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Index: Dialectic and Aesthetics: Adorno on Modern Music

Adorno on Modern Music: A series by Tronn Overend

Adorno on Modern Music — A Coda

Tronn Overend: ‘In Adorno’s analysis, jazz is simply equated with ragtime. It is certainly correct that Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag (1899) and Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1911) were important foundations. The edifice that was then built, however, evolved rapidly.’

Return to tonality.

Tronn Overend: ‘An analysis of these contradictions, or conflicts, is a touchstone of truth. There are contradictions within artistic material – such as traditional music – and there are ‘contradictions in the world’. It is only by ‘measuring this contradiction’ that it ‘is actually perceived’, then ultimately reconciled and overcome. Adorno’s leaps at this point are not clear, but returning to the distinction between cognition and perception, arts ‘cognitive character becomes radical in that moment’. It ‘is no longer content with the role of perception.’’

Antithesis: Schoenberg.

Tronn Overend: ‘Following Vassily Kandinsky’s review of Schoenberg’s paintings (not his music), Adorno enigmatically contends Schoenberg’s music also has ‘blotches’. These proclaim, as in a Rorschach, ‘…the id against the compositional will. They destroy the surface and are as little to be removed by subsequent correction as are the traces of blood in a fairy tale.’

Thesis: Stravinsky.

Tronn Overend: ‘When Adorno talks of space, this is not just a metaphor with painting, but linked to a conception of space/time. Time is of the essence of music. Adorno defines time in music from the Kantian point of view.’

Adorno and the ‘Philosophy of Modern Music’.

Tronn Overend: ‘Adorno selects the thesis and the antithesis of Stravinsky and Schoenberg as his case studies. In Kantian terms, they are in permanent opposition, never reconciliation. In other words, there can be no synthesis, because, as Schoenberg had remarked, ‘the middle road is the only one which does not lead to Rome.”‘

Immanuel Kant and the origin of the dialectic.

Tronn Overend: ‘The phenomena of the natural world are objects of experience. Things for us, can be known by us because they conform to our concepts. This is a point made much later by philosophers of science, such as Karl Popper. In his language, theoretical interpretations are logically prior to observations. Kant’s way of expressing this point can be seen as a paraphrase of Popper. ‘In natural science…there is endless conjecture, and certainty is not to be counted upon.’’

The Weimar Republic and critical theory.

Tronn Overend: ‘In 1925, [Adorno’s] life took an interesting turn. Having met Alban Berg in Frankfurt, he decided to become a student of musical composition, and follow him to Vienna. There, over three years, he became seduced by The Schoenberg Circle.’