SIENA, November 21-23 2019



The Mediations of Music: Theodor W. Adorno’s Critical Musicology today

Conception: Gianmario Borio

Advisory Board: Stefano Jacoviello, Nicola Sani, Stefano Velotti


SESSION  1: Music in the Electronic Age


Dietrich Mersch
’Music is the Logic of Judgmentless Synthesis’ . Adorno On ‘Musical Language’

 The starting point of my consideration is an extended concept of medium in terms of mediation. I understand music and musical composition of a medium in itself, not rather mediated by material, instruments, techniques, but a mediation of musical thought. Adorno characterizes the peculiarity of musical (as well as aesthetic) thought as language in terms of a “judgmentless synthesis”. According to Kant, ‘synthesis’ is the property of judgment in general; a ‘judgmentless synthesis’, hence, is therefore a contradiction in terms. However, for Adorno, the specificity of music is, that it functions like a language without being language: it articulates something or gives understanding without making a statement or trying to achieve comprehensibility. The lecture is dedicated to the topicality of this formulation in relation to a general theory of art that does not see the epistemic power of art in language, but in a ‘thinking of its own right and validity’ that proves to be related to philosophical questioning without formulating philosophical thoughts in a proper sense.

Esteban Buch
Beyond Mediation 

Mediation has been a keyword of the sociology of music of the last decades, allowing for new appraisals of the agency of music, and of the role of technical and social intermediaries between producer and receptor. In France, Antoine Hennion’s 1993 La passion musicale proposed a “sociology of mediation” that stressed the coproduction of music through the attachments of its amateurs, thus challenging Bourdieu’s sociology of distinction, and its alleged reduction of artworks to social markers. In English-speaking music studies, Georgina Born’s 2005 article “On musical mediation” invited to see music as “a medium that destabilizes some of our most cherished dualisms concerning the separation not only of subject from object, but present from past, individual from collectivity, the authentic from the artificial, and production from reception”, giving programmatic impetus to Latour’s actor-network theory and Gell’s anthropology of art. Yet throughout most of its methodological applications, the concept of mediation remained conspicuously polysemic and relatively ill-defined, and that was arguably one of the reasons of its having such a heuristic power in the first place.

Theodor W. Adorno’s name was not absent from that literature. Indeed, Born’s article begins by calling to put his ideas to the test through empirical research. Yet, Adorno’s own approach to mediation processes was not the object of systematic scrutiny. This might have allowed for a useful clarification, less as a normative reference than because the later semantic fluctuations of the term can often be traced back to his writings. Starting in the late 1930s, the role of technological and social mediations was addressed in Current of Music and in his writings on the cultural industry, thus counting as a precedent to ANT-inspired approaches. In his 1962 Introduction to the sociology of music, though, mediation is rather a Hegelian Vermittlung between music and society, allowing for music works paradoxically reflecting society’s contradictions to the very extent that they are autonomous from its determinations.

This paper will highlight some of these conceptual tensions, before pointing out the simultaneous existence, in Adorno’s oeuvre, of hints of a sociology of music based on the opposite of mediation, namely immediacy. This happens in two different, complementary ways. On the one hand, Adorno’s critical appraisal of jazz makes of it a direct sonic image of sex. In his 1938 article Über jazz he claims that “the rhythm of the gait is similar to the rhythm of sexual intercourse”, and views syncope as “plainly a ‘coming-too- early,’ just as anxiety leads to premature orgasm”. On the other hand, in several occasions Adorno speaks of Schoenberg’s music as encapsulating Angst by eschewing representation, and allowing for the perception of the “subcutaneous”. This connects with his “after Auschwitz” claim that in A Survivor from Warsaw the composer “suspends the aesthetic sphere through the recollection of experiences which are inaccessible to art”. Thus, the Freudian opposition between Eros and Thanatos arguably articulates Adorno’s conceptual alternatives to mediation, in a way perhaps as potentially heuristic for contemporary research as mediation once was.

Michela Garda
Re-reading Adorno in the 21st Century

In the aftermath of the English translations of Adorno’s works, the concept of mediation marked a turning point in the sociology of music. From Antoine Hennion to Tia DeNora and Georgina Born, the task of moving beyond Adorno for rethinking music sociology was accomplished through a reinterpretation of this cornerstone of his thought. Mediation has been severed from Hegelian and Marxist dialectics and exposed to, as well as recast into conceptual frameworks coming from different philosophical and sociological perspectives: Latour’s ANT, Gell’s anthropology, DeLanda’s assemblage theory, to mention only the most relevant reference points.  Adorno’s thought has, therefore, receded into the background of the sociological discussion and been considered an outdated representative of the old paradigm of autonomous music, metaphysical thought and pessimistic humanism. Questions of aesthetics, subjectivity, and ideology, however, are still on the shortlist of unresolved issues in Born’s (2019) account of mediation theories.

Rereading Current of Music about a quarter of a century after Hennion’s La passione musicale (1993), invites us to reconsider Adorno’s stance in the light of two central issues of the post-adornian discussion on mediation: the performative character of music, the fact that “it makes things happen” and transforms its listeners, along with the equal relationship between human and non-human actors.   While most of the texts collected in Current of Music build on an apparent opposition between the subject in the pre-technological era, defined in terms of face, voice, and person and the anonymous, ubiquitous, authoritarian subject of technological reproduction, Adorno’s approach to the problem of technological mediation aims to bypass this opposition, while retaining an historically situated paradigm of the work of art in which normative features are evacuated through the means of negative dialectics. In two passages from Radio Physiognomics and Analytical Study of the NBC Music Appreciation Hour, respectively, Adorno suggests an unexpected, performative functions of live music, claiming that music in the pre-technological era “was on the order of prayer and play” while offering a metaphorical construction of the archetypal child experience of being struck by music. It raises the question about the destiny of art in the technological and digital era: should music agency be defined in terms of building communities and constructing identities or can the performative potentiality of music still advocate, in new forms, the possibility to build a world, with its cognitive as well as critical implications? Adorno’s paradoxical definition of technological mediation, with its inextricable interrelationships between disturbing absence and alleged presence is still in need of being examined, beyond the experience of the radio’s authoritarian voice, from which it originated.

SESSION 2: Notation and Performance

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson
Some Problems with Adorno’s ‘True Interpretation’ 

The understandable tendency to see Adorno as politically a progressive and aesthetically a modernist has disguised the conservatism of his taste in musical performance, a taste he was unable to reconcile with his belief in a broadly ‘structural’ understanding of scores. His need to theorise an essence, independent of and prior to performance, created further obstacles (as it often does in music theory and philosophy). And his belief that performance can offer many different realisations of that essence conflicted with his strong sense that he himself knew so exactly how it should sound that he could express that in rules.

Rather than seeking to theorise an ideal relationship between composition and performance, in which the work emerges, it may be more productive to use the constant change in performance style—and consequently in the nature of music arising from scores (which Adorno acknowledged)—to question (with some support from Lyotard) both works and the ideology that uses claims about them as a means to control and commodify performance interpretation. An examination of performance policing reveals a fascistic quasi-religious system, purporting to produce Utopian experiences, which infantilises performers in order to minimise costs and responsibilities, providing a comfortable home for exploitation and structural prejudice, while imposing high levels of mental and physical ill-health on performers for which the system prevents a cure. In these senses classical music performance culture reflects—perhaps more accurately and fully than in Adorno’s composition-based model—the western neoliberal culture that classical music performs.

Alessandro Cecchi
Against immediacy: A pragmatic approach to the text/performance relation in music

Some recent musicological paradigms propose that an almost unbridgeable hiatus exists between music as text and music as performance. The emphasis of the gap is presented as a reaction against textualist positions that would have permeated the modernist thought and practice. In this respect Adorno’s theory of musical reproduction has become a main target of criticism. In a recent article I have observed that the main flaw of Adorno’s theory is the attempt to consider the text/performance relation as based on imitation. In this paper I will show that the problem is not text, which instead may offer a way out of the reproduction paradigm, especially if one envisages the text/performance relation in terms of that between rules, laws or norms on the one hand and their enactment as and through behaviours on the other. Since written legal norms and unwritten social norms share more than they differ when norm-regulated behaviours are considered, I will extend the text/performance paradigm to unwritten music. Enactment implies, actually, a series of mediations which are relevant to put into question immediacy as a central feature of imitation. In this respect, scripting as creative elaboration of performance schemas will prove to be a key factor of mediation in music. Scripts are not necessarily written but establish behavioural patterns through repetition/habituation – rehearsals are a case in point. Conversely, the use and presence of written scores during performance need not be ignored. I will propose to discuss their regulative and normative aspects alongside their materiality and performativity.

Andreas Meyer
Jedes Notenzeichen … ein Schlag”. Rethinking Adorno’s critique of notation

At first glance, Adorno‘s notes on a “Theory of Musical Reproduction” correspond entirely to Arnold Schoenberg’s position of a radical texttreue, according to which there is little to interpret in Western art music (rather, as Schoenberg formulates drastically, one must “force the musicians to play what is written in the notes”). On the other hand, Adorno’s text (as edited by Henri Lonitz in 2001) offers a perspective of radical critique on notation that is usually overlooked. For Adorno (in a note conceived in 1946) notation is regulation, constraint, repression, aimed against spontaneity and lively transmission. At times he sounds like an advocate of “free improvisation” or “music as performance”. Seen from today, Adorno’s weakness is not so much the “reification” of musical texts – as he would say – but instead the narrowness of the repertoire in question and his hierarchical understanding of authorship. Touching on examples from different times and cultures, the lecture attempts to rethink Adorno’s critique of notation in order to provide a more flexible and historically differentiated picture of “text”, “work”, and “performance”.

SESSION 3: Music on Screen

James Buhler
Composing for the Films in the Age of Digital Media

 Most composition for media is today executed through digital audio workstations (DAWs) using virtual instruments ranging from software synthesizers and effects plug-ins to sampled drums, guitars, choirs, and even full symphony orchestras, which are then sometimes replaced with live musicians for the final recording. Composing for digital media certainly has its hardened conventions and bad habits, and the current state of the industry is ripe for the kind of critique Adorno and Eisler applied to the production of music in Hollywood. This paper takes up the critique from Composing for the Films and assesses its relevance for the contemporary situation of composing for digital media.

Lydia Goehr
Instrumentalizing Music for the Film: Pianos, Harps, and Fiddles in Backbreaking Plays of Social Labor

My talk is about the role in mostly early cinema of instruments as tools of reflection on social labor. I look at their breakage and rescue from destruction, their substitution and reformation, their performance and non-performance. Instruments regarded allegorically as persons assume their parts in life and death stunts often under the condition of comedy. I frame my discussion, as suggested by my title, by reference to Adorno and Eisler’s treatise on composing for the film. What, I ask, remains of the dialect between play and labor today given the technological changes of mediums and means? Can music retain its autonomy in film, and why this must be a different question than that posed for opera? But what then of opera in film, and does spending another night at the opera help us think through these issues today? 

Guido Heldt
New Prejudices and Bad Habits

Still the best known bit of Theodor Adorno and Hanns Eisler’s Composing for the Films is its first chapter, ‘Prejudices and Bad Habits’. A pointed and polemical calling card for the book’s engaged approach to film music as a part of the (US-American) culture industry, it worked so well because it shone a torchlight onto film music practices anyone who had been to the cinema in the 1930s and 1940s would have immediately recognised. The book has more subtle arguments to make, but not more memorable ones.

Much has changed since the book was published in 1947: in the workings of the film (and film music) industry, and in the range of musics that have come into the horizon of film. Some of Adorno and Eisler’s bad habits have persisted, others have faded (some of them were already out of date when the book came out), but a different film and film music industry, different genre landscape and stylistic range means that many new ones have emerged. My paper tries, very provisionally, to suggest a few features of this new landscape of prejudices and bad habits, and as Adorno and Eisler, I will look at films from roughly the last 20 years.

What has changed as well is the discourse about film music. In its day, Composing for the Films was a monolith in the desert; now, we are surrounded by a plethora of conversations about film music (and a lot of talking at cross purposes), in academia, film and music journalism, and in the innumerable fora of the internet. Adorno and Eisler had an idiosyncratic political and aesthetic perspective on their subject. Any attempt to revisit their symptomatology under today’s conditions needs not just to consider the film scores, but also the range of voices and perspectives, and to ask how we can identify new prejudices and bad habits.

 The Universe of Recorded Music


Ralf von Appen
‚On Popular Music‘ – Put in Relation To 2019’s Chart Hits

Re-reading Adorno’s ‚On Popular Music’, two main points sparked my interest and I would like to discuss them in my talk:
First, it is obvious that Adorno is not giving any empirical evidence regarding the proclaimed structure and function of popular music. From the perspective of the year 2019, I would like to review his fundamental criticisms of standardization and pseudo-individualization with a corpus analysis of current mainstream hits, drawing on examples by Drake, Travis Scott or Marshmello. Does it (still) hold true that successful pop songs follow a few established formal and harmonic standards and that deviations from those must be interpreted as pseudo-individualization? Does it still follow that popular music is “pre-digested”, requires no effort from the listener, and is „antagonistic to the ideal to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal society”?

Second, Adorno denies the possibility that popular songs can have progressive political significance („Those who ask for a song of social significance ask for it through a medium which deprives it of social significance. The uses of inexorable popular music media is repressive per se”). I will discuss the position that form is more important than lyrical content considering examples from 20th and 21st Century popular music.

Vincenzo Caporaletti
Adorno and the Jazz: an Audiotactile Perspective

Adorno’s irrevocable aesthetic anathema towards jazz remains one of the most crucial critical problems, not only with regard to the exegesis of Adornian thought. The particular authoritativeness of the source from which this axiological devaluation came, and its totalizing extent, has exacerbated even more the reactions of the advocates of one of the most significant experiences of the musical creation of the 20th century. Where there has been no open and hostile rejection of the Adornian theses, many attempts has been made, from time to time, to rationalize this critical censorship by resorting to justifying arguments, such as a lack of knowledge of “real” jazz, and therefore of artistic developments after the 1950s, or a misunderstanding of jazz with German popular music of the Twenties, or even an insufficient awareness of the specificity of the jazz musical language. These observations, partly admitted by Adorno himself, do not, however, seem to fully grasp the philosophical sense of Adornian criticism of jazz, which appears exorbitant from – and refractory to – such empirical issues. In this talk, apart from considerations on stylistic aspects, I will instead try to highlight the intrinsic cogency of Adornian positions against jazz, identifying the deep motivations connected to the core of his philosophical conception. At the same time, precisely in relation to these theoretical knots, the conditions for a possible aesthetic retrieval of the historical experience of jazz will be verified, in the light of the very categories of the Adorno’s philosophy and relating the investigation of his essays on jazz to my theory of audiotactile music.

Makis Solomos
“To become transformed into an insect, man needs that energy which might possibly achieve his transformation into a man”. Adorno, the domination of nature and the ecology of sound 

The final sentence of Adorno’s “On Popular Music” (“To become transformed into an insect…”) can be read in two ways. On the one hand, it is obviously ironic, which seems to confirm his final critique of popular music that takes the example of jitterbug dance. But if we take it literally, it could refer to the “becoming-animal” of music, as thought by Deleuze and Guattari (1980); indeed, we know today (see Deborah Cook, 2011) that Adorno’s thinking has something in common with the environmental movement and even with Arne Næss’ deep ecology. In my paper, it is with this second reading in mind that I will analyze one of Adorno’s most severe criticisms of popular music: its superficial and inorganic nature, from which derives its fetish character. This criticism culminates (notably in Adorno, 1938) in the denunciation of the attraction of popular music for sound, timbre, the instrument; and it is interesting to note that, more than twenty years later, Adorno (1961) will resume the same denunciation, but this time with regard to the “new music” of the time. As today’s music has become a sound-based art (see M. Solomos, 2013, 2020), it would be interesting to take this criticism not from a reactionary perspective (and to see in Adorno the defender of a German elitist culture), but from a decidedly ecological perspective, aimed at restoring the primacy of relationships – relationships of sound to the natural, social or mental environment. 

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