Saturday, January 25, 2020

links for the weekend: Lauren Oyler on "hysterical criticism" and Jia Tolentino; an LA times op ed on George Walker's music deserving more attention (I agree!), and Colvinism on tension between eleatic monism in defenses of classical theism and biblical texts in the Hebrew scripture!-ha-ha


The result is the rise of a style that I’ve taken to calling hysterical criticism – both because it represents an evolution of what James Wood termed ‘hysterical realism’ in fiction and because the word connotes anachronistic misogyny. This girl – sorry, woman – is sexist, you may have thought as soon as you saw my usage. Well, I’m not. These critics aren’t hysterical because they have uncontrollable, misunderstood responses to social problems; they perform hysteria because they know their audience respects the existence of those problems, and the chance that they may be sincere makes them difficult to criticise. Besides, what they’re saying is important. If you don’t believe that yourself, don’t worry, they will tell you so, in terms so personal and heartfelt that you might not notice they are doing just fine. If you do notice, the joke’s still on you: no one cares about critics any more, which they’re very sad about too.
The moral obviousness of most contemporary fiction – and of most movies, art, music, television, politics and internet culture – has been a boon for these writers, who tend to find simple things complicated and complicated things simple. Because understanding and explaining a work or event is in most cases very easy, they can extract quick authority from the exercise and use the rest of their word count to reflect on whatever they please, often on life’s truths and mysteries, employing questionably relevant references and personal anecdotes. At the sentence level, it’s not difficult to understand what hysterical critics are saying; rather, it’s so easy that their lack of precision doesn’t matter. It is harder, by design, to pin it down, which is the reason you’ll often find one throwing up his hands and using some hyperbolic descriptor that is demonstrably false: things are unspeakable, impossible and ineffable despite being spoken, possible and effed, often in the same essay.
‘I wrote this book between the spring of 2017 and the fall of 2018,’ Tolentino explains in the introduction to Trick Mirror,
a period during which American identity, culture, technology, politics and discourse seemed to coalesce into an unbearable supernova of perpetually escalating conflict, a stretch of time when daily experience seemed both like a stopped elevator and an endless state-fair ride, when many of us regularly found ourselves thinking that everything had gotten as bad as we could possibly imagine, after which, of course, things always got worse.
Throughout this period, I found that I could hardly trust anything that I was thinking. A doubt that always hovers in the back of my mind intensified: that whatever conclusions I might reach about myself, my life and my environment are just as likely to be diametrically wrong as they are to be right.
Hysterical critics are self-centred – not because they write about themselves, which writers have always done, but because they can make any observation about the world lead back to their own lives and feelings, though it should be the other way round. A bit like the way, in Tolentino’s understanding, one’s themes can ‘coalesce into’ a supernova, though a supernova is an explosion that follows a star’s collapsing in on itself and results in the ejection, not accumulation, of mass.
At The Los Angeles Times there's a piece about George Walker, noting that the African American composer's work is not heard as much as it could be. I agree.
In light of last year's NYT 1619 project I have had some concerns that one potential obstacle to a fuller appreciation of Walker's musical art is a tendency in contemporary American music journalism at the popular level to define African American music strictly in terms of popular music.  I don't mean to suggest scholars haven't been calling attention to Walker's work.  I've seen a few dissertations on Walker's work, particularly his piano sonatas, get written and published in the last ten years.  

But I mention the 1619 project and the somewhat clickbait headline about how "everybody's stealing" black American popular music (which I've written about at some length before) because as much as I adore the music of Stevie Wonder the music of Walker sounds more like Paul Hindemith than Duke Ellington.

Take this movement from Walker's first string quartet.

That's not "Mood Indigo".  Now Ellington is another one of my musical heroes so I'm not attempting to negatively compare Walker to Ellington to Hindemith or any of them in any of those directions. I admire all three composers but there's a propensity in American writing about music to decide one or more of these have to be uncool or not hip, which, if you step back and think about it a bit, is kind of an extra-musical as well as musical way of judging the work of a musician.

Walker deserves more attention but I have been wondering whether, besides the obstacle of a default assumption on the part of people in the classical industry scene that African diaspora composers don't count compared to Schubert, is that there's a comparably pernicious prejudice on the popular music side of the divide as well.  Walker used to say he regularly ran into people who assumed because he was a black pianist he had to play jazz.

Over at Colvinism there's a fun read called "`God Repented' vs Greek Ontology"
An attempt at a synopsis for those who might treat the link as a TL:DR pre-emptively, Colvin lays out a case that defenses of classical theism can default to a variety of arguments that teeter into the substance as well as the jargon of eleatic monism.  Parmenides shows up in the essay, which has reminded me that my instinct to distrust just about everything Ted Gioia claims about Parmenides in Music: A Subversive History was not unfounded. :)

Brent Michael Davids has written on cultural appropriation at NewMusicBox--on Caroline Shaw's Partita, cultural appropriation, cultural exchange and sumptuary codes for consumption and production

Davids brought up a lot of complex issues that I'll probably just touch upon.  A temptation on the part of more traditionalist Western music advocates might be to say that charges of cultural appropriation aren't worth taking seriously.  I have my own differences of conviction regarding whether or not Native American language is really generative in contrast to Western modern language  being representational.  I am not entirely sure that a "Western" scriptural Christian tradition talking about being judged for every idle word and the Jewish proverbs to the point that the power of life and death are in the tongue or that in Jewish and Christian traditions God spoke the world into existence and in Christian reflection is the Word is so categorically different on the question of whether language is "generative" or "representational".  If Davids was proposing that post-Enlightenment language has been construed as representational, okay, we can roll with that.

But I trust I have conveyed a general sense that thinkpieces contrasting a generic "West" with native, aboriginal or not-"West" cultures can be simplistic.

This contrast, for instance, between concert music and powwow relies on what I consider a schematic and extreme contrast:

For Native Americans, the song-ings are considered voicings of the originators, and although sometimes they are communally shared, they cannot be autonomously borrowed away from the originator. Because it is regarded as a generative process, what a Native American enacts with song-ing moves life in that direction; what is sung about happens. When generative song-ing occurs, it’s like birthing out performative sequences of life. No two sequential songs are the same in the process, just as no two successive moments are identical. Indigenous cultures see music like giving birth so that each new song event is a new creation. The song being sung might be a time-honored song, but when performed it is newly reborn—it is not considered the same song.

Moreover, Indigenous song-ing stands in direct contrast to those strains of Western music that assume songs are fixed once written and codified. And because Indian music-ing is not fixed, whatever is recorded or written down is considered a leftover of the process. From an American Indian point of view, fixed music remains, simply, the observable remnants of a music-ing process.

A lucid example of the Western music aesthetic versus an indigenous one would be to consider the concert hall experience and that of a powwow. In the concert hall, the quality of the sound becomes the preeminent value, conceptually superseding the players and the audience. In a concert hall, the audience and orchestra are kept in separate spaces, and the flow of activity is directed from the orchestra to the audience, which remains seated, silent, and motionless. The performers all wear black to hide any individuality, and concerts are typically appraised on the “ugliness” or “beauty” of their collective sound.

But the post-German Idealist quasi-sacramental view of art was a relatively recent development even within Western music-making.  It's not too difficult to cast about for writers on concert music to point out that the development of a theory and praxis in which attending a concert of classical music was likened to attending a high liturgical event such as a mass began to occur in the nineteenth century.  During the eighteenth century, particularly during the days of Haydn and Mozart that inattentiveness of audiences was well-known despite the ideal of the era being listeners having opportunities to make judgments about the taste and beauty of the music being performed.

So however lucid the example seems to be between "a" Western music aesthetic versus an indigenous one the contrast between the concert hall experience and that of a powwow is itself an artificial construct made for a rhetorical point.  The contrast between a powwow and congregational singing of liturgical music might not have as many points of contrast, for instance, as would exist between a concert of Western music since 1800 and powwows.  So when Davids wrote:

At a powwow, the relationships of the participants outweigh all other features for appraising a powwow, including the sound. The performers and participants are often sharing the same space, and there is a high level of interactivity between the two groups, almost to the point of non-distinction. People walk, talk, and move all around the venue at will. The performers wear all manner of bright colors, which accent their individuality, and the general philosophy is to create positive and interactive relationships. Some singers may be better voiced than others, but the value is not placed on the sounds they make. If good relations take place, it is a ‘good’ powwow, regardless of the music. The process of enacting a powwow—the doing of it—is the intrinsic value of a powwow, which in turn values the participants and their activities deeply. It is the relational process that is paramount, not the music.

Something similar could be said about making a joyful noise to the Lord in a church service and that the act of congregational singing has a value that isn't dependent upon how polished or clean the music is considered to be on the basis of conservatory training.  There might be a sense in which a congregation singing shape-note hymns has something in common with a powwow and it's not by chance I use that example since the first published musical work in Western notation by a Native American composer we have on record is Thomas Commuck's Indian Melodies, a hymnal in the shape note tradition.  To date I'm not aware that anyone has done a series of recordings of the Commuck melodies and their Thomas Hastings harmonizations comparable to what Lomax did with the Sacred Harp or Southern Melodies compilations.  Perhaps that can change in the future.

My concern is that what can go on in pieces such as Davids is that we're getting an argument based on myth and counter-myth that can traffic in simplifications.  That American musicians and composers have many reasons to believe we've been burdened by the weight of chauvinistic and elitist theories of music as a quasi-sacramental art perfected by Germans that has been passed on by musicologists influenced by the German legacy doesn't mean we have to regard the sum of "Western" music in light of the distortions and mythologies about music developed in the wake of Idealism.

On the other hand, Davids' criticism that a composer like Caroline Shaw can win a Pulitzer for making use of throat singing developed by indigenous groups merits serious consideration.  I've listened to Partita and it's okay but there's something about it that is elusive and not necessarily, to me, in a good way.  Davids has gotten at how there is a relational and social context for music in the powwow as a contrast to concert music in the "Western" sense.  I've registered my disagreement with such a simplistic binary by pointing out that there's a long Western tradition of liturgical music but I take Davids' point that there are always extra-musical social and formal meanings within music performance that imbue music with meaning that "music as music" does not necessarily have.  That attempts to rectify the possibility that in a contemporary technological society the absolute work of art converges with the absolute commodity, as Adorno put it in Aesthetic Theory, have included openly ideological bids at social utility for "classical" music, whether in socialist realism in the Soviet bloc of "utility music" in the West from composers like Paul Hindemith or social realism in the Western leftist traditions should be sufficient to mention merely by invocation as a counter to an ideal of "absolute" music that is "neutral" or "free" regarding culture.

In other words, the kind of "Western" music Davids sets up in contrast to the powwow is a strawman and this can be pointed out without ignoring the more serious point about Caroline Shaw being awarded a Pulitzer for a work that makes use of extended techniques in singing that I don't hear adding a whole lot to Partita beyond momentary special effects in a musical work that is, as Adorno might have put it, is music about music.

I was glad to see Davids addressed a question about the music and legacy of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and I'm also glad to see he likes S C-T's work.  I happen to like the Hiawatha cycle.  I would venture a different point than Davids' about how S C-T wasn't American.  The composer was approached by W. E. B. Dubois about becoming a black composer who developed black musical art in the Western concert tradition and Coleridge-Taylor did so and also became a kind of British counterpart (or counterpoint) to the American Indianist school of thought.   A question lurking in discussions of the American Indianist school and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor can be multifaceted.  Did the American Indianists see themselves as perpetrating cultural appropriation?  This doesn't seem entirely likely.  Joseph Horowitz has been making a case that contemporary moral judgments on the aesthetic interests and decisions of a composer like Arthur Farwell retroactively imposes a set of concerns on Farwell's work that preclude the man's work from being heard.

I think a way to translate that defense of Farwell, whose music we can take or leave for the sake of this particular essay, is to suggest that Horowitz is writing around and toward registering a complaint that we have witnessed the emergence of sumptuary laws. Whereas in the past sumptuary laws prohibited consumption we live in a Western moment where there's a First Amendment in the United States (but not necessarily in Native American sovereign nations) contemporary discussion of cultural appropriation can veer into a cumulative set of arguments and narratives in which sumptuary codes are applied not just at the point of purchase (since forgeries of Native American artworks have been getting attention from law enforcement and policy) but also, more controversially, within the context of what in Marxist writing would be called the means of production. Adrian L. Jawort wrote the following last year at  LARB:
Because Roanhorse is of mixed African-American and Native (the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo tribe) descent, Storm of Locusts caused a stir among a collective of Navajo writers and academics regarding who should be allowed to write about tribes and cultures beyond their own. And while legitimate concerns about potentially harmful stereotypes should always be raised, the framework for what’s considered appropriation has grown significantly broader and wider in recent years, casting a shadow over the YA fiction world, where Roanhorse’s book has also been placed for marketing purposes.
For instance, the Chinese-American writer Amélie Wen Zhao’s novel Blood Heir faced a firestorm of criticism by fellow YA authors (and a “Twitter mob”) for alleged racism because sci-fi slave characters were described as “bronze.” As such, it was also deemed appropriation for a Chinese-American writer to include implications of African-American slavery in her book. Zhao clarified that the slavery in her book was meant to “represent a specific critique of the epidemic of indentured labor and human trafficking prevalent in many industries across Asia, including in my own home country.” Eventually, however, Zhao relented to the intimidation: though Blood Heir had been scheduled for a June 2019 release, the author pulled her own book in January. The book’s fate is at this point uncertain; as one literary agent told Vulture, “No one wants to be called a racist, or sexist, or homophobic. That stink doesn’t wash off.” The case is the same in Native art circles: being deemed a cultural appropriator is a mark generally reserved for bilagáana people [WtH--Jawort translates the term  as "white"] and is considered on par with being a plagiarist. ...
If American discussion of slavery continually revolves around white slavery practices toward African Americans, however, the traditions of Native American slavery may get passed over. I am glad that Native American tribes phased out slavery, in a few cases voluntarily.  That slavery as defended in the antebellum South by Confederates is not the same kind of slavery as practiced by the Native American tribes needs to be highlighted continually not so much because a person couldn't work out the differences based on the accounts provided of both kinds of slavery but because discussion and debate of slavery has tended to default in American discourse to only the enslavement of blacks by whites.  In saying this I'm not saying that claims of Irish enslavement are necessarily a thing to get brought up in comments here.  There's a cottage industry of neo-Confederate apologist writings I'm not particularly interested in engaging because, as my Native American ancestors put it, there were, for American Indians, not exactly "good guys" between the Union and Confederacy.  We can be grateful the Confederacy lost for reasons that don't involve claiming the Union was categorically above reproach and, in any case, once the American Civil War was done white people North and South agreed it was time to go kill and appropriate land from Indians.  

Now who,. within the context of the culture industry, that nexus of arts and entertainment business and associated regimes of education and consumption-access, deserves to be able to make use of things that can be considered indigenous?  That cultural appropriation, whatever it is, can be construed as a kind of sumptuary prohibition against production by those who are not regarded as authentically in relationship with the community from which techniques and content are derived seems clear enough.  The delicate matter is that those capable of making those decisions and pronouncing those judgments have within their respective communities the power-brokering capacity of those white figures who have held corresponding decision-making power to decide Native American song wasn't even really music because it did not fit into a Germanic post-Idealist conception of music.  Cultural appropriation debates can invite more theoretically equal-footing collaborations but they can also open up possibilities to discover that when the shoe is on the other foot Native American poets can be as eager to exercise an informal power of censor as white poets could be regarding whether or not Native American traditional narratives could be construed as poetry.

Davids' long-form case is that genuine culture exchange in which groups interact on an equal footing is to be encouraged but that a case like Caroline Shaw's Partita can be heard and seen as landing on the "cultural appropriation" side.

I think I have an intuition that one of the reasons for this case is that Shaw's music is music about music. What is Partita about?  That question is not a question that can be simply answered without considering extra-musical and non-musical cultural associations and that seems to get at the heart of Davids' mention of Shaw's Partita.

I've thought about some of these issues over the years since my lineage is a split between my Native American dad (who was a Christian with monergist/Calvinist leanings) and my white mom (with more Pentecostal/Arminian leanings).  I'm not purely white or Native and my family's collective religious background is Christian and low church Protestant (sort of, there's an Eastern Orthodox convert in the family, too).  So I could consider drawing upon the shape note hymns of Thomas Commuck as inspiration for a musical work and believe that it's not cultural appropriation for a number of reasons.  Commuck published his Indian Melodies as a Native American Christian contributing to the shape note tradition of American hymnody.

Drawing inspiration from the beauty of his melodies and using them in a project does not seem disrespectful appropriation to me because as a Christian descended from a Native American Christian who respects Commuck's work I would not be using his hymn tunes for a coloristic effect but because there's a shared confession in common (Christianity) and there is a Native American tradition within the Pacific Northwest of Christian life and practice.  Commuck explicitly contributed his music to a body of musical tradition that involved public and congregational singing as opposed to the songs that emerged within Pacific Northwestern Native cultures in which a strong sense of privilege is attached to who gets to sing and hear a song.  In other words, per Davids' arguments, I've got a case in terms of Native American descent and Christian confession to consider using melodies by Thomas Commuck in works as someone who regards Commuck as a brother in Christ in Christian confessional terms and as someone descended from a Native American Christian.

If a half-Native half-white guitarist raised by Christians were to use public domain melodies composed and published by a Native American Christian as the basis for a piece of music it would seem, in terms of Davids' arguments regarding what cultural appropriation is and isn't, that this would not be cultural appropriation either in terms of my having a Native American father or in terms of his having been a confessing Christian.  Importantly, Commuck publicly contributed to Christian hymnody in a way where this hypothetical musical work derived from Commuck's music would not be appropriation because Commuck explicitly wrote in the forward to Indian Melodies he was contributing to Christian hymnody.  Because my father and his parents converted to Christianity and were not practicing the religious beliefs of the tribes they were from then there wouldn't be an established continuity--i.e. it would be cultural appropriation if I were to, say, try to use melodies from tribes whose spiritual practices my dad's ancestors decided to stop being connected to by having converted to Christianity.  At least that is my general understanding of the thrust of Davids' arguments about the connection between disconnection to a community and grounds for a charge (or description) of cultural appropriation.

This brings us back to Davids' observation about Caroline Shaw's Partita. It is not simply implied in Davids' critique of Shaw's use of the vocal technique and the awarding of Partita with a Pulitzer, he more or less says that Shaw's work invokes an indigenous singing technique and tradition as a kind of ornamental special effect.  We're not talking about an entire piece of music built from extended techniques and modifications such as John Cage's prepared piano music or Leo Brouwer or Nikita Koshkin making works for the guitar based on extended techniques for the guitar drawing upon Russian and Balkan songs--Shaw's work is an abstract choral work that makes nods to the partita from nominally Baroque era practice using a variety of extended techniques and timbrel modifications, one of which draws from indigenous singing techniques and traditions.  And ... as I asked earlier, what is Partita about?  It's music, but my impression is that it is music about music.  Perhaps Davids leans too much on the contrast between powwow and concert music and doesn't get to the point I've been coming back to, asking what Partita is about.  It does seem to represent a type of abstracted music that is for the concert and has no social utility apart from twenty-first century concert music.

That sumptuary laws regarding production are the heart of the criticism of a work like Shaw's becomes explicit later in Davids' article:
The recent cultural venture by the non-indigenous vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (RoT) into the world of Inuit music might serve as another case in point. It appears that RoT employed Inuits to teach them a remarkable Inuit activity known as “throat singing”, a musical game structure between two Inuit singers. Then RoT employed one of their members, Caroline Shaw, who is herself non-Inuit, to use Inuit throat singing as part of her composition Partita for 8 Voices. The striking work so excited the award panel that they honored the composer with a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013. But in 2019, the prominent Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq accused Shaw and RoT of cultural appropriation using Inuit throat singing without proper acknowledgment or compensation.

So a composer like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who used the fictional Hiawatha from American poetry to compose an original cycle of choral-symphonic cantatas on the life of an imaginary Indian was not perpetrating cultural appropriation because he was composing original music.  By contrast, Indianist composers such as Arthur Farwell were perpetrating cultural appropriation by transcribing and transforming into concert music songs from Native American tribes.  But then what about William Grant Still using what he called an Inca melody in his miniatures for woodwind quintet?  Couldn't William Grant Still be regarded as having also perpetrated cultural appropriation by using a Native American melody in one of his miniatures, or is it indelicate to ask whether (as it seems likely reactionary whites probably fear) that there is a manifest double standard in which whites can be guilty of cultural appropriation but people of color can't be or, if they can be guilty of cultural appropriation they lack access to institutional power in such a way that they are still, functionally, incapable of being considered guilty of cultural appropriation because a composer like Still is too marginal to the concert music tradition.

If William Grant Still's music became canonical at a level comparable to Schubert would he retroactively be guilty of cultural appropriation for using an Inca melody?

Although I can be sympathetic to aspects of Davids' arguments connected to Shaw's work it's because my sense of Partita is that it is basically music about music. The trouble with arguments about cultural appropriation is that we have to define who has been wronged by the appropriation, why the appropriation is appropriation, and distinguish that from what Davids describes as cultural exchange.  Is the history of musical life as clearcut as any of that?  For instance, that Hawaiian Natives such as Joseph Kekuku developed the steel guitar and pedal steel techniques seems to be affirmed by recent scholarship, such as that of John W. Troutman.  Hawaiians gained access to the six-stringed Spanish guitar (which, being a guitarist, I feel obliged to point out that Kekuku didn't gain access, apparently to the Russian seven-stringed guitar) and re-designed it so that it was suited for slide work.

The slide guitar tradition developed and perfected by Native Hawaiians toured the American South after the 1906 overthrow of the Hawaiian royal family and from there slide guitar became a staple in African American and white popular musical styles we know today as blues and country.  On the whole it seems that working class Hawaiians, blacks and whites had cultural exchange through which a brilliant innovation in consolidating an extended technique for building and playing the Spanish guitar transformed American popular music and came to have a global influence. My sense of Davids' arguments is that the evolution of slide guitar in American popular music probably fits into cultural exchange overall but when black mainlander musicians in the American south copied Hawaiian guitar technique (when they were not being taught it by Hawaiian guitarists through instruction) could that count as cultural appropriation?

I use this larger history as an example of highlighting why contemporary discussion of cultural appropriation seems to be a strictly inside-the-culture-industry kind of debate.  This kind of discussion and debate is only possible because there is a culture industry within which it can take place.  In saying this, having noted Jawort's writings above, I don't wish to imply that suppression of what in contemporary Western terms could be understood as freedom of speech hasn't taken place in Native American contexts--on the contrary, Jawort mentioned a case in which a man was arrested for criticizing a tribal government on social media.

That sumptuary codes get enforced from the means of production side rather than access through consumption, whether in essays that seek define what cultural appropriation is or in Native communities and significant figures defining culture appropriation and accusing non-community figures of cultural appropriation, makes it seem as though this kind of artistic theft, real and alleged, is only possible in the context of what Frankfurt school writers referred to as the culture industry.  Those who would enforce sumptuary codes now, as in the past, may be the aristocracy of the age of neoliberalism whether they think of themselves as aristocrats or not. 

Why do I propose that it is in a neoliberal context that cultural appropriation can be a sumptuary code?  Let me see if I can explain that by putting it this way--If Shaw wrote Partita and had it performed and no one involved made a single cent would she still be guilty of cultural appropriation or would it have transformed into cultural exchange?  If not, why not?  If she would still have been guilty of cultural appropriation even if Partita earned now money why would that be?  Because of the lack of connection to Inuit culture?  That seems possible but let me pose the question as a different question, what was it about the Inuit singing tradition that made Shaw think it needed to be in Partita?

If someone were to invoke a Native American religious tradition that says that songs are gifts given by spirits then someone could argue that someone like Shaw doesn't have the right to use or share a song because the spirit that gave the song did not give to her even if the song includes a vocal technique ... but ... given that the First Amendment is traditionally understood to not endorse that kind of argument cultural appropriation might have to suffice for arguing that certain types of people should not be able to make certain types of art without actually invoking Native spiritual traditions in a way that could come across as an explicitly religious test that white composers would fail because they don't have a tribe's conception of what music is and, instead, view music as a range of possibilities informed by a range of possible techniques.

If I had to distill the potential problems of using Native American tribal and spiritual traditions as the basis from which to decide that something is impermissable cultural appropriation the sticky wicket is how this can be done in a way that doesn't ignore the First Amendment as Native artists and authors go out into industries that are not governed in any way by tribal sovereignty on the one hand and, on the other, as non-Native creatives make use of what has been made available within the U.S. market to develop new art on the other.  If Native Americans were to invoke an explicitly religious argument for why a tribe's artistic and cultural heritage and norms would be breached in a form that could be defined as cultural appropriation  they'll need to do so in a way that won't run afoul of separation of church and state.  It's not at all surprising that attempts to define cultural appropriation have zeroed in on relational context and cultural exchange rather than invoke tribal elders having sovereignty to declare that X should not use Y because the tribal elders are preserving spiritual traditions that weren't given any credance by Uncle Sam in the past and won't be used as a basis from which to adjudicate cultural appropriation now or ever.

And for all that ... coming back to my mention of slide guitar, for a generation or two musicologists and folklorists took it as given that slide guitar in blues derived from the diddley bow tradition and that it had roots going back to the African zither.  That may be, yet more recent scholarly work by John W. Troutman has highlighted that early blues slide guitarists said consistently they played slide guitar and called it "Hawaiian style".  One of the difficulties of cultural appropriation conversations, particularly fraught in claims that peoples and their legacies are in some way erased by dominant culture, is that Troutman makes what seems to be a persuasive case that the white-and-black history of American popular music has done a lot, probably inadvertently, to erase Native American and Native Hawaiian musical traditions (actually, U.S. policy to purge Native American music and its ritual associations is a whole separate book of Troutman's I plan to get to later this year, I hope).

I can hear how Shaw's Partita has special effects in it that were drawn from Inuit traditions for a musical work that made a vivid first impression and has immediately shrunk from memory so that I'd have to look it up again to remember the piece or recall what it was about.  I can also appreciate that charges of cultural appropriation, even when provable, are testy because the First Amendment is still the First Amendment and Native arguments that cultural appropriation has occurred have to make a case for why we should disapprove of that and not monetize it in a way that does not ignore that even if the Native tribes don't have First Amendments the United States does.  Community policing in the young adult literature scene on social media has, to go by coverage and commentary of that literary scene in the last six years, has shifted into a set of cultural norms in which the ethics and effectiveness of developing a set of in-group censorship rituals may not suppress speech exactly but it can preclude speech from making it on to the market.

Ethan Hein on Mozart "is mostly not to my taste" but as Kyle Gann put it, among we who write and play "classical music" there are more who think Mozart overrated than gets conceded in, I guess, undergrad music courses.

Mozart is mostly not to my taste, but there is no denying that the man could write a melody.

To Western people, chord roots and key centers that are adjacent on the circle of fifths feel related to each other. Stepping sequentially around the circle in either direction is a good way to make your music seem logical and orderly. Another good idea is to move from relative major to relative minor or vice versa, or to move between parallel major and minor. Mozart does all of these things. If you want your music to be jagged and disorienting, then make sure not to do these kinds of key center movements.

I use modern chord symbols because I understand them better than Roman numerals, and because several of these chords could be interpreted as functioning in multiple different ways. For example, some of the diminished chords function unambiguously as dominants (rootless 7b9 chords in jazz terms), but others are totally up in the air. Classical theorists particularly dislike it when you describe augmented sixth chords as their enharmonic dominant sevenths, but that’s what they sound like, and they make more sense to my jazz-playing brain that way.

I can’t bring up Amadeus without referencing the iconic “too many notes” scene.

We’re supposed to understand the Emperor as being an ignorant philistine here, but he had a point. Mozart’s music is beautiful, but it can be a lot, and I would rather hear the best parts get repeated rather than hearing lots of tweedly elaborations. ...

Ableton Live turns me into a mini-Emperor, able to cut the notes I deem to be “too many” at my whim. Listening to Mozart is fine, but I’m only willing to really engage with him if I can participate actively. It isn’t just about imposing my own taste on the music. It’s about engaging Mozart in an active creative conversation, about finding the new possibilities in his music, and not just in the abstract notes on the page, but in the actual audio of an actual performance. While making my remixes, I listened to the Andante more repeatedly and more closely, than I ever would have otherwise.


Over the years I have found that we musicians who regard Mozart as good but overrated eventually come across each other in person or, more often in our age, online.  Take this.
– Mozart is overrated. Actually, despite the scorn Woody Allen heaps on the idea in Manhattan, this is a less rare opinion than is often admitted. Quite a few composers I know think that Mozart’s perfection is greatly overstated. That’s not to deny that there are quite a number of perfect pieces, like the late piano concerti. But so many passages in his music (as Charles Rosen mentions) can be transferred from one piece to another with no change in meaning, like interchangeable musical bricks, a shortcoming that modern composers don’t easily forgive. In my sonata class I analyze Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven alongside tremendously underrated composers like Clementi, Dussek, and Hummel, and side by side, Mozart’s hastily-composed piano sonatas don’t always fare well next to the lyric perfection of late Clementi or the daring innovations of Dussek.

which reminds me that Gann also wrote that Schoenberg is overrated, too.  Hilary Hahn has gotten me to appreciate Schoenberg's violin concerto and even to put up with Mozart but that's because she's Hilary Hahn and even saying that what I love more in her discography is that she recorded Stravinsky, Bach (of course) and Ives.  I keep coming back to Bach and Ives, even more than Stravinsky (which is not saying I don't admire Stravinsky's work).

Studying Clementi has been helpful to me as a guitarist composer.  In the last twenty years I've been playing with the idea that if I study monothematic sonata forms from the likes of Haydn and Clementi that can give me a thread for how to more thoroughly incorporate blues, jazz, ragtime, rock and country elements into my guitar writing.  Mozart's music may have been perfect but it was perfect for the eighteenth century rather than perfect for helping me think through how to tackle twenty-first century musical problems regarding form, vocabulary, and gestural development.  For those problems I get more benefit studying Haydn, Clementi, Lizst (not that I LIKE him but I respect his innovations), Hindemith, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Ellington, Joplin, Lamb, Villa-Lobos, Messiaen, even Durufle (translating plainchant into a post-Impressionist sound takes a lot of work).  Of course there's also George Rochberg, whose work I half like and half simply respect.  Mozart?  I'm reminded of a non-ironic claim that Chris Delaurenti wrote years ago about how Mozart died just when he was finally getting around to writing good stuff like his last three symphonies and his requiem. 

But Haydn, Haydn was amazing!

The observation Gann mentioned about how so many passages in Mozart could be transferred from one work to another reminds me of Adorno's scathing remark about light music and music that isn't "serious music", that in addition to being schematic in terms of tonal organization light music can have as its vice that passages can be exchanged across pieces without the basic structure of the piece being compromised or significantly modified.  I am not so sure Adorno would have gone so far as to say Mozart was light and un-serious music but he noted that Richard Wagner went so far as to say you could hear the clatter of dishes in passages of Mozart. 

I have a side bar comment I can't resist making since this is my blog, in terms of guitarist composers from the early nineteenth century I'd venture to say that the post-1800 Romantic aesthetic wasn't kind to guitarist composers.  I don't mean to suggest Sor and Giuliani got ignored within the guitar scene, they became the pillars of the guitar literature but perhaps in terms of the sheer size and seriousness of Sor's works and the Mozartean virtuosity of Giuliani their works managed to fit an essentially Romantic conception of what sonatas ought to sound like on the guitar.  By contrast Matiegka and Molitor can seem lightweight, although frankly I think Matiegka's approach to sonata forms is far more inventive and interesting than Sor's even if Sor has more memorable tunes.  What I'm starting to think as I study Robert O Gjerdingen and other scholars on earlier pre-Romantic music is that we guitarists have found Matiegka wanting as a Romantic era composer when it might be more fair to Matiegka's legacy to regard him as a late-late galant composer.  If Schubert made a point of adding a cello part to Matiegka's trio and publishing it as a quartet does that mean Schubert "elevated" the Matiegka trio or could it be a signal to us in the twenty-first century that within Matiegka's own lifetime his works for guitar may have been more highly regarded by guitarists (Schubert did play) than subsequent nineteenth century myth-making allowed for.

Which reminds me that I want to get around to blogging through more of Matiegka's guitar sonatas but that has to wait.  I've got other things going on. 

Ben Smith at Scripture and Cities on Ellul and Baudrillard got me thinking about Ellul's observation that the last few centuries have had the left formulating myths that have been co-opted and redefined by reactionary or conservative or establishment groups

I haven't gotten to Baudrillard but I've read about his work in some of David Roberts' books on the total work of art in European modernism.  I've debated whether to try tackling Baudrillard, Malraux, Lyotard, and some of the other continental philosophers.  I did tackle a small portion of Gadamar's Truth and Method ... .  But I have read a few books by Ellul and so this observation from Smith didn't hit me out of the blue:
In my ongoing quest to resource the theory of the radical left for the conservative/orthodox church, I've been reading a few things by the late French theorist Jean Baudrillard: the collection of extracts from 1969-83 called The Revenge of the Crystal, his most famous work from 1981, Simulacra and Simulation, and the travelogue-of-sorts America from 1986. Widely known as 'the high priest of postmodernism', I was intrigued to read him because of my fascination with the power of images in our society, which was ultimately his central preoccupation. The sole reference to Baudrillard in Ellul's The Humiliation of the Word is very favourable (more-or-less 'read all his books') so that added to my interest.

Still inching my way through The Humiliation of the Word, well, sort of taking a break from it now that I'm halfway through it but Humiliation is a companion book to The Empire of Non-Sense, which I've read in full.  I may just get around to Baudrillard but later.  

I'm wondering about the specific wording of "to resource the theory of the radical left for the conservative/orthodox church" because that wording reminded me of something that Ellul wrote, I think, in The New Demons, about how most of the grand myths in Western thought and politics in the last few centuries were formulated by people on the left or in the liberal/progressive wing of Western thought and that these myths, such as liberty or equality or fraternity were initially rejected by reactionary and conservative groups who eventually co-opt and in many respects significantly redefine those myths.  Conservatives in the 1700s who might have rejected the deistic and semi-Pelagian or unitarian elements of American revolutionary figures don't seem to figure prominently in contemporary evangelical or conservative accounts of the Founding Fathers.  That Metaxas has attempted to present Bonhoeffer, of all people, as basically congruent with any kind of evangelical Protestant anything is a surprise.  Thirty years ago I recall evangelicals regarding Bonhoeffer with suspicion at best.  

Perhaps the most vivid example of the ways in which arguments made by someone on the left got transformed into an argument from the right, in the realm of aesthetics and the arts, that springs to mind for me lately is the way Theodor Adorno's criticism of popular music was mirrored, minus Adorno's Marxism, in Roger Scruton's writing on music.  I've discussed that here and here. I think both Adorno and Scruton were ultimately wrong but the case for why they were wrong is part of a larger project that's called Ragtime and Sonata Forms I've been incubating in the last couple of years and that's neither here nor there for the current post, I guess.

Anyway ... on to the next passage that stuck with me at Scripture and Cities:

Ellul's description of the image's effect certainly sounds a lot like Baudrillard's concept of hyperreality: 'Sight permits a representation of reality that is accepted as reality and identified with it. Images become unquestionable, just as reality is. This happens because images become more real than reality itself' (p.116); '...this "reality" is really fiction - literally simulated, depicted' (p.228). Both Humiliation and Simulacra and Simulation were originally published in 1981, so it seems unlikely that Ellul got these ideas directly from Baudrillard. Interestingly, both works also discuss icons in not dissimilar ways as images which seek to simulate the divine for their users, although Ellul then goes on to make a value judgement by suggesting that devotional use (rather than background, 'signpost' use) of icons will always be idolatrous.

They're even not that far apart in denigrating 'reality' as something of dubious value or utility. If you can look past the occasional bad language, this fellow's summaries of many of Baudrillard's books and essays are excellent. By listening to his expositions of The Evil Demon of Images and the later The Perfect Crime, I've hopefully clarified Baudrillard's use of 'reality'. Contrary to what some might assume, he didn't believe simply in a 'real' or 'authentic' world distorted or falsified by images: it seems he argued that 'the real' is always a simulated illusion as that which is filtered through the human mind, language, and artwork, a primary reality which images then take as the material for their own simulated hyperreality.

In this way there is no 'getting back to nature', a concept that is embedded within a web of illusory bifurcations and constructions. This is probably what would classify Baudrillard as postmodern rather than modern. He attempts to construct some kind of guidance for action in dividing simulations into those that are oppressive and those that aren't, but I think that begs the question as to why, within his framework, the non-oppressive forms of simulation are neccessarily 'better' than the oppressive, a question someone like theorist of nihilist-capitalism Nick Land would push hard. Into the category of oppressive simulations of reality Baudrillard groups the entirety of globalised technological/scientific civilization, painting it as a totalising reality that can bear no dissent in a way comparable to Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment.


Whether it's Scruton's transformation of the arguments against pop songs by Adorno or a Brad East at Mere Orthodoxy arguing why Christians should refrain from consuming pop culture it can seem as though there's a pattern in which conservatives take up arguments that were made in a previous century by people of the left but redefined in such a way as to remove whatever is "left" about them. 

That the alt-right or conservatives are now seeing themselves as defending the liberal Western traditions that, two and three centuries ago their social/historical equivalents would have opposed isn't even ironic, it may simply be what Ellul described as what has been happening in the West since the era of modernism (i.e. the last few centuries).

Miniatures for woodwind quintet, William Grant Still

Just because.  I enjoy woodwind quintet music now and then and these miniatures are fun.  Anton Reicha's woodwind quintets are consistently wonderful and I've never managed to blog about them at all so ... well ... I don't imagine I'm ever going to remedy at this blog.  Blogging about guitar music is simply more important to me.  But on this particular weekend it's fun to link to some woodwind quintet music and William Grant Still's miniatures are charmers. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Theodor Adorno and Roger Scruton--how the most famous conservative philosopher on the aesthetics of music basically agreed with the Marxist forerunner of critical theory from the Frankfurt school on why pop songs fell short of the art of sonatas

In the wake of Roger Scruton’s passing it might be tempting for those on the conservative side to note what a dedicated opponent of Marxism Scruton was while those on the progressive or left or liberal sides (none of which I personally find able to view as equivalent or commensurate) may note that Scruton softened his views but that his views were, in the end, rejections of the idea that inequality could be eliminated. 

It’s important to consider which ideas a philosopher budges on and why when assessing a philosopher’s legacy.  I think a case can be made that Roger Scruton’s assessment of popular musical styles and forms was ultimately little different in terms of his negative assessment of pop as Theodore Adorno’s was throughout his own career.  That one of the more famous anti-Marxist conservative philosophers laid out an argument for the limitations of jazz and popular music which merely recapitulates arguments made previously by one of the more famous Marxists, Adorno, who was a founding thinker in critical theory is any irony that can’t be overstated. 

As decades passed Scruton regarded jazz as an actual form of musical art, a point that Adorno was reluctant, to put it discreetly, to agree with. 

That Adorno and Scruton made a common argument as to why jazz and popular song fell short of the art in “serious music” is not difficult to establish from what the two men wrote.  Since Scruton’s legacy of writing critically about pop so post-dates Adorno, let’s start with Adorno first.  Rather than draw upon Adorno’s more infamous piece “On Jazz” I want to shift toward his post-US stay writings because it is in these later writings he was better able to articulate the kinds of arguments that we shall see, at length, were basically replicated by Scruton.

Introduction to the Sociology of Music
Theodore W Adorno
Seabury Press
ISBN 0-8164-92662-2

pages 21-22
Conversely, as long as the objective spirit was not yet wholly planned and steered by administrative centers, the higher art would recall the extent to which its own principle involved injustices to the many. Time and again it felt the need of something else, of something that would resist the formative esthetic will and that might serve as the touchstone of that will-and so, whether unintentionally or intentionally, it would absorb elements of the lower music. Some of this shows in the old custom of parody, of setting spiritual texts to profane melodies. Bach did not shrink from borrowing from below even in his instrumental works, as in the Quodlibet of the "Goldberg Variations," and neither Haydn nor the Mozart of The Magic Flute or Beethoven would be conceivable without an interaction of what by then were separated spheres. [emphasis added] The last instance of their reconciliation, utterly stylized and teetering as on a narrow mountain by pass, was The Magic Flute-an instant still mourned and longed for in such structures as Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Ariadne auf NaxosThere were times far into the nineteenth century when it was possible to write decent popular music. Its esthetic decay is as one with the irrevocable and irrelative dissociation of the two realms. [emphasis added]

page 26
... The higher music's relation to its historical form is dialectical. It catches fire on those forms, melts them down, makes them vanish and return in vanishing. Popular music, on the other hand, uses the types as empty cans into which the material is pressed without interacting with the forms. Unrelated to the forms, the substance withers and at the same time belies the forms, which no longer serve for compositional organization. [emphasis added]

page 33
The social function of jazz coincides with its history, the history of a heresy that has been received into the mass culture. Certainly, jazz has the potential of a musical breakout from this culture on the part of those who were either refused admittance to it or annoyed by its mendacity. Time and again, however, jazz became a captive of the culture industry and thus of musical and social conformism [emphases added]; famed devices of its phases, such as "swing," "bebop," "cool jazz,"  are both advertising slogans and marks of that process of absorption. Popular music can no more be exploded from within, on its own premises and with its own habituated means, than its own sphere points beyond it.

The modular construction of a pop song and the recursive repetition of the core chart chords in jazz were commensurate with an age and society of mass production. There was a dialectical relationship between “high” and “low” music that, in the era of monopoly capitalism, Adorno asserted had broken apart.  This rupture between “serious” and “light” music was not simply at the level of the means of production, it also involved a parallel break in the modes of cognition which were used to both produce and perceive “serious” and “light” music.  Adorno would expand upon his criticism of popular music in Current of Music.  There was a distinction to be made between serious music and light classical music and popular song.  Adorno described that difference as follows:

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

From “On Popular Music”, which is also published in Adorno’s Current of Music.
pages 439-440
Serious music, for comparative purposes, may be thus characterized:  Every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece which, in turn, consists of the life relationship of the details and never of a mere enforcement of a musical scheme. For example, in the introduction of the first movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony the second theme (in C major) gets its true meaning only from the context. Only through the whole does it acquire its particular lyrical and expressive quality--that is, a whole built up of its very contrast with the cantus firmus-like character of the first theme. Taken in isolation the second theme would be disrobed to insignificance. [emphasis added] Another example may be found in the beginning of the recapitulation over the pedal point of the first movement of Beethoven's Apassionata. By following the preceding outburst it achieves the utmost dramatic momentum. By omitting the exposition and development and starting with this repetition, all is lost.

Nothing corresponding to this can happen in popular music. It would not affect the musical sense if any detail were taken out of the context; the listener can supply the "framework" automatically, since it is a mere musical automatism itself. The beginning of the chorus is replaceable by the beginning of innumerable other choruses. The interrelationship among the elements or the relationship of the elements to the whole would be unaffected.  In Beethoven, position is important only in a living relation between a concrete totality and its concrete parts. In popular music, position is absolute. Every detail is substitutable; it serves its function only as a cog in a machine.  [emphases added]


page 441

To sum up the difference: in Beethoven and in good serious music  in general--we are not concerned here with bad serious music which may be as rigid and mechanical as popular music--the detail virtually contains the whole and leads to the exposition of the whole, while, at the same time, it is produced out of the conception of the whole. In popular music the relationship is fortuitous. The detail has no bearing on a whole, which appears as an extraneous framework. Thus, the whole is never altered by the individual event and therefore remains, as it were, aloof, imperturbable, and unnoticed throughout the piece. [emphasis added] At the same time, the detail is mutilated by a device which it can never influence and alter, so that the detail remains inconsequential. A musical detail which is not permitted to develop becomes a caricature of its own potentialities.

pages 441-442

The previous discussion shows that the difference between popular and serious music can be grasped in more precise terms than those referring to musical levels such as "lowbrow and highbrow," "simple and complex," "naive and sophisticated." For example, the differences between the spheres cannot be adequately expressed in terms of complexity and simplicity.  All works of the earlier Viennese classicism are, without exception, rhythmically simpler than stock arrangements in jazz.  Melodically, the wide intervals of a good many hits such as "Deep Purple" or "Sunrise Serenade" are more difficult to follow per se than most melodies of, for example, Haydn, which consist mainly of circumscriptions of tonic triads, and second steps.  Harmonically, the supply of chords of the so-called classics is invariably more limited than that of any current Tin Pan Alley composer who draws from Debussy, Ravel, and even later sources.  Standardization and non-standardization are the key contrast terms for the difference. [emphases added]

Structural standardization aims at standard reactions. [emphasis original] Listening to popular music is manipulated not only by its promotors but, as it were, by the inherent nature of this music itself, into a system of response mechanisms wholly antagonistic to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal society. This has nothing to do with simplicity and complexity. In serious music, each musical element, even the simplest one, is "itself," and the more highly organized the work is, the less possibility there is of substitution among the details. In hit music, however, the structure underlying the piece is abstract, existing independent of the specific course of the music.  This is basic to the illusion that certain complex harmonies are more easily understandable in popular music than the same harmonies in serious music. For the complicated in popular music never functions as "itself" but only as a disguise or embellishment behind which the scheme can always be perceived. [emphasis added]In jazz the amateur listener is capable of replacing complicated rhythmical or harmonic formulas by the schematic ones which they represent and which they still suggest, however adventurous they appear. The ear deals with the difficulties of hit music by achieving slight substitutions derived from the knowledge of the patterns. The listener, when faced with the complicated, actually hears only the simple which it represents and perceives the complicated only as a parodistic distortion of the simple. 

No such mechanical substitution by stereotyped patterns is possible in serious music.  Here even the simplest event necessitates an effort to grasp it immediately instead of summarizing it vaguely according to institutionalized prescriptions capable of producing only institutionalized effects. Otherwise the music is not "understood."  Popular music, however, is composed in such a way that the process of translation of the unique into the norm is already planned and, to a certain extent, achieved within the composition itself.

The composition hears for the listener. This is how popular music divests the listener of his spontaneity and promotes conditioned reflexes. Not only does it not require his effort to follow its concrete stream; it actually gives him models under which anything concrete still remaining may be subsumed.  The schematic build-up dictates the way in which he (page 443) must listen while, at the same time, it makes any effort in listening unnecessary.  Popular music is "predigested" in a way strongly resembling the fad of "digests" of printed material. It is this structure of contemporary popular music, which in the last analysis, accounts for those changes of listening habits we shall later discuss. [emphases added]

page 462

Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley may be dream factories. But they do not merely supply categorical wish-fulfillment for the girl behind the counter.  She does not immediately identify herself with Ginger Rogers marrying. What does occur may be expressed as follows: when the audience at a sentimental film or [hearing] sentimental music become aware of the overwhelming possibility of happiness, they dare to confess to themselves what the whole order of contemporary life ordinarily forbids them to admit, namely, that they actually have no part in happiness. What is supposed to be wish-fulfillment is only the scant liberation that occurs with the realization that at last one need not deny oneself the happiness of knowing that one is unhappy and that one could be happy. The experience of the shop girl is related to that of the old woman who weeps at the wedding services of others, blissfully becoming aware of the wretchedness of her own life. Not even the most gullible individuals believe that eventually everyone will win the sweepstakes. The actual function of sentimental music lies rather in the temporary release given to the awareness that one has missed fulfillment.

The emotional listener listens to everything in terms of late romanticism and of the musical commodities derived from it which are already fashioned to fit the needs of emotional listening. They consume music in order to be allowed to weep. They are taken in by the musical expression of frustration rather than by that of happiness.  The influence of the standard Slavic melancholy typified by Tchaikovsky and Dvorak is by far greater than that of the most "fulfilled" moments of Mozart or of the young Beethoven.  The so-called releasing element of music is simply the opportunity to feel something. But the actual content of this emotion can only be frustration. Emotional music has become the image of the mother who says, "Come and weep, my child." It is catharsis for the masses, but catharsis which keeps them all the more firmly in line. One who weeps does not resist any more than one who marches.  Music that permits its listeners the confession of their unhappiness reconciles them, by means of this "release", to their social dependence. [emphasis added]

page 468

... we cannot content ourselves with merely stating that spontaneity has been replaced by blinded acceptance of the enforced material. Even the belief that people today react like insects and are degenerating into mere centers of socially conditioned reflexes, still belongs to the facade. Too well does it serve the purpose of those who prate about the New Mythos and the irrational powers of community. Rather, spontaneity is consumed by the tremendous effort which each individual has to make in order to accept what is enforced upon him--an effort which has developed for the very reason that the veneer veiling the controlling mechanisms has become so thin. In order to become a jitterbug or simply to "like" popular music, it does not by any means suffice to give oneself up and to fall in line passively. To become transformed into an insect, man needs that energy which might possibly achieve his transformation into a man. [emphasis added]

It hardly needs to be said this is a harsh assessment of popular music and of jazz.  Although Adorno in his later writing could grant that the most accomplished jazz musicians displayed real skill and talent his argument that popular music as a whole was a product of the culture industry incapable of rising to the level of serious music as an art form did not shift much.  In his later writings he had comparably harsh things to say about rock:

Aesthetic Theory
Theodore Adorno
Copyright (c) 1997 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota
ISBN 0-8264-6757-1

pages 319-320

The demise of art, which is today being proclaimed with as much glibness as resentment, would be false, a gesture of conformism. The desublimation, the immediate and momentary gain of pleasure that is demanded of art, is inner-aesthetically beneath art; in real terms, however, that momentary pleasure is unable to grant what is expected of it. The recently adopted insistence on culturing uncultivation, the enthusiasm for the beauty of street battles, is a reprise of futurist and dadaist actions. The cheap aestheticism of short-winded politics is reciprocal with the faltering of aesthetic power. Recommending jazz and rock-and-roll instead of Beethoven does not demolish the affirmative lie of culture but rather furnishes barbarism and the profit interest of the culture industry with a subterfuge. The allegedly vital and uncorrupted nature of such products is synthetically processed by precisely those powers that are supposedly the target of the Great Refusal: These products are the truly corrupt. [emphasis added]

Shifting from Beethoven to the Beatles would do nothing at all to attenuate or weaken the power of the culture industry.  No amount of imputing radical or critical political discourse onto a style like rock or punk or any form of music derived from Anglo-American standardized music was going to change the totalitarian mass-produced tendencies that Adorno perceived in popular music as it evolved in the last century. 

Neither did Adorno, later in life, concede that tonality was no longer “spent”.  Despite his scathing criticisms of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Adorno did not concede as Arnold Schoenberg did that there was still good music to be written in the key of C major.  While Adorno could summon praise for Edgar Varese and Gyorgy Ligeti (and I admit I enjoy some of their music), his stance against tonality remained firm:

Essays on Music: Selected, with introduction, commentary and notes by Richard Leppert; new translations by Susan H. Gillespie
Theodor 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. [emphasis added] 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. [emphasis added]...

... 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.

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. [emphasis added]...

Adorno’s last quote which I have quoted is interesting for what he specifically said, that we should not dispense with the objections of reactionaries in the manner of an apologist but we should learn the measure of correct insights they have to offer.  Why?  The objections of the reactionaries about the arts frequently give them an advantage over moderate progressive cultural liberalism.  It would seem, then, that the counsel of Adorno was that we should learn the measure of correct insights offered by a reactionary.  If Roger Scruton can be considered a reactionary and not just a conservative then what criticisms of contemporary post-tonal music and popular music did Scruton write?

Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation
Roger Scruton
Copyright (c) Roger Scruton 209

page 211, "Why Read Adorno?"
... his attack on mass culture should be seen in the Old Testament spirit, as a repudiation of idolatry, a reaffirmation of the age-old distinction between true and false gods--between worship that ennobles and redeems us, and the superstition that drops us in the ditch. ... 

page 216

One conclusion to draw from the history of American popular music is that we should take the world "popular" seriously--far more seriously than it was taken by Adorno. [emphasis added] Pace Adorno and Horkheimer, this music was not imposed upon the American people by an unscrupulous `culture industry' eager to exploit the most degenerate aspects of popular taste. It arose `by an invisible hand' from spontaneous music-making, with a large input from Afro-American music, both secular and religious. When that music later spread around the world it was not by some imperial venture of a conquering civilization but by the same process whereby it arose--the spontaneous taste of ordinary people. [emphasis added]

pages 216-217

The great days of American popular music may now be past: rock `n roll changed the Blues from a lyrical confession to a Dionysian display, and the long-term effects are now being felt, not only in America, but all across the world.  Nevertheless, visitors to America are still astonished by the number of spontaneous musical episodes that they encounter: marching bands at football matches; barber shop singing; church choirs and `praise dances'; jazz combos in the clubs and Blue Grass in the tavern.  ...  

... The American song exists because people have enjoyed it and asked for more. It is the musical expression of consumer sovereignty. And like everything typical of America it gets up the intellectual nose, precisely because it seems to leave no opening for the would-be priesthood. Intellectuals on the left have never been able to accept that the spontaneous choices of ordinary people might be the final explanation of their social world.  ... 

page 219
It is undeniable that this musical tradition is full of kitsch and false sentiment. But there is another way besides Adorno's of looking at that fact. The American popular song arose from the spontaneous desire of ordinary Americans to celebrate the world that they themselves had created.  It has never been a critical idiom, any more than the folk-music of old Europe was critical. It takes America as it comes, and its lyricism is a lyricism of acceptance. Kitsch is there in the music because kitsch lies all around. If this music were to make an effort to eliminate kitsch and false sentiment it would not be seeing through lies but telling them. [italics original, bold added] There is a kind of realism here, to which Adorno closed his ears, just as he closed his mind to the real function of song in the life of ordinary people--which is to help them to be at one with their social condition, and to normalize their sufferings and their joys.  As their social conditions change, so do their songs ...

page 223
Adorno's defense of the avant-garde of his day was based on the view that `standardization' could not take root in this idiom, which would always question its own status as a commodity and refuse to be driven by aesthetic routines.  But the routines soon arose and, from the tin-cans of John Cage to the bombastic operas of Stockhausen, the musical landscape today is strewn with avant-garde kitsch.

Having discussed Adorno’s scathing criticisms of Stockhausen, Boulez, American serialism and John Cage’s aleatoric reaction in some detail elsewhere; I don’t wish to dwell on what I regard as Scruton’s somewhat lazy engagement with the full range of Adorno’s commentary on post-tonal modernist styles.  That Adorno made even more trenchant criticisms of Cage and Stockhausen in 1967 than Scruton made throughout his career should be a warning to contemporary conservatives that in the midst of worrying about cultural Marxism it’s not merely possible for conservatives to seemingly unknowingly repeat the criticisms a Marxist (namely Adorno) made of the mid-20th century avant garde, it has been something of a cottage industry fashion to repeat Adorno’s argument minus both Adorno’s Marxism and giving him any credit for having criticized Cage and Stockhausen first.

If Adorno turned against the post-tonal avant garde as he saw its advocates turning to what he regarded as more inhuman and technocratic methods pursued for the sake of method (a criticism that was echoed by Jacques Ellul), Scruton shifted toward a more generous view of the possibilities of popular song as a rejuvenator of tonality.  Scruton, at length, could not continue rejecting popular song as incapable of being a musical art the way Adorno seemed to.  But let’s notice that Scruton, in considering what he saw as the weaknesses of jazz and popular song, was still taking up what we saw of Adorno’s complaint about the standardization and modular construction of pop songs and the recursive schemata of jazz:

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Adorno argued that the addiction to musical fetishes--by which he means the standardized effects of popular music--produces a `regression' in the art of listening, what we might today call a shrinking attention span. People are content with snippets that they can hum or whistle, and--thanks to mechanical reproduction--will listen to a movement, a tune or a bar detached from the work to which it owes its significance. Inevitably, therefore, the old art of listening, which involves following a complex development over long stretches of time, gives way to an interest in catchy fragments, shortened sequences that can be detached from their context and repeated at will. And it is just such fragments, Adorno implies, that become clichés, which the ear of the listener and the mind of the composer prefer to the hard work of harmonic and melodic argument.

Now Adorno has a point here ... Whatever we think about tonality, there is no doubt that it has lent itself to a new kind of music, in which the lengthy paragraphs of the symphonic tradition have been replaced by the repetition of statically conceived cells--as in the ballets and symphonies of Stravinsky. The architecture of a Beethoven or Bruckner symphony, in which the modulation from tonic to dominant might take place over a span of minutes, and in which every scale degree is conscripted to the task of transporting the material from one solid foundation to the next--this wonderful art-form is less and less present in the tonal writing of modern composers, and the `developing variations' which Schoenberg discerned in the classical style and sought to revive through his serial language are now rarely encountered. The American popular song deploys the tonal language in a manner that is short-breathed and quickly exhausted; and the idiom of jazz, which has taken tonality in a new direction, and discovered harmonic sequences and dissonant cadences which have no place in the classical repertoire, has not produced any comparable expansion of the musical argument. On the contrary, where there should be development there is usually only improvisation, and where there might be the exploration of emotion and the building of character, there is usually the repetition of the same cheerful smile.  

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... Something is right in what Adorno is saying. But all attempts to pin down the thesis come up against the immovably singular nature of aesthetic judgement.  And the failure of Adorno to produce any prescription, other than his entirely negative advocacy of atonality against the tonal cliché, leaves the matter hanging in the air.  

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In the light of this it seems to me that we should retrace our steps and revisit the attempts by composers to learn from the example of song--both folk song and the jazz-influenced songbook. Although this means a return from large-scale forms to the strophic idiom of natural music, it also involves a return to the crucible of tonality, in which the tonal order is first crystallized in the soup of sound. [emphasis added] That, it seems to me, is the direction taken by Debussy; and he was followed by Janacek, Dutilleux, Britten, Messiaen and many more--brilliant musicians who were led by their ears and not by theories, even if they were capable, like Messiaen, of theorizing at the highest level.  ...

In the long run Roger Scruton budged more in recognizing that popular song had virtues, if perhaps partly in reaction to what he regarded as the inhuman and inhumane technocratic tendencies of the post-Schoenberg post-tonal schools of music.  I have my own reasons for thinking Scruton was less generous to Americans rejecting what they saw as a repressive and oppressive legacy from German idealism in American music education than he could have been but it’s not because I don’t adore the music of, for instance, Haydn and J. S. Bach. 

Even with Scruton’s affirmation that jazz and the American songbook had given the world real musical art Scruton was on the same side as Adorno when it came to answering the question of whether or not those popular songs were compatible with the “argument” of sonata forms. I recognize this observation may be a point that is only salient to musicians but I’m making it anyway, it can be too easy for non-musicians who may align themselves with a Scruton or an Adorno on ideological grounds to amplify the differences between the two philosophers so as to not see where they strongly agreed.  If Roger Scruton was a reactionary for thinking American popular song was not compatible in terms of its substance with sonatas or fugues then Adorno was a reactionary and was a reactionary despite being a Marxist.  Surely this should suggest to us that such a reductionist reading of either Adorno or Scruton will not do justice to either the best or even the worst of what they said and wrote. 

That they both regarded the vocabulary of jazz in particular and popular song more generally as incompatible with the “argument” and formal developmental syntax of “serious music” is, in my estimation, a shared failure.  Both men could be thought of as being too beholden to the legacy of what scholars have called “the long nineteenth century”.  One of the apostates of serialism Scruton has invoked was the American composer George Rochberg and it has been striking to consider the ways in which Scruton presented Rochberg as returning to tonality.  I am not so sure I agree but I find it interesting that when Scruton set out to find an example of a composer who repudiated the dead ends of post-tonal modernism he settled on a particular American composer:

Our model for the future should therefore not be the sterile works of Stockhausen and Boulez but the patient attempts to adapt the old to the new, and to find notes that touch the hearts of listeners because they express the heart of their composer. George Rochberg's music points us in this direction. But it raises the question that surely troubles all serious music-lovers now, which is whether we can find our way to a musical syntax which is as expressive as the tonal language of Rochberg, but which is not shut off from the surrounding world of popular culture. This is the theme to which I shall address myself in the next post.

It is also interesting to see that in invoking Rochberg Scruton used the American composer as a potential model for finding a way “to a musical syntax which is as expressive as the tonal language of Rochberg, but which is not shut off from the surrounding world of popular culture.”  Bridging a gap between “serious music” and popular culture was not, as we’ve seen, a priority in even the later writings of Adorno.  Let’s say for a moment that Adorno and Scruton were philosophers who were committed political ideologues and who venerated Western music ranging from J. S. Bach up through Mahler into the age of Bartok, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and others.  Both philosophers made early stands against what they regarded as the formulaic, vapid and enervating qualities of popular song.  In the long run Scruton flinched where Adorno did not and the reason, as Scruton told us in book after book in the last decade, came down to recognizing that popular songs might be full of kitsch but there was no aesthetic judgment requiring a person to ignore a memorable tune.  Scruton conceded Adorno’s point about American pop songs being full of kitsch and made a counter-proposal, that kitsch tells us something truer about the cultures we have been living in than the truth Adorno heard in the music of Schoenberg. 

Generations of critical theory scholars have been squeamish about Adorno’s lacerating attacks on jazz and popular music with cause.  Adorno can come across like he was a racist elitist.  It is not, necessary to state, let alone imply (as Scruton swiftly did) that Adorno’s criticism of jazz was predicated on a more general criticism of tonality.  Adorno was clear enough that the issue was not as simple as the schematic nature of tonality.  Were Adorno alive today he could point out that a I-V-vi-IV power ballad by a Lewis Capaldi is a musical and textual fraud regardless of the faux-sincerity of the pop star’s crooning.  The issue is how mass-produced and mass-directed the music is for a mass audience in a mass industry.  Adorno would not have consented to Scruton’s concession that perhaps kitsch is true in a way and that kitsch in song does not preclude that song being art.  Forty years since Star Wars and some ten movies later the monomyth is arguably the most potent formula to pander to all those Adorno regarded as philistines that the culture industry he rejected could have possibly come up with.  

In many respects even conservatives would now probably simply say that Adorno was right and that contemporary popular culture proves Adorno was right but they would not for one second grant a corollary concession to a Marxist critique of mass culture.  Adorno, for his part, could not concede that the Soviet Union was capable of producing music that was really art, and yet here we are in a century in which the string quartets of Shostakovich have made it into the chamber music canon.  That what has so often been dismissed by serious philosophers of aesthetics and connoisseurs of Western concert music could be coded to be played and heard at more than just the level of kitsch is a point that, perhaps, philosophers like Adorno and Scruton, on either side of the Marxist and capitalist divide of the twentieth century, may have struggled to understand in the way practicing and practical musicians have. 

Adorno advised that we not ignore the objections of a reactionary to the failures of modern music and Scruton leveled criticisms toward popular song that recapitulated Adorno’s complaints about the failure of popular music and popular song to rise above the assembly line modular construction of song-making machines.  Adorno rejected tonality and Scruton affirmed it but what neither philosopher managed to do in their lives was suggest ways in which practical musicians could do something that could be a rebuttal to the criticisms both men made of the possibilities of popular song by making sonatas out of themes drawn from popular songs. 

I’ve  seen plenty of people write plenty of words to say that Theodor Adorno or Roger Scruton is right or wrong in terms of words, in terms of their ideas.  I think both men were wrong but I think it’s paramount that musicians demonstrate that both men were wrong not just in words, though I could write plenty of words about why I think both men were wrong and right about a variety of things, but to demonstrate that they misread the possibilities of music that can be made drawing inspiration from popular songs in music.  

I don’t see any reason that a capable and committed musician can’t take in and take on the criticisms of Adorno and Scruton alike and still make music that shows that they misjudged the asserted limitations of the musical vocabulary of popular song.  Anyone can simply say that these men were wrong but saying why in both words and music takes a lot of work and a lot of thought.  I think both philosophers were in error but in a way that invites careful thought and which invites a musical as well as a philosophical and theoretical response.  I owe both philosphers a great debt of gratitude for writing as cogently as they did on music even where I strongly disagree with them and I think that if their work is taken together they point to problems and possibilities that musicians should relish considering at the level of philosophy, aesthetics, theory and music-making.