“Avant-garde music is sort of research music. You're glad someone's done it but you don't necessarily want to listen to it.” Brian Eno
I don't like the term “avant garde”, it's one of those terms which is so elitist that if you've come across it, you've probably already worked out what it means. It's like finding yourself in Blackpool and asking someone to tell you what a hen party is.
I'm not really willing to go with the term experimental either. It's true that much of this kind of music is driven by an exercise to test a theory. But an experiment is where you learn just as much from being wrong as being right. Eno's right in that sense: some of this stuff is created with the starting point of conducting an interesting technical exercise but that doesn't necessarily mean that the end result is right or wrong as a piece of music. Who's to judge? Music is completely subjective. And being “wrong” in the sense of breaking away from traditions is often the point of much of this kind of music anyway.
I'd rather stick to more basic words such as “weird”, “odd” or “barking mad”.
“Strange” isn't a bad one. Strange matter is a substance identified by physicists as being composed of up, down and strange quarks. “Up down and strange” is as good a description of this kind of music as any I've ever come across.
What was once only available to small groups of people who were themselves the experimenters, this strange music has now become while not quite a tradition, certainly no longer unfamiliar – in the same way that some of the revolutionary works of art in 20th century still seem strange but are now less shocking than they once were. If you've ever watched a Tom and Jerry cartoon, you'll already have heard some incredibly bizarre music, largely based on a kind of free fall jazz. If you've ever seen any kind of modern horror movie, you've probably heard that discordant metallic sound, like some ghastly reverberating spectral gate swinging open. It's the sound of a waterphone, an atonal musical instrument invented in the 1970s and now so frequently used in creating suspense that it's become a cliché. Minimalist electronic music, astonishingly new in its day, is now used to sell us cars and mobile phones.
It is unsurprising that this stuff has its roots in anti-establishment movements and deliberately challenging Western classical traditions as it allows people who aren't from the elite of trained musicians and composers to play around with sound and musical ideas. I'm not in any way trying to dismiss Beethoven or Debussy as obvious but I could never do what they did.
Music used to be a more communal activity. In that sense being "experimental", although it may sound "futuristic", takes us back to a time when music was more primitive: before all the rules were invented. Some of the ideas used to create strange music are now easy to play around with thanks to the internet. With technology which was a pipe dream only a few decades ago it's now easy to produce some amazing, if not always beautiful sounds which you might not normally think of as something to listen to.
You decide whether Eno has a point or not.