Rock & Roll and the Avant Garde

Actor James Coburn (left) and Composer Joseph Byrd in 1968.

Actor James Coburn (left) and Composer Joseph Byrd in 1968.

JUNE, 1968

Few art forms are duller than the Estab­lishment Avant Garde. This is especially true in music — precisely that area in which popular art is perhaps at its strongest.

It may be true that there are only a handful of good composers at any one time, and that we judge our contempo­raries too harshly. Ezra Pound suggested the same for poets, with convincing his­torical reflections. So let's make a handful (five) of composers hors concours - say, La Monte Young, Morton Feld­man, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and anyone else you want. For the rest, well, international prizes still tend to be awarded to pieces that were retardaire and derivative fifty years ago. And this at a time when Cage, as documented by his new book, A Year From Monday, is progressing through music to the medium of revolution.

The most recent year in the life of an extraordinary and promising young, electronic composer, Joseph Byrd, suggests an alternative. What Byrd has done might provide a key to understand­ing a great deal of contemporary cultu­ral developments, and particularly the shifting relationship between the so-called fine and the popular arts. In effect, Byrd has rejected the now conventional avant garde guise so closely associated with the stance of the "fine" artist. Forswearing the composition of classical, "serious" music, and the temptations of teaching at the academy (UCLA and UC Irvine), Byrd formed a rock and roll group, and invented for it the tempting title: "The United States of America."                       

More: Joseph Byrd also found half a dozen extremely talented, academy/con­servatory trained musicians to follow him. Bypassing the "hit single" approach to the popular music market, the USA started off by recording an L.P., recently released by Columbia Records. A close parallel is provided by a Canadian group, the Collectors, from Vancouver —again well-schooled "classical" musicians whose full  creative intellect and energies are now flourishing within the realm of popular art. And there will be others to follow, each recognizing that the Establishment Avant Garde is spiritually bankrupt — possibly a rich and fascinating territory in which theoreticians, critics and historians may still thrive, but a veritable Valley of Death for the artist.                              

Of course there are special problems and some paradoxes attendant to such manoeuvres. There is doubtless a mark of dignity in any artist refusing to be used like a petit fonctionnaire or out-and-out prostitute to perpetuate an official "culture" based upon elitist definitions of fine art. But then, what about caterwauling in the not-that-noble context of good old fashioned American cut-throat commer­cialism surrounding most of the 'popular arts?

What helps groups like the USA and the Collectors get around some of these dil­emmas is precisely their heritage of "fine" artists. The abstract and conceptualized faculties of the conscious mind, a com­mon product from such a background, provides them with the possibility of a new, stronger and more vital relationship to modes of expression in the popular arts. These, on the other hand, reflect the unconscious, collective mentality as in the communal statements of genuine folk art.

This is certainly not to suggest that the fine arts are superior to the popular arts; nevertheless they function very differently. The reasonable and civilized man must recognize this, just as he is free to accept, without any contradiction of social or es­thetic principle, what both realms provide for the enriching of his life. But for those whose interests are drawn to what may be called cultural history, there is the obliga­tion, first, to distinguish the two realms of fine and popular art; then, second, there is the invitation to make some sense out of what has been happening in the arts for the last dozen or so years.

We have submitted as two key develop­ments: the increasing importance of the popular vis-à-vis the fine arts; and what may well be a major move on the part of more young, talented and classically-train­ed artists to shift their attentions to the popular realm. There is also a significant corollary: the development of increasingly classical art forms within the popular arts. Back again to rock and roll: an excellent example of this is the music of Country Joe and the Fish, who have released two superlative LPs on Vanguard. The first of these records, Electric Music for Mind and Body, contains a band entitled "Section 43," which is about as close to being a classical composition as one is likely to find in any popular context. But the Fish's second album, I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die, goes even further toward formulating a new genre of music, that transcends, in some ways, the dichotomy of fine (or clas­sical) and, popular art. This is music in the realm of mythical sound, quite conson­nant with the direction of musical innova­tion being developed consciously by The United States of America — especially in such compositions as "The American Met­aphysical Circus and The American Way of Love." Other important artists contributing to this phenomenon of Ameri­can mythical music are John Fahey (par­ticularly his album, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, and all of the records by the Mothers of Invention and the Velvet Underground. The topic warrants separate and somewhat fuller treatment, per­haps, than can be accorded to it here.

What this admittedly special case of the interplay between the fine and popular arts indicates, however, is that it is long since time we began to sharpen our per­ceptions (critical vocabulary and concepts, esthetic sensibilities, criteria of historical significance, etc.) of. such developments. For example, the term: "rock and roll" is no longer of much empirical utility, except in the most general sort of reference to contemporary popular music. With the Beatles, around 1966, the dozen-year his­tory of "rock and roll" pretty effectively comes to an end; the formerly coherent genre is replaced by a mosaic of acid rock, folk rock, blues rock, raga rock, quasi-classical composition, teeny-bopper titila­tion, the realm of mythical sound, etc. But the implications of these historical shifts go far beyond either "rock and  roll" or popular music generally. They relate to all media of popular culture.

Sooner or later we are going to have to take a more intellectually reasonable and emotionally sympathetic approach to the popular arts. Against this, the tradition of an elitist, fine arts concept of "culture" ex­erts a powerful inhibiting influence, epito­mized by the attitudes of the academies (universities, colleges, art schools, conser­vatories, etc.). A few enlightened educators (like the Rev. John M. Culkin, S.J., and his Center for Communications at Fordham University, or lain Baxter and others at the Communications Department of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver; B.C.) have begun to make some inroads. For example, movies are beginning to be accepted as a proper subject for the liberal arts curriculum (in contradistinction to "The History of the Cinema" or some other such approach that attempts to deaden its subject into admissibility). Yet there is still no course in TV watching that could provide us with even the minimum equipment for cultural self-defense. So we and our children will continue to be vic­tims of media such as TV. — until we at least begin to try to make some sense out of what the hell these media are, what they mean, and what they are doing to us in all our pretentious ignorance. And there is no course in the history of rock and roll or rhythm and blues. There is not even any comprehensive study of the subject in print — although, it is true that Dr. Carl Belz and I have been at work on such a project for the last three years. But there is enough raw material for a dozen volumes.

Beyond this, what we need is a clearing house for research in media of communi­cation and the popular arts, and the in­auguration of some concerted efforts to collect and classify the primary data, the tapes, films, billboards and records, as - in themselves - often significant and some­times great works of art.

Kurt von Meier


This is the cover of the June, 1968 edition of artscanda magazine, in which this article appeared.

Kurt was an occasional contributor, due in part to his friendship with its editor-in-chief at the time, Anne Brodzky.