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 three pieces of music

Lately I have been introduced to different ways of thinking about specific pieces of music. Three examples of prominence come to mind. Firstly is the final movement from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 (BMV 1004), or perhaps just infamously known as the Chaconne. The second example is the final movement from the ‘Quasi Una Fantasia’ Beethoven Sonata (No. 14, Op. 7 no. 2) ‘Presto Agitato’ movement. Finally an interesting Channel 4 Documentary ‘Chopin Saved my Life’ covered the subject of the impact of Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor (Op. 23).

I was introduced to the Chaconne and the ‘Quasi Una Fantasia’ in particular detail through a couple of MOOCs on music history recently, I discovered that these pieces had been received particularly well by composer peers. Brahms wrote of the piece to Clara Schumann:

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

Likewise, there is a certain universality spoken of Beethoven’s final movement in Quasi Una Fantasia attributed to Chopin, in his praise of the movement. The idea of having a ‘Baroque’ or a ‘Classical’ period suggests conformity or some sense of homogeneity, which oversimplifies the greater moments of which the period is supposed to represent.

In a likewise comment, Vladimir Ashkenazy claims in the Channel 4 documentary that anyone who attests that the Ballade is Sentimental is ignorant of what this piece is about. Any simplistic overview of 19th Century work would use such terms as sentimental, or Romantic, or perhaps terms such as ‘world-weary’, supernatural or such.

There seems to be a tension. How autonomous was Bach’s greatest work from that of his peers? How Baroque was Bach? We can speak of a Baroque in terms of having certain features: figured bass, textured harmony and melody lines and so-called terraced dynamics of loud bits contrasting with quiet bits, but does that really distinguish whether Telemann is worth listening to compared to JS Bach?

The problem with historicising is oversimplifying and contextualising without emphasising the individuals. On the other hand, sometimes emphasising the ‘greats’ through history ignores us from everyone else who does not count as one of the pantheon. Will Durant’s ‘100 Greatest Books’ is an list of intellectual works that shows breadth and a critical sort of dialectical line progressing through the historical dates of the books. However, often the connections between those dates are interesting in themselves and overly canonising works diminishes the value of other works.

Examples of this would be the Renaissance philosopher Campanella who had a very interesting empiricism that resoundingly looked like that of Hume or Hobbes. Many of these ‘canons’ ignore women systematically, although recent scholarship is working to redefine these lines. When we think of great works of music, I wonder if it is our subjective response to it that grants it our sense of meaning, or our attempt to grasp something universally powerful. It was the Kantian project of aesthetics to say that one was the other. But lets leave that as an open question: is it? Is my appreciation of the Chaconne the same as yours? Is the Chaconne on the violin (original instrumentation) as powerful as Brahms’ Left Hand scoring? In my own head I leave these as untied knots, unresolved thoughts, as each of these open questions brings up more factors.


K457: Mozart as a metaphor

After my solo performance last month I have been thinking about continuing with my piano practice. I have also thought about picking up exactly at the point where I left off with my late piano teacher. Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C minor. That’s sonata 14 K. 457. The last few pieces that I worked on with my piano teacher in the final few weeks were scary. In some ways the represent something analogous to old relationships, old romances.


There is something unresolved about those pieces. Those pieces represent something unresolved in me. There’s a Rachmaninov piece where I just couldn’t get some of the speeds right, or just didn’t put the elements together in a performance worthy way. With the Mozart piece, I am reminded of the fact and semi-insult of my music teacher ‘Bob’, that I work very much on showy vignette short pieces. Could I ever work on an extended piece, such as a whole Sonata? I did perform Coleridge-Taylor’s Petit Suite de la Concert. But I never felt that I had performed or learned a piece that was part of a deeper pianistic canon.


So lately I’ve been trying to resolve this. IT feels like an internal journey going through the Mozart piece. There are different movements, a fast one, a slow one and a recapitulation one. Typical Sonata form. There’s something about Mozart that I find terrifying. Most of the other pieces of music I’ve worked on can be often clever, but there’s something continually insightful in the fingerings, the harmonies and the structure of Mozart’s music. There’s something beautiful about it that is not as obvious as the actual sonic experience of the music. I enjoy playing fun stuff like Scott Joplin or jazzing it up with friends, but usually there is not much intellectual depth to it. The pedagogical issues in Mozart are such that one cannot cheat with practicing and good technique.


This Mozart sonata is more than a piano piece to me, but reflects a form of philosophising, a form of introspection, a form of therapy. I fear it, therefore I must face it. There are many things in life that we fear that seem to become bigger as a fear object if we avoid it. This is one demon I wish to face.


There are other kinds of morals as well when practicing Mozart. The vision of music (and the world) as a variety of nuances: Forte vs. piano, legato vs. staccato, left hand vs. right hand. In music as in life, we can’t be overly one of these things all the time, doing so would be a flaw of character and a lack of depth and diversity. I tend to go for pieces that fulfill certain tendencies, but Mozart reflects and emotionally tempered and varied outlook, much more than say, Beethoven or Chopin after him. Often playing piano or legato can go against one’s present mindset, and so playing Mozart requires one to forcibly summon the mindset for smooth legati or piano volumes when the piece needs it.


One the thing I especially like about practicing Mozart is how it stays with me after I play it. It stays with me in the harmonic vocabulary when I’m improvising something else or even in a different style. It stays with me in life, knowing when my behaviour needs a staccato or a forte volume. It stays with me from the very careful passages I go through in a microscopic way, if I see it in another piece that requires say, an arpeggiation. It’s quite intimidating how much level of detail is in the Mozart sonata. Its exactly because it is daunting that I am so drawn to it. That has become an aspect of my outlook, to know that the daunting things often are most rewarding

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.



Non-European Black Metal

The one thing I really like about Black Metal, is how many countries have made it their own. Yes, there was all the stuff about the satanism and the church burnings and Burzum’s activities. But Black Metal means many things to many people. I’d like to talk about a blog I’ve recently been following. The blog Black [sic] Spring often hosts a lot of self released material, material that is purposely made available by bands for free in the bootlegging spirit.


I really found this blog interesting because of the non-metal albums it refers to. There’s a lot of ‘folk’ music from North Africa and broadly Arab countries listed. I admire how a particularly sensitive attitude is being displayed about the music. The music is often referred to as ‘folk’ but also acknowledges how some of it embraces more popular and western styles, often in subtle ways. I love how this music local to countries like Algeria or Egypt are drawn from as insightful from and directed to an audience who would normally listen to raw black metal cassettes. I love the renaissance attitude of openness towards difference, and a Romantic openness towards the folk culture, and using it as a cultural and idiomatic resource.


As the bands of Sweden and Norway became more polished after the 90s and a commercial culture emerged around Black Metal. The African, Latin American and Asiatic demo tapes that have come out of places like Colombia, Sri Lanka, Algeria or even Iran and Iraq continue to express a rawness and despair coming from their local situations. Black Metal is daring from those places, often they are stylistically interesting. Particularly when the distinctions that many black metal conosseurs make about subgenres do not hold.


When I think about writing that commentary on ‘In Search of Wagner’, an open question is in my mind about Adorno’s outlook: is there a possibility for cultural defiance, is there a possibility for a radical reform of our social consciousness through culture, in the light of the cultural industries and the European history that has preceeded the Second World War? I am increasingly convinced that Black Metal is an answer to that question, and that answer is Yes.


I wonder what Nietzsche and Schopenhauer would have thought of the radical potential of Black Metal, the nationless underground nation, and the way it has been adapted to various localities, including to political ideologies that are deeply uncomfortable. I recall an interview (I think it was with Fenriz from Darkthrone), where it was said once the news went international about scandals about murders and church burning with the Norway scene of Black Metal, black metal at that point was no longer theirs, it became something for everyone. Non-European Black Metal is a frontier within a frontier, showing that there is still underground potential, and still an expressive capability within the genre. Another frontier is DSBM, which in a way has an opposing direction, instead of being internationally expansive, it is inward.


Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (2) ‘Gesture’


In this piece I shall address Theodor Adorno’s essay on ‘Gestures’. In this essay, Adorno wears more of a musician’s hat than his many other hats, like say, the Freudian psychoanalysis hat; the sociologist hat; or the philosophers’ hat.


Give them what they wantThe Allegory of the Running Man 


Perhaps the most informal way of trying to understand this essay, and that is by no means to say that I do in fact understand it; is to try and make a couple of cultural touchstones. There’s an expression among my friends which comes from the film ‘The Running Man’, which is about a totalitarian imagined future (from a 1980s perspective) where in order to ignore the reality of martial law, entertainment is used to pacify the audience, to use crass consumerism and aspiration as a ploy to accept the dominion of the status quo. One of the tools to do so is by the entertainment show ‘The Running Man’, where convicted persons go on a sadistic game show to fight for their lives. The character Killian says at the start of the show: ‘We give ’em what they want’. What an interesting parable to allude to when discussing a Marxian theorist of culture. The film itself is almost like some Frankfurt School parable. Later on in the film, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character makes a step towards overturning  the false class consciousness of the audience and then before he kills Killian, Arnold’s character (Ben Richards) recapitulates the phrase but giving it a new context: ‘and right now, I’m going to give the audience what I think they want’.


While I could say more about how this film is a parable for the Culture Industry thesis of Adorno, I might instead talk about Adorno’s damning essay on ‘Gesture’ that accuses Wagner not merely of bad character as he did in the essay ‘Social Character’, but of poor composing ability. I think the most salient and boiled down version of what Adorno says of Wagner in this essay is that the Saxony composer wrote unstylistically, and perhaps even unmusically. Wagner is putatively understood for being the composer of long phrases and lucious chromatics, building tensions and creating erotically charged dissonances, but to Adorno, there is compositional merit to this, and the reputation he has built on his composing is effectively a shallow populism: it is akin to Killian’s ‘give them what they want’. 


The Wagnerian Gesture 


One of the things I hate about academic writing is when a term is used, and can even be an everyday term, but it is not defined. I’m probably guilty of this myself on occaision. As this essay concerns the gesture. We might ask what is a gesture. Instead of giving a definition as such, Adorno points towards how Wagner’s work is gesture-like. Perhaps that is the closest we can get to for understanding a gesture.


One point Adorno makes is that as a person, Wagner’s traits show in his music, and both in terms of his music, and personality; Meister Wilhelm is a dilettante. Perhaps another crude way of putting this is to say that Wagner is a Jack of All Trades, and master of none. Wagner in his later operas put much effort into elements outside of the music itself: the libretti, mythology of the texts. It is even said that Wagner put much effort into the costumes and even the physical considerations of a concert venue in his Bayreuth opera house. Wagner was an ambitious person, and his music met such ambitions. However, to be dilettante is to be amateur. Adorno’s acusation is something as follows: Wagner’s ambitions were shallow, and this is reflected in the lack of depth in his music. This is what seems to me the meaning of a gesture.


Wagner as a bad composer 


Adorno does not say this without reasons. There are specific things that, within the musical work of Wagner’s work (in contrast to say the mythology of the libretti). Adorno has very specific things to say to accus Wagner of being a bad composer. They are the following:


Wagner emphasises the role of the conductor as a ‘master’ of the music. In historical context one may accept this and see this as leading to a future where conductors are on a level of musical artists as say, the composer. A generation after Wagner, notable composers had reputations as conductors, in particular Mahler must be mentioned. Mahler was almost as much a superstar conductor of his day as he was a notable composer!


Adorno also makes the point that the music Wagner makes is compatible with or conducive with the emphasised nature and centrality of the conductor with specific respect to tempo. Wagner also makes a claim that I’m still trying to work out in my own head, that there is a distinct atemporality to his music. I may take this to mean the way that the harmonies and textures of the compositions are atemporal both in terms of being otherworldly and not obviously alluding to the work of past composers. Compare this to say Brahms, where in much of his work the Beethovenian and Baroque elements are quite evident (and much pleasantly so). Not being an expert on Wagner, I will take this on face value about atemporality.


The other point about atemporality may be construed in terms of being immaterial to the historical based conditions of the music and the settings of the grand stories of Wagner’s operas. Atemporality also refers to the respect that the melodies don’t go anywhere interesting. Instead they simply and frustratingly stay in the same places without a good amount of development. Atemporality is something Adorno is using in a variety of senses, some ideological, some psychoanalytic, but all musically justifiable. To provide and example of the atemporality as a lack of melodic development, Adorno appeals to the infamousTristan concert prelude.


Wagnerian gestures try to speak of a grand view through big instrumental sounds of the symphony orchestra, but they are gestures because of the poor score-writing. Adorno specifically refers to poor modulations and disapproves of the secondary modulations present in much of Wagner’s score-writing to be sloppy.


Adorno references another Wagner commentator, Alfred Lorenz. Lorenz put forward a notable study of Wagner’s work and points out specifically the use of ‘bar form’ in Wagner’s work. Adorno picks up on this as a lack of form, and this is a big part of what Adorno seems to find disapproving in Wagner. I think something that wikipedia noted to me is that Lorenz is considered as a discredited authority on Wagner, due to the former’s associations with Nazi ideology. Adorno in the purposes of this essay, however, takes the bar form (AAB melodic phrasing) as horribly generic and unstylistic.


If I were to pretend to be Zizek and be facetious, I might give a crass analogy. Adorno here is employing something of an Oedipal fascination and protection of his mother against what he percieves as a threat to his mother, the father. In this crass parody of a Freudian analogy (which I urge you not to take seriously), the unwelcome father is Wagner who is courting the mother’s affections.


So who is the mother? In this essay I might take it to mean the ideals of Viennese Classicism. But to me this is not a good enough answer. If Adorno valorises the greatness of Mozart and Beethoven, I contend it is only mediated through the other masters of Viennese form: Adorno’s own divinities: Schoenberg and Webern. But let’s take a step back and talk about Viennese Classicism.


Viennese Clasccisism


What Adorno refers to as Viennese classicism refers to a golden age around the middle of the 18th Century (ah, the 18th century, my favourite time in philosophy), where the greats such as Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn developed stylistic innovations which emphasised a particular brand of balance, and form over feeling. I am led to feel that this historical ideal of the 18th Century is clouded by Adorno through the Schoenberg perspective. Late Beethoven cannot be said to exhibit balance in its emotional temperament. Perhaps Adorno’s understanding is anachronstic. It is often said that talk of a ‘First and Second Reich’ only came about when the Third Reich was conceptualised as a notion. Likewise, there seems to be no Viennese Classicism in Adorno without what had come to be known as the Second Viennese school. There are reasons to support this interpretation in other essays where Adorno compares and contrasts Wagner’s composing and scoring to Schoenberg. The essay ‘Colour’ comes to mind when thinking of Adorno comparing to another ‘Viennese great’, which I shall write about hopefully soon enough.


Why is Viennese Classicism so important? This to me is the real issue of this essay. If Wagner is a composer of gestural motions, it is because he does not pay attention to the innovative aspects of his forebears such as Beethoven. Beethoven and Mozart were masters of form when it came to composition, they were masters of developing melodic lines and harmonies and of transitioning keys. I take this to be more than a musical opinion but a strong personal conviction. However I am sceptical of Adorno’s disapproval. I understand the ideological and cultural grounds for saying that Wagner fails as a composer compared to Beethoven. Then again, almost every other composer fails to compare to Beethoven, and those that dare to surpass him number on a four-fingered hand. Of course Adorno would think Schoenberg numbers among that four (as do I!).


The Tristan passage which Adorno is highly distainful of, I find hard to be convinced that this is terrible part writing. Adorno talks more about the Tristan passage in his essay ‘Motiv’. Which particularly goes into what I consider as a very contraversial view about Leitmotif. If Wagner was a composer of gestures, then he has fooled even me that his harmonies are luxurious. Indeed Meister Wilhelm even convinced Nietzsche for a time. Adorno stated in his own musicological way of the shallowness of Wagner’s writing which has a simultaneous appeal to it, because it is gestural. Adorno says this where Nietzsche says in much pithier words: Only sick music makes money today.


Some conclusions

Part of me wonders as I read this book, and as we had also written an essay on Glenn Gould on this blog some weeks ago: what would have Gould thought of Adorno? Adorno very much resembles one of the personalities that Gould adopted in his broadcasting work, of the avant-garde radical composer. Both are fans of Schoenberg, I keep emphasising this because there are very few of us in the world, living and dead! However, for very similar reasons, Gould enjoys Bach where Adorno valorises the Vienna 18th Century. Gould however, was no big fan of Beethoven or Mozart (Gould once made the infamous comment that ‘Mozart died too late’). Part of me wonders whether Adorno’s vision of music prefigured a character like Glenn Gould, or whether Gould’s later piano career could be seen as reflecting some of the musical ideology that could be said to be ‘Adornian’. This is a thought that I will try to develop more hopefully as I am going further along in assessing these essays.

A serious point is to be made here. I could take Adorno’s views here seriously, and I would respond to say I am not convinced that a lack of form is such a bad thing in something like the Tristan concert prelude. However, I find Adorno’s reasons very apt, if they were applied to other music. Something that I have also been suspecting about Adorno is finding textual evidence. Namely, that Adorno could have been a formalist aesthetically speaking. Formalism is the view that what makes something beautiful is the form of it, and the underlying rules and principles that govern that art form. Those are the things that made Beethoven great, those are also the things that made Schoenberg a great composer too. But if Wagner were a great composer, it would only be for him as a dilettante. But that said, that to me is not necessarily a bad thing. This is an essay where Adorno is uncharitable, but his points force me to take them seriously because of the strength of the psychoanalytic association between Wagner’s character and the shallowness of his writing. Perhaps if we are to take formalism seriously as an aesthetic view, we may draw from an essay like this to evaluate its merits, by looking at the demerits of its alternative.


Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (1) ‘Social Character’

In Adorno’s Essay ‘Social Character’, the philosopher attempts to go into a character study of the composer himself, through a selective history and a look at the Wagnerian texts. In particular I would like to highlight what I shall call ‘the Wagnerian joke’ and internal conflicts about the ideology of Wagner. I should say as I regularly do when I write commentaries like these, that my thoughts are always subject to change, and I am hardly authoritative when thinking and writing about Adorno. I write as if this blog were my digital moleskine diary.


A summary of this essay would be that Adorno tries to psychologise Wagner. In doing so, Adorno gives us a reason to consider the composer as a self-aggrandising egotist who relies on the middle-upper classes to fund his composing while at the same time critiquing the order of the status quo. Wagner also portrays his ideological vision of the world using the Jews, or rather, a stereotyped characterisation that his audience would recognise as a Jewish sentiment, as problematic to society. Adorno points out how there is an internal inconsistency, or conflict in the ways that Wagner both relies on the bourgeoisie patronage, as well as the status quo of a culture which celebrates opera; against Wagner’s supposedly revolutionary sentiment. The other ‘conflict’ relates what is casually referred to as Wagner’s secret. Namely, the accusation (which is not explicitly stated in Adorno but only alluded to), that Nietzsche knew ‘the truth’ of Wagner’s parentage, that in spite of all of Wagner’s anti-semitism, he himself may have had a Jewish heritage. So that’s a summary of the essay. I could just end my blog post here! But of course, I never do end at the beginning.


The Wagnerian Joke 


The Wagnerian Joke reflects a certain personality trait that Adorno is trying to trace in looking at Wagner historically. Adorno draws from materials such responses to Wagner’s earlier works and his own descriptions of them, testimonies about the composer as well as other stories and relationships that are documented. Such as Wagner’s letters to the Romantic heavyweight composer, Franz Liszt; Wagner’s contact with Friedrich Nietzsche and Wagner’s contact with Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, the latter who became infamous for her antisemitism, but that’s another story.


What I would call the Wagnerian joke draws a certain unitary concept from the testimonies and characterisations that Adorno seems to string together about the way Wagner believed in his own cultic status and revolutionary character. Wagner’s sense of self-celebration is depicted also in select characters of his works.


The Wagnerian joke, as drawn from this essay can be understood in the following ways:


  1. Wagner ridicules the plight of a character whose malady comes from a concrete social situation

  2. By doing this Wagner creates a sense of humour while also attempting to create a form of celebration. The joke, and response of laughter serves as a rationalisation and acceptance of the plight in question. Instead of thinking critically about it, we laugh.

  3. A consequence of this is that Wagner makes himself in a janused fashion both malicious behind a magnanimous and friendly face


The Wagnerian joke is deeply sinister, and it is imbued within the comedy around Mime’s character. Another example of the Wagnerian Joke is the anecdote of Hermann Levi conducting Parsifal. Levi was a Jew and one might think that this could be something to allay the concern of Wagner’s anti-semitism. Adorno refers to a story in which Wagner gives Levi a letter written anonymously to the effect of telling Levi to step down from composing Parsifal. Levi asks why Wagner gave the conductor this letter and Wagner answers in a way that appears both kind but also deeply sinister and ugly at once. Apparently after Wagner gave the letter to Levi, the latter was deathly silent at a dinner engagement to which Wagner asked Levi why he was so quiet, which was in some darkly way, a gesture of intimidation clothed behind the appearance of concern. The Wagnerian joke is something Adorno describes and I am trying to conceptualise (by calling it the Wagnerian joke), but realistically speaking, I cannot really have a grasp on it as a notion.


Perhaps the closest thing that came to mine was the comedy of Ricky Gervais. Particularly in the way that Gervais uses embarrassment and humiliation as a way of breaking a character down and revealing the facade and fakeness that was really underneath. I’ve had conversations about this kind of Gervais reactionhumour (another term I made up on an ad hoc basis) and this seems to be the basis of the dislike or like of Ricky Gervais as a comedic writer. I personally am a fan of the ugliness of the Gervais reaction as there’s something very awkward and untimely about it, television sitcoms and acting seem to have this polished nature to it and the Gervais reaction is an instance of how something in real life happens that is not comedic and not timely. Whether one finds this funny, seems to be the defining question of whether one is a fan of Gervais or not.


Wagner’s inner conflicts 


Another aspect of Wagner’s social character seems to be the internal conflicts present within his work and his character. One dimension of this is the relationship with the bourgeosisie that Wagner has. Wagner is dependent on the Bourgois classes as patronage and as a paying audience. Adorno notes how Wagner occupied a time before state provisions were introduced for artists, and also when the influence of opera was waning. As such Wagner occupied a position of a bohemian, the artisan without a patron. It is interesting sociologically speaking, to think about the ways in which artists and musicians of the various times in history may find financial support before they become properly established, if they ever become established at all. This is an issue that many people in bands or many artists face today. Have we really escaped the age of the Patron. In the UK we have things like the National Lottery and the Arts Council, who are in some ways not so much different to the House of Esterhazy or Ludwig II of Bavaria.


Wagner’s narratives reflect a feudal mentality, and one which is in some respects against the bourgeois status-quo. Adorno points out the compromise of Wagner’s integrity to take the thalers of patrons and appealing to bourgeois sensibilities, while also trying to provide a revolutionary sentiment of a different social order. How far can one be revolutionary while conforming to the modes of the status quo? In some ways this is not a unique issue. Another book I’m currently reading, by filmmaker Kevin Smith: “Tough Shit: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good”  speaks about the early days of Miramax and the indie films he made with them. Smith speaks about how the rise and rise of Smith’s career was due to a commitment to a specific vision of his stylised view to filmmaking. Smith later admits that the intervention of studio executives interfering with various aspects of his filmic vision led to a compromise and a loss of interest from a large part of his audience. I think the film that Smith refers to as destroying him in the book was ‘Cop out’. Back to Wagner…


This kind of compromise might look disingenuous. But I do wonder if Adorno meant it to be so. This kind of tension is based on the social conditions of creating music. If I were to create music today, I’d need access to quite a fair bit of equipment. I would need some fancy software and fancy recording equipment and it’s not too easy to get a hold of a lot of that stuff without a studio, or making one! I’m actually having this problem lately as it happens with another project. On the other hand, Wagner’s ideology that underpins his opera libretti are deeply imbued as social narratives and visions of society. One reading of this inconsistency is suggestive the necessity of a consideration of the means of production in the culture industry and thinking along that narrative, another reading reveals the strained relationship with the bourgoisie that Wagner had following a textual consideration.


The other inconsistency needs a bit of unpacking. Wagner as an anti-semite characterised these behaviours and characters that an audience of his time would associate with Jewish connotations and the negative stereotypes of their day, as well as reflecting cultural worries. Wagner’s vitriol was a point of contention when it came to his friendship with Nietzsche. Adorno points out how Niezsche alluded to ‘Wagner’s secret’ or the inconsistency of knowing the truth about Wagner in the light of these antisemitic characterisations and attitudes in the latter’s work. I am slightly perplexed at the way Adorno words this issue, because it seems not explicit. After some digging, I think what Adorno was alluding to in not enough words was the controversial claim that Richard Wagner’s father was not Carl Wagner, but his stepfather, Ludwig Geyer. Also by extension, the rumour that Geyer was Jewish would by this line of speculation entail that Wagner had a Jewish heritage. I think it is reasonable that this is what Adorno is alluding to with Nietzsche’s allegation, which I think comes from Nietzsche’s 1888 work Der Fall Wagner.


With this line of thought I am unsure of how seriously to take this. Adorno goes into detail of how the characters Alberich and Mime reflect Wagnerian ideosyncracies which rely on cultural prejudices and the “Race theory [which] assumes its rightful place in the no man’s land between idiosyncracy and paranoia” (Adorno 2009: 15). Adorno thinks that the racialised characterisation and the ‘ideosyncracies’ as he calls it, reflect and betray the deeply anti-semitic character of Wagner’s work.


Concluding thoughts 


Adorno reads into the ugliness of Wagner’s character in this essay. The beautiful music and lyricism of works such as Der Meistersingers von Nürnberg are met by the inexorable ugliness of the character of Wagner. Reading this book we are led to ask that open question: how do we square this circle of a great composer who is, according to Adorno, ugly to the core. Perhaps this is an ongoing question we should have when reading this book.

Another thing I might worry about when reading Adorno is that there seems to be an internal logic to reading this book. If one is reading ‘In Search of Adorno’ as a way to interpreting Wagner, we would be dealing with the simplistic reading of ‘is this how to interpret Wagner?’, and the answer to that is probably better answered by reading some more specialised Wagner literature. There does seem however, to be another alternate route to reading this text, and that is by a principle of charity, taking serious the internal logic and argumentation of where Adorno is going with his line of thought. This involves a suspension of judgment more akin to when I’m reading say Descartes or Kant. An example of this would be: when reading Descartes on the soul or on God, or Kant on his metaphysics, one simply has to assume we can validly talk about the soul, or God before engaging critically with their thoughts, failing to do so is failing to be an exegete. That said, I do wonder how far Adorno’s internal logic is seperatable from reading the text without having such a charitable hermeneutical perspective.