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.
FORMALIZED MUSIC: THOUGHT AND MATHEMATICS IN MUSIC
IANNIS XENAKIS (PENDRAGON REVISED EDITION)
Copyright 1992 by Pendragon Press
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.