John Cage — this is from memory, so this is a paraphrase — said that "we need an avant-garde, otherwise nothing would be invented." His tone was urgent, it was for him a question of human survival, and for Cage there was no meaningful distinction between physical and aesthetic survival, concerns that are made articulate in writings from his series of Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) to the late Overpopulation and Art.
Cage well knew inventors focused on physical survival: his father and Buckminster Fuller, for example, and he cheerfully accepted his teacher, Schoenberg's, identification of Cage as an inventor in the field of music; likewise, he was always enthusiastic about the musical inventions of his colleagues. In Houston, many years ago, I was supposed to do a radio interview with Cage about his Ryoanji; instead, we spent an hour in his hotel room discussing the frequency response of PZM microphones and the Piano Mechanics of the Canadian composer Gordon Monahan: topics connected by an enthusiasm for invention.
Invention, musical and otherwise, is often equated with novelty, but just as often, the more important quality is utility. The distinction here is important as novelty is not an inherently stable identification. Novelty can fade and the invention can become familiar, or even escape further notice. I don't wish to discount this transient value of novelty: music is an art of the moment and sometimes we need works of art that belong to one moment and no other, that are here and then gone. But we can't be naive about this.* Moreover, novelty is not attached to the invention itself but rather to the perception and — ultimately — memory of the invention.
Utility, in contrast, does not necessarily imply a connection to a single, particular work or its perception, but rather to facilitating the production of work in general. Tools. Techniques. Processes. With the right set of tools, the production of merely novel results may be trivial. With the right set of tools, once can build whole repertoires, not just single works.
Some inventions are incremental, others represent leaps of imagination. Sometimes successive inventions seem to make such narrative sense that in hindsight we forget the large gaps (consider the progression from Cowell's String Piano to Cage's Prepared Piano and then to Monahan's Piano Mechanics.) Leaps can be elegant, but sometimes all the magic is in an incremental approach: someone — again this is my fragile memory at work — once noted that most mathematicians, when faced with the task of crossing a valley between two mountains, will suspend a bride over the valley but, in contrast, the method of the great mathematician Alexandre Groethendieck** was fill in the valley, stone for stone, until the two mountains met. It is probably next to impossible to convey to my younger musical friends the excitement, in my minimalist youth, that accompanied the news of each development in the music of Young or Reich or Glass or Lucier or Ashley, composers who built their music up from scratch or first principles. (Perhaps you can still get a glimpse of this narrative of discovery and yes, invention, from Reich's Writings on Music or Lucier's Chambers. The same goes for Cowell's New Musical Resources, Lou Harrison's Music Primer, Jo Kondo's essay on The Art of Being Ambiguous or even the first book of Stockhausen's Texte; texts by non-musicians that I find equally useful are the Pedagogical Sketchbook of Paul Klee and Lawrence Wechsler's Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin.)
In a critical, even pessimistic tone, I have sometimes characterized our present musical moment as being one of consolidation rather than invention. I may well be wrong. I hope I am wrong. It may well be that my perception of a lack of useful inventiveness is more a function of my habits and memories than an honest assessment. But the idea of invention does seem to be less valued these days than a kind of polish, just as the appearance of having an attitude is somehow more important than actually having one.
* Note the name of this blog.
** Groethendieck ought to be the subject of an opera. But I digress.