Friday, November 11, 2011

Schoenbergiana II


Now I can continue with my letter to you almost twelve hours later; sometimes there're two reasons why writing becomes increasingly difficult, either it is that there's really nothing in your mind but an abyss or that there's just too much and you feel at risk of discovering what there's, just like Sontag used to say that writing a journal is not only having a blind, deaf and dumb confessor but it's also about creating yourself the way you like it best.

My case is usually the second, certainly now it is, and remember what Karen Blixen said, that there's no one as severely disciplined as the story-teller (and in this she's so much better than the theological Christology of Tolkien because she discovers not only the Gegenwart/Widerwart as a Marchenzeit but also because she unveils sensuality so completely) although I always wonder how a storyteller/enacter of the present can play appropriately with time. But let's go back to Schoenberg's radical transformation. As I mentioned in my last letter, there's this "new" concept of harmony in Schoenberg on which I didn't want to expand but I feel now ought to do so if only in passing because going into his whole grammar of music would take hundreds of pages: In his lecture from 1934 (a crucial exasperating time) he pointed out that there are two main problems in modern music - the problem of TONALITY and the problem of DISSONANCE (it is not only that both problems are interrelated but that with terminology from the end of the 19th century such as TONE COLOR, this can be applied also to poetry and painting) under the premise that there exist certain timeless relationships between constitutive elements of art and that there cannot be altered, but timeless here is only understood in the sense of the classical and not as outside time.

This is however a problem in European thought in general - in reflections about art we usually take Kant as a starting point even though he really had too little idea about art in material terms, and the problem of Kant goes beyond aesthetics because a general principle of logic (here understood as logic instead of metaphysics, post-Wolff and Leibniz) is that even though time exists, its phenomenal extension/surface is timeless; this is what Schoenberg endeavors to prove when he innocently asks the question of whether the functional relationships between objects (or in this case between tones) can become exhausted?

We soon come to discover that what we call harmony is nothing but an imposition to the masterful creator in charge of technical possibilities; even a Romantic imposition so to say, there concepts of harmony naturally unfold in time and are historically variable, no such concepts of order are pre-ordained. As for Romantic (synonym of both Kantian and Hegelian... perhaps a consequence of the rational tyranny of the Enlightenment, at least according to Adorno) remember what Stefan Zweig said about Kleist, that with the exception of him, a great deal of the German Romantic poets fell under the spell of Kant and left asides the free fall of what could have been the most prosperous momentum of European letters in order to take up rational aesthetics (the divide between sublime and sentimental) that forewent all possible lively poetic instinct and gave way to the most constricted creative space yet seen, even if only as a Widerstand. We're still trying to wear it off, the absurdities of rationality and bureaucracy, or to use the terminology of Hegel, the schism between pure Vernunft and mere Raisonnement (clever arguments, tautologies, wishful thinking, in the Phenomenology of the Spirit at least).

For Schoenberg tonality consisted in the art of combining tones in such successions and such harmonies or successions of harmonies so that the relation of all events to a fundamental tone is made possible. The heart of the matter in such "relation of all events" is that in the context of harmony then tonality is nothing but a rampant desire for unit/totality and this of course couldn't have happened without and outside the age of Reason.

The ambition of tonality (that today all education in classical music takes for the granted with the exception of some isolated daring musicians perhaps because just like it's the case with philosophy, they find it impossible to conceive of a notion/concept "after" the "tradition") would have never occurred to Paganini or to the medieval musicians but yet the results are less daring probably because the possibility of abstract notations was manifold times more limited than it would be at the height of modernity.

When Schoenberg begins to break down the grammar of music he begins with FORMS (such as sonata, minuet, scherzo, dance) that are composed out of simultaneous PHRASES and MOTIVES, phrases as the smallest structural units or musical molecules that consist of a number of integrated musical events that fall under a certain motive, both the smallest common multiple and the greatest common factor of a form; this should suffice for now and we shouldn't go into larger structures. The point here is that technically speaking, the unity/totality is an unnecessary adornment because the segments (phrases within the form) are autonomous, therefore coherence (what I called in my last letter internal structure of the parts) does not depend on tonality, reason for which motives are harder to follow in modern composition than in the classics but are by no means abstracted.

This is of course even in the classics already, a challenge to external logic, so that Schoenberg says: "It's not uninteresting that just in such instances there old masters use the name "Fantasia" and unconsciously tell us that fantasy, in contradistinction to logic, which everyone should be able follow, favors a lack of restraint and a freedom in the manner of expression, permissible in our day only perhaps in dreams; in dreams of future fulfillment; in dreams of a possibility of expression which has no regard for the perceptive faculties of a contemporary audience; where one might speak with kindred spirits in the language of intuition and know that one is understood if one use the speech of the imagination of fantasy".

He's speaking about An/schauung as a category superior to the spatial-temporal organization dictated by tonality. The philosophers are then possibly correct when they say that in Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg's atonality is not post-tonality but rather primordial, pre-tonal music; this observation though could be perfectly correct in the same sense that Rosenzweig wouldn't call his work post-Hegelian but in a way pre-philosophical. This is confirmed by Schoenberg himself when he writes in his "Harmony Treatise" that there's no such a thing as atonal or post-tonal music, he calls it PANTONAL.

Notwithstanding there's a problem with Schoenberg's observation and it lies precisely in his ideas about the spirit of music and its relationship to the temporary forms of our life that were very much challenged by Adorno (who was himself a student in Schoenberg's school and who I think also missed on some essential points): He adheres to the Platonic idea of art, to the sense of l'art pour l'art in which art is completely independent from earthly life, what as you know, I think it's quintessentially modern mistake (though in a way, unlike Mahler, he's a master in taking total distance from the world, what you and me are somewhat unable to do). He explores different dimensions in the way how music is performed and listened to. After him, relationships in music occur not only in terms of referential tone (in classical music, or better, in tonality, this is called a total center) but they're also measured by physical distance (interval) in a consistently delineated musical space (this is called system of scales degree).

This is somehow like the dreams in contradistinction to logic and the present skills of the contemporary audience he alluded to when speaking of "Fantasia" in the old masters; the lack of restraint and freedom in the manner of expression, as if speaking of a Messianic dream in art of which himself was part. Adorno criticizes this: "Absolute freedom in art... contradicts the abiding unfreedom of the social whole... The autonomy art gained... depended on the idea of humanity. As society grew less humane (means of technical reproduction!), art became less autonomous. These constituent elements of art that were suffused with the ideal of humanity have lost their force." This is of course a poignant criticism of any attempt at l'art pour l'art, but in a way it's more directed at Hegel than at Schoenberg, because of the obvious incompatibility between the Platonic idea and the abandonment of (figurative) harmony. Hegel's ultimate purpose was the conflated reconciliation of subject and object (and every reconciliation is also a consolation...) but after the obvious (modern) fracturing of both subject and object (alienation, reification, art as a commodity) a synthesis between style and idea is no longer adequate.

For this very reason Schoenberg (like Nietzsche's philosophy) didn't compose for the contemporary audience because he defies stylistic petrification and the appropriation of his music as an exchange commodity in the market (so that in this sense he refused to become a "professional"). The basis of truth in Thomism is the perfect correspondence between subject and object, even at the expense of there no longer being a complete fit. No matter the extent to which the ego as a subject ought to be reconciled with social existence, this is something that the 20th century made impossible and this impossibility has a special place and constitutes a turning point in the history of art.

The possible synthesis between the ego and concrete social existence is denied in society and in works of art too. The perfect accommodation of mind to the works of art is an illusion, just like freedom is to the subject, so that the absolute freedom of art is not only sinful but also pretentious. Adorno says: "The break between the substantiality of the ego and the overall structure of social existence, which denies the ego not merely external sanction but its necessary preconditions as well, has become too profound to permit works of art as synthesis (lest they lie). The subject (NOW) knows itself to be objective, removed from the contingency of mere existence, yet this knowledge which is true, is at the same time also untrue. The objectivity that inheres in the subject is barred from reconciliation with a state of things which negates that objective substance precisely by aiming at full recognition of it".

Something about the nature of modernity (and the success of its failure, the Hellerian disappointment) is compromised here when the social existence wants to eliminate the fragility inherent to the idea of humanity (from Horkheimer/Adorno's Dialectics of the Enlightenment); domination over nature (hence Benjamin's thoughts about the reproducibility of art) turns against the thinking subject himself; nothing is left of him but that eternally same (Cartesian) I THINK that must accompany all my ideas. Subject and object are rendered ineffectual.

The defiance of Schoenberg to produce art as exchange commodities is rooted in what Adorno would say, it's his view of tonality as style governed by (the tyranny) of reason. But the schism between idea and style remains, the idea as eidetic, as Platonic.


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