Avant-Garde. Things that are way out into the future, way ahead of their time. People like Picasso, whose invention of Cubism stood out starkly with all the rest of art. Or Marcel Duchamp, whose upside-down toilet shocked and forever changed the meaning of art. James Joyce, with his new style of literature- stream of consciousness.
But when it comes to music, not that many avant-garde musicians come into mind. I mean, you could say the Beatles and Stravinsky were avant-garde, but you have to remember that they didn’t do anything totally out of the ordinary. Their music still stayed within the boundaries of their time, even though it did breach traditional boundaries occasionally. And if you think about it, if we were to play music like theirs today, it wouldn’t be considered out of the ordinary.
But there is one avant-garde musician whose music, if you were to play it today, would still be considered bizarre. It is music totally out of the world, and definitely something I would have never thought of on my own. This man was Arseny Avraamov.
Avraamov was a Soviet composer. During his time, Stalin had decreed a rule that all art forms had to confine to Socialist Realism. In other words, all art had to be dedicated to the USSR and made the way the USSR wanted them to be made. As a result, many musical pieces produced in Russia were dedicated to events like the October Revolution or the triumphs against the Nazis in World War 2. However, the downside to this was that many talented musicians felt they were being restricted too much, and therefore left the country. It was one of the largest intellectual drains in Russian history.
But to people like Avraamov, this was a wonderful thing. Avraamov hated the traditional type of music, such as that of Beethoven and Mozart, and was glad that the USSR was ridding of them. He wanted to radicalize music and make it everything but traditional. This sense of rebellion was very apparent early on. He was a pioneer on film techniques, and even invented graphic-sonic art. Arseny created an “ultrachromatic” 48-tone microtonal system, something definitely not in traditional music boundaries. He also refused to join the army in World War One and fled Russia for some time.
But perhaps his greatest sign of rebellion and avant-garde-ness was his work “Symphony of Factory Sirens.” The fact that we cannot find a score or a recording of this work today is reflective of the type of work it was—for it would have been impossible to produce either. Yet, below is an audio of what it would have been like- a reconstruction made in 2003: (and a picture of him conducting the actual thing)
You hear this, and you ask so what? Well, if you think about it, where do these sounds come from? They definitely don’t sound like typical musical instruments. It’s because they aren’t. Rather, the music is made up of a huge cast of choirs (joined by spectators), the foghorns of the entire Soviet Caspian flotilla, two batteries of artillery guns, a number of full infantry regiments (including a machine-gun division) hydroplanes, and all the factory sirens of Baku. A central “steam-whistle machine” pounded out “The Internationale” and “La Marseillaise” as noisy “autotransports” (half-tracks) raced across Baku for a gigantic sound finale in the festival square. Conductors posted on specially built towers signaled various sound units with colored flags and pistol shots.
Basically, Arseny Avraamov had the avant-garde genius idea of conducting a symphony across an entire city for a Russian Festival dedicated to the October Revolution. I mean, wow. This is just such a creative idea. Just the very idea of it surprises and awes me to the very core. Who else besides Avraamov would have thought of that?
As you have seen, Avraamov had decided to expand music onto a larger scale. Instead of the typical orchestra, he decided to make it the whole city, a very radical idea, even to this day. But now I’m thinking: if he made music bigger, can I not make it smaller? Maybe I should have a symphony within a human body, where the heartbeat is like drums, the tiny sounds of cell moving could be the melody, etc. Maybe that’s what I can do. Who knows, it might make me the second Arseny Avraamov.