Theodor W. Adorno, “The Radio Symphony”

Families Would Gather Around The Radio Much The Way They Do Television

Families Would Gather Around The Radio Much The Way They Do Television

The thesis that music by radio is no longer quite “serious” implies that radio music already prejudices the capacity to listen in a spontaneous and conscious way.  The radio voice does not present the listeners with material adequate to such desiderates [sic].  They are forced to passive sensual and emotional acceptance of predigested yet disconnected qualities, whereas those qualities at the same time become mummified and magicized. – Theodor W. Adorno, “The Radio Symphony, in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, pp.266-267

We have now moved to the second section of Leppert’s anthology, entitled “Culture, Technology, and Listening”.  The first essay, “The Radio Symphony” is perfectly chosen because it highlights all three areas investigated in the essays that follow, while dealing specifically with what Adorno considered a major problem not only in practice but even more so in theory: the presentation of classical music in full over the radio.  Written while he served on the Princeton Radio Project during his first years in American exile during the Second World War, it was a direct attack upon the reigning popular idea that radio “democratized” high culture by making it available to those previously unable to partake in it.  By insisting that the technological limitations of radio at the time – compressed dynamic range; the inability to sound any note below middle C – presented a distorted “symphony” that actually was not a symphony at all, the results were not only the commodification of serious music (which was, in fact, one of the chief aims of the Princeton Radio Project), but rather than teach people about serious music it effectively created even greater ignorance not only about the music itself, but the human relationship to the music.

Adorno uses Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony because both Beethoven and this work in particular seemed to be the standard by which “serious” music was measured in radio at the time (thus its appearance atop this post).  Precisely because it was in the Fifth that Beethoven achieved that unique mixture of theme, variation, and return that would mark the next four symphonies he would compose, it also offered an opportunity for Adorno to write about what a symphony qua symphony is, and therefore why the combination of technological distortion and cultural sitz im leben of radio listening did violence both to the music itself as well as one of the stated goals of the presentation of serious orchestral music on radio, which was pedagogical.

The technical aspects of radio broadcasts prevented the listener from entering into a symphony in the way being in a concert hall offered.  Precisely because of the compression of dynamic range as well as limitations on the frequencies broadcast, the symphony no longer becomes something that surrounds the listener, pulling the listener in, forcing the listener to become an active participant in the symphonic experience.  Particularly in the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven uses dynamic changes, timbral and instrumental changes and call and response, in a dramatic function, pushing the thematic material forward until, as Adorno writes, “Structurally, one hears the first bar of a Beethoven symphonic movement only at the very moment when one hears the last bar.” (p. 255)  The technical restrictions of radio, however, prevent this, offering not so much a symphony as what Adorno calls a series of “symphonic quotations”, recognizable yet ripped from any context that would give them meaning.

This simultaneously trivializes what is important about “serious”, “classical” music while simultaneously making something magical about it.  Reducing a symphony in the way radio does essentially strips it of its reality as a symphonic piece.   It becomes yet another musical product, filled with readily quotable bits of music – “It is highly doubtful the boy in the subway whistling the main theme of the finale of Brahm’s First Symphony actually has been gripped by that music” – that provide for the previously uninitiated an opportunity to share, as if by magic, in what is thought to be “great music.”  Yet, Adorno argues, precisely because of the phenomena he describes, the great democratic claim of radio – bringing high culture in the form of symphonic music to those who have never had an opportunity to experience it before – not only fails, it can only but fail.  The other stated aim, to teach people about “great music” through its presentation on the radio, along with teaching materials The Princeton Radio Project provided schools, was also impossible because the listener is not the active listener pulled in to the sonic space of the symphony.  Rather, radio only offers the opportunity to sit an passively allow certain limited sounds to enter their ears, never knowing what they’re missing.  The so-called teaching material is inadequate to the task precisely because it follows the radio experience, making the symphony little more than the sum of technical parts never fully experienced because of radio’s limitations, offering people the illusion of knowledge without the actual experience that would make them real listeners of the symphony.

I do have to wonder what Adorno’s reaction to our current technological state – digital recording, both visual and auditory; surround sound; an enormous dynamic range; perhaps even presenting a symphony on an IMAX screen to a capacity theater – would be?  I’m quite sure this also creates theoretical and ideological issues that bear scrutiny.  Still, the bulk of Adorno’s criticism, and therefore theoretical ire, is rooted in the limitations of AM radio broadcast technology, as well as the commercialization and commodification – what he calls the “reification” – of the musical material to suit commercial – ideological – ends.  Those continue, indeed have intensified over the decades.  Still, if one considers the way technology impacts our ability to enter in to music in the way Adorno insists is necessary for real listening, there is something subversive – perhaps knowingly, perhaps not – about our increased technological perfection of broadcasting music.

Post-script: I was looking at a preview of this particular post prior to publishing, and the way the video appears relative to the photograph of the family gathered around the radio is so in keeping with the entire theme of Adorno’s essay, I chuckled.  Happy accidents are marvelous things.