Max Paddison: Adorno's Aesthetics of Music

Summarized by Szu-Hsien Lee


The basic concern of Adorno's theory is on three points of immanent analysis that Adorno himself calls the rupture between self and forms, philosophical-historical interpretation, and sociological critique.

1. Immanent Analysis: What Adorno calls 'the rupture between self and forms' is the concept of that split between the expressive needs of composers and the reified character of the handed-down traditional forms and genres. The rupture between self and forms is the manifestation of alienation in music and an aspect of the fragmentation of modern life. The concern is tightly related to his concern of the philosophical-historical interpretation (see 2).

2. Philosophical-historical interpretation Adorno views music of the past from the perspective of the contemporary avant-garde. Thus the 'philosophy of new music' is also a philosophy of history. It involves the problematical relation between history and nature, and also the equally problematical relation identified as Adorno's first concern, the rapture between self and forms.


1) History and Nature:

For Adorno, the concept of 'nature' indicates that which is static, timeless, unchanging and apparently beyond history. The concept of 'history' refers to that which is dynamic and which changes overtime, and can be understood as the interaction of 'consciousness' and 'nature', as 'culture'. Adorno's interest in these two concepts is in their mediation. He synthesizes Lukacs's and Benjamin's concepts about history and nature to illustrate his concept about this mediation. He interprets the interaction whereby history comes to be taken as second nature, and nature comes to be seen as history, namely, transitory nature. In this sense, history, the second nature, as a cipher for the historical relation to nature, as 'objective' conventions, is made up of previous subjectivity that has forgotten its origins in subjectivity. It is seen by Adorno to be discontinuous, fragmented, and made up of concrete, material phenomena, which do not lead smoothly and seamlessly toward some preordained end. In the meantime, the 'nature' is shown to be in fact history, and its ontological states as an invariant, is destroyed. (According to his methodology, in place of traditional logic Adorno puts forward an alternative logical structure: that of the 'constellation'.)

2) Locate the concern of 'the rapture between self and forms' on the philosophical-historical view:

As a result of this break between self and the world, and between the autonomy of art and the heteronomy of empirical reality, art forms become part of a historical dialectic, resulting in a complex and mediated relation between genres and the socio-historical conditions. In becoming self-contained totalities, the forms, of art become 'meaningless' in themselves. Their meaning, which has now become symbolic, has to decipher historically in relation to the larger totality of which it is part. At the same time, the breakdown of the apparently 'natural 'foundations as historical, the second nature, tied to particular cultural determinates.

3. Sociological critique: The theory of musical material Adorno's sociologically orientated writings on music arise from a consideration of the problem of the composer's relation to musical material and of the performer's dual relation to the musical work and to the audience. Related to this concern, Adorno discusses those of folk music, 'popular music' and jazz. Derived from this point of view, he makes an important division of two musical categories.

Adorno's theory of musical material needs to be paced within the terms of an already existing debate concerning 1) the nature of 'artistic material', and of 2) the relationship of 'technique' to 'expression'.

1) Theories of artistic material

The precursors and contemporaries of Adorno's theories of artistic material include Hanslick's idea that the basic stuff of music is simply its 'sounding material'; Hindemith's craft of musical composition that emphasis on 'natural laws' and on the validity of the 'natural characteristics of tones' for all period; the French symbolists Paul Valery's idea that emphasizes both the separation of art from life and the process of progression control over 'material', and August Halm's interpretation that the historical 'progress' of musical form is the individual to the social totality. Among those theorists, Schoenberg's claim of nature and artistic material is mainly referred in Adorno's. Schoenberg claims that 1) sound as 'raw material' and as 'natural phenomenon'. 2) The apparent 'natural laws' are only those 'necessary' at a particular historical moment. For example, Schoenberg argues for 'dissonance' as a matter of degree rather than of kind, in other word, as a historical rather than natural category. 3) Schoenberg argues that the material is to be a 'cultural product', rather than 'nature'. Interestingly, Schoenberg also uses the term 'second nature' for this historical-cultural product. 4) Music is to be understood as a mode of cognition. Adorno immediately takes up and develops the two aspects of the concept of material already suggested by Schoenberg - historical necessity and cognitive character. The concept of cognitive character will be mentioned in 2. The relationship of 'technique' to 'expression'. According to Historical necessity, the implications already are that the 'material' is not the sum of all acoustical possibilities and associated compositional techniques to date. They are limited by the historical stage reached by the material in relation to current expressive need. For instance, in 1929, that stage was the period of the recent development of the twelve-tone technique. Adorno considers atonality and the twelve-tone technique to be 'a higher form of thought than tonality, even though he argues that the twelve-tone technique is not to be taken as a substitute for tonality. He thought that tonality had collapsed. The collapse of tonality and the subsequent challenge of atonality is directory the result of the demand of the material. Adorno is putting forward a materialist aesthetic, which makes the claim that judgment concerning the quality of a work, as consistency and progress, can be grounded in the technical structure of the work.

For music to have 'truth content' it music be interwoven with the historical figuration of the material. This is a process of the freeing of human consciousness from myth, and it constitutes progress. Adorno said: Progress is not to be confused with the individual facts of history, or with individual works of art, It is rather a process of demythologization, particularly form the myths of absolute origins and of those being beyond history. .

2) The relationship of 'technique' to 'expression'

What is important for Schoenberg is that music is to be understood as a mode of cognition. Implied in Schoenberg's positions the idea that the material is already 'pre-formed', and contains the historical necessity to go beyond its present stage of development in order to become more appropriate to the expressive needs of the creative Subject. For Adorno, the actual musical material available to a composer at any particular historical moment is that at the most extreme intersection of expressive need and technical means. The material is the precipitate or sediment of previous interactions between composers and the historical 'figurations' they encounter as material, and thus represents the social collectivity. According to Adorno, Schoenberg has raised expression to a new level to create a different music into which 'no social function falls. His use of dissonance as ' the vehicle of the radical principle of Expressionism' undermines tonality itself and is at the same time 'the resolution of objective-material contradictions which continued to exist in the Wagnerian technique of chromatic sequence and in the diatonic technique of variation employed by Brahms as well.

Beyond Adorno's theory of the sociology of music, he also relates this to the autonomous character of Western high art music to have freed itself historically from its previous bound with religion and ritual to becomes a commodity. The conflict between the autonomy character of music and commodity character results in a condition of alienation. Based upon this alienation, Adorno divides musical activity into two opposing categories. 1) Music that accepts its commodity character, is not dialectical, and passively orientates itself to market demand. It occupies and apparently dominates position in society. Adorno distinguishes roughly between three types of music in this category. - Light or popular music. - Serious music of the past which has now acquired the status of museum exhibits and has taken on a commodity character, being marketed and distributed via the same mechanisms of the 'culture industry' as light and popular music. - The type embraces all that 'moderate' modern music which makes compromises in order to be accessible 2) Music that does not accept the demands of the market and which functions dialectically as a negation of bourgeois categories within its own material. It expresses alienation. - The first type 'presents and crystallized' the problem and its solutions to the contradictions of society immanently, in terms of its own material and structure. Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School represent this type of music. - The second type 'includes music which is recognized the fact of alienation as its own isolation and as individualism, and further raises this fact to the level of consciousness. It dose so only in aesthetic and 'form-immanent" terms. Adorno cites Stravinsky's representative of this type of music. - The third type as a 'hybrid form'. This type is recognized the fact of alienation but at the same time is socially award. Such music stems from the period of Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat and was developed particularly in the works Kurt Well wrote in conjunction with Bertolt Brecht. - This type of music attempts to break through alienations from within itself, even at the expense of its immanent form. Adorno considers this to have developed out of neoclassicism, and its representative composer is Hindemith.