Theodor W. Adorno, Three Brief Pieces

Editor Richard Leppert end’s the section on “Music and Mass Culture” with three short pieces, “Farewell To Jazz”, “On Kitch”, and “Music In The Background”.  I’m going to consider them in reverse order, and offer a more sinister interpretation of Adorno bidding goodbye to jazz, because it isn’t what the casual reader might think.

Music In The Background

 In our immediate life there is no longer a place for music. – Theodor W. Adorno, “Music in the Background”, in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, p.506

This short, almost entertaining essay considers how music disappears when it becomes an accompaniment to other social activities, in cafes and bordellos, pubs and popular concert halls.  It is not to interfere with the main thing, drinking, conversing, having a good time.  That it never quite disappears, but offers a light shadow of itself demonstrates the on-going power of the music over and against the attempts of the arranger, for whom Adorno holds nothing but contempt, to strip the music of what makes it music.

If our art music lingers in the comforting realm of Orpheus – here its echo sounds from Euridice’s mournful region.  Its glow is netherworldly.  It can remain unnoticed because it is unreal.  But it is not a black shdow, rather a bright one, like milk glass.  One can, as it were, hear vaguely through this music, through to the next room.  This is why it shines.(p.509)

There is no better demonstration of this odd phenomenon that the constant stream of String Quartet tributes to heavy metal bands.  The music is simultaneously designed for background, yet occasionally catches our attention, as Adorno says, like Georg Heym’s suburban dwarf.  We look (or listen) yet are not quite sure what it is we see (hear) as it streaks across our consciousness.

On Kitsch

[T]he illusory character of kitsch cannot be unambiguously traced to the individual inadequacy of the artist, but, instead, has its own objective origin in the downfall of forms and material into history. – Theodor W. Adorno, “On Kitsch”, p.501

I’ve already written about kitsch, so I don’t have much more to say, other than ours is a world overflowing with musical examples.  Whole careers are built upon it, from Kenny G through Josh Groban to Andrea Bocelli.  These all embody all that Adorno has to say about musical kitsch.  The most any of us can do is tolerate it, tune it out, and remember it is a part of late capitalism: the production of nonsense for those for whom nonsense is all they can tolerate.

Farewell to Jazz

The regulation that forbids the radio from broadcasting “Negro jazz” may have created a new legal situation; but artistically it has only confirmed by its drastic verdict what was long ago decided in fact: the end of jazz music itself. – Theodor W. Adorno, “Farewell To Jazz”, p.496

This essay is disturbing on several levels.  The “regulation” of which Adorno writes in his opening sentence is that pronounced by the Nazis early in their reign.  That Adorno could or even would be insouciant about stripping away the ability of the public from hearing any music is disturbing, to say the least.  Many of his friends had already fled Nazi Germany, or were preparing to do so.  He had no illusions about who and what the National Socialists were, the threat they posed to everything sacred, historical, human, in German heritage.  Yet, he is willing to write an essay proclaiming jazz’s death, thus the irrelevance of a rule banning its broadcast.  There is little new here we have not read in “On Jazz”, a later essay in which Adorno does not mention his previous pronouncement of the music’s demise.  There is one small part, however, in which, as he would later, Adorno proves prophetic:

If someone had wanted to take the syncopation and rhythmically improvisational impulses to their logical conclusion, then the old symmetry would have broken apart; but along with it the tonal harmonic structure, as is actually the case in the jazz experiments of Stravinsky.  But then jazz would have lost its consumability and easy comprehensibility, and would have turned into art music. (p.499)

As we know, this is exactly what happened.  In the process, the music transmogrified in to a thousand different bits, yet all remained indelibly, essentially, lovingly jazz.