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Forum on Adorno, Music, and Society: Suggested Topics

Over the course of this forum, the editors would especially welcome articles focused on the following topics.

1) The development and current status of the autonomous musical artwork.

An obvious starting point for this discussion is the work of the early German Romantics and their views on music.  Not only the central role of instrumental music in the aesthetics of Wackenroder, Tieck, and E.T.A Hoffmann, but also the transformed conception of aesthetics in the works of Schelling, Friedrich Schlegel, and Hegel made possible the high aesthetic standing of the later conception of absolute music.  But was Hanslick's or Wagner's "absolute music" the same as Hoffmann's "instrumental music?"
And was Hanslick's conception of "absolute music" the same as that of post-WWII Formalism? Would any major composer of the early 19th century have agreed that the highest form of music consists only of sounds and their relationships, free from any dependence on on "extramusical ideas?" Is Adorno's criticism of Formalism accurate and fully informed?  Does musical autonomy require that the musical artwork be an Adornian monad (and what precisely did Adorno mean by this)? Have the recent critiques of the notion of absolute music (Goehr, Chua, and numerous Postmodernists) succeeded in widening or collapsing its meaning?  Can art music make do without autonomous artworks?

2) The relationship between artistic ideals and societal response and the real-world situation of new artistic movements in society.

The editors would especially welcome articles focused on four crucial periods of change:

a) The development of a new Romantic musical art, ca. 1800-1848.  Numerous German-language writers, critics, and composers all played central roles in articulating a significant societal change of consciousness in this period. Facing the results of the breakdown of aristocratic support system for music in the early part of the century, they registered an experiential hunger among the newly empowered and quickly expanding middle classes, and attempted to shape this toward artistically progressive ends.  The following generations of music lovers, motivated by the ideals that music represented, created their own concert series and support structures, activities that laid the groundwork for the institutions of musical life later generations have come to take for granted.  Many of these activities were transplanted to the New World throughout the 19th century and became the foundation, among other things,  for much of the American classical music culture.

What lessons do the activities of that generation have for our time? Why was music so important to so many people in this period?  What needs did it fill, and what new needs to it create? How did their endeavors influence the following generation, especially as similar culture-building activities spread to the New World.  Does the notion of Bildung, central to motivating art-lovers in the middle-classes throughout the 19th century, have any place or role in the modern world? Was all of this merely a matter of German ideology, and should this play any role in contemporary American musical life?  Is there any aspect of 19th German music and ideals that transcends its time and place and can play a meaningful role in a different time and different culture?

Facing a current situation which institutional support for high art music is weakening and attempts to undermine the validity of both classical and modern concert music  are widely ratified, can we learn anything from the past? Can serious art music play a significant, progressive role in modern society?  Should it try?

How would Adorno have addressed the current situation, and is his analysis relevant to current conditions?

 b) What happened to the American musical avant-garde?

For a brief period in leading up to the Depression, in a few places in the United States, composers of ambitious, dissonant music could find a support and interest for their music.  The swift abandonment of the "advanced" style by most composers following the collapse of financial support has led commentators to doubt the significance of this early brief appearance of a musical avant-garde scene.  How would Adorno have analyzed this phenomenon?  Was this phenomenon primarily a matter of opportunism, and were those  who continued on the same path (such as Ruggles and Varese) deluded, or can they best be understood as "mavericks," to use Kyle Gann's term?  How significant are the resemblances between the 1920's musical avant-garde and the avant-garde aims of the American Experimentalists or the post-WWII academic avant-garde? What is the sociological significance of these movements?  Are these options and the anomalous status of the maverick the only options for adventurous young composers?

c) Adorno, Formalism, and  Current Composition

Many defenders of post-war serialism believed that Adorno's criticism of the schematicism of their works was misguided, and a few American commentators have suggested that his criticisms would have more aptly fit the music of Milton Babbitt or his followers.  Putting aside the issue of sufficient expertise (which American serialists would claim Adorno lacked), would Adorno's critique of the tendencies of serialism apply to the sophisticated compositional system of Milton Babbitt?  Why didn't Adorno approach Milton Babbitt's music or, a question which is perhaps more intriguing, Elliott Carter's?  Would Carter's fusing of complex construction and expressiveness in his peak works have undermined Adorno's "dead-end" history of new music?

How might Adorno have read the current situation in new music, either in Europe or in any of the new music scenes in countries throughout the world?  Could he have responded sympathetically and in an informed matter to the popular music revolution starting in the 1950s; is it possible to give an Adornian reading to any rock music in a manner that does not consign it in advance to the flames of his "jazz" epithet? 

Are there any progressively-oriented musical developments Adorno might have viewed as worthy heirs of the tradition of the Second Viennese School,  or have viewed as embodying his conception of a musique informelle?

d) Adorno, New Musicology, and Postmodernism

For the last 20 years, New Musicologists and Postmodernists have employed certain of Adorno's ideas in a sustained critique of Positivist musicology and Modernism, while evading many of the primary quasi-Marxist goals of his critique.  Is this use of Adorno legitimate?  Is this a creative misreading or only a bad reading? 

Are recent Postmodernist critiques responding to Modernism as a whole or primarily to post-WWII Academic Formalism? If the latter, then how much of Adorno's Modernist aesthetic philosophy is still valid?

Does Adorno's musical philosophy possess a strong enough coherence, level of expertise, and range to allow one to claim that appropriating one or more of his insights out of context might be inappropriate? Can one simply "use Adorno" in good conscience?

How might Adorno have responded to explosion of interest in certain aspects of his work in the United States?

3) How do present-day creative artists respond to Adorno's philosophy of music and sociology of music? How do they see the proper role of newly-composed music?

a. Is its role confined to that of reflecting dominant social needs and/or adorning present-day existence?

b.  Is its  role primarily that of research into new methods of construction and new types of expression, and does this have any social relevance, if only at an ideational level?

c. Is its role primarily critical, oriented toward a social ideal? 

d. Is its role primarily visionary, asserting an ideal?

e. Is its role, more in the line of Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams, that of poetic exploration of a complex present-day reality that it wishes to capture, not to change?

Further questions of interest:

f. How do you conceive of  "society," and what  in your view is the proper, ethical, and/or ideal nature of the relationship of the  artist to it?   

g. How do you conceive of your music's relationship to the "audience," the general public, and to society?

h.  What are the real world relationships of various composers/compositional groups to society?  Are composers' views of their relationship to society viewed as legitimate by their society?

Here the exploration of different sociological niches is possible: university composition and its dependence on the research model, ground-level organizations, European official/inofficial new music scenes, nationalistic structures, and so on.

i. What is the relationship between the mode of support of contemporary music  (private, state, institutional) and the role--perceived or actual--of the composer?

4) Adorno and modern society. Is it possible to form a progressivist conception of the interrelationship of arts and society, without abandoning the Adornian adherence to "advanced" music,  that responds responsibly and adequately to his critique of modern society?






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