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'Avant-garde': What does it mean today?

The dog has finally caught its tail - or the tail its dog. Twentieth-century music has traditionally symbolized a quest for the innovative and the shocking. It's been but a few years since professionals began to admit that this quest was running to extremes and started asking the question , ''What does it mean to be daring anymore?''

Today the sort of change that used to be the work of generations has been falsified into an affair basically of minutes, and listeners have started to take notice.

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Of course, the seeming need to shock in order to command attention can be traced back to Beethoven's time and the Romantic notion of the struggle inherent in all art worthy of the name. But it took the post-World War I 20th century to convert us seriously to the superstition of art that expunges no guilt, mollifies no fury, and admits of no exemptions to the rule that all must be tempted and tortured, tested and tried.

That is a fair picture of stereotyped 20th-century art, including music. Not everyone along the way has accepted the dictum of music as a progressive art that had to result in latter-day angst. But sometimes, even in the most broad-minded, it has given birth to a seldom-noticed side effect: the notion that individuality doesn't occur within the subtle, within the context of overt, aural beauty, of formal and artistic coherence. American culture inherited much of this attitude from across the Atlantic, its chronic inferiority complex picking right up on it after World War II. Nodding approval all the way, Americans more or less marched headlong into the 1950s and the raging era of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the iconoclast ethic.

Whether the new in music has come since then to mean to us the strict, astringent, academic hard line of Elliott Carter or Earle Browne, or the ''soft, '' freewheeling looseness of impressionistic styles, as with Michael Colgrass or John Cage, matters little really. What matters is that we have developed a tendency to react only to the shock value of newness - for better or worse, the sensational. Our collective experience since the '50s and '60s has in so many ways taught us to react mainly to extremes and to think in black-and-white terms.

My point is that this educated tendency has had a direct impact on the way 20 th-century music gets chosen, programmed, or recorded, as well as on the spirit and framework in which it is received by the public. This selection process is done out of a rather abstract sense of altruism - a feeling that it is ''the right thing to do,'' and frequently as a token gesture at that. However strong the sense of obligation may be on the part of concert promoters and recording companies, it will not alone make a success of the gesture. The conviction must run deeper in performers and managements who present

modern works, and their frame of reference needs to reach beyond the ''top-10 '' habit of repeatedly looking to what is currently fashionable when settling on unfamiliar works to program.

Individuals ''in the industry,'' just like the people buying the tickets, have been exposed - when at all - heavily, exclusively, and long to what is a la mode in the music world. We have come full circle, to a point of diminishing returns, in expecting the avant-garde everywhere we listen. And I suspect our openness to individuality has been at least temporarily closed off, when anything but the voice of the pathbreaker tries to speak to us.

We've become accustomed to applying a double standard when listening - reflexively passing stylistic judgments on works of our own time that we wouldn't on older music, such as Mozart or Bruckner. Schubert, for example, was no kind of pathbreaker. He was never concerned about front-guard, rear-guard, or anything like that: He simply busied himself with composing consummately beautiful music.

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If today the newest can hardly be ''new'' enough, and is so often out of date before the ink on the score is dry - what, then, is at the cutting edge?

This, I believe: for composers to be themselves. To be courageous enough to strike out on whatever path they feel inwardly led to, and to stay there, in spite of jeering critics and the winds of fashion, if that is where their instincts and voice find expression.

A good deal of this is coming to pass lately, not only with composers like George Rochberg or Krzysztof Penderecki, who several times since the late '70s have pulled the stylistic rug out from under their disciples and devotees, but with even younger people such as Joseph Schwantner, whose last few compositions have departed noticeably from his wild-and-woolly earlier idiom. The great caveat of my student days as a composer - ''be highly original '' - has evolved, as a healthy consequence of all the style-crazed scrambling for attention and the mania for being ''with it,'' into simply ''be yourself,'' the highest form of originality, after all.

But then there are the figures who always dared to write the things they felt most deeply, even when radically out of style. Elie Siegmeister comes to mind, whose sticking to what he has believed in (and jumping on no bandwagons) must surely have added some tenuous moments to his long career during the last 30 years.

If being oneself, against all costs, is being daring, perhaps it could steadily lessen the ''risks'' of honesty for others - and not pass into obsolescence, as many fashions do, but rather into something we learn to expect as a matter of course. A norm that conducts us more assuredly toward the blend of head and heart, where the most successful musical endeavors have always taken place.

A listening list of comparisons:

* 1957: Elie Siegmeister, Symphony No. 3; Pierre Boulez, Third Piano Sonata.

* 1960: Krzysztof Penderecki, Threnody; Robert Ward, Piano Concerto.

* 1962: Samuel Barber, Piano Concerto; Elliott Carter, Double Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord.

* 1968: Luciano Berio, Sinfonia; Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 6.

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