Perhaps only that music is still possible which measures itself against the greatest extreme, its own falling silent. – Theodor W. Adorno, “Difficulties”, in Richard Leppert, ed. Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, p.660.
If you’ve journeyed with me through this long, occasionally arduous, always enlightening collection of essays, I’m guessing you are probably as thrilled as I am to have reached the end. Not that ending a long work is an occasion either for relief or simple celebration. It is, rather, celebration of an accomplishment. This first real exposure to the thought, and writings, of Theodor Adorno has been eye-opening, thought provoking, and offered fodder for moving forward in my much larger personal project of thinking about and through music in the context of Christian liturgy, theology, and life.
Much of my “reflection” has consisted of putting in my own words what I gleaned from Adorno’s writings. I have occasionally been critical, but by and large, since this is my first time both through Adorno and through this particular selection of essays, I wanted only to engage with what I received, rather than start an argument with a man dead forty-five years. Which is a long way of saying that while there is much in here with which I agree, there is also much I find troubling. In the long “Introduction”, Leppert quotes Georg Lukacs’ criticism of Adorno’s work on music:
A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss,’ which I described ni connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as ‘a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.'” (pp.67-68)
This is more than just an accusation of dilettantism. It is, in fact, an accusation of elitism; of sitting around, pronouncing judgment on the suffering of the world from a distance, then making sure they aren’t late for the latest art opening or philharmonic concert. Lukacs’s barb was aimed not just at Adorno’s approach to music; it was, in fact, an attack on the Frankfurt School as a whole, with its “negative dialectic”, its acknowledgment of the horrors of the world without a single word about how it might be possible to alleviate it. Indeed, an honest reading of the idea of “ideology” as Adorno constructs it would seem to negate the very project in which he is engaged.
So it wasn’t just about music; it was about dallying with aesthetics while millions died, shrugging one’s shoulders and asking, “What can I do about it?” In Adorno’s defense, his position was realistic enough. He was a professor of sociology. He did what he could, which was to write works that demonstrated the thoroughgoing capture of society and culture by late capitalism, which included him and his work, insisting that the Stalinist left was little different from the capitalist right in their insistence that society and culture work together to support the political regime. It was just that the capitalist countries were more subtle about their methods of control (with the exception of the McCarthyites, of course, you wouldn’t find any western counterparts to the Zhdanovites in Europe or America).
More to the point, in these two final essays joined due to their similar theme, Adorno yet again insists that the “difficulties” are multi-faceted, confronting both composer and the society in which and for which they compose with nearly insurmountable obstacles. On the one hand, composers are, Adorno insists, faced with the need to present the truth. The public, however, conditioned by a Culture Industry that has no desire for thought, preferring instead thoughtless entertainment, can neither understand nor use the music emerging as “new”, and therefore rejects it. Not because it offers nothing; rather because it offers everything needed.
Adorno’s disdain not only for the masses inoculated against the new music through the machinations of the Culture Industry but also for a preference for what he considers “museum pieces”, such as the opera-going public or those who attend symphony concerts that rest heavily on tonal music of the past, is thoroughgoing. Yet, it begs the question which Adorno continue to sidestep through his ideological descriptions, that if the new music were so rooted in the times and reflected those times to the public, at least some of the public outside the musicological academy and aesthetes would react positively to it. That both atonality and 12-tone and serial music fell largely on deaf ears, with the summer institutes at Darmstadt not only reducing 12-tone method to mathematical formulas but creating countless pieces of music to which no one listened should at the very least given Adorno pause. That it did not demonstrates a serious blind spot on his part.
The avante garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor allegedly claimed that, since he had to practice and study in order to play his music, there is no reason his audience should not be required to do the same. Adorno offers much the same argument; real listening requires work, thought, and even study if the music is to be more than “mere” entertainment, or worse, pure ideology. In Ken Burns’s Jazz, Branford Marsalis called this “self-indulgent bullshit,” a sentiment with which I tend to agree. Yet, Adorno defends his position:
The ideal that music should or must be generally understood, which is frequently assumed as unproblematic, has its own socio-historical index. It is democratic; it was scarcely in force under feudalism. At that time, what one might call the disciplinary function of mus, in the sense of Plato and Augustine, was foregrounded, as opposed to universal understanding or purported enjoyment. At that time, consequently, music was also characteristically regarded as a kind of secret science. No scores, but only voices have come down to us, presumably in order to keep the misera plebs far away from the alchemist’s kitchen of counterpoint. (p.662)
Which is as unreflective, and I might add unhistorical a position to take, particularly for someone for whom history was the category sine qua non for truly understanding music. Because the Middle Ages did not assume clarity of understanding, we in our bourgeois, democratic age – for all its contradictions and trends toward totalitarianisms of various kinds – should not assume it, either; this isn’t so much an argument as an observation without an ear tuned to the multifaceted ways music of all kinds presents our modern age with its inherent contradictions while simultaneously being listenable and comprehensible. To argue that the difficulty of the New Music is a hallmark of its timeliness, and that one shouldn’t assume listenability because historically that hasn’t been the case is even more elitist a position than the ignorant dismissal of jazz, based upon European imports and Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra.
None of which is to say there is nothing of value in Adorno’s work. On the contrary, the simple fact that this massive volume of nearly 700 pages of text and commentary represents a small part of Adorno’s work on music is testimony to the importance he gave to this most illusive and enigmatic art form. I would not have wasted so much time and intellectual effort working my way through such a volume if I saw no value in it. His observations about the social function of music; about the role of what he calls the Culture Industry; of the social tensions between music presented as something more than simple entertainment and the creations of record company A&R people and management teams; the way marketing has replaced aesthetic appreciation in the creation and dissemination of music; these are all on-going issues that all those concerned not only about music, but our society in general, should think about.
Viewing the individual, however, as a surd, a creature of larger social forces ignores the reality that, as much truth as that view has, viz., that human individuals are only partially complete viewed outside a social context, there is still an individual who either likes or dislikes, can understand or not understand, music played. That we now have the ability to understand more clearly how these mechanisms work, and how the conglomeration of individual preferences and brain functions coalesce in to this thing we call “music” needs to be integrated more thoroughly in to any social understanding and criticism of music.
I would add, as a final note, that, theologically speaking – and this is in harmony (no pun intended) with the dismissive attitude Adorno takes toward the democratic preference for comprehensibility – unless music is something human beings can understand, unless it serves particular functions positively rather than as a negation of any social function, we aren’t dealing with a human creation at all. As my personal goal is understanding music more clearly so as to be able to bring people to hear in all sorts of music the song God is singing to creation, as well as the song creation sings to God, while there I have learned much from Adorno about taking care of stumbling blocks and hidden pitfalls, there is also the need to be clear – in our song, about our song, and through our song. Otherwise, it is, yet again, self-indulgent bullshit.