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| AVANT ROCK by Bill Martin |
Open Court Paperback
by Jim Haynes
originally published in The Wire, 220: June 2002
Bill Martin's scholastic investigation begins with the good intentions of offering an explicit definition of what constitutes Avant Rock. However, he has recognised the improbability of corralling an ever expanding aesthetic discourse under a singular banner, and instead presents a set of clues for readers to work out Avant Rock's definition for themselves. This book centres on the historical dialogue between the avant garde quarters of rock and the avant gardes of its two aesthetic neighbours - jazz and classical composition - with token nods to HipHop and electronica. Speaking in a voice that is congenial and always celebratory, he litters his text with lists of mainstream critical favourites such as the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Patti Smith, plus those championed by the underground, such as Sonic Youth, Stereolab and Jim O'Rourke. Interjected throughout such pleasantries, Martin devotes a considerable amount of space to non-rockers like John Cage, Cecil Taylor, Yoko Ono, John Coltrane, Glenn Gould and Miles Davis. These citations are obviously intended to form parallels and analogies between the established avant gardes of jazz and classical and the amorphous terrain of rock's avant garde.
However, Martin would do better to differentiate between the historical avant garde and the contemporary avant garde. Despite the running commentary of typical postmodern quotations of Cagian indeterminacy, Derridian deconstruction and Deleuzian rhizomes, he always returns to a historically uniform model of the avant garde hinged upon an outdated notion of the artist as Modernist genius. This is specifically determined within his repeated references to the telemetry of cultural production within a concrete narrative towards that which is New, as being "this 'next step in the logic'/'another logic altogether' dynamic [which] came to define, I would argue, the avant gardes of classical music, jazz, and then rock - I would daresay that this dynamic still defines the avant garde in art and intellectual pursuits generally."
Yikes, that's old school, dude. His thoughts are eerily similar to those of 50s American critic Clement Greenberg, who heralded Abstract Expressionism as the logical path from the European avant garde of Surrealism and Dada through an ontological understanding of a medium's essence. Greenberg's arguments and coddling of artists ultimately led to some of America's most boring contributions to art history. Furthermore, like Greenberg, Martin asserts his aesthetic proclivities upon a theoretical discussion, placing 70s Prog Rock with its escapist trajectory out of the 60s into the fictions of Yes, Magma and King Crimson as the ideal example for Avant Rock's definition.
Beyond these problematic assertions, Martin's biggest failing is in his inability to heed his own declaration, "to take a step that called the different arts themselves into question". Aside from the apologetic rhetoric on Prog Rock where he clearly articulates the successes and failures of that sub-genre, he never even begins to question how the institutional and administrative forces, ranging from the mundane (such as the hubris of 'the scene') to the corporate (such as networking, self-promotion, and stage-managing), have negatively impacted rock's avant garde. Taking on a role as the cheerleader for the home team, he Instead valorises the artists mentioned earlier alongside many others. This failing stands as a warning for every critical voice. Criticism at its best should judge any artistic practice by the success or otherwise of the work itself -not by how many grants an artist gets or by how cool somebody else perceives it to be. Only after that investigation is complete can the critic begin to extract and reconcile the hidden paradigms that mirror cultural production. While I honestly believe that Martin truly loves all of the music he writes about, his uncritical celebration of it becomes his undoing.