Saturday, August 17, 2019

Between forms of non-choice: Adorno’s criticism of serialism and aleatory as techniques that obliterated the decision-making subject, Leonard Meyer’s observation on the abjection of choice in modernist musical history, and some brief thoughts on jazz

When I read The Classical Revolution I ended up moving from that book to what ended up being about half a dozen books by Adorno.  I eventually got to reading a few books by Roger Scruton, so I have made a point of reading a few books by Future Symphony Institute authors in the last few years.  One of the ironies of my reading has been discovering that Scruton and Borstlap have leveled charges against serialism and aleatory as musical styles that lack musical substance and expressive humanity that were, in sum, made half a century ago by none other than Theodore Adorno.

The irony of all of this, which I hope to demonstrate, is that the legacy of Adorno on aesthetics as a philosophical enterprise may live on a bit more in the work of Roger Scruton than in those who have appropriated ideas from the Frankfurt school in order to praise popular music as a new art music.  Now I think that, ultimately, Adorno was spectacularly wrong in a number of his assertions about the exhaustion of tonality and the non-art status of jazz but I don't want to get into all of that.  Instead I want to highlight the ways in which Adorno criticized both serialism of the Boulez variety and aleatoric music of the John Cage variety on the basis of a core objection to both musical techniques. 

But first ... we have to get to his assertion that these techniques were developed in response to the crisis of the lost legitimacy of more traditional tonal musical language.  

Essays on Music: Selected, with introduction, commentary and notes by Richard Leppert; new translations by Susan H. Gillespie
Theodore Adorno
University of California Press
ISBN 0-520-22672-0
ISBN 0-520-23159-7
(c) 2002 by Regents of University of California

Difficulties (1967)

page 648

The methods that are linked to the traditional language of music have become retrospectively problematic as a result of those that were discovered later--namely, they have become schematic. One hears, through what is newer, weaknesses of the old that were once hidden. There are very many things that sound stereotyped that were not stereotyped at the time. Richard Wagner, who was very alert in these matters, already registered this. Disrespectfully, but forthrightly, he said that in some of Mozart's pieces he could hear the dishes clatter on the table--Tafelmusik, even when it was by no means intended as such. It was possible to follow this schema as long as it was not evident as such, as long as it was still of a piece with the self-evident preconditions of composing. But once composing, and the relationship of the composer to the schemas, has lost its virginity, then the schemas not only emerge baldly and annoyingly, but lead in many places to anomalies, contradict the moments that have meanwhile been emancipated. ...

... The person who commits himself to what is older only out of despair at the difficulties of the new is not comforted, but becomes the victim of his own helpless nostalgia for a better era that, finally, never actually existed.

Adorno concluded, or maybe it is better said asserted, that once schemas were recognized for what they were it was no longer possible to use them legitimately. Once the clichés lurking beneath what sounds original can be heard, Adorno seemed to be saying, all you could hear was the underlying clichés. 

An implication of this kind of judgment on Adorno’s part in light of the era of mechanical recording is that an Adorno style range of prohibitions could expand to as many things as a person can hear on recordings.  Schemas can be discerned in all sorts of styles and then, once identified as such, cast aside.  Those who embraced the old, recognizable styles for want of finding something “new” were presented as helplessly nostalgic for bygone days that never really were.  But then what about those who commit to older styles not out of despair but out of a certainty that what is older isn’t exhausted and that what someone like Adorno might regard as schematic doesn’t have to be so? 

Adorno seemed to have a sense that not everyone who might be regarded as conservative was exactly so from “despair”.

page 648
On the other hand, one should not dispense with reactionary objections in the manner of an apologist, but should learn the measure of correct insights that they offer, which so frequently give them the advantage over moderate, progressive cultural liberalism. ...

So …  Adorno seemed to think there were “reactionary” types who objected to more modern styles whose criticisms should be taken seriously; that there was a measure of correct insights those reactionaries had to offer which gave them the advantage over moderate, progressive cultural liberalism.  What, exactly?  Well, here it seems fitting to joke that we wouldn’t be talking about Adorno if we were beyond all doubt as to what it was he was getting at.

Let me propose a possibility, there is a kind of moderate progressive cultural liberalism that, here in the age we’re in now, prefers to embrace this or that essentialist race narrative of music being white or black and by extension being authentic or inauthentic based on modes of racial narrative identity that altogether avoid the possibilities that can be explore by considering how many styles, whatever their respective differences in rhythm and pitch organization, still evolved in the wake of the standardization of equal tempered tuning.  There can be a new mythology in which urban black music is held up as authentic over against an old authentic that was handed down by way of music pedagogy and musical canon formation.  It’s not that there aren’t new canons or that canons will stop being made, of course; the way Raymond Knapp put it in his monograph on Haydn, camp and the legacy of German Idealism was to point out that rock and jazz critics transposed the ideals of authenticity and raw expression and unmediated Romanticist heart from the symphonic and salon traditions to blues, jazz and rock and roll. 

To the extent that Adorno saw that conservatives could more clearly see what might be amiss in contemporary music, he seemed to claim that a conservative with enough grasp of musical technique in a given range of styles could better identify what was missing from contemporary styles than moderately liberal sorts whose commitment was to some form of liberalism rather than to artistic disciplines.  Was Adorno capable of being a haughty and condescending sort?  Obviously … but his admonition that there were things in aesthetics that liberalism in general would fail to engage that conservatives could be better at might be worth keeping in mind.  After all, if Roger Scruton is a philosopher known to be concerned with matters of aesthetics and also for being conservative … Adorno might have, if you will, warned us all ahead of time that someone like Roger Scruton was going to be better at highlighting what was wrong with modernist art forms.

Although, as we’ll see, Adorno managed to say much about the problems of high modernist styles in his own day.

pages 649-650
Today, the discrepancy between the subjective state of composition and the technical development that is identified by catchwords like integral composition and electronics has grown infinite. Compositional subject and compositional objectivity face each other across an abyss.  This often leads to an opposite result compared to the previous generation.  Composers frequently capitulate to the means, which they must utilize without really composing with them. Hence the first difficulty would be to achieve an appropriate relationship to the state of technique, either by the composers utilizing and forming the latter in accordance with the state of their own consciousness, or by their pushing their self-criticism so far that they catch up with the state of technique.  How this should be done is something for which there are no general rules.  ...

page 651

... Experimental, in the legitimate sense, means nothing other than art's self-conscious power of resistance against what is conventionally forced upon it from the outside.  ...

To attempt to unpack these claims a bit, Adorno was pointing out that the gap between subjective decision-making in composing and “objective” means at the disposal of a composer had increased; the chasm between what the “subject” could do with the “object” had grown, particularly in the wake of the schematic nature of tonality being shown up for all of its “exhaustion”.

The “state of technique” reminds me of any number of things from Jacques Ellul about the problem of “technique” as an article of faith, and of things he wrote about in The Empire of Non-Sense regarding technocratic art in technocratic societies.  Since for the moment I’m focusing on Adorno, however, it’s to Adorno I will, again, turn.  Adorno described the nature of what he saw as the problem of contemporary music in surprisingly clear and simple terms when he wrote this:

page 652
... The paradoxical difficulty of all music today is that every music that is written is subject to the compulsion to create its own language for itself, while language, as something that by virtue of its own concept exists beyond and outside of composition, as something that carries it, cannot be created purely by the will of the individual. 

In another passage he likened the challenge of contemporary art to a playwright having to birth his own actors, teach them language, and create the materials from which they would perform.  That’s a bit absurd but it gets at the larger assertion that the trouble “today” is that every music that could be written is written such that the composer must create a musical language from scratch despite the fact that language by its very nature is impossible to create in such a way.  This was a point that would later be observed by Leonard B. Meyer in his monograph on music in the Romantic era and I’ll get to Meyer’s comments eventually. 

Just when it would seem Adorno has simply specified that the problem with contemporary music is that each composer has to invent a musical language from scratch that can avoid the clichés of bygone eras, he introduced another problem—language develops in communal and social ways and yet …

page 653
... Everything that in music attributes to itself the ethos of community inclines toward totalitarian forms of society. The difficulties of composing can be mastered, not by casting sidelong glances at a social space, even as Brecht still did, but, if at all, then only by proceeding from the thing itself--by giving the compositions themselves such a compelling quality that as a result they acquire an objectivity that would also, ultimately, partake of social meaning after all. Without this trust, as problematic as it may be, it is no longer possible to write a single note. ...

Okay but for those who don’t get what that is, what it entails, this can constitute a double bind, or it can be a double bind for those who do understand what those statements mean.  I.e. populist bids at clear, simple and direct communication constitute totalitarian bids in the arts … but … somehow … compositions can be given “such a compelling quality that as a result they acquire an objectivity that would …  partake of social meaning after all.”  Yes, well, whatever that means.

I am going to pass that set of statements by as vapid condescension (for now) and move along to something else Adorno mentioned because it is at this next point Adorno articulates why he regards the emergence of what Ellul would have called technocratic art as having such an enervating effect on the arts:

page 654

If one examines the musical development since, say, 1920, as a whole from the perspective that I have identified here, the developments that are to be taken seriously are almost exclusively efforts to develop, out of the form of musical objectivity, i.e., from the material, idiom and technique, methods of proceeding that relieve the subject, which no longer has confidence in itself alone, because it is bent over and crushed by all those difficulties. The musical history of the past forty years seems to me to be in large part a history of attempts at musical relief. ...

New, modernist art evolved in such a way as to relieve the subject of the responsibility of making artistic decisions.  Sure, Adorno regarded tonality as “spent” but he did not therefore advocate that people then develop techniques the purpose of which was to ensure by way of exclusion making artistic decisions that could preclude all of the clichés and schemata of the Romantic era and earlier simply by way of the rejection or abjection of all previously known clichés.  A compositional technique devoted to the exclusion of things considered cliché would, at length, generate clichés all its own on the one hand and, on the other, would do something more dangerous, relieving those subjects (i.e. people) who resorted to these new techniques of modernist composition from doing the most important thing in art-making, making decisions.

It is at this point it seems best to simply quote Adorno as extensively as he chose to address what he regarded as the fatal problem with the development of integral or total serialism:

page 656

... The serial principle, from the perspective of twelve-tone music, means that everything that projected heterogeneously into what was composed and pre-formed by twelve-tone-ness--everything independent of the twelve-tone technique, all the material and structural traces of the old tonal idiom, are removed.  Stockhausen formulated this accurately and strikingly when he said that in terms of his musical language Schoenberg, despite all the innovations, was actually still tonal. The serial school wanted to radicalize the twelve-tone principle, which they regarded, in a sense, as a merely partial ordering of the materials.  They wanted to extend it to all the musical dimensions, to elevate it to totality. Absolutely everything is to be determined, even the dimensions of rhythm, meter, tonal color, and overall form, which in Schoenberg had still been free. [emphasis added] In doing so, the serial composers took as their starting point the thesis that because all musical phenomena, including pitch and tonal color, are, in their acoustical regularity, ultimately temporal relations, they must all be able to be reduced compositionally to a single common denominator--time. From a series' given, original material, which should be as brief as possible, everything--every note, every rest, duration, pitch, color should strictly follow. [emphasis added] It may remain open whether the equation actually works; whether one can simply identify objective physical time, according to the rate of vibration and overtone relations, with musical time, the feeling of musical duration, which is essentially subjectively mediated.

(pages 656-657) The serial composers encountered this problem a long time ago. The most advanced among them, Boulez and Stockhausen, are laboring at it with great intensity. What is of greater concern to me is the idea of total determination as such. It is already implicit in the twelve-tone technique, to the extent that it is not clear why this and that dimension should be strictly determined in it, and others not. Accordingly, one may perhaps say that the serialists did not arbitrarily concoct mathematicizations of music, but confirmed a development that Max Weber, in the sociology of music, identified as the overall tendency of more recent musical history--the progressive rationalization of music.  It is said to have reached its fulfillment in integral construction. If from a given basic material absolutely everything else, in fact, were to follow, then this would be the greatest relief of the composer that can possibly be imagined. He would then only have to obey what is contained in his series, and would be delivered from all cares.

But this does not leave one with a good feeling. [emphasis added] The reification that is already perceptible in the twelve-tone technique, the disempowerment of the living, listening act as the authentic constituent of music, is so intensified that it threatens to destroy all meaningful context.  I recall a young composer who brought me a composition in Darmstadt, perhaps as much as fourteen years ago, that appeared to me as the craziest gibberish. You couldn't make out any way up and down, front and back, logic and setting--no articulation of the phenomenon at all that you could grasp. When I asked him how everything related to everything else, what the musical meaning of a phrase was, where it ended and began, and other such elementary questions about structure, the young man demonstrated to me that some number of pages later there was a pause that corresponded to a single note in a particular place, and so on in that vein.  He had truly, as Philistine enemies envision it, reduced the whole thing to a mathematic example, which may have even been correct--it was too boring for me to figure it out--but which absolutely no longer translated into any recognizable and compelling musical context.  The subject, on which music is thrown back in the absence of a social space, and which is supposed to be relieved by all these machinations, is not only relieved but virtually eliminated. [emphasis added] But along with it also the control that it exercises and that helps to constitute musical objectivity. If it were seriously just a matter of composing out what a series like this contains within it, then--the joke is as cheap as the thing itself--one could compose better with an electronic computer than by troubling a composer. The help he is offered threatens to overwhelm him. He is subjected to a set of laws that are alien to him and that he can scarcely catch up with. The resulting music, however, becomes something deaf and vacant.[emphasis added]   ...

I have over the years heard it said that you can’t teach music composition or that a musical style cannot be taught.  I find this assertion specious at best and fraudulent at worst but I do believe there is a more positive way to articulate what these bromides may be aiming to describe.  You can be taught all kinds of things about all kinds of styles but in the end you must make a decision and no amount of theoretical instruction or formal training ever takes the place of making a decision.  Adorno regarded the evolution of total or integral serialism as a style that, once codified, no longer needed human beings to make decisions.  This is the same Adorno who at one point championed Schoenberg but here he is in the later 1960s inveighing against total serialism as advocated by Boulez and Stockhausen and providing a pointed philosophical objection to the very conceit of serialism. This is the kind of music that can be  written by machines, entities bereft of human consciousness.

That far Adorno has a point that has been recycled by writers like Roger Scruton and John Borstlap who, perhaps ironically, have retained a range of arguments against total serialism completely indebted to Adorno, whose work they have regarded as having had a singularly pernicious influence on Western classical music in the post-World War II era in Europe.  Yet here we can see that Adorno’s assessment of serialism was, on the whole, pretty damning.

Neither, we’ll soon see, did he believe John Cage’s alternative provided anything Adorno considered a viable alternative:

page 658

Into this situation of serialism barged John Cage; it explains the extraordinary effect he had. His principle of chance, which is familiar to you under the name of aleatory music, wants to break out of the total determinism, the integral, obligatory musical ideal of the serial school. He, the American, was not pressured in the same way, not compelled by the same historical necessity as the musicians of the European tradition, who exist within the context of the obligatory style, the general onward march of the rationalization of music. But even the principle of indeterminacy that Cage introduced remained as alien to the ego as its apparent opposite, serialism.  It, too, belongs in the category of relief for the weakened ego.  [emphasis added] ...

... The Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, who is as perceptive as he is truly original and significant, observed correctly that in their effect the extremes of absolute determination and absolute chance coincide. Statistical generality becomes the law of composition, a law that is alien to the ego. Certainly the absolute indeterminacy of Cage and his school is not exhausted in it.   ...

So John Cage’s aleatoric music obliterated the decision-making ego as completely as did the integral serialism of Boulez or a Stockhausen in Adorno’s estimation.  Okay, well, we know that Adorno rejected any possibility that a fusion of improvisational decisions over modified schemas was an acceptable option because he rejected the artistic viability of jazz but I would suggest that this was one of Adorno’s grand mistakes, and it’s a mistake that people across the proverbial left and right can, if on almost nothing else, basically agree about.

The other thing about which there is a potential consensus is Adorno’s observation that total serialism of the Boulezian variety did not, in the end, amount to something that was going to displace earlier musical idioms.  If Boulez were to blow up the opera houses he was not, so far as Adorno could tell, composing anything musically significant enough to take up residence in any new performing spaces:

page 659

... Until now, integration frequently has become impoverishment. One can observe, along with an extreme increase in compositional means, a kind of regression to homophony. As I described this, borrowing an expression of Boulez's, blocks are being added together rather than lines being drawn. Hardly any harmonic tensions are created; hardly any complementary harmonies; hardly any monodonic, much less polyphonic lines.  This shrinkage is out of all proportion to the compositional expenditure of means and construction. ...    Frequently a music is assembled that actually doesn't want to go anywhere. ...

As Jacques Ellul put it, we are witnessing art made by elites for elites and that those without the modicum of education necessary to understand how or why technocratic art in a technocratic society could even be recognized as such are left out in the cold. 

Adorno wrapped up his criticism of both serialist and aleatoric music by saying:

page 660
... Music today sees itself faced with an alternative, that between the fetishism of the material and the process, on the one hand, and unfettered chance on the other.  ...

Yet it does not seem that difficult to imagine, fifty years after the death of Adorno, that Adorno was ultimately trapped in the intellectual legacies of the Romantic era.  David P. Roberts argued as much across three books, most explicitly in Art and Enlightenment: Aesthetic Theory After Adorno and Dialectic of Romanticism. Adorno had objections to Stravinsky’s music and to music he declared to be music about music, but Adorno turned out to be wrong, Stravinsky’s arch detachment may have seemed unacceptably cynical and too fascist for Adorno, but we live in an era of musical culture in which sly and knowing appropriation has become so common it saturates popular music; that pastiche has come up for discussion in things regarded as art music could invite questions as to whether someone like Adorno could realistically say we could cast off all conventions.

We had enough revolutions in musical styles and ways of conceiving music in the twentieth century the more interesting and inspiring work, I think, is not in continuously rejecting the old conventions or artistic norms but in finding ways to gently and subtly recalibrating them.  Breaking all of the old rules is potentially a needless activity when so many rules, whichever rules they are, have been broken.  There’s more to artistic innovation than sweeping away the old.  Leonard B. Meyer’s writing suggests that many of the great artists of earlier eras were not even innovators who devised completely new rules.  Meyer, writing in the late 1980s, observed that the century had been full of bids at developing new rules. 

Where Adorno claimed the difficulty of contemporary composing was that a composer had to develop a new musical language, Meyer surveyed the same century and concluded that for the most part attempts at codifying new rules had not led to a conclusive set of solutions to the problems people believed the new rules could address.  Nor, for that matter, did it seem to be the case that great artists of the past could even be identified as those who “broke the rules” as much as they were strategists who figured out how to play by existing rules and norms in inventive ways.

ISBN 0-226-52152-4

page 109-110

... most of the stylistic movements broached during the past seventy years--serialism, neoclassicism, aleatory music, statistical music, and so on--can be regarded as attempts to devise viable stylistic constraints not merely on the level of strategies, but on the level of rules. Because choosing becomes problematic in such circumstances, one of the symptoms of stylistic instability is, as noted earlier, a noticeable decline in the productivity of composers.

Conversely, when the stylistic constraints inherited by composers are coherent and well established, as well as compatible with prevalent aesthetic/cultural ideals, innovation will tend to be quite modest, taking the form of the elaboration and refinement of existing strategies. In a broad sense, this was the situation in which J. S. Bach and Mozart found themselves. Stylistic stability facilitates choosing because possibilities and alternatives are clearly understood and coherently interrelated; as a result, periods of stability are usually characterized by high rates of productivity.

But there is another, intermediate possibility: a situation in which the fundamental principles of a style--its basic rules and strategies--have already been established, but significant compositional possibilities remain to be realized. In such situations, innovation involves the devising of new strategies and schemata. Haydn's development of some of the possibilities latent in the dramatic principle of sonata form were strategic innovations of this kind. here the general stylistic situation merges with specifically compositional problems.

Every composition, even the most conventional and routine, is an actualization of possibilities latent in the constraints of a style.

Somewhat contra Adorno, Meyer’s position stakes out a claim that there is no way to avoid culturally assimilated constraints and stylistic norms.  Meyer proposed that a fixation in twentieth century music theory, analysis and composition on the value of innovation had prized innovation at the expense of considering other elements. But there is a paradoxical conceptual overlap in what Meyer observed as a problem in innovation as an aesthetic goal unto itself in theory, history and practice that ties into Adorno’s criticism of serialist and aleatoric music:

page 142

Our understanding of influence has to a considerable extent been biased by the scientific model. That model, which emphasized the importance of the discovery of new data and the devising of new theory, was complemented by nineteenth-century beliefs that stressed the value of innovation (as progress). As a result, our age has conceived of creativity almost entirely in terms of the discovery and use of novelty. Investigators have asked, in repeated studies of little children as well as of famous artists and scientists: How are new ideas generated? Where do they come from? What is the role of the unconscious? and so on. Though doubtless of great psychological interest, this concern with causes and sources of innovation has had unfortunate consequences for our understanding of history. For undue emphasis on the generation of novelty has resulted in almost total neglect of the other facet of creativity--choosing. [emphasis added] Of course, choosing is always done by some individual. But the constraints that seem most to influence the compositional choices which shape the course of music history are not those peculiar to the psyche of the individual composer, but those of the prevalent musical style and of the larger cultural community.

Richard Taruskin has described a kind of “race to the patent office” approach to modernism and musical innovation and if his comments to that effect come with dryly snide remarks about the New Complexity there’s something to be said about the general complaint, something that was probably put more directly by Meyer—emphasis on generating novelty was prized at the neglect of considering choice.  Yet, as we’ve seen, Adorno’s criticism of serialism was that it was a technocratic approach to art that relieved a composer of ever having to make choices.  Creativity studies can still harbor what is ultimately a technocratic ethos, prizing discovery of how we approach creativity so that, ultimately, it is sublated into technique for its own sake.  A paradoxical insistence on instrumental reason in the pursuit of the cultivation and creation of beauty seems like the kind of thing Adorno was setting himself against, at least as I read Adorno.  Others may reach different conclusions.

Meyer claimed that in the end conventions are inextricably woven into how we think about and in the arts.  Adorno regarded the sounds of the Romantic era as spent but we might be able to suggest that in his criticism bordering on outright condemnation of serialism and aleatoric music Adorno was grasping that there was … I’ll just borrow a theological term here … a kind of postmillennialist triumphalist philosophy of history being worked out in modernist music that needed to be repudiated.  Ideologies commensurate with some kind of Manifest Destiny, so to speak, had to be rejected.  But Adorno was, arguably, trapped in a “race to the patent office” conception of musical history.  He might have wanted the patent office closed but he insisted the old styles were “spent”.  If they were spent, however, there was still nothing for it but to move forward with the paradoxical effect that Adorno could not really ultimately prescribe a meaningful path out of a double bind imposed on composers by his own approach to music history. 

Leonard B. Meyer put things a bit differently but partly addressed the core conundrum of what conventions would be left if all conventions were rejected.

pages 344-345

The repudiation of constraints may be possible in aesthetic theory, but it is not so in compositional practice: some means must be found for selecting sounds--or nonsounds.  ...

There is, then, an inherent incompatibility between radical originality and individual expression because the latter depends on deviation from shared norms for its delineation. Therefore, to the extent that the prizing of originality leads to the abrogation of such norms, the delineation of individual expression either becomes attenuated or requires ever more radical departures from whatever norms are still prevalent. Thus, especially in those styles of twentieth-century music in which constraints have been affected by a compelling concern with originality, originality ceases to be connected with individual expression.  [emphasis added]

The special prizing of originality and the consequent radicalization of deviation in the twentieth century were related to a number of facets of Romanticism. First the belief that the arts, like other realms of culture, progressed made innovation seem desirable--even a kind of moral/historical imperative. Conservative composers were often looked upon as renegades. Second, the common conception of artistic innovation as somehow analogous to scientific discovery (exemplified in the phrase "experimental music") implied an association among categorical novelty, creativity and value. Finally, the existence of radical novelty made innovation itself an important basis for critical evaluation. For, as shared constraints--rules, strategies, and other conventional norms--became less and less important, the evaluation of relationships within compositions became increasingly problematic. What could be judged, however, was the novelty of a composition. As result, one of the chief concerns of criticism (for instance, from the 1940s through the 1960s) became the identification and often the celebration of innovation.

If the concern of criticism was frequently with novelty, the concern of twentieth century music theory has been with innate, natural universals to the virtual exclusion of any consideration of the role of learned, cultural constraints in the shaping of musical experience. ...

In other words, we were still trapped in the ideological paths laid out during the Romantic era.  It’s not surprising that a musical style or, better yet, technique, developed in reaction to the Romantic ideals was a kind of pastiche that explicitly flouted the idea of originality at every conceptual level.  This is not necessarily done as a matter of parody, satire or spoofing; it’s possible that this meta-level technique that we could call … oh … let’s just call it sampling, could play a role in recodifying musical conventions in a way that gets around or gets out of Adorno’s double bind that insists we reject the old worn out clichés on the one hand while noting that composers are somehow obliged to develop musical languages as if from whole cloth on the other.  Adorno’s faith that humans could develop enough consciousness to enjoy Schoenberg might have put too much faith in humanity’s capacity to overcome what others have regarded as music appreciations constrained by, well, cognitive constraints.

page 349

... human communication is for the most part dependent on learning. In this sense, all competence leads to exclusiveness and, for any particular in-group, to elitism.

The answer to the question posed earlier seems clear: it is not in our nature to be naively natural, without cultivated concepts and conventions. Innate cognitive capacities and predispositions can provide only a portion of the constraints necessary for successful communication. The remaining constraints must be provided by culture--by stylistics rules and strategies, and by the classes and conventions, the syntax and schemata through which rules and strategies are realized. Without cultural constraints, memory is emasculated by the momentary; envisaging is enervated and choice crippled by confinement to the immediate. And to preclude all but immediate choice is to dehumanize the human animal. Human nature without cultural nature is an impossibility, a grand delusion.

Rejecting conventions in and of itself is easy.  But there may, in the end, be no art to it. Art may involve something trickier, learning the conventions and then manipulating those conventions themselves in the pursuit of developing and continuing artistic traditions. For a time Adorno thought Schoenberg’s approach could accomplish that but I am inclined to agree with Ben Johnston in saying that Schoenberg had an inventive short-term solution to the perceived exhaustion of Romantic era tonal resources that did not address the reality that twelve-tone proliferated its own range of spent idioms without addressing the possibility that the range of non-cliché materials was shrinking due to the standardization of equal temperament, not because a broader concept of tonal organization based on pitch hierarchy had ever truly been “exhausted”.

For all of the efforts of twentieth-century composers to formulate new rules to replace the old ones, a grand extension of the Romantic project in music, Meyer’s conclusion was that in the end basically little to none of those efforts achieved what they were intended to:

pages 349-350
The overriding need of twentieth-century composers--the need for a generally accepted set of compositional constraints reconciling the claims of nature and nurture--has led to a restless, almost Faustian, search. But few lasting or fundamentally new constraints have been forthcoming. Most innovation has involved extrapolation from principles already latent (or, at times, manifest) in nineteenth-century practice. Schoenberg transforms motivic similarities into the permutational and combinatorial operations of the twelve-tone system, and these, in turn, extended to other parameters; the Impressionist valuing of sense experience is elevated into an exclusive, almost moral, goal; and ... Stravinsky derives a general compositional strategy from individual instances of rhythmic/metric displacement found in folk music.

...  when the egalitarian repudiation of learning and convention leads from disguise to denial, it conflicts with the fundamental characteristics of human nature.

page 351
Mention of aesthetic goals calls attention to a question posed early in this book: is it possible to infer "the rules of the game" (institutional facts) simply by attending to the "play of the game" (brute facts)--the succession of stimuli? I think that the answer is an unequivocal "no." There is no such thing as understanding a work of art in its own terms. [emphasis added] Indeed, the very notion of work of art is cultural. The choices made by some compositional community can be understood and explained only if relationships can be discerned among the goals set by culture, the nature of human cognitive processes, and the alternatives available given some set of stylistic constraints.

To put this in musical terms, music is always conventional, expressed by way of conventions, and understood by means of conventions.  Music communicates on the basis of non-musical or extra-musical conventions that may be subverted, knowingly played with, leaned into, and radically or gently modified but these conventions are part of any cognitive process of understanding what can be considered music. 

Half a century after Adorno’s death, we know perfectly well that we don’t have any obligation to not use tonal musical language just because Adorno said it was “spent”. We can also say that Adorno failed to grasp that jazz, a musical idiom he regarded as an example of popular music; a modular musical non-art in which schemas were too easily heard as ever-the-same with stereotyped hot breaks and solo fills at cadential moments may not have been art to Adorno but they provided something anyone who has played jazz, however badly, knows is restored to musicians and composers with every break, a musical moment in which a musician gets to make a choice.  The tragicomedy of Adorno’s legacy in relationship to jazz and his criticism of serialism and aleatory is that it was in jazz that the possibility of musical choice was reinstated but Adorno was too committed to viewing jazz as a popular style completely subjugated to the destructive power of capitalism to see any ways in which jazz provided composers and improvisers with the kinds of musical decision-making he found so absent in the serialism of Boulez or the aleatory of Cage. 

Even if we as musicians decide to not play or write jazz or other kinds of music, we can still observe that Adorno's criticism of aleatory and serialism combined with his rejection of the legitimacy of tonality constitutes a double bind predicated on an understanding of musical history that we can completely reject.

POSTLUDE 9-7-2019

Copyright 1992 by Pendragon Press
ISBN 0-945193-24-6 


Before generalizing further on the essence of musical composition, we must speak of the general principle of improvisation which caused a furore among the neo-serialists, and which gives them the right, so they think, to speak of chance, of the aleatory, which they thus introduce into music. They write scores in which certain combinations of sounds may be freely chosen by the interpreter. It is evident that these composer consider the various possible circuits as equivalent. Two logical infirmities are apparent which deny them the right to speak of chance on the one hand and "composition" on the other (composition in the broad sense, that is):

1. The interpreter is a highly conditioned being, so that it is not possible to accept the thesis of uncontrolled choice, of an interpreter acting like a roullette game. The martingale betting at Monte Carlo and the procession of suicides should convince anyone of this. We shall return to this.

2. The composer commits an act of resignation when he admits several possible and equivalent circuits. In the name of a "scheme" the problem of choice is betrayed, and it is the interpreter who is promoted to the rank of composer by the composer himself. There is thus a substitution of authors.

The extremist extension of this attitude is one which uses graphical signs on a piece of paper which the interpreter reads while improvising the whole. The two infirmities mentioned above are terribly aggravated here. I would like to pose a question: If this sheet of paper is put before an interpreter who is an incomparable expert on Chopin, will the result not be modulated by the style and writing of Chopin in the same way that a performer who is immersed in this style might improvise a Chopin-like cadenza to another composer's concerto?  From the point of view of the composer there is no interest.

On the contrary, two conclusions may be drawn: first, that serial composition has become so banal that it can be improvised like Chopin's, which confirms the general impression; and second, that the composer resigns his function altogether, that he has nothing to say, and that his function can be taken over by paintings or by cuneiform glyphs.

Notice that Xenakis' criticism of aleatory and of what might be called "moment" form are predicated on a criticism that, at its core, is like Adorno's--the composer who uses aleatory is passing the buck and the composer who uses moment form, for Xenakis, is set up a dice game in which the performer is the one who is really creating the finished work.  Xenakis may not have been amenable to approaches in European concert music in which that kind of musical dice game was acceptable, although as music historians have pointed out, Mozart and Haydn and their generation were okay with musical dice games.

But the sticking point for Xenakis was the abdication of choice.  I wonder if Xenakis would have regarded that as not really being a problem in more vernacular or popular styles, i.e. Greek popular music or jazz, in which musical schemas that invite variation are part of the musical game.  There's no misconstrual as to whether it's a musical game that invites performer participation there, is there?  Xenakis, if nothing else, seemed to set himself against both total serialism and Cage style aleatory as forms of non-choice.  There are enough elements of chance in the stochastic processes we can observe in Xenakis' music that he wasn't declaring a free-for-all, but he was laying out ground rules for where and how pitches and rhythms would be played.

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