Alongside Adorno

By Clarke, David | Musical Times, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Alongside Adorno


Clarke, David, Musical Times


THEODOR WIESENGRUND ADORNO's influence on anglophone musicology is now so widespread, it seems as though hardly a new book on contemporary musical issues appears, or a conference season goes by, without his name featuring prominently. Yet it's not so long since his name was a relatively obscure one, of substantive interest to only a few music scholars. All this contrasts with the continental picture, in which Adorno's importance as a leading figure within Frankfurt School critical theory has been continuously if controversially recognised, and where his influence if anything waned after his death in 1969; and with other disciplines, in which the dissemination and discussion of ideas from his intellectual corpus has a longer history. Anglo-American musicology's recent surge of interest in Adorno seems to have sprung at least partly from the kind of boundary crossing so characteristic of his work - its osmosis between philosophy, aesthetics, criticism and sociology. What's so salutary about his thinking is his insistence on the inseparability of cultural practices such as music from the rest of life where 'life' is the fabric spun from societal relations determined by forces inimical to authentic human freedom and happiness. Historically, these forces have sometimes taken the form of overt domination - as in the case of Stalinism, or of German National Socialism, whose terror unequivocally coloured Adorno's intellectual formation; but even where these have been less explicit, the disguise has meant an even greater need for critical expose - as in the case of capitalist economies and their engine, consumerism. If art is inseparable from life this is because the character of the commodity (and of the social relationships crystallised around its exchange) penetrates all cultural forms and the consciousness of their practitioners. Contentiously, Adorno held that for popular culture this process is total, its products completely subservient to the demands of the Culture Industry, purveyor of false consciousness. By contrast, high modernist art becomes inseparable from life by registering (rather than concealing) social antagonisms within its forms, and by offering something unknown, uncognisable, beyond the grasp of commodification and thus pointing towards the possibility of an authentically free particularity. (In this sense, art becomes a complementary adjunct to philosophical knowledge.)

Although Adorno wrote on a range of subjects and art forms, he had an especially close relationship with music (not least through his compositional studies with Alban Berg), and within his corpus there is a framework for music's social mediation which in the later 1980s and 1990s began to look attractive to a musicology divided between those preoccupied primarily with 'the music itself, and those concerned largely with matters of context (most emblematically, a split between music analysts and music historians). Moreover, at around the same time, the discipline began to get self-conscious about its own premises, its foundation on often unquestioned assumptions about class, gender and other formations of identity; it also began to heed calls to take popular music seriously; and all these matters began to seem germane to debates about musical meaning. No wonder Adorno caused such twitching of the musicological antennae. But we're talking here about an Adorno whose manifestation was textual: the author of a massive oeuvre running to twenty volumes of collected writings, many of which remain untranslated from their original German, or have been translated only relatively recently and sometimes problematically. English-language-based musicology has therefore owed much to those who have laboured to make these sources available in reliable translations and to produce an informed secondary literature upon their dense and complex content. Invidious as it may be to single out individuals, it is surely undeniable that Max Paddison's detailed monograph, Adorno's aesthetics of music, published in 1993, has been a seminal mediating text; and on the other side of the Atlantic, the pioneering work of Rose Rosengard Subotnik (for example, her Developing variations) has demonstrated important critical applications - and critiques - of Adorno's thought. …

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