The avant-garde lives on. Just listen to Dizzee Rascal

The most extraordinary innovations in music may never be to the taste of millions, but they are nonetheless part of our collective imagination


We live, surely, in a golden age of cultural access. It beggars belief the efforts you once had to go to in order to hear music you were interested in. When I was a teenager, I crossed the Pennines and went to a really good record shop in Manchester, which often had some good stuff. Or you could order an LP from the local place. That really good record shop, by the way, might have one recording of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, or of the Stravinsky Oedipus Rex. You paid your money, and you took your chance.

Now? The phenomenon known as the Long Tail has meant that even the most recherché musical invention can find its audience. If there are 1,000 people in the whole of the world who want to listen to the most hardcore contemporary practitioner, then they will find their way to the music. I just looked, and you can download a dozen performances of Pierrot Lunaire – the cheapest £4.49, which is less than I paid in cash terms in the summer of 1979, I believe (not including the train ticket to Manchester and a necessary but grotty cheese sandwich). If you don’t want to pay even £4.49, and have no conscience about depriving Schoenberg’s heirs of royalty payments, there are full performances on YouTube.

The avant-garde, as well as many other niche cultural phenomena, is going through a golden age of accessibility. But when, in recent weeks, the great modernist composers Hans Werner Henze and Elliott Carter died, one after the other, it felt like the end of an era. Carter died at the immense age of 103, after an extraordinary career – he didn’t really get going until his forties, and many of his best pieces were written in the last 10 years. Much as I love his music, I have to admit that his exquisitely refined but often demanding and rebarbative style no longer seems to belong to an essential part of musical culture. These days, the high avant-garde is something that few people enjoy; you can perfectly well take a serious interest in music as a whole while not knowing anything about this. It seems to occupy a corner, and no longer stands at the front, or in the art’s living heart.

Why this happened is to do with the means of access, as well as the new daunting breadth of choice. The ease by which you can access anything can lead to difficulty in knowing where to start. In many ways, it is difficult to be adventurous in a land without any kind of signposts. How would you find your way to Elliott Carter from the front page of iTunes, if you didn’t know he ever existed? And the means of access doesn’t encourage solid, committed listening. It encourages you to dip, sample, move on with a click. No one, I guess, is ever going to come to the Carter Symphony of Three Orchestras by this means; it is not like the endurance of waiting for an LP to come to its end.

It’s now more than 100 years since Schoenberg’s revolution in sound, and since, still, barely anyone likes it, we may regretfully conclude that it is never going to attain much popularity. And yet the avant-garde has fed into the musical mainstream. When Stockhausen died, it was surprising that his reputation seemed to rest on having influenced Radiohead; and yet it was so. Dance tracks wouldn’t exist without the late-1940s Paris experiments in sound sampling, and some early 1970s minimalist epics from California. Cage’s thought is everywhere. The joy of the rebarbative has been taught to a mass audience. If the ear-splitting noise of Dizzee Rascal’s “Bonkers” can become the most popular hit of the decade, what’s the problem with Conlon Nancarrow or Birtwistle?

Well, the tradition that Elliott Carter worked in and brought to an elegant climax may never be to the taste of millions. But the extraordinary innovations he brought to music from the 1950s onwards are now part of the collective imagination. Sometime soon, someone will try to make a track which tries to run two speeds simultaneously, or where the melody speeds up as the beat slows down, just as Carter did 60 years ago. The avant-garde didn’t die with Carter: it now has a tenacious hold on a small, committed audience, and a licence to go on working, to our general benefit, in the laboratory of advanced ideas.

Too much of Nate the Great

The blogger and pundit Nate Silver had an incredible US election. Abused for predicting an Obama victory against most expectations, he had the last laugh. Using methods derived from sports forecasting, he correctly predicted the result in 49 out of 50 states – when Florida declares, he may get the full deck. His fortune and reputation are made.

I’m not sure I quite like the development of absolutely accurate forecasting. Once, elections were like Christmas – you put in your request, you weren’t sure what you were going to get, someone speculated wildly, and it was all a very pleasant surprise in the end. Now, as in an Isaac Asimov short story, there seems little point in holding the election at all, with all its expense and disruption. If Mr Silver is always going to be right, why not just ask him for the result and proceed accordingly?

More realistically, how long will it be before Mr Silver’s forecast starts to become a factor in electoral choices? If, sitting in Ohio, one heard that Nate the Great had said that one was going to vote for the Democrats, it would strongly encourage one to place one’s vote elsewhere. I foresee that Mr Silver’s fame as an oracle will, at the next election, work against the accuracy of his results.

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