Defending Adorno from his own devotees…

… or what happens when you cross the streams? My good friend Julio emailed me this: I’d come across Richard Taruskin before, many years ago, and been very taken with his work (via an essay on Stravinsky, neo-classicism, recording technology, the idea of authenticity and the Early Music movement, if I’m remembering correctly across nearly 30 years) — and more recently Seth had piqued my interest all over again, from a very different direction. Late on New Year’s Eve, in a pub in King’s Cross, Julio mentioned to me that this 2007 piece discussed Richard Meltzer, and was visibly entertained by how confused and over-excited I got.

Adding: I say the piece discusses Meltzer, but (I’m a bit disappointed to have to note) really all it does is mention him. He’s introduced as a symptom of the failure of the critical conversation round classical music and the compositional avant-garde to interest or excite the best minds of the 60s generation. But Taruskin doesn’t give much sense of what might be interesting about Meltzer as a writer or thinker, which is a pity — or (which is surely relevant) that he was clearly in the process of wriggling out from under Hegel and Quine (both mentioned at best fleetingly in book-version of The Aesthetics of Rock; Quine just once, in the same sentence as one of the Hegels). Over to Frank Kogan for an all-too-brief primer.

12 comments

  1. Seth Edenbaum

    One thing about my discussions of Taruskin is that I never mention his take on Prokofiev. His piece in the NY Times in ’91 -“Prokofiev Hail… And Farewell?”- was idiotic. The Soviet Union lost and we should stop listening to Prokofiev! The piece is gone but the letters in response are still up. John Simon quotes the piece in a letter and googling the quote gets us here

    His argument seems to be that its not always about the music itself but about morality, as if art could be like the knowledge gained researching the effects of torture or sub-zero temperature, by torturing people. I need to stop going to the Prado, now.
    No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

    Simon quoting again: “Wagner, though, despite his odious political connection, is all right because ‘his sufferings came from within,’ whereas Prokofiev’s came from without. ”
    Jesus F. Christ.

    The best answer to this stupidity is that we still listen to Prokofiev, as much as we listen to any other “classical” music.
    I’ll read the TNR piece now.
    Sitting in the comfy chair.

  2. sukrat OTI

    Hmm, well, the worst of the stupidity in the second Simon quote surely derives from Simon’s own formulation of Taruskin’s argument — and without reading the original I’m not able to know if he’s formulating it accurately, or deliberately dumbing it down. The phrase you’re google-following to get to “On Russian Music” is presumably at least an element in Taruskin’s critical appraisal: and epic talent capable of working with a minimum of bluster on a monumental scale doesn’t read to me like a “goodbye forever” response, more of an “interesting bcz contradictory material ahead”. (Which may entirely be buried in the actual let’s-start-a-fight review, which as I say I’ve never read… )

  3. Seth Edenbaum

    If you scroll up to the bottom of page 9 he goes into a bit of detail
    “What is under critique in these pieces is not ‘the music itself’ but the whole network of social relations that comes into play in the maintenance of the activity we call ‘classical music’ ”
    A little up the page he puts autonomy (of art) in scare quotes.

    There’s no preview of the chapter which reproduces or expands on the piece in the Times, but I remember being as shocked as Simon was. It was literally an argument for no longer playing Prokofiev because the Soviets lost.

    It’s interesting that the original is gone. I’m sure he requested it. I’ll have to go out and get the book.

    Still reading the TNR piece but he’s wrong about change beginning with the Beatles. It began with theatrically intellectually sophisticated operettas and with the recognition of Jazz as an art music. Ellington, Strayhorn et al rescued Russian late romanticism from kitsch.
    And before then it was Golliwogg’s Cakewalk

    • sukrat OTI

      I think when he mentions Shostakovich towards the end the TNR piece, he’s establishing that he no longer believes what he was saying in the Prokoviev review — if not quite claiming he never said it, but was only misread. (The fact the piece has disappeared suggests he wasn’t misread, of course — but that he now realises he badly miswrote.)

      His discussion of the response to the Beatles isn’t actually terribly deep or interesting — I think I’ll pop an addendum in the post to say that, beyond being pleased that Meltzer was cited as someone important (which I genuinely think he is), I was a bit sad he was just flourished as a kind of symptom.

  4. Seth Edenbaum

    The book is from 2009. With what I’ve read of the introduction on google Taruskin seems still to be indulging selectively in moralism.

    The TNR piece was hard to take; Panglossian in the face of what is still after all the cultural product of capitalism. Not every Jeremiad is written by a fascist. And in the end the critic is left as the intellectual celebrating and thus elevating the products of lesser minds. Not only only others have ideologies. I have the same problem with rock critics who celebrate pop songs by people they would never treat as intellectual equals; it’s the flaneur’s celebration of plebs as idiot savants. And again here a fixation on pop and nothing on Jazz. The whole thing vulgar especially compared to Charles Rosen.

    And on a general note pop music criticism seems less music criticism as such than performance criticism. Taruskin himself is a stickler for the distinction between composition and performance but I think it’s central to “pop” music since the heyday of Italian opera, which is about singers more than songs.
    For my money the best template for pop criticism in English at least is still T.S. Eliot on Marie LLoyd in 1922. Check TJ Clark in The Painting of Modern Life for the older history in french. But then and with Eliot as well, we’re back to the origin of the flaneur, with aristocratic and conservative irony right up front, not hidden behind a false defense of democracy. “Fuck the bourgeoisie!” and “Revolution now!” are not synonymous. The former without the later is either conservative, in the sense of monarchist, or anti-political, often to to the point of nihilism. That’s the 19th century origins of Punk.
    And Taruskin with all his talk about German romanticism forgot that L’art pour l’art is French!

  5. xyzzzz__

    I was also entertained about how excited you got Mark 🙂 It is a v funny title, to the blog post — he can’t help quoting TWA, even when pouring scorn.

    I came across this after our talk in the pub (funny I wasn’t even looking for anything T-related), a critique of Taruskin’s five volume ‘Oxford History’. From my POV I learnt something new on every page, others could find it tiresome but long footnotes come on (the author is a “New Complexity” cellist-composer, the kind that Taruskin detests)!! That’s how I came across him, i.e. very negatively, until you talked about his work on medieval music (which Cox finds some praise for but it seems v fleeting to superficially maintain a ‘balanced’ perspective it probbaly does not have, he has other battles and is fighting them) and Strav in a positive light.

    Meltzer not mentioned though.

  6. xyzzzz__

    re: Cox, forgot to mention that he gives a critique of Taruskin’s ‘audience’ model of history. Very curious that it appeared as its v hard to ascertain (so I would think and what Cox says) what a wide audience thought of a piece in the way they would in the 18th or 20th century, given different levels of record or reaction and the make up of audience. Of course a historian looking at the 20th century in 200 years time would perhaps be able to apply this much more easily to pop and other styles of music by looking at sales figures and the like (assuming these survive our impending Mad Max style annihalation, of course).

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