cultures, breaching boundaries between
avant-garde techniques and the norms of popular music. After the arrival of punk in 1976-77 that in many
respects took a regressive musical stance - returning to the simplicity and directness of 1950s and 60s rock
and roll - the post-punk period saw the emergence of iconoclastic bands who, like their progressive rock
precursors, experimented with the form and content of their music in an avant pop fusion. For example, the
Pop Group (from Bristol) combined funk, avant-garde music and radical politics and forged a sound that stood
against the reductionism of punk. John Lydon in his post-Sex Pistols project Public Image likewise critiqued
the limitations of punk on the 1979 Metal Box album that fused dub, krautrock, minimalism and a punk
attitude. The band This Heat developed a highly politicised avant-garde sound that sat somewhere between
punk and prog. In this period, former Genesis singer Peter Gabriel transformed his music into post-punk
experimentalism, resulting in avant pop hits such as ‘Games Without Frontiers’ in 1980. On backing vocals
for this track was Kate Bush who across her albums Never For Ever and The Dreaming pursued an original,
individualistic hybrid sound that conformed to Bush’s particular avant pop artistic vision.
Through the 1970s electronic music that had in the post-war period been synonymous with
Stockhausen and contemporary music began to permeate popular music. Progressive rock bands had been
early adopters of synthesizers, but by the end of the 1970s in the post punk era, industrial bands such as
Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, and a number of bands such as The Human League had begun to
merge academic and popular electronic music. Central to this were two key figures who acted as a bridge
between the 1960s avant-garde and popular music culture; Brian Eno and David Bowie. Eno while an art
student had immersed himself in the 1960s musical avant-garde, had explored the work of Steve Reich and
other minimalists, staged performances of experimental music and had begun to make music through tape
composition. From the point Eno joined the band Roxy Music in 1971, he has been a crucial figure in acting
as an intellectual conduit through which avant-garde techniques and strategies have found their way into
popular music. Although often viewed as an avant pop artist who after his early albums increasingly
transformed into an innovative electronic musician, Eno has been equally important in his crucial role as a
producer or seminal influence for later artists looking to move beyond the restrictions of generic popular
music. Though David Bowie may have seen in German electronic music the way out of the personal and
creative impasse he found himself in in the mid-1970s, it was his collaboration with Eno on Low, Heroes and
Lodger that enabled him to fuse his experimental musical interests and capitalise on them through Eno’s
challenging avant-garde techniques. Through Low and Heroes many other musicians were encouraged to
explore electronic and experimental music in the post-punk period. Eno’s importance in providing links
4 | Sean Albiez – ‘Avant-Pop’. Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World Volume 11. p. 35-38
between the avant-garde of the early and mid-twentieth century and popular music as it developed in the
1970s can hardly be overstated; at the same time, it is important to recognise that his ability to do so was
determined by his early commercial pop success with Roxy Music that somewhat fortuitously gave him a
platform to pursue a career bridging the worlds of art and popular music.
Some Important Artists
Through the 1980s and in the following decades, there are many other artists who have pursued an
approach to their music that does not sit easily either in the field of popular music or the avant-garde. At a
micro level, there are innumerable musicians working across the globe who continually contribute innovative
and radical ideas to wider genre conversations, and the exploration of such experimental and subversive
approaches to genre musics provides the engine for development and change. In terms of high profile
musicians, however, Sonic Youth, David Sylvian, Scott Walker and Björk are examples of musicians who in
their idiosyncratic approaches have continually defied categorisation.
Throughout their career the US band Sonic Youth walked a line between avant-garde noise
improvisation and more accessible post-punk aesthetics, often within the same song (e.g. ‘Pacific Coast
Highway’ (1987) and ‘Silver Rocket’ (1988)). The band sustained the tension between these two areas of
music, keeping them in balance across their releases and performances. In 1999, Sonic Youth explored the
legacy of the twentieth century avant-garde for their own music in their release Goodbye Twentieth Century
(1999) that saw the band interpreting compositions by John Cage, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros and
Cornelius Cardew among others. After his successful pop career with the band Japan, and the high public
profile this afforded him, English musician David Sylvian has gradually disappeared from public view while
remaining active as a musician. He has combined jazz, classical, pop, progressive rock, experimental
electronica, improvisation and post rock in developing an individual creative voice. His music has become
increasingly minimal, with his sung and spoken word voice backed by sparse, avant-garde musical materials
on the albums Blemish (2003) and Died In The Wool: Manafon Variations (2011). Like Sylvian, US-born
British musician Scott Walker trod a path from pop to avant pop. After 1960s pop stardom, by the 1980s
Walker pursued an increasingly abstract and cinematic sound as a backdrop to his experimental vocal
interjections, consisting of short blocks of text that appear randomly placed in juxtaposition to each other. On
the albums Tilt (1995) , The Drift (2006) and Bisch Bosch (2012) Walker has developed a surreal and
discomforting approach that often leaves the listener on edge.
Björk, after commercial success with fellow Icelanders the Sugarcubes, pursued a solo career that has
embraced the use of classical strings, experimental electronica, electronic dance music forms such as house,
techno and trip hop, invented instruments and a capella arrangements in an eclectic range of musical
productions, mixing electronic and organic timbres and textures. Like Sylvian and Walker, Björk has used the
musical soundscapes she has collaboratively produced as a backdrop for vocal experimentation, though in her
case the range of multi-layered vocal sounds she explores and deploys are wider ranging. In particular, across
5 | Sean Albiez – ‘Avant-Pop’. Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World Volume 11. p. 35-38
the albums Homogenic 1997), Vespertine (2001), Medúlla(2004), Biophilia (2011)and Vulnicura (2015),
Björk has pursued her restless idiosyncratic avant pop vision that continually pursues innovative modes of
expression outside the norms of commercial popular music.
In the contemporary period, it appears that all popular music genres, whether hip hop, metal,
electronic dance music, indie or otherwise, have practitioners who work at the furthest stylistic edges of the
genres, and who either contribute to the renewal of these genres over time or eventually breach boundaries in
the creation of new hybrid genres. In avant hip hop, avant metal and elsewhere, what defines a particular
genre is continually musically questioned and probed by musicians and producers working in the field, in the
same way that the early twentieth century avant-garde probed the genre of ‘music’. Additionally, in
contemporary music production in general, the experimental techniques of the avant-garde have become
ingrained in commercial pop production, often utilising sophisticated sound design and manipulation
techniques originally pioneered by avant-garde precursors.
Avant pop arguably stands outside this process of genre construction and destruction, and pop music,
as it skirts, combines and bridges not only popular music genres, but the wider cultures of music. In the past
artists such as Laurie Anderson, Talk Talk, The Mars Volta, P J Harvey, Mike Patton and Joanna Newsom
have occupied the non-place of avant pop, and in the present Julia Holter, Holly Herndon, Oneohtrix Point
Never, Battles and Clarence Clarity seem to exist between and beyond clearly defined musical markers. In the
work of these artists, as in the work of the twentieth century avant-garde, technology plays a key role in
affording increasingly sophisticated ways of manipulating sound and pushing the boundaries of what can be
considered music. However, the artists discussed have one foot firmly planted in popular music, and though
wilfully experimental and inward looking, attempt to communicate ideas and emotions to audiences, no matter
how open and indistinct, and eschew formal avant-garde experimentation for its own sake.
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Hegarty, Paul and Halliwell, Martin. 2011. Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock since the 1960s. London
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Martin, Bill. 2002. Avant Rock: Experimental Music from the Beatles to Bjork. Peru, IL: Open Court.
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Sean Albiez [Words: 2519/2826]