The Frame

Avant garde music is often dismissed as not being listenable, that its the music’s fault that most people don’t listen to it. I don’t think that’s entirely the case.

The frame, the way that this music is presented, plays a larger role than we think in this music’s reception. The frame has the power to make us either ignore a piece or become interested in it. It creates the means by which we experience the avant garde, for better or for worse.

Here are three examples of resonant frames that I have found around avant garde music:

Humor: How many times do we laugh at things that would be inappropriate otherwise? The same can happen with music, listening to things that are beyond our comfort zone because it’s hilarious. Shura Cherkassky’s interpretation of Shostakovich’s Polka is filled with deadpan and slapstick humor. The manic depressive harmony, dynamics, and tempo Cherkassky highlights bring out abundant laughter from the audience (in a concert hall no less!).

Mood: When the music brings out the beauty or terror of a moment it draws us in, no matter how weird. This is abundant in film. Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is used in the moon encounter of the enigmatic Monolith. The awe inducing uneasiness brought out from the music resonates with this unsettling scene. It draws us in in the most terrifying way.

Relevance: If it resonates with a moment that means something, art can draw us in, regardless of its eccentricities. Bob Ostertag’s 1992 “All The Rage”, written for the Kronos Quartet, is a memento of the 1991 riot in San Fransisco that took place after the veto of AB101, a bill that banned discrimination against Californian gay men and lesbians. The use of actual field recordings from the riot with gripping accounts of the time paint a visceral musical landscape of the ever relevant horrors of discrimination.

The frame has the immense power to beckon us into a work of music. It creates a world onto which we experience the music. This is something not exclusive to weird music either: all music works within a frame. What frames can you find? What frames can you create?

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