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.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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