Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (4): ‘Sonority’

In Adorno’s two essays ‘Sonority’ and ‘Colour’; Sonority pertains to the significance of Wagner’s chromaticism and the harmonic choices applied in his operatic works; Colour relates to the effective application of instrumentation in Wagner’s score-writing. I will focus on the subject of ‘Sonority’ and Adorno’s reading that Wagner uses Chromaticism as a form of emotional regression, which in turn is an analogue for social regresion.






Adorno points out the regressive tendencies of Wagner, even comparing it to the pre-historic alludings of the later composer Stravinski (Adorno 2009, p.51). Within the theme of historical and cultural regression to a previous time, The social subject can find himself within Wagner’s regression (Ibid, p. 52)


What is the significance of Regression? The significance is that in the regressive mentality, the subject sacrifices sovereignty to the totality of the music. Regression is in a dictionary sense, the antonym of progress. However, we may establish the equivocation of that term in a similar way. Namely, Adorno’s reading of an emotional and cultural regression of the subject enjoying the Wagnerian work, surrenders a capacity for critical thought or reflection upon the possibility of any alternative to the status quo beyond the options provided in the text, namely, present day, or regress.


Perhaps one way of illustrating the power of regression is through the recent Del Toro film ‘Pacific Rim’. There is a scene where a character, Mako, is placed in a machine where (for complicated reasons) she is suddenly stuck immersed into re-living a childhood memory. This memory was so powerful and tragic to Mako that she was unable to pull out of it and return to the present. Mako’s present was a situation in which she was vital and required her agency to effect change. Mako’s disposition to give her past trauma so much power became a hindrance to moving forward. Perhaps this might be a way of trying to illuminate Adorno’s wariness regarding the idea of regress.


Regress as a musical notion 


Musically speaking, Wagner’s rich harmonies fill the physical space of a venue and emotionally give an otherworldly feel. Adorno describes this other-wordliness specifically as non-temporal. The choices of harmonic decisions in Wagner’s composing are compared to the Impressionists of decades later. The impressionists in Adorno’s view percieved their reality and abstracted from it, and the result was their work of art. Musically speaking, this otehr-worldiness can have very powerful effects. The dreamy nature of Debussy in his most famous piano pieces (such as Clare de Lune) gives an otherworldy nature of perhaps introspection, natural beauty. The celesta in ‘The Hut of Baba Yaga’ of Korsakov’s ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’ has an otherworldly quality of fantasy worlds that do not exist but in the world of paintings and human imagination.


I want it to be clear that other-worldy can mean very many things. However for Adorno, Wagner’s other-worldliness, his sonority, is specifically about a specific mental state of introspective regress. Music as a medium is distinctly non-representational, however the medium of Opera, which is also a dramatic and visual medium, gives the audience a specific leaning towards the meaning of the harmony.


Adorno says (p. 54) that Romanticism made Chromaticism a thing of progress, but Wagner turned it bland. Adorno puts forward a notion of Romanticism where suffering is expressed through chromaticism (p. 56), and chromaticism shows the poles of suffering and sweetness are blurred. Wagner presents pain in a pleasant way.


Wagner’s use of enharmonics as a way of transitioning in a way that alludes to the ‘old’ and original chord (p. 58-9):


But, by a strange reversal of the norm, these devices come to occupy the centre of the musical process and this endows them with an unprecedented power. They become fully comprehensible only in the light of a comparison with the most advanced material of contemporary music from which the inexorable presence of the Wagnerian transition has been eliminated (p. 59)


Sonority and regression – coda 

Why is this issue important? This issue reminds me of what is at the heart of a concept that I’ve been establishing in my mind that I may call Musical Conservatism. Musical conservatism is the notion that preserving aspects of past music in new music is a good. Musical conservatism is also by such a definition, resistant to innovation and emerging new idioms.

Regression is one aspect of musical conservatism, and I see conservatism everywhere in much current music. As a genre becomes established, new deities are made. Metallica, Slayer or Black Sabbath are deified in metal circles. In Black Metal, it is abit of a cliche to hear lots of underground bands referring to themselves as ‘true black metal’ or ‘raw black metal’ or ‘kvelt’, and despite the originally dire and revolutionary tendencies of the aesthetics of the bands of 20+ years ago in the early black metal scenes, what these ‘raw’ and ‘kvelt’ bands do are simply valorising the now-old Gods, and adding to their mythos by replicating their sound and aesthetic.

Regression is everywhere, even in the revolutionary mindset. The most dangerous aspect and the biggest threat to authenticity of revolutionary movement, political and aesthetic, is a fan base that valorises. Adorno’s discussion of Sonority is far more widespread than Wagner’s romanticism. Such regressive aesthetics permeate within any movement. What is particularly notable is that the forward thinking of the Romantic aesthetic eventually subverted through Wagner, into the repressive.


The idea of plural narratives

Plural histories

Something that has been on my mind of late is the idea of historical/cultural narratives that rely very much on stories which are often told. There are many kinds of stories which people deem significant and which are significant which are often told or have some aspect of it disputed: the story of the HIstorical Jesus, for instance, or the discovery of the Americas. The World Wars and the rise of Nationalist Socialism are other examples of narratives often told. But of course they are not the only stories.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how emphasising some narratives may undermine others. To emphasise unitary or specific narratives can both posit or prime non-rational assumptions about such a period of history. I am reminded of the kind of person who can only talk about the little they know about a subject even if its not relevant, and who is not content with an humble ignorant silence or agnosticism.

There are narratives which are not well known, but does that mean they are forgotten? It may be said. To not know that attributed first known composer of written music scores was a woman, is not as well known as it should be, is something that if we do not know about, we may not even think about. This I may consider a form of erasure. Likewise, it is said that many of the early writers of Tin Pan Alley established their careers through the uncouth musical genre known as ‘Coon Song’. Some things are ugly in history that if we forget, let the attributed get away with what they did. To some extent there is a moral character to our remembering and our histories: we remember the great achievers and celebrate them, and we should also remember those who should be shamed. We should not forget the shamed of history, of course we can also revise and dispute who we valorise or demonise.

There are many narratives in a single epoch. Some stories are told too much and it is the repetition that people become obsessed with, instead of the story. I am tired of hearing the anecdotes about Immanuel Kant and how he knew when it was 3pm. Why not the anecdotes about the influence of his friend Joseph Green? Reading the Black Metal anthology recently explores the other scenes that emerged, including USA black metal, where it was said that Depressive Suicidal Black Metal was developed.

I guess I’m reminded of this particularly today because the infamous nature of Varg Vikernes being on the news lately. Every mention of Burzum (and that includes this piece) increases the cult of what the early 90s scene was, and the potentially overhyped nature of it reminds me of that old saying ‘if you had all the pieces of the ‘true cross’ you’d have enough wood for a forest’. What about the other scenes that emerged within the Black Metal aegis, such as in Greece.

The other day I was having a conversation with my actor friend about the idea of a theatrical version of Star Wars. My friend suggested that would be a logicially ambitious project. But I suggested that (I was also simultaneously explaining my approach to musical score-reading), one must have an interpretation of the text rather than creating a literal facsimile. The Empire Strikes Back would work in my view as a drama if we focussed on specific situations, persons and mentalities. The Battle of Hoth from the perspective of a Rebel Soldier about to die; the engineers inside the Executor Star Dreadnought as they go to Bespin; or the inner worries of Lando Calrissian in his offstage behaviour away from Solo and Organa. There are many stories to tell, and being a judge of the multiplicities is an interesting critical question. What I would say to summarise though is: there’s no single history.


‘Bob’ (Or, on the influence of my music teacher)

Over the past couple of weeks I have been preparing a performance. The performance was part of a soiree, for an audience in a very casual environment. The soiree had a setlist of pieces, but unbeknownst to the organiser, there was a second section of the night which consisted of a few surprise acts. My former music teacher, Rob Rathbone was directing the choir and the surprise was specifically for him. Bob (or as I still refer to him, sir) is retiring this year and a few of us from the past had reunited to come and perform to remind him of the various people who he has had a distinct and positive impact upon over the years.


It was odd coming together with familiar faces and unfamiliar faces all to celebrate the career of a very influential teacher. Throughout the night in the conversations I had with various people, I realised how deep Rathbone’s teachings, and even his personality had been a big impact on me. I loved the way how during the choral performance of the soiree, Robert gave descriptions and a bit of background about the historical context of the various choral pieces. Rathbone is a master of the preamble, the anecdote and a veritable raconteur. Later on in the evening, we had a brief chat in which we tried to out-raconteur each other. The conversation went as such:


RR: So, what was your recital piece again?

MP: I did Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Petit Suite de la Concert’ 

RR: Oh yes, I remember now. Coleridge-Taylor is a brilliant composer and it is a tragedy he isn’t played more

MP: Oh I totally agree, I cannot believe how influential he was on the idea of an autonomously African American culture in the early 20th century. It is a testament to his impact that he is held to this day in such high regard in the USA and during his own time. Coleridge-Taylor met Booker T. Washington, President Roosevelt and yet in England he is basically forgotten, it is a tragedy.

RR: I know!

MP: I have been writing a blog series about forgotten composers, and I am in awe of trying to remember the black composers of earlier periods, Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, Coleridge-Taylor. I am even writing a piece on Hildegaard –

RR + MP (unison): — von Bingen, the first known composer of written music!

RR: I think it is an amazing testiment to her ability and prominence that a woman at that time could be such an accomplished figure, it is brilliant! 

Robert was the one who instilled a passion for music history within me. To have an opportunity to play for (and impress) my alumni peers and my former teacher was a great honour. It was a great honour to play the piece that for me defined my pianism of that time. It was a great honour to represent my cohort year group of the early 2000s to acknowledge his impact on us. It was a great honour to play again as a piano soloist, as although I practice a lot, ‘playing’ to an audience is a much different affair.

Maestro, and former pupil (FYI he did not teach me how to dress)

I tried to instill some humour into my performance. I tried to instill a bit of stage pompousness and character in the way that I used to. Robert really appreciated that, to be reminded of the old times of our era. I spoke to alumnus after my era at the college and it was a joy to hear from them of similar stories about certain teachers. It was assuring to know that there are still some universals out there in the world, like a certain mathematics teacher’s wrath.

There’s an old Jesuit saying: show me the child and I’ll mould the man (with various variants). Returning to the college is like returning to my spiritual home. I felt that there are few other places that remind me of what I have become was as a large result of what happened within the walls of that colelge, and a big part of who I am and who I became as a musician and a person interested in culture and philosophy in a large part came from the pastoral and musical teachings of Robert Rathbone. As I walked home from the pub I made one last pass through the school and I thought to myself: after all these memories of the past what do I do now? I thought I might just go on with the present and the future and try not to dwell too much. What I can say though is that much of what happened in my past set the agenda that I still follow today.

I’ll try to get those essays on Adorno completed soon!


On Improvisation

In my education and training as a musician, I have never learned to improvise. However my teachers had much experience with improvising. My teacher of music history and harmony often improvised offertories and other such situations in the sacred contexts of Catholic Mass as an organist, and my piano teacher Jack Daniels as a jobbing jazz musician in the early 20th Century.

Learning to improvise makes me really feel like I am playing when, performing as a pianist. Play comes to mind very strongly. For me, improvising as a form of play establishes a set of rules, and follows its own sense of momentum when done successfully.

I’ve been jamming (as we call it, rehearsing is my favoured term though) with some friends lately, and one particular friend is a self-taught musician. I have been introducing improvisation to him by trying to establish little tricks, little maxims. These are:

  • Know the tonal centres: what is the tonic, what is the dominant. If in doubt, hang around those notes

  • Take risks, get out of your comfort zone, learn to make something new.

I’m still learning myself about improvising. However as I work within genres when it comes to improvisation it feels like playing within rules, then potentially following them, subverting them or creating a new set of rules. Musical improvisation feels like an immensely imaginative and creative activity for me. However in my approach to improvisation it relies very much on the pedagogical playing principles that I have developed and continue to develop as a player. In short, the more I learn how to do things by the rulebook (be that Bach, Romanticism or Pop Songs) the better I am at having a recourse and a vocabulary in which I can create.

Improvisation feels like playing. It feels like an authentic and original outlet for creativity and one’s inner aesthetic sensibility. Improvising feels very much the pinnacle of Kant’s notion of the ‘free play of the imagination’ between the faculties. Kant’s notion of genius can also be typified by the exemplaries of originality: to follow no rules but the ones one sets for themselves.



Lately I have been… (June-July 2013)

Things have been busy. I really hate saying that, it sounds like a cliche. I have been too busy to physically and mentally do any blogging for Noumenal Realm, or do much philosophical work of my own lately. My next essay on Adorno’s Wagner is still being written and not yet ready for putting up. I might just say what’s keeping me busy lately.

Community Garden/Volunteering

Last month was the ‘Open Garden Squares’ weekend, in which Tooting Community Garden recieved 85 visitors during the sunday in which we were open to the public. One particular activity was a storytelling feature by the amazing Emily Duizend.

Later on in the month of June (or last weekend), Emily was part of a fundraising storytelling afternoon, also hosted at the garden. More details about that on the Transition Town Tooting blog. Along with Emily was her brother playing the Sitar (a wonderful and alluring instrument!), Christian at the guitar and another storyteller, Vanessa, told an amusing story in which a spray of water formed an interesting prop on a hot afternoon. Lots of garden type things taking my attention over the past few months. Over next month and possibly August, I will be taking part in some Challenge Network activities. Apparently, where ‘community leaders’ support youth volunteers with community projects. So apparently I’m a community leader? I feel more like Citizen Khan.

There’s lots more exciting things coming up at the garden in coming months as well.


I also found out last month, that my old music teacher, Robert Rathbone, also the music director of Sacred Heart church, Wimbledon, is retiring. A few of us have gotten together to host a shindig and I will be performing as a pianist (soloist), I am apparently second to last on the roster, and I will be performing alongside Rathbone’s old guard alumni from all the years he’s been teaching. I feel very proud both to have studied under Rathbone, whose musical education, instruction and his wise quips and ability to dig into extended digressions about music have been deeply influential to me. I wouldn’t be writing about Adorno if it wasn’t for that man. I have been preparing my piano solo over the past few days and I’ll be focussing a lot of my efforts into preparing my performance in under two weeks time. I will be performing (I think) Christian Sinding’s Rustle of Spring. I wish that two of my friends who are also Rathbone alumnus would be able to come and perform with me as an ensemble. However they are out of the country and I will have to be representing the 2004 crop of Rathbone’s musical soldiers on my own. A little bit daunting. Even though I performed last year to a crowd, it was not in a concert/staged environment. This will be the first time in a very long time since I’ve performed on my own. It is both excitng and worrying!


This week I finally went to visit the Philosophy club just establishing itself in Tooting. Dave Darby who has this website which is interesting on its own accord (funny enough I knew of the site before I actually met him or knew he made it), has hosted the very second philosophy club meeting based in London. I understand that Darby has run a similar group when in Buckinghamshire. The question was ‘what does it mean to be human?’ and it brought a lot of questions, perspectives and focii from all of the people taking part. Thanks to Dave and Amrit for hosting us all, and all of the participants for such interesting discussion. I find it interesting to talk about philosophical issues, as I rarely actually do it. I mostly have email correspondences with my other Noumenal Realm team (or more like Skype calls/messages). I am also  still reading Chris Bateman’s ‘Chaos Ethics’. I have been in some correspondence with Bateman about writing related feedback, although I am rearing up to write a critique of Bateman’s work when the book is finally published, which will be in the near future.

Other stuff

I’ve also been involved with just general life things. I am keeping an eye out for the London performance of a show later this month, where I have (under an alias) composed two songs. I have been jamming musically with my ensemble (two of which can’t join me for Rathbone’s retirement gathering). I’ve also started working at a new place, which is very exciting, but also requires adjustments. Lately I’ve been keeping a lot more active than I used to. I love keeping up with gardening activities, both as a social occurence and a community activity. I love keeping in touch with my musical side, which includes playing with my friends and the boring tedious pedagogical practice methods that I have developed. I’ve been hitting the gym pretty hard when I can as well. Last week I uttered the thought to myself: damn, only 8 hours of training this week? The week before I did 11, I’m competitive with myself when it comes to hitting it hard and working at something.

Getting busy living/dying

I’m turning 27 next week. I’m kind of dreading it. 27 is the year one loses any sense of youth culture credibility. I’ve been musing on the ’27 club’ idea lately as well. I wonder to myself if I died tomorrow, or next month, what would people say of my life? I would like people to consider me by my achievements, although unfortunately I suspect people will remember me as a person, which I would place less emphasis on personally. Newton after all was a great achiever, but an abhorrent personality. I guess one of the things I have been reflecting on lately about aging is not just the lost of hair, gaining of wrinkles and slower metabolic rate that slows down my gains while weight training, but also refleting on whether I have achieved enough in my life. I have spent the past few months (with composing, gardening, blogging, writing, socialising, playing musical instruments) with that thought in mind: if I die what will I have achieved. I kind of feel that lately I am living with that goal – trying to be immortalised in some way by some achievement. I do feel I have much to achieve. However, lately, writing more on my Wagner commentary is not one of the things.