Some thoughts on my music playlists

Lately I have not listened to as much underground black metal music as I would like to. This is for a variety of reasons (scarcity being the main one). I always make a point of keeping a diverse set of listening interests. Sometimes if I hear a conversation about a band going on and I don’t know much about it, I will make a note in Google Keep and check on them later. I also have a rolling task every month of making a ‘big fuckoff playlist’ which lasts anything from 8-12 days (as in up to 300 hours).

 

I like to organise my playlists in ways that try to acknowledge the greatest amount of unity through the greatest variety of depth. I’m sure Kant didn’t envisage the application of schematic concepts in this way. I listen to music with a variety of different personas and hats. With my spotify subscription I try to organise my music in as rational a way as possible.

 

I am interested in learning about early 20th century music from the perspective of being a fan of Modernist thought. My interest in modernism also informs my interest in black metal (but that’s another story). I am also interested in connecting to understand my old piano teacher’s Jazz heritage. I had initially been listening to the early jazz of Jelly Roll Morton and Benny Goodman, and then I evolved to exploring John Coltrane most recently.

 

I am also exploring composers that I haven’t known very much about and trying to get an informed opinion of. I listened to the works of Krenek, CPE Bach, Aaron Copland and I am currently exploring Jean Sibelius, Gerald Finzi and I have about 3 different Leonard Bernstein playlists. There seem to be three Leonard Bernsteins: the conductor who was well known for performing the greats and the classics of European artmusik; Bernstein the composer who wrote works that reflected this meshing of his distinctly American and urbanite sensibility with someone who is steeped in the history and heritage of the Europeans; and finally the ‘popular’ Berinstein who lives on as the dude who did West Side Story and those other Jazzy tunes. I think that through listening to all three of these Bernsteins concurrently I am having a better appreciation of his perspective and the interesting cultural soup that formed his outlook.

 

I was recently watching a MOOC on modern music which discussed the recent composer George Crumb (Whom I know nothing about). Crumb said in an interview how growing up in the USA with parents who were local band and orchestra musicians influenced him, as well as the multicultural agenda of the music department at his university. Music is alive insofar as it is both current and historical. I love listening to music through different personas, similar to how I have conceptualised Bernstein. I enjoy listening to music as someone who is a bad amateur musician. I enjoy listening to music as someone who is interested in its history and culture. Then there are the sensibilities of someone born in the 1980s and was a kid of the 90s and a 20-something through the 2000s trying to negotiate getting a bit older and uncool.

 

When I listen to all this music I explore things I like and things that I don’t like but still try to be informed about. I love the idea of trying to find some kind of unity in all the musical personas that I have, but on the other hand I think it is not possible or desirable. I want to have Shining’s Förtvivlan, min arvedel as something relatively recent that I absolutely adore and feel encapsulates me as a person, but at the same time I also feel the same kind of identification and emotion (albeit different emotional colours) about Beethoven’s Sonata no. 8, which I am currently working on and trying to deal with the tremolando of the left hand in the first movement (the word pathetique comes to mind!). Often people talk of historical periods and some have referred to the present as ‘postmodern’. Let’s say that I accept this label. Being a post-modern means that I can go to the gym listening to the music representing my outlook through Black Metal when I’m walking around with my headphones in; but also write blog posts at 3am while listening to Blaise Pascal on audiobook and listening to the music of Darius Milhaud (of les six) fame. Postmodern is one word to describe it perhaps, or perhaps muddled, confused. But not to say that these are necessarily bad things to mix it all up.

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Watching: Avengers: United they Stand (1999)

On the start of any kind of discussion about this 1999 Marvel venture, this cartoon was universally deemed an average at best television show. Avengers: United they Stand serves as an example of how the flaws of an aesthetic work serve as interesting aesthetic features.

 

I knew of this show when it was originally out but I had little interest in it. In an age nearly 15 years later where there’s a big cultural interest in comic characters and franchises/intellectual properties/money-making commercial properties (delete as appropriate), the Avengers: United they Stand (UtS) serves as a lovely obscurity.

 

After I finished episode 13 I then found out that was actually the final episode. I was then reminded of a discussion in the TV series ‘Toast of London’ (starring Matt Berry [a subject for a future blog post I’m sure]) in which the titular character, Steven Toast, wrote a book without an ending. The literary agent loved the book but said that it couldn’t not have an ending. Toast made this decision to write a well considered feminist novel but left it without an ending. As if its incompleteness left it complete.

 

I feel the same about this show. The premature ending with the unresolved plot lines and even an unresolved episode arc was a masterstroke of story. There was an unresolved romantic storyline between Vision, the synthetic lifeform created by Ultron (one of the main villains); and Scarlet Witch.

 

It is certainly true that the female characters left much to be desired in terms of developing a back story or sense of an inner world, but as far as 1990s kids shows went, it fared a hell of a lot better than most. The gender ratio was about 3:5 or 3:4 (if you consider vision as normatively male – which technically you shouldn’t as a robot is genderless). The flaw of having poorly developed female characters was not so much an issue of poor gender representation but poor representation of the character roster in general, as almost all of them hardly had much back story.

 

Perhaps the big thing that people point out was the obvious thing: How can you have an Avengers lineup that does not include Captain America, Iron Man or Thor? This notion made me think really hard. In recent comics (Uncanny Avengers, Uncanny X Men, All New X Men, Avengers, or in their unique cases: Wolverine and the X Men and Secret Avengers), characters such as Wolverine and Captain America are basically present either as main characters or significant background characters. Having a world where certain characters have so much of a role in that universe evokes a cult of personality about them. This could be said of world leaders or public figures who seem to be in multiple discourses (say, celebrity culture and political discourse combined).

 

Thinking about the B-team, or the other guys is a really neat angle for a TV show. Thinking back in 1999 when there was a dearth of big Marvel shows: X men TAS had finished, Spiderman TAS had finished and shows like X-Men Evolution or Avengers: EMH (which I have discussed in a previous post) had not arrived; having this bunch of B-teamers was inherently underwhelming for a comicbook franchise which put a high place on the heavy hitters.

 

There was something inherently equalising about the UtS lineup. Contrast UtS’s Hawkeye to the Hawkeye character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hawkeye in the Marvel Cinematic world was basically a pawn, the lowest fodder of a chess board and his abilities in the final fight were…staying on a high vantage point with arrows? Contrast this to ARC powered Iron Man who flew all around the city; Thor and Hulk who are comparably invulnerable to anything resembling human. There’s probably a good reason why Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye hasn’t found the right time to re-appear in the Marvel Cinematic universe and that is because it’s hard to have a place in such a super-powered world.

 

UtS’s Hawkeye is perhaps the best character in the show by contrast to his MCU counterpart (next to maybe Vision, but I’ll get to him). Hawkeye has a rough edge to him, being a former criminal trained in the circus (sensitive to his comic book origin). Hawkeye is very much a loose cannon, with legitimate trust issues and complex loyalties. Except for the ridiculous costumes they had (which were a very thinly veiled toy commercial), Hawkeye’s character made a Marvel character look…human when it is not desirable to be so in such a superpowered universe.

 

Vision is perhaps my favourite character in this show. Vision has the developing humanity and exists in a show where acting wooden was actually a benefit in the context. Some of the flaws of the ‘main’ characters who appear in the show are quite notable because they reveal something very human and real about them. Captain America’s cameo in one episode shows him as brash, and an inadequate leader compared to Hank Pym’s Ant Man. Even though Cap is the universal hero he is trapped by his own reputation and seen almost as if he were a better leader than he actually is. Kids watching this show probably would have lost this level of nuance.

 

By contrast, Hank Pym appears jealous, vindictive and self-doubting as a leader, and it makes him look like a very ugly person. In addition he spies on his wife visiting a family friend of hers in the penultimate episode and when she finds this out she is a little annoyed but shes seemed to let it go pretty easily. Hank Pym does look like a pretty horrible person in this show. Finally there was the appearance of Iron Man in a one episode cameo. Iron Man seems so single minded (as he was working in one of his commercial projects) that although he appreciated the help of the Avengers and joined in the action, he had no time for small talk, reflection or even acknowledgment that he was once on the Avenger roster. This shows an interesting side of Iron Man – flawed but not like the usual flawed depiction of an hedonistic and distracted Tony Stark, who lets his personal failures have implications on his professional life.

 

To close I thought I’d mention the honorable and noble aspects of the show. Although I’d think this show was absoutely rubbish as the 13 year old that I was in 1999. There are bits of the show that are farcical. For example, the NSA liason, Raymond Sikorski (who serves as a representative of the real world) continually notes things such as the poor public perception of the Avengers; how they caused millions of dollars in damages to public property. Not to mention the episode where Big Ben  is destroyed and nothing is mentioned of it at all afterwards, except to find out how it was caused. Have no doubt that this is not a great show nor is it a good show. It’s my view though that there are interesting psychological gems in the character development (or lack of) that as an adult (who probably should be doing better things), gives an interesting complexity to the show.

‘The Tree’: A play by Bernardo Stella

As part of my ever-continued quest to explore new places and ‘do more cultural things’, I ventured to visit the Pentameters theatre in Hampstead, North London. A brief statement of declaration: a personal friend of mine, Daniel Sawicki, was performing. I went to see a play called ‘The Tree’ by a Bernardo Stella. The story that was told before the play began was that Stella is a local restaurant business owner who sometimes writes plays and poetry, some of the former had been performed at said Pentameters venue.

 

‘The Tree’ was a romance story that was in impossible circumstances, as it was set between a Serb boy and a Muslim girl in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. I often hear the comparison of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ attached to stories and it often sounds very naff, and often undermines what the actual Shakespeare play was about by its elements. Often the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ comparison is seen as a desirable kind of romance or a very lovely situation. Of course if you actually read the Shakespeare text it is about two teenagers who fall in love but are from two families who basically have been killing each other for centuries. As far as adult relationships go, Romeo and Juliet is not a good cultural model for ideal behaviour. While I am on this point, I also don’t get the fascination with Goethe’s Werther for that matter.This story however, is, with the unfortunate cliche, an accurate Romeo and Juliet ‘star cross’d lovers’ situation. The story is set in around 1990/1991 and seems to go on to about maybe 1994.

 

The twinkle of attraction between Esad and Nikola in some respects is like many intercultural relationships. While flourishing it is between communities with cultural contact but mutual suspicion. As the story goes on the wider political backdrop becomes more and more relevant to their relationship and ultimately defines how it ends. It made me think about how the circumstances of a given time may affect romances. In better economic and social times I would like to think that these big forces have a minimal impact on relationships. It is at the more extreme of times, such as poverty or civil unrest, that our personal lives can sometimes take a back seat.

 

‘The Tree’ refers to a backyard tree from Nikola’s family home. Esad’s neighbouring family find the tree to be an annoyance and later on the basis for antagonism between the two families. In more peaceful times the tree had flourished and the narrator (Brankovic) later mentions that the tree eventually became a burned out stump from a bombing.

 

This is an ugly and harsh play. It made the audience uncomfortable and anxious. This play communicated a very specific set of historical circumstances and did so in a way that an audience could understand. The ugliness of the play reflected the ugliness of the inhumanity and the world of what was the post-Yugoslavia Bosnia. I have spoken in the past about how the Kantian description of beauty has an inverse, and this would be the ultimate expression of what is aesthetic ugliness. There is one point in the play when the two main characters are dead and Brankovic’s narrator character walks to the audience and looks at us figuratively in the eye (he physically looked at me in the eye briefly) and said: “LOOK AT THEM!”. Their plight represents not just a personal tragedy, but the collective tragedies of so many who went through a period of civil unrest in a historically located situation.

 

The moral significance of ugliness is expressed through this “LOOK AT THEM!” utterance breaking the fourth wall. In our lives our culture is a selective mirror to ourselves: we look at the world we want to be in, or perhaps a world we might enjoy imagining, or a world reflecting some aspect of our values. This “LOOK AT THEM!” is a wake up call to say: do not forget.

 

Musical Conservatism

I’ve written too many posts on Adorno and music to run away from a topic that has been in my mind for a while. I keep alluding to the idea of musical conservatism in the vague hopes that I might address it as a separate issue. In this post I’ll give an attempt at firstly trying to define what musical conservatism is. I might then try (but this isn’t the priority of the post) to clarify why this is important and what might be at stake.

Musical Conservatism (MC)

It is often said that some composers are conservative compared to their peers. A boon example of this is the composer Edvard Grieg. Grieg wrote in the Romantic style when it was the ‘safe’ thing to do and it was already established. By contrast, the impressionist and expressionist composers take to new grounds stylistically and arguably ideologically. There are of course more contraversial examples of a conservative composer: Richard Strauss. Strauss wrote der Vier letzte Lieder, and stylistically occupies ‘high romanticism’, written in the 1940s, a period of time when High Romanticism is symbolically an old grandfather who is just about to die.

I am a fan of the Four Last Songs, and I saw it conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and cried. It’s emotive power is undeniable, but is it stylistically raw and innovative compared to its contemporaries? I’d be forced to say…no. It’s no Schoenberg, it’s not even as innovative as more popular and appealing music such as Gershwin or Rachmaninov. However Strauss nearly 50 years previously wrote Salome, a work considered to be part of the Modernist kaleidoscope of its day. Some conservatives can have revolutionary potential, or once did have revolutionary impetus. Another example might be Stravinsky, whose rhythmically focussed Rite of Spring shocked audiences but his later work was less daring.

Conservatism as a mindset

Perhaps the thing that makes MC similar to a political form of conservatism (I don’t distinguish between ‘big C/small c’ conservatism for now) is a commitment to some sense of status quo. Conservatism works within already established media, and even though it might improve on, or add to an already established genre, it is that a genre or form is established that the contribution in question can be called conservative.

Conservatism of musical sorts is a mindset. It’s dad-rock, where fathers yearn for some actual or imaginary younger age in which their idea of rebellion was through the now codified bands of album compilations and general interest publications. Conservatism is the phenomena of making heavy metal culture a successful money making industry, with all the related trappings of metal festivals, metal radio stations and shows, metal forums, merchandise and paraphernalia. Once leather trousers and long hair (inter alia) are established symbols, we already play to the established channels of cultural communication, namely, one identifies with the tribe. This can be of course, through degrees of negotiation and separation through the hegemony, but there is still nontheless a tacit sense of hegemony.

Conservatism is codification. This can be through symbolic expression of the cultural consumers, this can be through the stylistic genre itself and its musicological features, this may even be through the economic model in which the music and industries around it support itself: the established toilet circuits in which bands must gain recognition, or the star DJs who grant recognition to bands, or the record labels that establish and confer status within the established order.

What was once fresh is now freeze dried for mass consumption

Musical genres, subcultures around genres or even mindsets around musical and cultural modes of expression, may have once been revolutionary, they may have once been entirely different. They may have once been so different that they did not fit into the established pre-existing order of genre hierarchies. I remember seeing an interview with Dave Mustaine of Megadeth in around 1988 or so, and he said that his music didn’t have a genre identity. This at the time was valid in the sense that what is now referred to as speed or thrash metal was not as codified. However, come today and we see bands with heavy and fast riffs using phrygian and dorian mode, exploiting 4-time tempi and lyrics about the distrust of the status quo, or violence, nuclear war or apocalyptic themes, and we might call it classic thrash metal.

Some presumptions

I’ve made some presumptions here. One is that conservatism means being derivative. I’m agnostic about this. Another presumption is that conservatism is inherently bad. Again I might say I would not feel obliged to respond to this point and leave this as an open question. Another open question I might put forward is: will everything that was once fresh become freeze-dried for mass consumption?

An analogy with gaming

An analogy with gaming might come into play. Chris Bateman often states his view that the games industry usually goes along with concepts that are already established and provide already-existing modes of activity and play. The next CoD game or Halo title is going to be largely similar to the last, in such a way that it’s almost immaterial that the next CoD includes a controllable doggy, or a powerlifter suit like the one Ripley piloted in Aliens. Innovative games are still possible and I think that seems to be the MO of those often working as indie developers or kickstarter-like budgets.

The musical conservatism that I put forward could be generalised as a cultural conservatism. There’s economic/business ramifications for putting forward recognisable products over untested and unknown quantities. However you often hear people talking about the freshness of when gamers first played Super Mario on the NES or came across a new gaming interface the first time. I remember my first Turn Based RPG like it was a first love. I’ve sought out many Turn Based RPGs since then but I begin to feel that it’s all the same after a while.

Musical Conservatism: so what?

Any fresh, idea-provoking or perception-challenging genre has the threat of appropriation. The appropriation of being a successful medium that brings in countless imitators. The original sense of perception-challenge is lost and simply absorbed into the status quo. Is it inevitable that we will all become musical conservatives? Even the genres that claim to be separate from the mainstream, have their own standards of conformity that dictate unto others what some sense of authenticity to the genre might be. In Black Metal such people are referred to kvlt and their seriousness is a form of self-parody. In modern parlance this very kind of discussion leans to hipster connotations. In my own time we might use these terms. In my own time it may be legitimate to demean me as a sad hipster seeking some sense of authenticity by the ratio of the more obscure something is, the purer it is as music. I wouldn’t want to subscribe to that point of view, as obscurity is not sufficient for authenticity (is it a necessary condition? I don’t suspect so either).

The issue of conservatism I suspect will spread to the future in whatever genres there are, and I am of strong conviction that there are historical cases in which such a discussion about whether a musician/composer/artist may be judged as conservative would be relevant in terms of their period.

JS Bach comes to mind when thinking about conservatism. I consider Bach as a composer superior to most of the greats. Is there a case for stating that JS Bach has revolutionary potential? In the 1980s there was a movement to return to Baroque repertories in the culture of studio recordings of orchestral works, in that sense there is an objectionable potential within Bach. In another sense, one might follow the Gould line and maintain that Bach upheld musical forms that were even in his own time, dated. I’ve been considering Bach in terms of the exegesis. But what about eisegesis? Bach is a pedagogical figure, a stepping stone to Beethoven, or Schoenberg, or even Jacques Loussier. Some people point to the mathematical nature of Bach, perhaps we might find fresh influence even still as musical work such as math rock, progressive rock, or the avant-garde work of say, Xenakis, that applies mathematical principles to compositional technique; might still have lessons drawn from Bach. If we are reading as Eisegesis, is Bach a conservative?

Coda: conclusions

Using the notion of conservatism I have found a form of self-critique in my own aesthetic preferences. I suspect that I am more conservative culturally than I might imply myself to be. What revolutionary potential is there in Schoenberg when his music is nigh-on 100 years old? What about the post-serialist composers and their radical potential?

I wonder if conservatism is inescapable. I wonder if its analogous to the insufferable conformist masses that Nietzsche described to be subsumed within slave morality, or like the conformist ‘sunday’ Christians described by Kierkegaard. Is there a potential to get out of such a place? When I read Adorno I keep a question like this in my mind and wonder if he leads to an answer. I also worry if committing to specific musical forms makes one historicist as well, but I suppose that’s a self-criticism for another post.

On USBM and its alleged uniqueness

Following my discussion on Black Metal hegemonies, and Non-European Black Metal, I thought I would continue in the further vein of the chapters on ‘Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness’ (2012, Stosuy eds.) with American Black Metal.

 

I’ve heard Wolves in the Throne Room bandied about on so many discussions on Twitter, Facebook and the messages I’ve gotten through last.fm. Wolves in the Throne Room are a US black metal band, but are seen to be stylistically unique to the European black metal forbears. Their popularity is also a source of inauthenticity. I’ve often heard through some personal friends the most ‘hurrendous’ allegation that more popular black metal bands, or the infamous ‘post-black metal’ bands have gigs where the performers and audience have….gasp, short hair!

 

This sort of reaction seems to show how embedded some attitudes are within metal communities, or the emphasis on authenticity. Ironically, often these same people complain about the purists who say that black metal is not kvelt enough. You really can’t win sometimes when it comes to authenticity. Although perhaps the best response comes from not giving a shit.

 

Discussion of (in)authenticity aside, some authors have given an attempt at explaining the uniqueness of Wolves in the Throne Room, and the wider so-called ‘cascadian black metal’ that they apparently represent. Brandon Stosuy encapsulates it through the paraphrased Darkthrone album title: A Blaze in the North American Sky.

 

Instead of retelling the Norwegian mythology of the 1990s black metal scene, the US bands who call themselves cascadian, draw from their own sense of mythology, from their own environment and in this way do not end up as derivative as genres such as raw black metal, true black metal etc. are.

 

The US scene has different origins, different founding texts. For one, Death Metal was more influential, as Stosuy points out, and a defining moment of Darkthrone’s second album showed the cultivation of mixing Death and Black metal aesthetics and sound. Often the two scenes are kept seperate or even with some disdain for each other.

 

Stosuy points out how USBM is seen often as a joke, but focusing on the positive mythologies of the Cascadian scene shows how it has something unique to offer. Often these groups draw from more identifiably American genres, such as Punk and Shoegaze. On the other hand, some also point out how the term of USBM is just as cynical and market-y as the same kind of derision to say that it is largely derivative and a carbon-copy. That is a problem of upholding any genre label, the fear that it doesn’t actually fit!

 

It is true that Norway has a different social and economic climate to the US, and the ideal of USBM would presumably reflect that, as Thrash metal reflected the dissent of youth in the 80s, Black Metal should come from its social context and reflect that status quo. Stosuy ends his essay with an interesting reflection:

 

Those who view USBM as inauthentic tend to do so because America seems an unlikely place for the icy, grim strains of Black Metal to flourish. But as the US dollar continues its nosedive, our Black Metal impulses become validated. We’ve become a nation of scrappy, lo-fi underdogs. Have you ever tried to buy a diner in Norway – one of the wealthiest countries in the world – with converted US currency? […] While Americans are often accused of lacking a history, we more than make up for that lack with our bleak view of the future. [Stosuy, 2012]

I have been continually thinking about this notion of being derivative against listening to one’s own sense of sensibilities cultural. It’s important to use those things around us as a source for our creativity, and much more enabling than simply copying what is currently done and what is currently in, in a given scene. I think about how Chopin turns the Nocturne (a genre invented by Irish composer John Field) into an expression of his more polish cultural sensibilities. It’s fair to say that often in European music history through the Modern period, that certain centres of power emerged between Italy and Germany – the lingua franca of written music still is Italian. Chopin expressed his cultural uniqueness by drawing from their sense of identity and context. The same could also be said for Bartok, perhaps even more so, as Bartok tried to do two things: firstly, to embrace and preserve select local folk traditions of central-eastern Europe through his Edison recordings, and also through a slight influence on his own music; and secondly through his attempt to help establish a unique American cultural identity. Bartok was not the only person with this project. One of my favourite composers (even if he’s not a ‘great’ composer like Beethoven), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor inspired the African Americans of his day to engage in the public life through culture, and the evidence seems to suggest, also politics.

 

Often in my Adorno-themed commentaries, there is a focus on the negatives of music and culture, such as homogeneity or the conformist way of cultural thinking leading to dullness of social imagination. However, movements that emphasise uniqueness or identity, such as the so-called Cascadians, may give potential for authentic expression, may give a genuine sense of cultural freshness and originality. It may even give a way of perceiving the world differently.

 

Michael

 

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.

 

Sonority 

 

Regress 

 

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.

Michael

Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (3) ‘Motiv’

Introduction

 

In this essay I will address a view that I acknowledged in a post last year in an extended discussion I had about film soundtracks and leitmotif, in my critique of a Chris Bateman talk. I will examine Adorno’s view of Wagner’s use of Leitmotif, where the former effectively thinks that leitmotif has been diluted to become simply a marker of a character’s presence. Adorno also has specific points of critique to make about the nature of how leitmotif is applied by Wagner.

 

I shall firstly go into an attempt at exegesis on this essay, to try and get down to the charitable perspective of Adorno’s reservations about Wagner’s use of leitmotif. I should also say that I’ve had a struggle reading and trying to work out this essay. I might read this essay again in 20 years and have a completely different reading!

 

Exegesis – motif 

 

Adorno makes the bold point that leitmotif is being degraded in some way, cheapened even. It is suggested by Adorno that Wagner inter alia reflect the degredation of leitmotif to what it had eventually become:

 

“The degeneration of the leitmoti[f] is implicit in this: via the ingenious illustrative techique of Richard Strauss it leads directly to cinema music where the sole function of the leitmoti[f] is simply to announce heroes or situations so as to help the audience to orientate itself more easily.” [p.36]

 

Adorno makes the point that Wagner makes no progress beyond Viennese Classicism. Wagner advances a particular heritage of classicism that emphasises individuality, which then led to Wagner’s exploitation of communicating ambiguities. I take this kind of ambiguity to refer to a generic sense: psychological, musical (harmonic) and symbolically.

 

Adorno quotes Paul Bekker, a contemporamous music critic, who says that expression is fundamental ‘category’ of Wagner’s work. Adorno examines expressivity specifically through the development of the motif. A motif is a recognisable unit that can constitute melody, harmony or rhythm at its most basic sense. Leitmotif is the effective use of repeating a motif in a notable way. If I were having a cafe conversation with limited time, I would probably say ‘its sort of like a theme tune’. However, it is exactly Adorno’s point that leitmotif should be a more superior thing to just a theme tune. It is this revulsion to considering leitmotif as theme tune-motif  that I want to try to explore, Adorno’s critique of Wagner’s use of leitmotif.

 

The specific allegations 

 

Adorno points out the ambiguities in Wagner’s motifs, of lacking a temporal nature but rather appearing ‘totalising’ like some kind of Kantian or Post-Kantian system of metaphysics. Adorno also points out, with the specific example of the Tristanunde Isolde leitmotif, the use of chromaticism and its consequent ambiguitiy which has an allegorical nature.

 

Adorno says something that almost sounds like a compliment. Wagner’s richly forged chords (with a very overly complicated terminology for non-musicians) allows for a variety of possible interpretations, which could lead to different places, that do many things simultaneously. At the same time this richness of harmony I think Adorno considers as creating an other-worldly unity. One which is very much outside of the established principles of Viennese Classicism.

 

I think Adorno acknowledges that some of the innovations that Wagner makes in his harmonies are very clever. The use of secondary dominants and the particular harmonic progressions that Wagner makes, are psychologised to have a particular philosophical significance. Adorno considers it to be totalising, like the thinking of systematic philosophies, such as (allegedly) Kant, or Hegel, the refusal to return to the tonic is psychologised as a form of psychological regression. This is a very bold claim and one I am almost willing to take seriously.

 

Adorno considers such motifs regressive. There is an irony here. Adorno acknowledges how Wagner is refusing to be classical stylistically in the vein of Mozart, at the same time he uses the innovations of the ‘First Viennese school’. This very fact is an interesting contradiction. Wagner is classically informed, yet romantic. Anti-romantic, and yet anti-classical. I would consider this an interesting form of subversion. Very clever.


Adorno points out another juxtaposition. Wagner stylistically is classical in an atomistic sense, but in a wider global sense is anti-structure. Wagner gives the interesting impression of accessibility to the philistine. I think it is worth having in mind Adorno’s views on totalitarian thinking here, which he exhibits in another essay. Adorno is cautious of instrumental thinking, of rationalisation and totalising thought. Although these are from other essays beyond this collection.

 

Adorno considers the way in which Wagner’s motif is applied as bourgeois. Why? Because within the totality of it, there is a constant allusion and development and emergence of a single motif, that motif is constantly played with and treated as an individual. But it is an illusion, Adorno says. There is a lack of dialectic or antagonism towards the development of such a motif. These things make Wagner distinctly different from Viennese Classicism.

 

The contrast to Viennese Classicism is a significant one. I consider this to underpin the formalism imbued within Adorno’s musical criticism. I think that Adorno is advocating the view of formalism, namely, that it is the structural components of music that construe its aesthetic merit. It is often considered that the ‘First Viennese School’ were the great masters of such form. The allusion to Viennese Classicism is significant for the same reason I am constantly referring to it as the ‘First School’. A first school surely requires a second school, and the second school of Viennese Classicism would be Schoenberg and his disciples.

Adorno speaks of how Wagner appropriates disperately contrasting elements. Wagner attempts to combine opera seria with opera buffa. Wagner is genuinely altering the bourgeosie sensibilities of the time yet also entice a new set of sensibilities while gaining the respectability of a more ‘serious’ or learned audience. Wagner creates an overall more intensive musical experience as the drama and libretti merge with the musical composition and the directions of the conductor.  This sense of unity represents politically repressive themes of Wagner’s overall outlook: the totalisation of his music represents: “a halt to the action and […] the life process of society”.

Perhaps another way of communicating this is when we think about fictional worlds, we often take it at face value due to our lack of familiarity, and rarely, unless the text allows us to do so, critique it. When we look at a film like the Lion King, we are in awe at what is portrayed as the natural order and we do not question it. We become in more modern terminology, passive consumers, accepting the vision of the text that is given to us, because the construction of the cultural artefact encourages that limiting interpretation.

Michael