Friday, November 13, 2009

Adorno on Highbrow/Lowbrow

A passage from a 1959 essay by Adorno on Schreker that problematizes the commonly held view that Adorno hated jazz, or hated for the reasons people think he did, namely, that he was a stuffy old German. From page 136 of my copy of Quasi una Fantasia (I've broken up the paragraph for ease of online reading):

The analogy with the 'mixed drink' which is sometimes applied rather blusteringly to jazz, fits Schreker's elixir exactly. They shimmer: the individual detail lights up for an instant and then subsides into the mass where it can no longer be distinguished, and barely even felt - the dripping of the harp, solo violins in a high register, a clarinet doubled by a celeste or horns dispossessed of their own weightiness. The association with jazz may give us a clue to the otherwise scarcely comprehensible fact that a famous composer should have been able to disappear in so short a time, not just from public consciousness, but that he should be buried by oblivion as if beneath a heavy stone.

The fermentations of the Schreker sound have been entirely absorbed by light music, whether because its matadors learned a thing or two from Schreker, or because his manner of simply sampling sounds is one which was itself moving in the direction of popular music and the latter spontaneously produced effects of the kind which had very different intentions in him.

But in the meantime the sharp dichotomy between highbrow and lowbrow music has been erected by the administrators of musical culture into a fetish which neither side may question. In consequence the guardians of highbrow music are shy of sounds that have found a home in lowbrow music and might discredit the lucrative sanctity of the highbrow variety, while the fanatical supporters of lowbrow music wax indignant at the mere suggestion that their music could have claims as art.

Yet Schreker cherished lofty ambitions for his confections. The intoxication they induce conjures up the vision of some lukewarm, chaotic effusion, like something from the age of courtesans. It is music without firm definition of any sort. It resists as if it were reification itself. It is art which resents its own purely musical materials, as if they were amusical, alien to art as such. It is this unruliness and nothing else that links Schreker with the avant-garde of modernism.

Does this sound like an Adorno who hated jazz? Is it just me or is he attempting to make a kind of aesthetic connection between Schreker's music and jazz?

That being said, his comment about the highbrow/lowbrow distinction as being one that has been "erected by the administrators of music culture" seems right in line with what I've been getting in recently, as well as why Joshua Glenn has made Adorno a "hilo hero" over at his site. The other great thing about this Schreker essay, as well as many of the others in Quasi una Fantasia, is that they are generally positive, which goes against the grain of Adorno as curmudgeon.

(My own pet theory for the darkness of his and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Englightenment - Benjamin was dead and the war raged on. What more does one need?)

The easiest way to put it is that Adorno didn't like industry. Unless one just admits that most jazz is industrial (his second essay in Quasi una Fantasia analyses "commodity music", and it's mostly what one would call "classical" music.

I am beginning to wonder if much of the criticism of Adorno's stance really just comes down to different post-war reactions to the war. Wouldn't be the first time...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Andrew, throughout your blog you have links to "". Please update them all (when you have time!) to "".

All file names remain the same. (My prior domain name was stolen by a registrar.)