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i wonder to myself how many nights you cried yourself to sleep before i bothered to notice. the wood paneling had become a bit dated at this point, a might too neo seventies for my taste. every night the television would blare its insults and i don't know how i lasted this long. it wasn't for the fact that perfection was lost, but brown eyes always did bore me, as invigorating as i know they can be. i have a thing for brown eyed girls, subconsciously i take it at least. i never was one to be attracted to settling down until i met you, and maybe i never will be again. it's been a while now. over half a year since i last saw you and your face has started to melt from my memories, it did after a week or so, i never was one for facial recognition which is a shame for someone who knows as many as i do. i'll always remember some things, smells mostly. that lilac scent and the brisk ocean air, the waft of sheets that had settled in a bit too much and did no want to be removed. they always stayed there. you always said you wanted excitement but i think it was truly me who yearned for something more. that wood paneling stared at me every night, i really hate the distinct decorating disadvantage of a textured wall, some sort of gaudiness abounds and try as you might it can not really be overcome. you can cover the lackluster color in the most beautiful paintings the earth has to offer, yet underneath it all there is still that faux wood grain finish. 1/16" deep veneer. probably vinyl. it flexed a bit when i would press up against it, poorly installed. but life's not about perfection, we only strive to be the best mediocre entity that we can, acceptable in the eyes of our peers, in the heart of our love. and i wonder how i am to better myself, when i have lost my sense of decency, my longing to follow my dreams, i was stuck with contentment, although i would not mark this as a bad thing. no forward motion. stagnancy in water breeds algae and maybe that's what i had become, laying on that steel frame. it wasn't comfortable but it's where i was, where i was going, and where i had been. i couldn't lift it myself to move, and it had to come with me, i could not leave it behind. that would be another life, another world, one i have been denying for too many years now, and still shirk the responsibilities of to this day but now i'm here, writing, reading, living, breathing, moving forward, smiling. i just feel a certain amount of reluctancy in accepting my former apathy. i wish i had noticed your tears earlier, but i didn't have it in me. i needed to move, stretch my legs and move on. i can't let myself settle. not with that wood paneling surrounding me, god how i hate that wood paneling.
Theodor Adorno, a twentieth century aesthetician, has written numerous essays on music and its place in the art world. Adorno’s criticisms relate strongly to the furthering of music as and art form as well as the cultural relevance of such pieces. He has critiqued such artists as Schoenberg, Bach, Stravinsky, as well as written essays on the states of popular music and jazz. All of his essays employ a seemingly inflammatory style that puts down many works of legitimate art as mere products of popular society. I feel that these critiques need to be argued from a musician’s perspective to give them full validity, as well as shown in their own cultural relevance of the time of their inception.
Adorno critiques the work of Bach labeling his music formulaic and archaic. Yet in Adorno’s own terms this music needs to be taken with the cultural relevance of the day, as well as the reasons for output of music. Bach’s music was made nearly all under the patronage system in Europe at the time, and his work has been praised as being technical brilliance. Yet Adorno claims that Bach’s music was a cultural revolution against the church Adorno disagrees with the contemporary assertion that Bach was merely a technically perfect master of baroque contrapuntal movement and harmony but used his chromaticism and dissonances as a form or rebel against that system that he would be stuck in his entire life, and owe the popularity of his output to.(Adorno, Prisms, 142) What Adorno fails to realize here is that without the patronage of the church Bach’s genius could have never been realized as it is today.
I contend that Bach’s music is no more culturally revolutionary than any other artist of the day, aside from that of the volume of his output. Bach’s piece, while mathematically structured perfectly, were no more reiterations of what had been done in the past, yes there is no argument here that Bach is not the leading of his Viennese school and his work has greatly effected all composers since, but culturally he has had little to no impact on the furthering of society of a whole. I make this contention in an effort to show that a single composer has never had this kind of impact on society, not Bach, nor Beethoven, nor Schoenberg. Musical representation must be viewed as not leading society but merely reflection the social situations at the time of conception. No where in history can Adorno make a claim that supersedes this, although he may attempt to through the compositions of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, or Cage. Yet all of these examples are products of their time, not in the forefront of society. Art as a whole plays an important part in the furthering of society, but it is social and cultural impact that fuels the art world, not the other way around.
With this out in the open, Adorno argues that Bach’s works can not be taken at face value, as he did not have the necessary compositional tools, nor instrumentation to complete his works as he sees fit. Yet Adorno himself has no basis to make this claim and therefore I find it to be a moot point. The majority of Bach’s output was made for that of organ, piano, and vocal pieces, how could this possibly be construed as necessitating a more abstract instrumentation?(Adorno, Prisms, 142-143) Alternative mediums should no more have crossed Bach’s mind as the concept of graphic design should have crossed Monet’s. This concept holds absolutely no basis in this discussion of the validity of one’s works.
Adorno further contends that for music to be considered in the art realm it must liberate itself from the order that possesses control over it. Bach in no way did this; his compositions are wrought with the stench of imitation. Bach did little more than follow the rules of his craft and, contrary to Adorno’s belief, did not step outside of the realm of the ordinary. I do not want to discount Bach’s work here, as they are irrefutably the most spectacular of his school, but to claim that he had the realm of conventionality is a blatant falsehood. Adorno’s case against conventionality in music can not be properly explored without the advent, better regarded as discovery, of the concept of atonality.
Here, I must take time to discuss the work of Arnold Schoenberg and his twelve tone system of composition, of which Adorno was not just a proponent but also a student. Schoenberg’s twelve tone system a compositional technique devised as an attempt to stray from the common diatonic melodies that we, as westerners, hear in most music. The system necessitated the use of all twelve tones of the chromatic scale, to be used without immediate repetition, this would create greatly disjointed melodies, even what could be called an abandonment of melody through the use of Schoenberg’s later tone rows, dictating even the order of the twelve tones to be used.(Mason; Burkholder, 810) This formulation of music can not be considered fine art at all through its mechanical undertaking but must be classified as merely industrial art, an art out of necessity. Schoenberg’s attempt at atonality would never be accepted by the public, nor much of the art world, but would serve as a revolution in the art of composition for years to come, for after being refined and reformulated to its more sparse use today could be stomached by the general populous. (Adorno, Aesthetic, 158)
I believe that it is this revolutionary aspect, and not necessarily the compositions himself, that Adorno would cling to in his writings. Adorno advocated both revolutions in art and social circles, yet his extremist approach was a contradiction in and of itself. Adorno praised Schoenberg’s system for it’s formulaic nature,(Mason) yet went on to note that this intellectual aspect of music is something that has seen in pre-romantic works, arguing that the emotion, of romantic and post-romantic composers, is only a small part of the work. Adorno believes that music must affect the listener in a much more cerebral manner to be considered art. This need for a revolution in music is something that would not be seen in Schoenberg, but the romantic style that Adorno so vehemently cast aside as emotional garbage.
Schoenberg himself noted that, “one paints a painting, not what it represents”(Adorno, Aesthetic, 4) this begs the question as to whether Schoenberg himself was against the emotional aspect and impact of music, or whether he was attempting to portray this emotionality. In this, Adorno’s philosophy of the art world can be brought down, as his main voice for this theory casts him aside. Adorno himself addresses the point that Schoenberg’s early piano works were a barbaric use of the music art form, owing more to its traditionalist roots than that of pure atonality. (Adorno, Aesthetic, 93) This emotional aspect of music, and all art in general, can not be taken lightly, and may in fact be what is the most important aspect of art, not cultural relevance, but that of the sensitivity of the arrangement of notes and ideas. This concept has not been more readily embodied more so than in the works of romantic composers such as Liszt, Chopin and late Beethoven.
During this period composers would begin to be freed of the burden of the patronage system, finally beginning to write works solely for themselves, and not always taking into regard the taste of society. This sets the romantic period apart from those previous by instilling a mass of emotional impact in the music. No longer was everything formulaic, with commonly accepted counterpoint and harmony, but was at the full discretion of the composers psyche and emotional state. This was viewed by many people, at first, much like the music of Arnold Schoenberg, yet romanticism would slowly push the limits of diatonic harmony to what we view them as today. Is this not a revolution in the art world, and reflection of the dawning industrial age in the west? This can be seen even as late as world war I in the post romantic works of Igor Stravinsky, the acceptance of his genius would not by fully recognized until after his death. Yet even this music which we now find pleasant to our ears caused a riot in Paris as the premiere of his “The Rite of Spring” due to the dissonance of harmony and the odd use of instrumentation called forth by Stravinsky’s emotions, and the need to express them as such in his music. This movement of composers writing off their own feelings is a natural revolution necessitated by the changing of contemporary society; while Schoenberg’s twelve tone system is a forced revolution, in only an attempt to change the music world. Therefore even through Adorno’s theory of the cultural relevance of art music, even Schoenberg must be looked down upon, as he did not change society, he merely attempted, and failed.
Although with all of this the argument against the cultural impact of the twelve tone system can not be put down without a discussion of the manifestation of Schoenberg’s theory throughout the cold war period. At this time the twelve tone method became the compositional technique on the forefront of American writing, due to an attempt to break away from the nationalistic, and thus diatonic, method of composition of Russian composers. Even with this forced learning of Schoenberg’s techniques among young composers it would still prove itself to be a failure over the next twenty years, necessitating a revolution against the forced revolution itself. Out of this would be borne a minimalist style embodied in the likes of Charles Ives and John Cage, with a pure rejection of atonality and a return to the most basic of music concepts. This style would prove itself much longer lasting than that of the compulsory style of Schoenberg. In light of this rejection I feel that it is clear that Schoenberg’s system is merely a stopping point amid the romantic and minimalist periods and can not at all be deemed a social nor artistic revolution itself. One might argue that the minimalist style being stemmed from that of Schoenberg is evidence that the latter therefore is important in the discussion of western music and society. Yet due to its cultural irrelevance and artistic failure this is simply untrue. This revolt from diatonic theory is simply not something that the western world had been prepared for but was an atom bomb dropped on the art world in an attempt to change, but instead resulted in a return to the past and has possibly done nothing but set back the progress of the art music world.
Adorno discusses the use of music, and art, for profit, and the liquidation by society, saying that Schoenberg’s twelve tone system is the first true revolt against such consolidation, but in this vein we have to take on the early twentieth inception of pop music, first and foremost, jazz.(Adorno, Aesthetic, 206) Looking down from his throne atop the aesthetic world Adorno peers down at jazz as this liquidation of art, and attempts to abolish any credibility that anyone might hold over the jazz, and now pop music, world. This argument is filled with misconceptions as well as gross generalizations from a man uneducated in this art form, drawing his conclusions from his own ill-conceived past, and forcing his frustration onto a new form of art. As a proponent of cultural furthering through music and art one would be led to believe that Adorno would embrace the essence of the new musical form, but this is a falsity.
I must first begin by addressing the falsehoods put forth in Adorno’s “Perennial Fashion – Jazz”, through a discourse on the elements of a new style. Adorno initially states that while jazz is based on improvisation, that this improvisation is a falsehood, and regurgitated ideas of the past. (Adorno, Prisms, 123) This assertion holds footing on a slowly melting lake. While improvisations by jazz musicians, as far back as the thirties, and including those of present day, may indeed quote other players, and even learn other artists solos for acts of education, this is in no way influencing the overall direction of the work. Yet the overall goal of improvisation in jazz is the outpouring of emotion through your instrument, through the use of notes. This inherently poses a problem to Adorno who does not believe in the emotionality of music being a large aspect of the art. These solos are no more formulated than the predisposed notions that Adorno represents.
Adorno next addresses the limitations put on the creativity of the musician by the harmony and meter of the piece. (Adorno, Prisms, 123) Although this is clearly true in the manifestations of ragtime, Dixieland, and swing bands early in the century, this rule can not be held true throughout the vast history of jazz, even before Adorno’s death. While the basic blues progression as well as the fundamentals of traditional diatonic harmony held true through the inception of the jazz genre, up through the 1940’s swing era, by the cool and bebop eras in the mid 1950’s these traditional forms of harmonic and melodic movement had all but been abandoned. Adorno’s points about the concepts and atonality falsely imprisoned in the world of jazz must be addressed to discuss this further. (Adorno, Prisms 126) Adorno claims that the use of atonality in jazz was not true atonality as it still follows a diatonic chord progression. But one might argue that Schoenberg himself in many of his compositions, including that of Pierot Lunaire, had necessitated the same usage of harmony.(Burkeholder, 827-830) Even with this being so by the 1950’s tonality had been informally abandoned in the advent of both modal jazz and free jazz, where as the former initiated solos over one chord requiring the use of non chord tones, and the latter fully abandoning the concept of a tonal center, much like Schoenberg had done previously.
This idea of the abandonment of tonality is inherently false in itself. In Schoenberg’s use of the twelve tone scale he is already insinuating the act of such tonality. With the use of this western invention it is truly impossibly to never imply the concept of a central key to the piece. This notion of true atonality is something that can never be fully achieved through the use of a wholly western, and thus diatonic, system of music. Atonality itself could only be fully realized by the implementation and influence of eastern microtonal music into the repertoire of a western composer. But at this point would a thousand year old system of music, although abandoning what we see as true tonality truly prove our own music vapid, would it be a real departure from the norm? It is nothing innately original to western civilization as we now realize it and the assimilation has already inadvertently taken place in society, much through the jazz world, by the likes of sun ra, and even in the pop world through artists such as Harrison. Had it not been for these people the truth of atonality could not have been realized to western civilization, especially through the theories of Arnold Schoenberg, whom only served to plant the seed of no tonal center.
With this concept of atonality, comes the concept of commercialization of music. Adorno christens jazz as a consumer art, but as we know it music has always at least partially been a consumer art. (Adorno, Prisms, 126) Even dating back to medieval times and carrying on through the baroque, classical, and romantic periods, this has proven to be true through the patronage system, which was truly only replaced with the inception of capitalism in the west. Capitalism itself has necessitated the need for popular art forms. Jazz itself is a reaction to the industrial and technological revolutions as much as it is a reaction to the wars in the early part of the twentieth century. This new form of music can be directly correlated to the increasingly individualistic culture that has been perpetrated in the west over the past one hundred years. The mass media, seen through radio, and later television, further exasperates this situation for fame. This even boils down, as Adorno notes, to the common person. (Adorno, Prisms, 128-129) This need to assimilate to society by representing oneself as different has helped to shape our society to what it has become. American’s, as a whole, feel the need to latch onto the concept of celebrity status.
While this condition indeed seems to have begun with the jazz world, the first true form of American pop music, its hold over that realm dissipated very fast in the twenty years after its initial occurrence, and turned its focus to the form of rock and roll. The initial controversies concerning the origination of jazz can be seen in the early fifties shifting their spotlight. By the end of Adorno’s life he should have been looking at the correlation between jazz and the inception of rock which directly correlate with each other. Yet without either out culture would not nearly be the same that it is today. With this in mind it could be said that Adorno himself has approved of these forms of music through their immense culture impact on life in America as well as the rest of western society, and through cultural imperialism even to developing nations in the world. The effect of these forms of music has clearly not been just local but a global phenomenon which can not be ignored.
With these points in mind Adorno’s critiques on the music world can not be taken lightly. He has shown himself to be self contradictory, and not adhering to his own standards of criticism. Likewise the concept of atonality in music has not yet proved itself to be of any use to contemporary composition, as our society continues to be that of supply and demand by the public, and the general populous is not ready to accept such conventions. As such music, as an art form, must be viewed from the perspective of contemporary society, not merely from the criticisms of the past. It was Schoenberg himself who said that there is still so much that could be done with a Simple C chord.