Thursday, February 21, 2008

un-Hooked on Classics: Beethoven and the Higher Disco after Adorno

Professor Robert Walker from School of English, Media and Performing arts University of NSW, Sydney responds to Mark Bahnisch's opinion piece in The Australian 'Fable of the Cultural Elite'.

Walker isn't interested in the political and social context into which Bahnisch's essay is situated: the current round of culture wars that are in play, albeit with less vigour than before the ALP victory last November, and how battles in these wars turn around issues of public funding, the politics of recognition and redistribution, and History and English curricula. Walker's riposte instead contents itself by rehearsing the Kantian discourse of judgement of the sublime: the discourse which Pierre Bourdieu has done so much to historicise and to analyse for its use in the reproduction of stratified social classes. Walker will have none of this sociological infection invading the religious experience of sophisticated art: the sort of art that only an emotionally, intellectually, musically and aesthetically educated, and thereby sophisticated, person is capable of understanding and appreciating. Not the three-minute pop song (philistine, rubbish, appealing to the base emotions), but rather a Beethoven symphony.

I have some sympathy for Walker's view. I'm interested in literary and musical form, too. But Walker's Adorno-esque disdain for 'uneducated-art' stops short in a number of ways. Walker's elitism is ignorant of the sociology of form.

An example. Adorno's sociology of musical form saw him support Schoenberg's modernist innovations in advancing musical form into a break with harmony and tonality: twelve tone music. How an audience heard this music would, of course depend on how they heard the tonal music of Beethoven. That said, Adorno wasn't content to talk of the sophistication and education of the experience of Schoenberg's performances (where Walker ends his formal-cultural lessons). For Adorno the break with tonality marks a break with the logics of commodity exchange and reificiation.

Now the point here is that there is a homology established between musical and social forms, and that the dominant nexus (harmony and commodity exchange) is broken by a new organising logic: twelve-tone music. But while Adorno's sociology of musical form is exemplary it is only one version of how the logic and order of harmony and tonality in musical form is broken with.

Robert Fink has written, in the shadow of Adorno (the new musicology), about the emergence of pulse-pattern-minimalism music: Steve Reich's compositions, for example. Fink's argument, which sits alongside that of Jacques Attali's in Noise: the political economy of music, is that Reich's music is a form in which we can think the media sublime. The way Fink puts this is to argue that Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians, like Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's "Love to love you baby", are both musical performances of a refiguring of the desires that advertising's repetitions play through us.

Anyone that has heard that extra-diegetic musical section (music that is incidental to the action) in an American sit-com, or movie, even in Australian movies and dramas, where mallett instruments (vibraphones, xylophones etc) play a motiff that is counterpointed and repeated (often signifying the repetition of everyday cyclic time, and often what is experienced in a city-office job) will have heard the after-echoes of Reich's piece. This form has entered popular culture and it's condescending for Walker to invoke the elitism of his Kantian judgement while not recognising that we use the forms of Reich's, and let's admit it, disco's, music to make sense of a world in which media repetition is constantly shaping our desires.

Another break with tonality is that which arises out of the drone-noise movement, of which John Cale's mentor, Lamonte Young, was a practitioner. Cale, trained as a classical viola player, moved into the Andy Warhol Factory orbit in the mid 1960s, joining up with Lou Reed and formed the popart band the Velvet Underground. While the VU did employ pulse pattern music ("Waiting for my Man") it was Cale's electrified viola drones, overdriven valve amplifier noise, that has had such a lasting influence on popular music. The drone and noise, also break with the tonality which Walker's examplar - Beethoven - would, on this (the post-Adorno sociology of musical form) account, be locked into. And the drone, the electrified noise, are now commonplaces of popular music.

That we make sense of the contemporary world through the forms of popular music that we experience through TV shows, as disco and its afterwards, as the electrified noises and drones of a million pop songs, doesn't mean that we cannot experience the sublime. It's just that unlike Walker, we learnt how to live with, sometimes resist, sometimes negate and get around the media and commmodity sublimes of the contemporary world by taking these forms and putting them to work in our everyday lives. To call us lovers of the pop sublime uneducated, philistine, capable of only appreciating the *spits* music of base instincts is precisely the performance of distinction that Bourdieu exposed as deelpy imbricated in class stratification.
Loosen up Professor: there's not much you can do for the barbarians have long ago moved into the house of fine music and locking the gate won't stop us from getting out.

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