Continental Flyover with Sean Hannity and Theodore Adorno

Oct 28, 2009

I’m squashed into the window seat of my Jet Blue Experience, enduring the ritual Oakland to JFK American Heartland Flyover. Light reading this time: “Adorno on Music.” I try to concentrate on those serpentine sentences that smile at you, then curl around and bite your ass like a cobra. But my neighbor to the left is watching Fox News on the little Direct TV screen and I can tell this is going to go on for the whole flight. Every time I look up from my book there they are, the patriots: O’Reilly, Hannity, Beck. Without the sound they are just faces superimposed on a dark blue background. O”Reilly looks like an angry, dyspeptic dad who’s not enjoying his Twelve Step regime and relates to his family by insulting them. The facial gestures are pained, ironic…”Can you believe it? How stupid can you get?” Hannity is the thick-necked would-be jock with the close-cropped military haircut. He’s a jolly back thumper, a wet towel-snapping NASCAR kind of guy with attitude. He’s REASONABLE, for chrissake. Without the sound track his face is saying “Now don’t get me wrong! I’m willing to accept Obama was born in the U.S., but let’s see some proof, please!” Or “Now don’t get me wrong! My grandfather was an immigrant, but at least he came here legally.” Or “Honest! If gays want to choose that life style, so be it. But the sanctity of marriage ought to be upheld.”

Glenn Beck looks like a four year-old whose dad is going to come over and beat the shit out of you if you don’t let him win at least one Monopoly game. He has a petulant, spoiled brat look—a pudgy blond Middle American Mussolini.

I read. The composer may think he or she is freely combining sounds, but no, the compositional process is a culturally inherited structure.

There is no escaping it. Cage tossed coins and used the I Ching in an attempt to escape being historical. He sort of accomplished that, but what resulted was his least interesting music. In London last month I did Credo in US, a funny piece for Merce Cunningham from the early 1940’s originally called “Suburban Idyl.” The piece predates the severe coin-tossing Zen master Cage. Credo in US uses a player who brings a radio out onstage and plays random broadcasts just as if it were another instrument. There are also percussionists playing tin cans and flat gongs and a pianist who plays clunky little blues riffs. It’s a charming piece, and also an emphatically “historical” piece by Cage. It’s “intentionless” in its ultimate effect, but put together by means of a string of “intentional” effects.

Adorno loved the “tension” between parts and the whole, seeing the parts as pure intention, but the whole, the final object, as purely free of intention.

Here’s a good quote from Robert Witkin, an Adorno scholar: “The desire to construct works of art that would somehow be purely objective, devoid of intentionality—the desire to construct a pure music, purged of all subjective intentions and expression, for example—was a very real project for many modern artists, [I’m thinking Cage again, but it could be Babbitt or any number of process-oriented composers], and Adorno saw it as a mark of pathology. He detected the signs of this pathology in music ranging from the neo-classical works of Hindemith and Stravinsky to the works of modern serialist composers….The art of which he approved, whether modernist or pre-modernist, was art which persevered, as integral, both in terms of the dialectic—the intentionality of the elements and the work of art as an intentionless whole.” Mahler was for him an ideal composer in that sense.

The Fox News crawl at the bottom of the screen says
“Rep. Grayson calls Bernanke K-Street Whore.” My Jet Blue map says we are over Iowa.

The crisis of modernity. Oh, how Adorno loved the apocalyptic expression. Everything was in crisis, exhausted, shattered, in shards. The” crisis of modernity”, for Adorno, (so says Witkin) is bound up with the withdrawal of the subject as the spiritual centre from forms which have ceased to express and with which the subject is no longer identified.”

“Empty forms.” I still like them. That’s what City Noir is, at least in one sense. But those exhausted, shattered empty forms still exalt, can still conceal and contain a lot. Embedded with intentionality, they still capture the imagination.

Now Fox News is shocked. I mean REALLY shocked:

“NEA chairman says Obama ‘most influential writer since Julius Caesar.”

What? Come on, Rocco, what a dopey thing to say. That is worse than giving the poor man a pre-emptory Nobel Prize. Nothing but trouble for Barack. Well, the Fox archivists have been busy while I’ve been parsing Adorno. They now have a portrait of Caesar right up there on the screen, next to the most unflattering one ever taken of the Prez.

Julius—he’s Old Europe.

Seatbelts. Trays upright. Put your electronic toys away. New York is somewhere down there in the fog and rain.

Comments (17)

m. croche
October 28, 2009

dispeptic = "dyspeptic"?

persevered = "preserved"?

apocryphal = "apocalyptic"?

Witkin writes (and, I presume, means) "intensionality". You write, "intentionality". Is this the word you really intend?

m. croche
October 28, 2009

Ah, I see now that the "intensionality" was not in Witkin, but is Adams' typo (?). Still, one wonders a bit which word is meant at various points.

Another mistake: Witkin writes "both terms of the dialectic", not "both in terms of the dialectic".

It seems a bit willful for Adams to mention Mahler as a composer wholly embodying Adorno's desiderata and not Berg (explicitly mentioned by Witkin in the sentence paraphrased by Adams) or the pre-twelve-tone, post-functional Schoenberg. If we assume that Adorno's own music follows his philosophical ideas, it certainly more closely resembles those two masters.

One further quibble: Glenn Beck seems never to have lived in Middle America - born in Washington State, 6 months in Utah, D.C., and finally Connecticut.

Trevor Whelan
October 28, 2009

How wonderful it must be to be taken so, so seriously...I fell asleep reading M. Croche's comments.

Dolla Brand
October 29, 2009

m. croche almost upstaged john adams there ...

October 29, 2009

I think it's great that you've started your own blog - I hope you have the stamina to keep it going.

You were in LA about six years ago for a performance of "El Nino". At the end of your pre-concert talk, despite being in a hurry and surrounded by Very Important People, you took the time to exchange a few nice words to a young couple who were not very well-dressed and clearly not very important. But for a few minutes you made my wife and I feel like the most important people in the world. Thanks for being a decent person as well as an amazing artist.

October 29, 2009

How lucky we are to have a forum where we can choose to read the musings of a world-famous artist, and where he invites us to respond to them instead of laying these thoughts out as didactic truths.

How lucky we are that this same artist is willing to speak about academic subjects in front of an audience of academics, parsing literary theory and Thomas Mann so that we may learn not only of the author's inner-workings, but a great composer's as well.

How lucky that this same man is not only a brilliant composer, but also maintains the curiosity and quest for knowledge that defines us as a species--not to mention being one of the most kind, humble, and welcoming people I have had the good fortune to meet.

Thank you for your thoughts here and at Yale this afternoon, and I look forward to your lecture tomorrow.

Joe Nichols
October 29, 2009

I am not so sure how successful Barak Obama is going to be in his battle with these three stooges of whom you speak. But, I am glad that the President is taking them head-on and treating them like what they are, ignorant and misinformed. opinionated and close-minded, white and proud of it, top 5% bracketed income males who remind me of some leaders in Europe in the 1930's.

David Bruce
October 29, 2009

Great to see Mr Adams venturing into the jungle of the blogosphere. For what it's worth I blogged my reactions to this particular post here:

Jason Jones
October 29, 2009

"Big fan" and all that - I love your music.

But the political rantings are best published to Huffington Post. I'm confident they would love to have you.

October 30, 2009

"But the political rantings are best published to Huffington Post"

Dude..... it's his blog.

Paula Clark
October 30, 2009

I am watching KCET's airing of City Noir conducted by Dudomel. Good Lord, what an orgasmic experience! I must have it. How soon will it be offered on cd?

Chris O'Riley
October 30, 2009

wow. anne midgette mentioned you were blogging.
great to see your reading list. i'd pass along a hearty recommendation for the works of roberto bolano. i started out with the massive '2666' and then 'the savage detectives', but, if i'd to do it all over, i'd start with one of the shorter pieces: 'the skating rink', or 'amulet'.
From The Top drops in on Stanford in December, and KDFC was kind enough to hook me up with a date @ yoshi's, too. i've been working the odd classical pieces into my arrnagements-laden sets, and, whenever possible, timely and local content. time to fire up China Gates!
best always,

October 31, 2009

Maybe this is seed material for your new comic opera:

Adorno, Hannity, Beck, Bill-O, are sent up in the space shuttle to conduct repairs on the international space station. Once in orbit, suddenly the disembodied head of Ronald Reagan appears, floating by the window of the space shuttle. Our patriots, enraged, shocked, confused. Adorno is intrigued. They sing about it.

Finally they arrive at the space station and discover soviet cosmonauts are already there. Except Hannity, Beck, and Bill-O are strangely convinced its the year 1958, and they've been beaten in the space race - exhausted and parched, they each drink their own urine. The mighty 3 resolve to kill the cosmonauts with the hope that no on earth will find out the USSR has so advanced and prevent the humiliation of the USA.

Adorno, realizing the desperation of the situation, alone pilots the space shuttle out of space dock leaving the 3 Fox News heroes behind. The final scene is Adorno, having landed his craft on Titan, and constructing a powerful radio amplifier, singing his "Aria to the Heavens" transmitted back to earth, which will not arrive until 40 years into the future. Reagan's head rolls across the stage. Curtain closes.

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August 22, 2010

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March 17, 2011

I have to add a comment - even though I'm obviously behind the times.
Re: tossing coins for the I Ching. Jung wrote the preface for the Bolingen edition of the I Ching. If I apply Jung, I would say the tossing of coins is not a random, intentionless activity. The falling of the coins and the resulting hexagram is a communication to us that is synchronous. The governing principal is not chance but synchronicity.
Again if I borrow from Jung freely:
he also noted the subject retreating from empty forms which no longer had symbolic potency (this is my paraphrase).
He noted that the "subject" retreated into our own psyche and our unconcsious. Hence, if you compose City Noir using "empty forms," we bring to it our own subjectivity which brings life and meaning to the form.
Just some musings....

Anthony Prickett
July 28, 2011

Oh my gosh, I HATE HANNITY. I HATE BECK. O'Reily's alright... not a total puppet like the other two. :P

October 31, 2011

You are inspiring!!! I just found your blog, I like it because i was seeking for such type of info.
I hope it benefits all one who land up here.
Thanks for sharing!!

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