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



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.



The Cult of Glenn Gould


As many of you can tell, I’ve been blogging a lot about music lately. I have always had thoughts and Ideas about music and I always considered that eventually I would come to speak my views or embed them in unsystematic places through other discussions, such as my commentary blog pieces on Adorno.


However I thought I might just try and address some of the thoughts and issues directly. With that in mind I thought I would write about my favourite Musician: Glenn Gould, and try to articulate some of the things I find interesting about the pianist-broadcaster. Part of the reason I felt it important to talk about Glenn Gould is because part of his insight will, I suspect continually be referred to if I continue to write on issues musical. Gould is as a pianist, as influential to me as say Kant is as a philosopher.

Why I like Glenn Gould 


Glenn Gould is one of my all time favourite musicians. I say musician and not concert pianist. Gould composed works in his own time which have been of little recognition, Gould also had very deep thoughts on music history. Glenn Gould worked with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in producing programming that engaged with the public about music, in the way that the likes of Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins did for science, or Marcus deSautoy for Mathematics today. I consider Gould not just as a performer, but someone who was a performer with a composer’s mentality, someone with ideological views on music, its direction and its history. Gould was someone who lived in the age that transitioned the end of classical music as we know it and saw the emergence of popular music styles which took the place of the big composers.


Gould is a divisive figure, many have a dislike for him for giving the impression that’s okay to play the piano with poor pedagogy, or while humming, using an inappropriately low chair. On the other hand, it is the eccentricity of the man that I love. It is the out of this world nature of his personality, that also reflects the other-worldiness of the composers that he favoured: Bach and Schoenberg. I will consider the many different dimensions of Glenn Gould and have some closing reflections on the ‘cult’ of Glenn Gould.


Who is Glenn Gould? 


Gould the performer 


One of the things I am attracted to about Glenn Gould are his performances. The way that Gould makes 18th Century J.S. Bach come alive in a way that gives it a distinct freshness. Gould’s interpretation of the Brandenburg Concerto is considered a benchmark, and Gould’s career can be book-ended by his early recording and his late recording of the very same piece


One thing I find particularly interesting about Gould is the choice he made for his recordings. Gould avoided Romanticism a great deal, and expressed a certain Baroque-ness in all of the pieces he recorded. Gould’s choices in music reflects a lineage, from Bach to Schoenberg, from Rhineland old to Rhineland recent. There are however some choice exceptions to Gould’s work: his interpretation of Mozart leaves much to be desired, and the choice of recording Scriabin leaves me unsure of what to think. I am particularly surprised at some of the Richard Strauss lieder recorded by Gould.


Gould the ideologue 


Gould nailed his colours to the mast about many issues. Perhaps bold enough to say that Mozart ‘died too late’ as a form of disapproval of the latter’s later work. Gould was a pianist who was known more for their voice than his hands. Gould was very vocal on his feelings for Bach and Schoenberg and many of the ideological baggage that he carried has chimed a lot with my own musical upbringing and influences. In a way Gould is a natural extension of my musical worldview. I particularly like the way that Gould conflates or expands (depending on how you see it) the role and position of what a concert pianist should be. Should a pianist play, or contribute to a conversation about music and what music means?


Gould the Studio Musician/perfectionist 


Glenn Gould famously refused to be part of the concert scene and chose not to engage in live performing. Gould had distinct reservations about the way in which music is performed to an audience, and the way that the distinction was made between performer and audience. Gould was then led to taking a more studio oriented approach to performing and propagating his music. There are amazing videos out on youtube showing the ways in which Gould had been involved in the studio process of making music, not just in terms of playing the piano, but in the post-production stages of mixing audio and cutting tape. I’ve lately been working in some home studios with very fancy software like Digital Audio Workstations, but I am astonished at an age where cutting up a recording and splicing with other takes literally involved cutting tape! Gould was a perfectionist of the classical music variety, in an age where the studio was emerging. Gould made himself a recording artist from a performer, and this is something very telling about the status of musicianship today and the scope of what musicianship involves.


Gould the firebrand/anti-conservative 


Gould is a figure who is inherently disagreeable to some, or may I even say many. This is a fundamental aspect of what makes anyone a firebrand. There is a story of Glenn Gould meeting another notable musician (and musical intellectual) who found Gould’s interpretation disagreeable, but noteworthy enough to deserve engagement. That musician was Leonard Bernstein, someone who I also have great admiration for as a musician and a composer (and no I’m not so big a fan of West Side Story).


Gould held strong opinions, from Romanticism to Modernism; Bach to recording methods. Gould remained a distinct face and one who ruffled feathers by his distinctness and presentation. Glenn Gould was not just an eccentric and a passionate person of the world of classsical music, but was distinclty a person of 20th century sensibilities as well, doing things that other classical performers would not do. Like this!


Gould the broadcaster 


Glenn Gould’s greatest legacy may very well be not in his playing, but the efforts he made to educate the public in music and culture. Very similar to Leonard Bernstein, Gould made entertaining material from discussing the history of music, discussing style and reaching audiences through CBC broadcasts in an accessible fashion. We speak of the public intellectual like a rare breed of broadcaster these days. We also normally think of such intellectuals for science, mathematics or even history and philosophy –  but …whither music? The Unanswered Question.

I particularly enjoyed the ways in which Gould would parody the pretentiousness of the world of classical music by the various fake characters that he would perform, and at the same time embody in all seriousness the very kind of persons that he would lampoon. Such a strange and contradictory state of affairs it is to be Glenn Gould. It is with greatness that one can both parody experimental composers and music critics, and both be an advocate of Serialism in all seriousness as well as having very strong views on issues musical. This contrast between the serious and playful/funny Gould is something that any public intellectual can learn from. Gould contains great comedy as well as seriousness. As evidenced from things such as hisso you want to write a fugue’. A fugue about writing a fugue. Talk about parody as a form of art.

Gould the ‘bad example’

Gould is, lets face it, a bad example to emulate as a pianist. Gould does a lot of things ‘badly’, pedagogically speaking. The chair he sits on is too low, Gould strikes with an overhand that is too dominant; humming is not desirable plus the movements are far too eccentric. Of course when it comes to virtuosi they are a law unto themselves. Like performers like Louis Armstrong, their eccentricities are evident of their skill, but not things for mortals to emulate.

Gould’s in wider historical cultural context

Glenn Gould was born in an age where notable composers wrote notable works, but then composers became less notable and their works less notable still. We think of composers more now as institutionalised figures from the universities who studied composition, or jobbing composers who work in film or commissions. This kind of historical situation gives less of a scope or an opportunity in my view, for the kind of classical music we may have envisaged of earlier centuries, or perhaps the whole notion of a classical music is an anacrhonism in itself. Gould acknowledged that there was a world outside of the classical, there was music outside of the world of R. Strauss and Hindemith. In that way I see Gould as a transitional character in the grand scheme of things. One who engaged with a changing world, where things like television and radio media are innovative ways of engaging with the public, and that engaging with the public is a social good. It’s a vastly different world from the old masters. Although to a lesser extent than Bernstein, Gould did make an effort to bridge these worlds together in a way where he seemed to both belong to them and be apart from them.

Conclusion: The Cult of Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould has something of a cult of personality about him. Gould’s eccentricities and his views are a package deal. I refer to Gould’s following as a cult in that fewer people these days are familiar with his work and fewer people still remember what he represents. As I am getting more engaged with music I find some inspiration from Glenn Gould, not just as a musician and as someone with a stylistic outlook, but as someone who talked about these things rather than just doing it, and as someone who shows the potential of being a public intellectual about music. That, and few other people in the old world of music make me laugh as much as him.


Rediscovering musicianship in 2013

I think its fair to say that its official. It’s only been a few rehearsals so far, but I am part of a group of musicians who are performing together. We are a group of about 4-6 friends (depending on who is available/venue/available instruments) and between us is a lot of friendship, love and passion for performing.

I think it becomes official that we are a committed group when my friend who hates playing the Cello announces to great shock: I think its time to bring this along to our playing sessions. I have been rediscovering my musicianship over the past couple of years, by regularly practicing piano again and performing last year to an audience. Rediscovering involves an inward reflection of finding what it was in my past that made me a musician and re-learning what I used to know.

Lately I have gone beyond rediscovery and I am going into new and uncharted territories. I have experience playing as a piano soloist, but I am now going into accompanist mode. I’ve been playing accompanist lately for a singer, a trumpeter and a saxophonist. I’ve attempted to go through a piano duet (Faure’s Bercuse from Dolly Suite) and I am exploring some pieces that I’d love to play in an ensemble context. However it seems that I have a lot of emphasis on Gabriel Faure’s repetoire. There is an odd thing that the music I listen to is vastly different to the music I perform, and the classical music that I tend to lean to is vastly different to the music I want to play.

As a performer I am strongly leaning to the Romantic and to a much lesser degree the classical and baroque period. However if I were to talk intellectually about music my interests lay in composers like Bach and Schoenberg. I arrogantly said this week that ‘Beethoven may be a brilliant composer but Bach is a genius’. There is an odd tension between my performing life and my intellectual and aesthete sensibilities. On the way to the rehearsal I had a lot of heavy metal playing on my mp3 player. I play a lot of indie and other various genres on my monthyl playlists and I am very wide about trying to find music that I want to discover and listen to, but when it comes to musicianship as a form of self expression – things like black metal, heavy metal or Schoenberg go to the wayside in favour of Debussy, Faure and ballad like pieces. I’m a contradiction: Romantic at heart, but modernist at mind.

I think there should be more to be said for this strange contradiction. I may explore my musical sensibilities in future posts, especially as my involvement as a musician has expanded greatly recently. What a joyous thing it is to be able to perform with friends! I’m also going to try and break out my clarinet in the next couple of months…


Does it stain his work?

This story that came out today I find particularly provocative. I happen to think that some of Gary Glitter’s songs are classics of their era, definitive of glam rock and used very often in hockey games and the like as intro music. From that, that does not infer that I approve of what he has been convicted of. You’d need some very odd inferential scheme to infer that.

Does his criminal behaviour undermine this?

The examining board thinks so.


The ship of Stratovarius (on ideology and semantics)


Anyone who is familiar with the metal scene of Finland knows about the recent spat between Timo Tolkki and the rest of the members of Stratovarius. In a previous post, I reported the news that Stratovarius broke up; but then came a whole barrage of replies from two parties; Timo Tolkki, and the rest of Stratovarius. These recent events are much like the whole open letter affair with Nightwish and their former singer. Has Finnish heavy metal become so big, that it has taken on the mechanics and suave of modern bands, of having official fan clubs, official merchandise, PAs, photoshoots and open letters? It seems long from the harked days of underground bands playing in California who were known by their audiences bootlegging their gigs, but that’s a whole other point at hand…

The heart of Stratovarius

I can engage in a suitably philosophical discussion about the semantics and modality of ‘Stratovarius’; but I want to address a more human point.

Stratovarius is a band that, for me, and a lot of people I know, represents a mindset. It is, I thought quite clearly, until recently, a band that was in tune with a lot of the heavy metal scene in Europe; trying to come to terms with the bleakness, superficiality, conformism and fostered attitude of normative-heterogeneity, by replying either by an expression of despair [such as EToS]; fantasy; or perseverence. Stratovarius represented the most noble of these responses: perseverence, the strength to keep fighting on in a world of superficiality. How ironic, and how disturbing I find it that Stratovarius engages in this kind of dispute. Not to take any sides on the issue, but when a band that for me, represents perseverence and a way of coping with the modern world, has infighting, one kind of loses hope in the message they once represented.

Now, for a rather odd analysis of ‘Stratovarius’….

The semantics of ‘Stratovarius’

Timo Tolkki, de re, was not the original founder of the band, contrast this to Tuomas’ role in Nightwish. It is Tuomas’ baptism of the band, that makes him the essential feature of the band; the necessary condition for ‘Nightwish’ to refer is that Tuomas is in it. Can we say the same for Timo and Strato? The short answer is yes (because he is the lyrical and musical direction of the whole band since 1984); but the long answer is no he fails to fulfill the de re necessity Kripke designator.

There have been many bands (my first thought on this is the Norweigian band Mayhem) which have none of the de re original members present in their current lineup, yet the name of the band still refers. This is obviously like the philosophical problem of identity, the Ship of Theseus; if you replace every plank, is it still the same ship?

In the case of Mayhem; some of the original members have left, and then returned; much like Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath (replaced by Dio, Tony Martin, etc.); however, unlike Mayhem, Black Sabbath maintained the essential feature, the conponent of Tommy Iommi; who has, rather significantly, maintained throughout the whole career of Sabbath; being the creative force behind it, despite how most people associate it with Ozzy (or, as some of the fan discourses argue, Dio, but that very fact points out the finitude of the lead singer as being core to the band).

Is it possible, further, is it legitimate, semantically, for a band to have changed its whole membership and yet still refer by its original name? What of any organisation for that instance. Is the philosophy department of Cambridge still legitimate to claim heritage of Russell, Wittgenstein and Moore, even though they have long gone?


Beauty as a feeling (On Allison’s ‘chain of associations’)

In the year 1789 (I think), Archibald Allison published a work on aesthetics, on the same year as Immanuel Kant; it was a directly opposed theory with deeply empiricist flavourings. Kant’s aesthetic account, by contrast, is more nuanced of a rationalist account, but Allison assert what Kant denies, but in doing so, I think Allison hit the nail right on the head on some issues.

One particular conception that I considered prima facie true, and my mind really hasn’t changed on this, is the significant empirical component in our aesthetic behaviour. When I see an object, I associate it with past memories in which I have seen it, and with past times in which I saw it; and those past times evoke memories of the feeling I had when I saw it.

For me, a summer’s day reminds me of those days in the collegium with S*; it reminds me of a few other summers which were particularly bad, but it also, through the culmination of these memories, synthesises to a new experience: it is no longer the past, it is now; this year can be different. A chain of reasoning comes through the cognizance of our recollection, a determinate set of facts, and an indeterminate process of feeling.

Granted, there is a very complex and relative chain of thought to our associations, and it would be interesting to formalise the process we have in such cases; we could have a formal logic of aesthetics, or a formal logic of memory, or even a formal logic of emotional reasoning/emotional conditionalisation.

But what I think is the lasting platitude here, is the undeniable empirical aspect of aesthetics (aesthetics, after all, is experience)…

Michael, Sinistre