Philosophy of New Music by Theodor Adorno; Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor

by Patrick Schabe

19 September 2006


If you aren’t already familiar with Theodor Adorno, don’t feel bad. Outside of the somewhat rarified academic circles of philosophy and social theory, Adorno isn’t exactly a household name (in the US at least). Even within those circles, while Adorno is a figure of major renown, he remains fairly obtuse, elevated to the highest levels of dense philosophical writing that requires canonical training in language and tradition to fully appreciate. Emerging out of the German tradition of Hegel, influenced heavily by Marx, handed down by Husserl, and contemporary with compatriots Benjamin and Horkheimer, merely reading Adorno requires analytical exactitude and a comfort with heady abstractions.

But what it boils down to is this: Theodor Adorno took a long, critical look at society and culture in the mid-20th century and concluded that it was a giant, vacuous hole of despair and hopelessness. A member of what has become known as the Frankfurt School, Adorno was among a handful of German social philosophers who evacuated Germany during the rise of fascism in the 1930s and came to the United States as exiles. The language of Marxism had already come to dominate European philosophy, but by the ‘30s the academic elite had seen alienation lead not to benevolent revolution, but Stalinism in the East and fascism in the West. It was, understandably, a time of profound disillusionment and, for Adorno particularly, deep-rooted pessimism. Thusly influenced, Adorno and his fellows developed a system that broadly came to be known as Critical Theory—the most famous discourses of which are Walter Benjamin’s critique of mass production, and Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s joint critique of the Enlightenment, which later crystallized in Adorno’s doctrine of negative dialectics.

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Philosophy of New Music

Theodor Adorno; Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor

(University of Minnesota Press)

After fleeing the oppressions of Nazism, Adorno’s unflinching critique soon turned to a sharply vituperative stance on his land of refuge, the United States, and in particular its consumer culture, which Adorno found terrible in its mechanistic banality. Out of this experience arose the one phrase that Adorno has most successfully inserted into public discourse: “the culture industry”. For Adorno, the opiate of the masses in late capitalism was not religion, but culture, and mass-produced culture was little more than a drug that served no other capacity than the reification and perpetuation of the dominance of capital—culture as product that could only produce more product as culture. Only art, in a pure, non-commercialized form, is of any value as a means of intellectual resistance. Not only did Adorno see this system as entrenching and enslaving the worker into a consumer role, but he also asserted its as total, inevitable, and inescapable.

To give Adorno his own say from the text at hand:

The more the all-powerful culture industry seizes for its own purpose the principle of illumination and corrupts it in the treatment of men for the benefit of a perduring darkness, all the more does art rise against the false luminosity; it opposes configurations of that repressed darkness to the omnipresent neon-light style and helps illuminate only by convicting the brightness of the world of its own darkness.

Theodor Adorno was not known for his sunny disposition, by any means.

What is often overlooked in the general analysis of Adorno’s body of work is that he was also a great student of art, in particular music. Like Benjamin, himself a literary critic and student of history, Adorno’s philosophy was mediated as much by his analysis of the arts as it was the social processes unfolding around him. While today we would deem Adorno’s interests as scholarship in “classical” music, for Adorno it was the only music. An aesthete of incredibly shrewd analysis, Adorno’s tendency to elevate the finite possible good and savagely condemn the pervasively bad was not tempered by music, but was rather incensed by it. Among his more well-known critiques of the culture industry was the vociferous disgust he felt towards “jazz”, though here again history obscures the context—while a canonical genre today, the term “jazz” was a catch-all for all pop music in Adorno’s time, and he is reacting in particular to the popular swing music of the ‘30s and ‘40s, the precursors to today’s pop, and not necessarily the revered instrumental and compositional form that we know as “jazz” today. Having said this, Adorno did not recant his opinion or use of the term in the face of the musical developments of Miles Davis or Sonny Rollins, having seemingly as little use for these pioneers as he did for Cole Porter or Bennie Goodman—all music outside of the Western symphonic composer tradition that developed from Beethoven towards modernity was de facto a banal perversion.

Adorno makes this point plainly himself in the introduction to Philosophy of New Music:

Not only are people’s ears so inundated with light music that other music reaches them only the congealed opposite of the former, as “classical” music, and not only is the capacity to listen so blunted by the omnipresent hit tune that the concentration for serious listening is unattainable and infused with stupid refrains, but also the sacrosanct traditional music has itself been assimilated to commercial mass production in the character of its performance and as its function in the life of the listener.

For Adorno, only dedicated listening that struggles with the nuance of music in both its historical context and its formal content is listening at all. But what Adorno sees instead is that mass production and consumption of music has relegated even Beethoven (a composer that Adorno values perhaps more than any other) to “objects of consumption for home decoration.”

All of this long-winded explanation is simply to say that if you pick up Philosophy of New Music unawares, or clicked on this link hoping to find a title of interesting new rock criticism, you’ve come to the wrong place. Not only does Adorno’s critique here pre-date rock and roll or any other contemporary music (even that paradoxical category of new or contemporary classical), but Adorno’s potential response to current musical trends seems predictable to the most negative extreme, though likely more complex, unassailable, and lacerating than any columnist or journalist working today. (Though Adorno died in 1969, there is little to no evidence that he saw any rock music as revolutionary.) No, the “New Music” in question here is the turn-of-the-century school that emerged out of the Expressionist movement, the one that embraced atonality, reinvented the scale, and found its most prominent voices in Schoenberg and Stravinsky. In other words, if you have zero interest in what we call classical music, this book is a waste of your time entirely. 

However, for that narrow segment of society that enjoys a dense mixture of art and music analysis, philosophy, and cultural critique, Robert Hullot-Kentor’s translation of this text does offer a surprisingly accessible entry point into understanding Adorno the aesthete. Through a well-crafted and detailed introduction, Hullot-Kentor allows us to glimpse Adorno at the time of this writing—both enamored of and bothered by the works of Schoenberg, repulsed by American culture, not yet hardened into the diamond point of negative dialectics. The most astute and empathetic assertion comes in comparing Adorno in America to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, strangely humanizing Adorno in the process. Moreover, Hullot-Kentor is adept at making the transition from German to English navigable without losing the precision that Adorno brought to his speech, nor the fluidity of English sentence structure. Still, the work is slow-reading and taxing, true of most philosophical texts, and the familiar wish that the blocks of text could have been broken into at least slightly smaller and more digestible paragraphs persists, despite being broken into subject blocks, but you can only do so much and remain true to the source material.

As to content, Philosophy of New Music is made up of two critiques, originally written at different times, but published jointly, representing what Adorno viewed as the most figure-driven dialectic of new music: the work of Schoenberg and the work of Stravinsky. Considered separately, they work as individual critiques at once broad in scope and minute in complexity. Considered together, they work as contrasting stories of praxis and reification in then-modern music, offering ambiguity about the future of music itself (mirroring the heart of Adorno and Horkheimer’s later critique of the Enlightenment, which questioned the very possibility of progress).

Historically, it is the section on Schoenberg that has received the most attention and the most critique, something that Adorno lamented in later responses to criticisms that this edition also includes. In fact, Schoenberg himself dismissed Adorno’s interpretations of his work and their meanings, and this dismissal has only added to the controversy that has followed this critique for sixty some years. Much of this controversy has, according to Adorno’s adherents, rested on some basic misinterpretations of the Adorno’s intent. This is hardly surprising, as Adorno seems to simultaneously uphold Schoenberg’s evolution as pure artistic achievement, and yet criticize it for reaching a closed state where art reaches absolute freedom only to be isolated in itself, eliminating potential for progress in a utopian state of musical praxis. Hardly the stuff of hero worship, this analysis praises and accuses in the same breath.

Adorno locates the achievement of this praxis in both the formal developments of the music and the social role of the avant-garde composer as artist. Formally, Adorno sees Schoenberg as transgressing the boundaries of polyphony and resolving counterpoint in atonality and the twelve-tone technique. Artistically, Adorno sees the break to ultimate freedom of the avant-garde composer as divorcing himself entirely from the audience. Where the composer has absolute freedom to compose music purely for its own sake, without regard to the understanding of the audience, only there can pure music be achieved, but at the cost of music losing its social function. Yet this purity remains an ideal in the face of what Adorno sees as the “barbarism” that is the alternative. He writes, “If twelve-tone technique has successfully erected a dam against that barbarism, even if it has not entered the realm of freedom, it has done enough,” and if carefully guarded, this dam “opposes the collapse of music experience.”

Finally, Schoenberg’s contribution to art as the only resistance to rationalized and soulless life is seen as a historical development, in a Marxist sense. Adorno writes of Schoenberg’s final break from history: “Schoenberg—who developed all possible motivic devices—lets them go unimpeded and, eyes shut, allows himself to be guided where tone after tone takes him… The power of forgetting has been retained by Schoenberg in his late works… As an artist, he wins back freedom for mankind. The dialectical composer brings the dialectic to a halt.”

In contrast to this striving towards absolute freedom, Adorno posits that Stravinsky offers the competing urge in New Music—the drive towards reconciliation, not a break, and therefore a capitulation. In Adorno’s eyes, Stravinsky is cast as a reckless and ambiguous figure who plays games with history and avant-garde confrontation. In Stravinsky’s supposedly shocking embrace of the primeval and sacrificial past of The Rite of Spring, Adorno states, “The pressure of reified bourgeois culture incites flight into the phantasm of nature, which then ultimately proves to be the herald of absolute oppression. The aesthetic nerves quiver to return to the Stone Age.”

But this impulse towards barbarism (which Adorno saw as Schoenberg’s opponent) is as much to do with the structure of the music as with the style or thematic content. Rather than complexity of composition, Adorno critiques Stravinsky as repudiating “the academic semblance of synthesis” and offering up a parody that is slave to an “unvarying underlying meter”:

Thus, the music trains him against any impulse that could defy the heterogeneous, alienated course of the music. In this it invokes, as if by legal title, its claim to the body and, ultimately, in the extreme instance, to the regularity of the heartbeat. But the justification through the putatively invariant, the physiological, annuls what made music in the first place: Its spiritualization consisted in the modifying intervention.

Adorno goes on to accuse Stravinsky of hating this spiritualization as a reaction to music’s false claim to be pure spirit, and as a result “accord[ing] with the regression of society”. Because of this, “Stravinsky’s fibula docet is versatile compliancy and obstinate obedience, the model of that authoritarian character that today proliferates on all sides”. (Here is a glimpse into a potential Adorno critique of rock music, if such a thing existed.)

Ultimately, the critique of both Schoenberg and Stravinsky, taken together, comes down to these conflicting elements in the historical development of 20th century modern (new) music. In Schoenberg, “The absolute renunciation of authenticity as a posture becomes the single indication of authenticity”. In opposition to this fierce subjectivity, Stravinsky offers a violent and authoritarian objectivity as an impersonal authenticity. In Adorno’s eyes, “The will to style substitutes for style and thus sabotages it. What the work desires in its own terms achieves no objectivity in objectivism.” Adorno finally concludes that, in contrast to his own aesthetics, Stravinsky seems to mirror the conditions of modern man, and that ultimately this calls into question the idea of authenticity itself. But if Adorno offers any position of hope, it follows from Schoenberg, as he concludes: “Perhaps that art alone would be authentic that would be liberated from the idea of authenticity itself, of being thus and not otherwise.”

Even this brief synopsis of the work is, admittedly, likely rife with misrepresentation, at least in the presentation of half-truths. There is a complex thread of the wills to objectivity and subjectivity that is intricately woven throughout the entire text, as well as various concepts in the history of music, that have been barely touched upon at all. Adorno’s argument has been the source of so much historical debate precisely because it is so dense and intricately constructed. In a very real sense, Adorno demanded of his readers the same rigorous analytical reading that he demanded of listeners of music.

But in the end, perhaps this is the general failing, if not outright hypocrisy of Critical Theory and Adorno’s perspective on art and society. Adorno, in his pessimism, views the dialogue of art as elevated beyond the minds of the proletariat. Despite his assertions that art is the only freedom against the oppression of society, that freedom is reserved for an elite who somehow exists outside of the proletariat. In that sense, it’s the worst kind of intellectual elitism: the kind that deliberately holds the discourse above the heads of the public while simultaneously deriding that public for its inability to understand.  What is the purpose of critique at all if its audiences are preordained doomed and incapable of escaping their mechanized role in a culture industry that destroys emancipation?

On the one hand, it certainly seems like sour grapes in the ears of the hyper-educated when art discourse is criticized for being impenetrable. There is certainly a need to encourage a greater interest in art education in the general public, and a lack of understanding does not in itself repudiate theory. But if art is to have its own goals fulfilled, to impart anything in its expression (or to rail against the closed artwork as Schoenberg is said to), then it must also be approachable. And if this is to be the case, then it is not merely the role of the artist to help bridge this gap, it is also the role of theorist. Art that demands a key is in danger of solipsistic pretension; the key demanding a key is verging on the impossible. The contradictions that Adorno finds in both Stravinsky and Schoenberg might also be applied to his own rarified critiques: Perhaps that theory alone would be authentic that would be liberated from the idea of authenticity itself, and illuminate for all what it otherwise reserves for the few.