Theodor Adorno and jazz

Image: Steve Johnson


The Adornian implication with jazz has as a backdrop the criticism of its mercantile character

In order to understand Adorno's incursions into jazz, it is first necessary to remember that music, like art in general, for him, is the bearer of meaning, that it is a significant objectification.

In this first moment, we are in the perspective opened by Hegel. In your Aesthetics, Hegel regarded art as an organic part of the philosophical system and subordinate to it. In this way, the philosopher marks his opposition against those who see art as an immediate manifestation of undisciplined imagination, intuition and senses, a sphere, therefore, prior to reason. For the same reason, it also differs from the Kantian criticism that understands art as an “endless purpose”, a “disinterested interest”.

Philosophy and art, for Hegel, aim at the same end: truth. The cognitive character of art expresses, at the same time, a determined moment of the Spirit's self-development and the way in which man differentiates himself from nature, externalizes himself, making himself an object of contemplation. Art, in this way, carries a meaning that questions and challenges men. Art and philosophy walk together, after all they are manifestations of the Spirit.

The rational character of art, in Adorno, in addition to the Hegelian heritage, is supported by Weber's sociology, which places it within the general process of rationalization that characterizes Western culture, differentiating it from other cultures. This reference is accompanied by the theme of reification developed by Lukács in History and class consciousness.

Based on these references, Adorno interprets music as part of a changeable historical process, part integrated and subordinated to the general process of rationalization of the western world. With that, he takes the cognitive character of music to the forefront. Interestingly, the emotion that music produces in the listener is only referred to in a negative way, as a result of the manipulation of the human senses.

Na philosophy of new music he stated: “Until today, music has existed only as a product of the bourgeois class, which incorporates the whole of society as a contrast and image and registers it aesthetically at the same time. Feudalism never produced “its own” music, but always provided that of the urban bourgeoisie, while the proletariat, a mere object of total society's domination, was always prevented, by its own constitution or by its opposition to the system, from constituting itself. if in musical subject (…). At the present time, it is doubtful that there is music that is not bourgeois” (ADORNO: 1975, pp. 74-5) .

The diverse musics of the world, their diversities and their own characteristics are, thus, solemnly discarded in this restricted and, shall we say, prejudiced interpretation. Confined to the process of rationalization, Western music, in its history, has known key moments highlighted in Adorno's analysis.

The first moment, that of tonal music, was expressed through Carlo Jesualdo and, mainly, Bach. Against the interpretations that seek to link Bach to medieval theology, transforming him into an “ecclesiastical composer”, Adorno, resorting to history, recalled that Bach was a contemporary of the encyclopedists and that his compositions, such as the well-seasoned cloves, has “in the very title, (…) a declaration of belonging to the rationalization process”. In polyphony and counterpoint, the mathematical character of Bach's work would be proven.

The second moment is represented by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, composers who express the affirmative character of the vision of the world of a revolutionary bourgeoisie, at a time when the universal and the particular seemed to be reconciled in social reality and in music. The full triumph of tonality is something harmoniously adapted to the “objective spirit of the age”. Adorno turns to Weber to relate music to the bourgeois monetary economy, to which it subordinated itself: tonal music “evolved more and more into a moment of comparing everything with everything, for leveling and convention. The simplest sign of this is that the main chords of the tonal system can be placed in countless passages, as if they were forms of equivalence between the always identical and the always different” (ADORNO: 1986, p.151).

Next, Adorno refers to the new historical period that finds its musical expression in Wagner, signaling the decline of traditional music and anticipating the advent of Nazism. Here, there is no criticism based on the artistic material, but only a derivation from the musical content to the composer's anti-Semitism. Moreover, the generalizing nature of Adornian criticism does not do justice to Wagner labeled, without further ado, as “heir and murderer of romanticism”. The whole argument is based on the thesis of the “ideological decadence of the bourgeoisie”, a thesis repudiated by Adorno in his virulent criticism of Lukács' literary theory. Ferenc Fehér did not miss this reference to ideological decadence: “it is not without joy that I observe how Adorno, who launched himself into this savage critique of Lukács, has his own which places the limit at which capacitates de la bourgeoisie s'en vont exactly at the same point as Marx and Lukács, that is, after the defeat of the proletarian revolution in Paris in June 1848”. (FEHÉR: 1989, p. 108).

The modern world, moment of maximum rationalization, expresses itself musically, on the one hand, by the “restorative” tendency, represented by Stravinsky and, on the other, by the musical “progress” represented by the atonal music of Schönberg, which no longer resorts to the interaction between the general and the particular as Beethoven did, as he refuses totalization in the name of an aggressive fragmentation. In irreconcilable opposition to reality, the new art “welcomes contradictions so firmly that it is no longer possible to overcome them” (ADORNO: 1974, p. 101). The negative dialectic was fully realized in atonal music: without the possibility of synthesis, “the contradiction is interrupted” (p. 106). It represents “absolute divergence” – hence the rabid reaction it provokes in the listener attached to the safety of tonal music.

As can be seen, such music is no longer addressed “to the great bourgeois past”, but to the individual “abandoned to his isolation in the last bourgeois period”. Twelve-tone music has as its constitutive moment “the moment of absurdity or lack of sense” (pp. 101, 106, 52 and 103), a twisted way of trying to give meaning to a meaningless world. The change is radical. In earlier times, music was “communicable”: arising from the recitative style, it from the outset imitated spoken language. Now, on the contrary, she “renounces the deception of harmony, a deception that has become unsustainable in the face of a reality that is marching towards catastrophe. The isolation of the new radical music does not derive from its asocial content, since, through its only quality (...) it indicates social disorder, instead of volatizing it in the deception of a humanity understood as already realized” (...). “The inhumanity of art must overcome that of the world for the sake of man” (pp. 105-6).

Arriving at this point, we can understand Adorno's implication with jazz, a musical style that completely diverges from the canon that serves as a criterion for evaluating modern musical productions. There are three main moments in which he invests directly against jazz, but the barbs are present in several works, including the unfinished aesthetic theory.

In 1933, the Nazis in power banned radio stations from transmitting jazz, “decadent” music, the product of “miscegenation”. Adorno supported the measure, arguing that the “drastic verdict” “only confirms” a phenomenon that “objectively had already been decided a long time ago: the end of jazz itself” (ADORNO: 1996, p. 795). In his extensive biography, Stefan Müller-Doohm recalled Adorno's hesitations that he naively thought of remaining in Germany "at any cost", as he wrote in a letter. As for the Nazi decree prohibiting jazz, the biographer stated: “His comment on the prohibition of “black music” (artfremde musik) did not express a direct conformity, despite erroneously stating that, with the decree, sanction was post factum what had already happened from the musical point of view: “the end of jazz music itself”. According to the article, there was nothing in jazz to defend or save, since it had been in the process of dissolution for some time, fleeing to military marches and all kinds of folklore”. Jazz would disappear, according to him, from the scene of autonomous artistic production due to “stupidity”. With the spontaneous dissolution of jazz, “the influence of the black race on the music of the northern hemisphere is not eliminated, nor is cultural Bolshevism, but only an element of poor quality artistic activity” (MÜLLER-DOOHM: 2003, p. 256). ).

Despite the funeral announcement, jazz fortunately did not end... Exiled in Oxford, Adorno a few years later outlined a project to research jazz, which, due to lack of funds, was abandoned. Later on, he sent the essay “About jazz” to the Institute's magazine, signed with the suggestive pseudonym of Hektor Rottwailer.

Adorno's objective, understanding music as a social fact, was to explore the relationships between the internal structure of jazz and its social counterpart, that is, social contradictions. With this, the truth present in music would be revealed, its social determination, since it expresses objective social trends. This methodological approach bears certain similarities with the homology of structures in Lucien Goldmann, which is not surprising when we remember that both depart from the aesthetic ideas of the young Lukács.

As a musical production, jazz, for Adorno, is formed by “rigid stereotypes” and all its formal elements “are preformed in a completely abstract way by the capitalist demand for interchangeability”. Although he tries to disguise it, jazz is a commodity, governed like the others by the laws of the market. Unlike classical music, guided by an autonomous formal law, jazz is dominated by its function. Therefore, it is always the repetition of a model with superficial changes, it remains constantly the same pretending to be a novelty. For this reason, the figure of the composer joins the arranger and the editor to adapt the music to the needs of the market.

Being consumed by all classes, presenting itself as a mass product that would allegedly oppose the isolation of autonomous music, does not mean democratization, but, on the contrary, submission. Jazz does not represent the revolt of blacks, but their integration into the mechanisms of domination – “a confused parody of cultural imperialism”. The archaic-primitive music of the slaves became prefabricated no longer for the “savages”, but for the “domesticated servants”, which accentuates “the sado-masochistic traits of jazz”.

There is nothing liberating about jazz improvisation, as it represents one more “attempt to escape from the world of fetishized goods”: “with jazz, an impotent subjectivity rushes from the world of goods to the world of goods; the system leaves no escape”. Music born from the junction between military bands and ballroom dancing, jazz took the orchestra model from the first and, therefore, “adapts well to its use by fascism” (ADORNO: 2008, pp. 92, 93 and 102 ).

Twenty years later, the persistence of jazz that Adorno had condemned to death led him to write the essay Timeless fashion – about jazz. Jazz, he said, did not die for economic reasons: it became a commodity – “the paradoxical immortality of jazz has its foundation in economics” (ADORNO: 1998, p.121). While fashion recognizes its ephemerality, jazz intends to be timeless.

The technical analysis remains the same as in the previous essay: “jazz is music that combines the simplest formal, melodic, harmonic and metrical structure with a musical course basically constituted by somewhat disturbing syncopations, without this ever affecting the obstinate uniformity of the basic quaternary rhythm, which always remains identical” (p. 117). The “sameness of jazz”, says Adorno, does not seem to tire an audience subjected to monotonous stimuli.

The conformist character is also reiterated. The apparent rebelliousness is linked to the “disposition to blind obedience, in the same way that, according to analytical psychology, the sadomasochistic type rebels against the father figure, but even so secretly admires him, wants to be equal to him, but appreciates the hateful submission.” In the administered world, nothing escapes domination. For this reason, what presents itself as freedom in jazz, improvisation, is considered a “business area”. The routine we are subjected to “no longer leaves room for improvisation, and what appears to be spontaneous has been carefully studied with mechanical precision” (pp. 118 and 119).

Captured by commercial logic, jazz is just another expression of the cultural industry: a standardized article made for mass consumption, a product that is always the same, static, that does not know history or ruptures. Music and society thus converge in a homology. The timeless fashion of jazz “becomes a parable of a petrified society”, a society that avoids changing in order to “not collapse” (p. 118).

Alongside production and reproduction, its victims, consumers, accept and reinforce domination by accepting what is imposed on them and refusing any new element that escapes sameness. Thus, an iron circle is closed. Jazz fans who called themselves jitterbugs (beetles), in their desire to feel part of a community, surrender to servitude. Their behavior “resembles the animalistic seriousness of entourages in totalitarian states” (p.126). Resorting to psychoanalytic theory, Adorno states that the objective of jazz is the mechanical reproduction of a regressive moment, “a symbology of castration, whose meaning is perhaps the following: leave your pretended masculinity aside, let yourself be castrated, as proclaimed and mocks the eunuch sound of jazz band, because by doing so you will receive a reward, entry into a fraternity that shares with you the secret of impotence, to be revealed in the initiation rite” (p. 127).

The truculence of Adornian criticism did not go unanswered. One of the main scholars and popularizers of jazz in Germany, Joachim-Ernest Berendt, wrote a reply in which he sought to dismantle Adorno's arguments.

Berendt begins the text by stating that it is wrong to include jazz in commercial music. Jazz has always been music for minorities, a statement he will repeat at the opening of his encyclopedic work the jazz book. Nothing, therefore, connected to the cultural industry, since since the end of the 1930s, no jazz song has appeared on the list of greatest hits. Living on jazz was not easy: clarinetist Sidney Bechet, one of the musicians who most participated in recordings, “opened a tailor shop in a filthy street in Harlem, with which he earned, in his own words, “much more money than he would have achieved by playing”, and world-renowned saxophonist Stan Getz had to get a job with the NBC Symphony Orchestra to survive (BERENDET: 2014, p. 6). (The translator of the text, Frank Michael Carlos Kuehn, recalled that Getz only got rid of financial difficulties in the 60s thanks to the success of his recording of out of tune, by Tom Jobim).

With regard to technical analysis, Berendt observed that jazz is characterized by three elements: “improvisation, the way hot of its sound imposition and the overlapping of different rhythmic layers”. Armed with solid musical knowledge, the author develops each of these elements to oppose Adorno's arguments.

Let's stick with the first and most important. Unlike commercial music, in which the instrumentalist plays note by note what is written in the score, jazz is open to improvisation, absent for two centuries in European music. Against Adorno's assertion that the musicians memorized their improvisations meticulously, he asked: “Is he unaware that none of the great jazz musicians played the same solo twice? There are recordings by Louis Armstrong from the 1920s and Charlie Parker from the 1940s which, due to technical problems, consist of several versions made on the same day and later assembled on a single disc. Such recordings are the absolute proof that none of them repeated a single measure of what they had played in the previous recording of the same theme” (p. 9).

Berendt also analyzes the harmonic structure of jazz and its relations with impressionism, the rhythmic part and the expressive character of jazz, a genre in which, unlike traditional music, expression is more important than beauty (the way hot of sound expression).

In his brief rejoinder (ADORNO: 1998), Adorno reiterates his criticism, stating that the rhythmic procedure is the same in refined jazz and commercial music. As for harmony, he criticizes the “docility” and “conventional” character of those who return to Stravinsky and tonality thinking that this is modern, without having the ears to understand Schönberg's emancipated sonority. Finally, he once again asserts that jazz serves conformism because of its sadomasochistic character. The integration of the individual into the collective, his submission to the regularity of the rhythm, the humiliation of black musicians presented to the jazz public as “eccentric clowns”, etc.

Adorno's sweeping verdict, contrary to his methodological claims in defense of historical analysis and immanent study, froze jazz at a passing moment in its evolution – but even there, the analysis is misguided. As a result of miscegenation, jazz from its origins was marked by the ability to receive the most different influences. In addition to African rhythms and harmonies inspired by French impressionism, he behaved like an ever-changing chameleon, merging with various forms of musical expression. Berendt and Huesmann, in the jazz book, carefully explore the musical interchange in jazz. The authors say: “Until the time of cool jazz, jazz musicians tasted and explored practically everything they could in the history of European music between the Baroque and Stockhausen” (BERENDET & HUESMANN: 2004, p. 48). Afterwards, the conversion of many black musicians to Islam incorporated music made in Arab countries, not to mention the influences of music made in India and Spain (flamenco). Finally, from the 60s onwards, jazz, suffocated by the massive success of rock, found a moment of success when it met bossa nova.

Who knew how to make good use of Berendt's research (periodically updated by Huesmann) was the historian Eric Hobsbawn. Yours Jazz social history classifies the genre as “one of the most significant phenomena of world culture in the XNUMXth century”, and points out as its basic characteristics: the use of scales originating in Africa that are not used in classical music, such as, for example, the scale Blue, with the third and seventh diminished (flattened); the rhythm; the use of unusual instruments in European music; the creation of a specific repertoire; improvisation, which makes jazz a music of performers, subordinating everything to the individuality of the musician – a music “that is not reproduced, it exists only at the moment of creation” (HOBSBAWN: 2009, p. 149).

For blacks, jazz symbolizes identity affirmation, protest and revolt ranging from “a primitive and emotional black racism” to “more consequential political forms” (p. 225-6).

Drawing on research carried out during the period studied by Adorno, when jazz was primarily dance music, Hobsbawn made the following comment about fans of the genre: “They stand at the side of the stage, immersed in the music, nodding, smiling at each other. the others…”. Or again: “jazz, for the true fan, is not something to be listened to, it must be analyzed, studied and discussed. The space par excellence, for the fan, is not the theater, bar, or jazz club, but someone's living room, in which a group of young people play records for each other, repeating the most important passages until they wear out. , discussing and comparing…” (p. 242, 243 and 244).

The Adornian implication with jazz has as its backdrop the criticism of its mercantile character. It is from there that jazz is opposed to “serious” art. If this is an endless end, existing by itself and for itself; jazz, on the other hand, exists for something else, like exchange value.


Music or Songs?

There are many enemies affected by Adorno's virulent criticism. Among jazz musicians, Gershwin, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong; in classical music, Wagner, Toscanini, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Dvórak; in philosophy, Lukács, Sartre, Heidegger; in the cinema, Chaplin; in philosophy and literature, Lukács, Sartre, Brecht, Hemingway, Dublin, TS Eliot, , Oscar Wilde, Rilke, among many others.

It is true that some bilious judgments were later smoothed over. Chaplin, for example, was no longer seen as a representative of “American grotesque cinema” and the technical qualities of clarinetist Benny Goodman were highlighted. The most remembered case is the reassessment of cinema, made when Adorno returned to Germany (ADORNO: 2021). These topic retreats, however, do not go much further, as they would compromise the aesthetic theory itself.

However, the strength of Adorno's essay contrasts with the attempts to elaborate a comprehensive theory, as intended by Dialectic of Enlightenment, negative dialectic and aesthetic theory. In these works, the suffering, twisted and tangled writing contrasts with the overwhelming strength of the essays in its elegant beauty. In theoretical works, Adorno “walks in circles”, returning to themes that continually reappear without ever being clarified. István Mészarós, irritated by what he called “inconsistencies” stated: “Adorno's systematic books (such as negative dialectic e aesthetic theory) are fragmentary, in the sense that it does not matter where you start reading them, in what order you continue and at what particular point you end the reading. These books leave the reader with the impression not only of having read something not unfinished, but, in a theoretical sense, even not started”. (MÉSZARÓS: 1996, p. 143).

Part of this deficit is due, ironically, to the incorporation of the “refunctionalization” technique created by his enemy Brecht and retaken by Benjamin. Like montage, refunctionalization groups disparate concepts taken from different authors and their contexts, bringing them together and making them “work” in a new order. The contradiction that sometimes arises between the theorizing of negative dialectics and the practice expressed in the essays has a paralyzing effect on Adorno's thinking and makes him go around in circles. As someone who set out to think against thinking itself, Adorno is fully aware of the contradiction, but he is powerless to overcome it.

There is also another complicating and paralyzing element in Adorno's thought: the writing of the philosopher-musician who set out to “think with his ears”. The “twelve-tone philosophy” in pursuing the progress of modernist music distanced Adorno from the classical text cultivated by philosophy. Therefore, in Adorno, says Jameson, “there will be no conceptual events, “arguments” of the traditional type that lead to a climax of truth; the text will become an infinite variation in which everything is recapitulated all the time; closure, finally, will take place only when all possible variations have been exhausted” (JAMESON: 1996, p. 88). This going around in circles is not without inconsistencies. Adorno, anticipating criticism, used to say that his punctual statements could only be well understood when referred to the set of his thought, known to be unsystematic.

The utopianism present on the horizons of his thought had one of its supports in the artistic avant-garde, which, however, did not resist time. Called to protest against the rational order, the vanguard, however, lost its cognitive function and ended up condemned to impotence. The “aging of music” marks a terminal point in the history of music (ADORNO: 2009).

Here is the question: what song are we talking about? For Adorno, it is, solely and exclusively, European music. A similar position was defended by Otto Maria Carpeaux, who, however, knew how to delimit his object. European music, according to him, had its beginnings in Gregorian plainchant, prior to tonal music, which, in turn, gave rise to atonalism, dodecaphonism and serialism. These modern forms accompanied the mutations and catastrophes of the first half of the 287th century. It is, therefore, something that expresses the resistance of artists, a phenomenon that is not restricted to music: “Polytonalism, atonalism and similar techniques correspond to the abandonment of perspective by painters, after Picasso, and the relativism of the natural sciences. Composition in series corresponds to the rationalization of subconscious movements in the interior monologue, through the resources of “psychologies in depth”. Polyrhythm, which threatens to destroy the homogeneity of musical movement, corresponds to the dissociation of personality in Proust's novel and Pirandello's theater. The return to linear polyphony corresponds to attempts at simultaneism in literature. The use of ancient musical structures for modern purposes corresponds to functional architecture. The resurgence of baroque, pre-classical forms corresponds to historicism in philosophy and sociology. “New music” is not the arbitrary whim of a few weirdos or snobs. It is the true reflection of reality” ( CARPEAUX: s/d, p. 8-XNUMX) .

It is certainly not a whim, but a limit, the epilogue of a story that began in the 50th century to meet a terminal crisis in the XNUMXs. Understood this way, says Carpeaux, this music is a “specific phenomenon of Western civilization”. We are here, both in Adorno and in Carpeaux, in front of the Weberian vision that attributes to rationality the specific characteristic of Western culture. Electronic music and concrete music have nothing in common with what came before. Thus, Carpeaux concludes his history of music by stating: "the subject of the present book is therefore closed". The critic's common sense accurately delimited his object, which does not happen with Adorno, who accepts the thesis of “ideological decay” and takes twelve-tone music as an evaluative reference to, with it, criticize all the songs that escape this framework. Note that I used the plural of music to escape this problematic evolutionary-rational line, as the musical phenomenon should not be restricted to a normative model that despises the coexistence of multiple musical manifestations.

In this sense, José Miguel Wisnik observed that Western music favored “melodic heights” to the detriment of the pulse that was dominant in modal music, prior to tonality. Modern popular music (jazz, rock, electronic music, etc.) has regained the forgotten dominance of the pulse. Therefore, he states “It is about interpreting this displacement, which can be read not only as a kind of final “anomaly” that disturbs the good progress of the erudite musical tradition, but as the term (or the link) of a process that is contained in it from its origins”. Because of this synchrony, Wisnik proposes a history of sounds that would allow “approximating apparently distant and incompatible languages” (WISNIK: 1989, p. 11).

In Adorno's linear vision, avant-garde music, the last representative of rational music, received the impossible mission of saving culture – a mission that should fall to politics. She, however, aged prematurely and became another instrument of repression.

This turnaround in the trajectory of the avant-garde is the result of the insurmountable tension in Adorn's thought between a conception of what the aesthetic should be, given over to the Weberian process of increasing rationalization, and the objective examination, the immanent analysis of the work. When this is done in rehearsals, Adorno hits bright spots. But against this conspire the negative dialectic and the aesthetic theory linked to it.

How to get out of this impasse? What would be the proposals of critical theory? Returning to Germany, Adorno participated in debates at radio stations presenting proposals for a “democratic pedagogy” or “enlightenment pedagogy”, urging radio programmers to raise the cultural level of listeners and defending educational television and the need to “teach viewers watching television”, as can be read in the texts of Education and Emancipation.

These gaps, however, could not go much further, as they would compromise the theoretical framework and cause cracks that would make the monolith disintegrate. And it should be added: the sketched initiatives are too fragile to change the functioning of the world machine, but they tension the “map” that until then oppressed them.

*Celso Frederico is a retired senior professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Essays on Marxism and Culture (Morula).



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FEHÉR, Ferenc. “Music and rationality”, in FEHÉR, Ferenc and HELLER, Agnes. Postmodernity policies (Barcelona: Peninsula, 1989).

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