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Philosophy Of New Music Hardcover – May 27, 2006
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Adorno's writing is characteristically dense and difficult--somewhat essential to the subject matter.
Those with an interest might also consider:
Atali--NOISE, and Karol Berger A Theory of Art.
If you're new to Adorno's ideas, here are some thoughts. Keep in mind that Adorno writes in a technical, allusive language; understanding a book like this will require years of training in both 20th-century Continental philosophy and music theory. Probably only a handful of individuals really possess or have ever really possessed this -- I'm not one of them, so maybe you should take this review with a grain of salt.
Because of the extremism of his musical views, Adorno is mostly out of fashion now in American academia, but any writer as brilliant and sensitive as warrants attention.
For me, the appeal of this book is that Adorno focuses on the connection between music and culture, and about whether any given cultural pattern is humanizing or de-humanizing. This is almost unique among 20th-century writers on contemporary music. No one else approaches these subjects with the same sustained intensity.
The book is part of Adorno's long-term attempt to understand fascism in a very general sense, especially how fascism permeates Western psychology and culture. If you've read any academic critical theory, you'll be familiar with this theme. Adorno is more interesting and more sincere than most of this literature -- possibly because, as a student and young professor, Adorno observed the slow approach of WWII, as the mass media, democratically-elected politicians, and cultural leaders clamored for war and fascism. Even highly respected intellectuals at the time such as Max Weber and Martin Heidegger promoted crass nationalism, racism, and war-mongering.
The gist of the basic argument of the book is something like this (keep in mind that I am attempting to put his ideas into plain language, heavily re-interpreting and simplifying them): war-mongering propaganda emphasizes group unity, optimism, and cheerful dedication to country. Popular culture emphasizes similar qualities. The music of the Second Viennese School is just the opposite; disjointed and bleak, the mature work of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern constitutes an antidote to the falseness in mass culture. Can you imagine a rally of blood-thirsty warmongers coming together to sing a bleak, atonal national anthem? It's not easy. Musical works that are clear and witty (like Stravinsky), or pleasant or enjoyable (like most popular music) are deceptive, de-humanizing, and even collusive with fascism. Because Western civilization is so dehumanizing, the only honest music that can be written will be likewise dark, disjointed, foreboding, and grotesque.
Adorno's thought is more complicated than this, and I'm sure he would hate a summary like this. Schoenberg and Stravinsky receive both praise and criticism for different aspects of their work. Even if you disagree with Adorno's claims, and even when they are extreme, they are never formulaic.
Nevertheless, his criticisms of popular music and various composers (e.g. Hindemith) are notoriously over the top. Do a quick search on Youtube for Adorno interviews about popular music, and you'll see what I mean. If a song has a pleasant, coherent melody, Adorno equates it with the basest, cruelest instincts in man. Innocent songs receive the kind of revulsion and condemnation you might expect for "Mein Kampf." He even extends similar judgments to Vietnam-era protest songs, of all things.
It's hard to take judgments like this completely seriously. As a result, many writers have adopted strains of Adorno's thought without really agreeing with many of his conclusions. Adorno's assertions/arguments about how x or y is dehumanizing -- popular music, Stravinsky, Hindemith, mass-manufactured items -- won't convince many readers. You are either on the same page with the author or you aren't.
My view is that, after a while, it feels less like Adorno is really asking questions about the humanity in this music and more like they are reflections of his abstract, rarefied notion of aesthetic purity. It's sincere, but only up to a point.
Anecdotally, at least, Viennese atonal music had an uneven record as an antidote to fascism. Anton Webern, the "spiritual leader" of Schoenberg's disciples, became a staunch supporter of Hitler.
Adorno, by contrast, remained impressively independent from the various mass delusions of both the right and the left. He's a bit like your crazy uncle who is prone to unhinged ranting, at the end of the day, will probably do the right thing.
The translators preface by Robert Hullot-Kentor who also did Aesthetic Theory is vintage translator expressing the torments of trying to merge two different worlds. I enjoyed it and know just what he means. Quine is right about that. But it is harsh! RH-K is a believer in Adorno and what Adorno says in the text. Does one have to empathize with a text to translate it well just as a musician must be in the mood of the music to express that mood? I wonder. Maybe so.
Adorno gave these guys grief. I am sure it applies to our music as well. I read this not simply thinking of the "new music" but the continuing type and wonder if we can associate the trite with the sensuous and the good with the abstract? But then what makes the good so good? Reading on....