Monday, August 26, 2019

Adorno in Philosophy of New Music, "... music must emancipate itself as well from twelve-tone technique." comparing that to Ellul's observations on art in technocratic societies

Theodore Adorno
Copyright (c)2006 by the Regents of the Univesrity of Minnesota
translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor
ISBN-13: 978-0-8166-3666-2
ISBN-10: 0-8166-3666-4

page 45

... This is the origin of twelve-tone technique. It culminates in the will to abolish the fundamental contradiction in occidental music, that between the polyphonic fugue and the homophonic sonata.

We'll come back to this when I discuss, briefly, August Halm.

page 47

[on the subject of twelve-tone technique] Nothing unthematic remains, nothing that is not to be understood as having derived from what is identical in however latent a fashion.
Leonard B. Meyer might have had a comment about how this was late late Romanticism as an articulation of the ideology of organicism as a paradigm of musical development.

page 53

... The arithmetical play of twelve-tone technique and the constraint that it exercises is reminiscent of astrology, and it is no mere fad that many of its adepts fall pretty to it.  As a system closed in on itself and at the same time self-opaque, twelve-tone rationality--in which the constellation of means is immediately hypostatized as goal and law--verges on superstition. The legality in which it is executed is at the same time simply inflicted on the material that it determines without, however, this determination serving any meaning. Exactitude, as mathematical calculation, is substituted  for what traditional art knew as idea, which in late romanticism itself unquestionably degenerated into ideology as the affirmation of a metaphysical ...

page 54
... The question that twelve-tone composition poses to the composer is not how musical meaning can be organized but rather how organization can become meaningful. What Schoenberg has produced over the past twenty-five years are progressive attempts at an answer to this question. ... What is domineering in these late gestures, however, responds to what is tyrannical in the origin of the system itself. Twelve-tone exactitude, which banishes all meaning as if it were an illusion claiming to exist in itself in the musical object, treats music according to the schema of fate. 

... Twelve-tone technique is truly its fate. It subjugates music by setting it free. The subject rules over the music by means of a rational system in order to succumb to this rational system itself. ...

page 89
... In other words, if it is to hope to make it through the winter, music must emancipate itself as well from twelve-tone technique. This emancipation , however, is not to be accomplished by a return to the irrationality that preceded it and that is now thwarted at every turn by the postulates of exact composition that twelve-tone technique itself cultivated; rather, it can be accomplished through the absorption of twelve-tone technique by free composition and of its rules by the critical ear. Only from twelve-tone technique can music learn to remain master of itself, but only if it does not become its slave. [emphases added]

page 102

... today the alienation inherent in the consistency of artistic technique itself forms the content of the artwork. [emphasis added] The shocks of the incomprehensible--which artistic technique in the age of its meaninglessness dispenses--reverse. They illuminate the meaningless world. New music sacrifices itself to this. It has taken all of the darkness and guilt of the world on itself. All its happiness is in the knowledge of unhappiness; all its beauty is in denial of the semblance of the beautiful. No one, neither individuals nor groups, wants to have anything to do with it. It dies away unheard, without an echo.

That last part sure seems emo.

Adorno's assertion that there is a fundamental contradiction in occidental music between the polyphonic fugue and the homophonic sonata is an idea that I think is a mere assertion.  It's not even really Adorno's idea, and he didn't make much secret that this juxtaposition or opposition was developed by August Halm.  Halm juxtaposed contrasting principles of development by way of fugue and sonata and thought that ... Bruckner ... represented a compositional approach that could effectively synthesize the two contrasting approaches.  Not being much of a Bruckner fan I'm afraid I can't comment too much on that particular aspect of Halm's writing.

But I will say that I just don't take seriously the idea that there is a contradiction in occidental music between the polyphonic fugue and the homophonic sonata and, even if there were one, there's no reason that the hyper-thematicism of twelve-tone technique would provide a solution to a theoretical impasse.  Ben Johnston, I think, was right to regard twelve-tone technique as an impressive stop-gap effort to find new sounds that did not seem beholden to Romantic era harmonic and melodic cliches, but it was a technique that ensured a whole new era of aural cliches were developed that, unlike those of earlier eras, do not even fasten themselves to our memories.

Adorno could insist that we can't go back to "irrationality", which could be construed to mean that now that newer more technocratic post-tonal methods of composition exist there's no going back to the "intuitive" approach of composing tonal music in the older styles.  The problem is that he's never come up with a coherent or compelling reason why tonality was "used up".  As I have suggested in the case of film critics lamenting the lack of ideas in contemporary cinema, the problem with the perception of cliches may not be with production altogether, it may be over-consumption.  Adorno listened to too much music and in the process of listening to too much music was dismayed to hear so many things that sounded like cliches, even more so than Richard Wagner claiming to hear the clattering of the kitchen work in some music by Mozart.

But what is it supposed to mean that Adorno claims that music has to be emancipated from twelve-tone technique?  Music, which is spectacularly reified in the passage I'm alluding to, must absorb twelve-tone technique into free composition.  Only from twelve-tone technique can music learn to master itself but only if it does not become enslaved to twelve-tone technique.

I'd say that we could just use twelve-tone methods as a way to play with how blues and ragtime riffs can be run forwards, backwards, upside down and then upside down and also backwards over jazz harmonies and still have something that sounds fun ... which is clearly not what Adorno would want any of us to think.  But he was vague in the passage quoted above as to how one could absorb twelve-tone technique into free composition and remain mastery over it.

How about Adorno's claim that "the alienation inherent in the consistency of artistic technique itself forms the content of the artwork." The alienation inherent in the consistency of artistic technique itself forms the content of the artwork?  What does that mean?  Well ... at this point I think it might be fun to cross reference Adorno's ideas with the ideas of Jacques Ellul, who wrote an awful lot considering the nature of technique as an ideology unto itself and the way it suffuses what we could call technocratic societies and what Adorno at times called the administrated society.  Perhaps by way of a paradox the inhumane inhumanity of technique in the arts as a subject unto itself was supposed to provide a meta-commentary on the inhumane humanity of contemporary society.

Well, let's see what Ellul had to say on a few things:

Jacques Ellul
Copyright (c) 2014 by Papadakis Publisher
translated by Mikchael Johnson and David Lovekin
ISBN 978-1-906506-40-7

page 52
... Thus, all art is trapped between the desire for revolutionary protests and the technicality of all of its operations, including those that expressed artistic tradition and unique, individual virtuosity. [emphasis added]... Someone claims to be a painter or a musician as an identity and is then recognized as such by a group. This mutual recognition is an intentional awareness that enables the differentiation of a piece of metal in a museum from that which the garage mechanic throws in the trash because it is broken or defective. But the claim of someone who uses the most modern techniques becomes particularly harmful when the message is reactionary; they fight against an art, an aesthetic, and a society that dates from the nineteenth century. They are unaware that using the techniques of the technical system only entrench them more deeply in that system, transforming them into pillars of the current society and not in the one they imagine and fight against. Don Quixotes no longer exist; neither the folly nor the wisdom of Quixote informs. Instead, only a pretentiousness supported by blind ignorance prevails. 

page 53
... Literature and art communicate with ideology because everything has become political. The variations on this formula are endless, but they all say the same thing. They warn against disguised propaganda (for the benefit, of course, of an explicit propaganda although not declared as such); they call for involvement with the ideology of the masses, and they rail against economic constraint, and so on. In its totality, we see here art with a message, which, behind its facade of many Marxist explanations, amounts to little more than an art desperately aligned with a society devoid of signifying power, one of the effects of the technical system.

But, in contrast to committed art, we find a counter current: the technicization of society leads to a disengagement from all forms of message, even that of abstraction, and this absence of message leads to a veritable hypertrophy of technical formalism. [emphasis added] (Moreover, in this current of thought, there are at least two possible positions: for some, art must express the ineffable; for others, it must exclusively create forms. In one case, one could say that abstract art, "neither, in its means or goals, evokes visible manifestations of the world." The inner man is, thus, freed to produce reality as he feels it. The artist reveals the concealed world within himself. But, in the other case, artistic creation becomes its own end. We need only concern ourselves with the production of a text, a color, or a musical score.) One no longer creates anything; rather, one creates a form that has not yet existed. That is all. Artists of the committed stripe will argue that other artists are anti-revolutionary and are running dogs of the bourgeois order. Those of the abstract stripe will condemn their committed brethren as retarded and retrograde and mired down in past delusions, because there is no longer the possibility of any message in the technical realm. Here we find the major schism in the art of our time, which, in all its expressions, is torn asunder.  [emphasis added] There is no single style. ...

page 75
... All creativity is concentrated in technique, and the millions of technical objects attest to this creativity that is so much more dazzling than all that painters or musicians have produced.  ... It is as if this artist were placed in the impossible position of creating on the fringe of society, as if he were standing on the bank of a giant technical current. In society as a whole, this will translate into a movement of intellectual activity to a second degree, to that of reflexivity. We will see a contemplation that, at first, explains but then finally duplicates itself indefinitely. 79
... The artist has entered into the game and translates in his work the essence of technique. He paints, he writes, not on the subject of technique, but rather his work is the profound expression of technique to the extent he is conscious of what he is doing. He does not know technique. The barometer does not discourse on atmospheric pressure; it knows nothing about this. It simply translates it--that is all, just like the truly modern artist. He cannot do otherwise because technique is basically the world in which he lives. [emphasis added] ...

page 112
Now, the decisive importance of theory is found in all the arts.  In music, we have serial music, which at first glance is simply theoretical, especially since its extension, beginning with Arnold Schoenberg and Milton Babbitt, among others, to the domain of measure and dynamics. It becomes a type of mathematical composition. But, from another point of view, the systematic search for analogies between visual symbols and sonorous symbols is also theoretical. The same can be said when one undertakes to reintroduce freedom into musical play: here again this is the result of taking a theoretical stance (John Cage). At any rate, we now have a non-figurative music without reference to either history or to the existing body of sounds.  The influence of theory is, one could say, greater 
in music because it is nonrepresentational and better reflects the forms of thought. A perceptible order of pure theory emerges from the random improvisations of Andrei Markov or in the use of statistical law in certain works of Iannis Xenakis. It becomes a matter of assembling sonorous objects according to a rule or a group of rules that one has set down. Types of experimental music are also 
formed on a theoretical basis because the composers create their experiment on the basis of precise ideas. This experimental music is also divided into schools as a function of theoretical differences: concrete music, electronic music, music for tape (Vladimir Ussachevsky). In all cases, it is a matter of creating new sonorous objects, of not taking account of natural sounds or of customary 
compositions. Music becomes a procedure for organizing new sounds that are totally abstract. Ultimately one could say that theoretical validity is what makes music.  It goes without saying that architecture, like music, lends itself particularly well to this triumph of theory. 
page 118
... We stand in the presence of art of elites for elites. A moderately competent intellectual who does not have the "key" is left out in the cold.  ...

As different as Adorno and Ellul were with respect to metaphysics and, likely, politics, and particularly theology, they did seem, from what we've seen here, agree that there was a core problem in modern art--they both wrote against what they regarded as the emergence of technocratic art in technocratic or "administrative" societies in which the sheer power of formula or technique as a self-sustaining and subject-eradicating system dominates.

Adorno insisted that "today the alienation inherent in the consistency of artistic technique itself forms the content of the artwork." yet he simply asserted this.  Perhaps we can grant he attempted to explain why this was the case in Aesthetic Theory, in which he expounded at some length on the ways in which art devolved into insular technique as technique or unabashed and unadorned propaganda.  But in some ways it seems that Adorno was, for all his writing against capitalism and bourgeois philistinism, was ultimately out to defend what was simply another form of Matthew Arnold style art-religion but with a distinctly high modernist bent.  At length Adorno regarded so much of the new music of the Boulez and Stockhausen variety as basically inhuman, as we've observed elsewhere.

If Adorno regarded serialism and aleatory as ultimately inhuman and inhumane ways of making music was he right to say that?  Those who are fans of Cage or Feldman are apt to say "No."  Those who enjoy the music of Boulez or Carter are apt to say "No."  That Adorno had praise for Varese and Ligeti tells us a little bit about whose work he did actually admire in the mid-twentieth century and I happen to enjoy some works by Varese and quite a few by Ligeti, and it was Ligeti who made a point of remarking on how confining much modernist ideology was.  But what was the core critique Adorno was trying to make?  It would appear to be that, particularly if we cross-reference Adorno's polemics to those of Jacques Ellul, that Adorno was warning that popular culture was mind-destroying non-art that would be wielded be totalitarians (whether formal and explicit fascists or spiritual fascists of the sort Adorno saw emerging in what is now known as new left movements).  On the other hand, high art had devolved into insular technocratic exploration of technique for its own sake.  In both cases, in both extremes Adorno saw what Ellul would call the triumph of technique as ideology over any and every humanistic impulse.  The paradox is that we cannot just ignore that we live in technocratic societies and that technical means are essential for developing any mastery of any art.  At the risk of dating myself a bit ... the paradoxical challenge would be how someone with the training of a Milton Babbitt could have a sense of social engagement that might be of a Fred Rogers variety.  

Adorno seemed to believe that the arts were devolving into blunt propaganda and technocratic isolation. Ellul stated he believed Adorno had best understood and articulated the problems in the arts in technocratic societies.  Ellul was not exactly a Marxist, though, and so his critique of technocratic societies and technocratic praxis and ethos in the arts was not confined to capitalist societies.  He pointed out that if we look at the evolution of avant garde movements on either side of the Iron Curtain that we see similar technical revolutions.  German expressionism in music and early atonality extending the possibilities thought to be latent in the German Romantic style or in French music had counterparts in the post-Scriabin generation of Russian and Soviet composers who were breaking down the octave into smaller-than-half-step intervals, such as Wyschnegradsky, for instance.  In that sense, we can't un-split the atom--now that composers in the East and West have demonstrated how readily we can divide the octave into anywhere between 24 to 78 or more tones equal temperament is not something we're obliged to keep working with in music.  But, and this is where I just make an assertion, Adorno was always wrong to say tonality was "used up".  In saying so he wrote himself into a corner, into a place where tonalilty couldn't be reinvigorated but twelve-tone technique was already devolving into serialist inhumanity.  And, of course, popular musical styles, especially from the United States, were basically off the table.

We don't really have a lot of reason to expect that writers like Adorno or Ellul will have a "solution" to what they regarded as the problems of the arts.  Neither of them even claimed they exactly had solutions.  On the other hand, I've been struck by the ways in which secular Marxist/leftist thought and religious conservatives have dug into their respective trenches in their bodies of literature in the last, well, century--the way to put this in Marxist jargon would be to say that the left has cut itself off and made itself insufficiently dialectical by interacting with itself in a way similar to the ways in which religious conservative writers and conservative writers more generally can engage aesthetic issues and debate the arts in such a way that we have a Roger Scruton who is more or less just recycling the kinds of highbrow arguments Adorno made half a century ago.

It seems that we can do better, where ever we are on the political or religious spectrum, than "just' rehashing arguments that have been made before.  Maybe some of the ways in which we can do better is to restore some kind of synergistic interaction across schools of thought.  I doubt I can play any substantial role of any kind toward that end, but it's something I've been thinking about.

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