Research Seminar / Forskningsforum: Guest lecture by Benjamin Piekut

Benjamin D. Piekut (Cornell University) will be giving a talk on "The Vernacular Avant-Garde."

Benjamin Piekut


Benjamin Piekut is a historian of experimental music, jazz, and rock after 1960. His monograph, Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and its Limits, was published in 2011 by the University of California Press. Situated at the intersection of free jazz, the Cagean avant-garde, Fluxus, radical politics, and popular music, the book portrays New York experimentalism in the 1960s as a series of conflicts, struggles, and exclusions. His second monograph, The World Is a Problem: Henry Cow and the Vernacular Avant-garde, is under contract with Duke University Press. That research explores the movement of experimentalism into popular music domains and how such transformations might suggest a reformulation of avant-garde theories.

He is also the editor of two books. The first, Tomorrow is the Question, was published in 2014 by the University of Michigan Press; the collection explores new corners of experimental music history, most notably those in popular culture, in performance and recordings, and in sites outside of North America. The second, The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (co-edited with George E. Lewis), is a two-volume set with 60 contributors from the arts, humanities, social, and natural sciences (2016). With David Nicholls, he co-edited a special issue of Contemporary Music Review for John Cage’s 100th birthday.

He has published articles in a wide range of journals and edited collections. His essay in TDR, “Deadness: Technologies of the Intermundane,” co-authored with Jason Stanyek, received the “Outstanding Article Award” in 2011 from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, and was selected by MIT Press as one of its 50 most influential articles in all disciplines in the history of its Journals Division. Previously a Lecturer at the University of Southampton in the UK, he is now an associate professor in the Department of Music at Cornell.


Ben has provided the following abstract for his talk:

In this talk, I attempt to nudge the theory of the avant-garde to take account of historical developments in vernacular music making at the end of the twentieth century. Influential theorizations of the historical and neo avant-gardes have engaged the popular only sporadically, often as a set of materials or techniques that elite artists might use to push their interventions into the realm of daily life. Drawing on the work of Miriam Hansen, I develop the concept of the vernacular avant-garde to describe developments within popular music after the second World War, when changing material conditions (cheap LP records and consumer-grade tape decks) allowed a generation of rock musicians to encounter, imitate, and extend the new musical vocabularies of electronic, experimental, and contemporary music, as well as those of the jazz avant-garde. Like other avant-gardes, this one critiqued its conditions of production, challenged aesthetic autonomy, sought a radical transformation of society, and engaged productively with new technological means of aesthetic experience. I share examples from my research on the British rock band, Henry Cow (1968-78), and a string of associated groups and artists: Intermodulation, Dagmar Krause, Anthony Moore, Faust, and Slapp Happy.


All welcome!

Published Mar. 5, 2018 10:11 AM - Last modified Mar. 7, 2018 3:23 PM