blue notes on the modern bürgerliches trauerspiel

As much as anything as an act of expiation, grief and guilt from safe exile — as if to say ‘Wish you were here’ — Adorno begins his Philosophy of Modern Music (1948) with a long crabbed mouthful of a quote from his dead friend Walter Benjamin, on the history of philosophy “viewed as the science of origins”, as being “that process which, from opposing extremes, and from the apparent excesses of development, permits the emergence of the configuration of an idea as a totality… ” The book that follows unfortunately merely juxtaposes Schoenberg and Stravinsky, only the extremes of development of “modern music” if your view is really quite intellectually parochial — certainly it’s hard to envisage Adorno writing well about (say) Jelly Roll Morton or Bessie Smith, but there you go. Still, the idea of attempting to juxtapose extremes — at least as a technique or habit — is pretty good critical practice, I think. We work with what we know; to get what you need from it, you have to peer through what we pretend it is, and a clear declaration of our own idea of the relevant cultural extremes gives you a not-bad guide to the skew of our interests…

My own first experience of Pink Floyd was almost certainly visual: little stickers from the packaging of the mid-70s LPs suddenly blooming on school noticeboards and fellow pupils’ folders and bags. I was enough out of the loop of pop in my early teens — I’d grown up a very quiet rural backwater — to be fascinated: no such thing as a tabula rasa, of course, but I really wasn’t having to battle against any thickets of borrowed childhood assumption. Within a couple of years, I’d been saturated with DSotM and WYWH: and never — I absolutely admit — been captivated. This wasn’t teenage me reacting against something; this was something simply not reaching me, and it still — in itself — doesn’t. Like Philosophy of Modern Music, Wish You Were Here is an act of expiation and grief and guilt; like PMM, WYWH seems dislikeably flawed to me, or anyway one-sided. But I’m not going to argue (here!) in defence of my intolerance: instead I’m going to point you, with some delight, to Marcello’s use of it as a portal across to music perhaps no one but he would think to juxtapose — music, as he makes entirely clear, linked socially and historically and of course in emotional purpose, but music (at least to my ears) of a very distinct sensibility: Robert Wyatt’s version of Charlie Haden’s “Song for Che”; the Blue Notes’ LP Blues Notes for Mongezi, Michael Mantler celebrating Edward Gorey. Opposing extremes? Only as a means of crystallising a very particular moment, in its potential and its limitations — and this is not Marcello’s aim (at least not in this one review). Obscure and difficult music presents one kind of obstacle to the newcomer: a good deal of music writing muddleheadedly expends the wrong kind of effort to overcome this. But hugely popular and well known music can also congeal on the ear and heart, for bad reasons: and this too needs to be overcome, and in some way that task is a lot harder, and generally more thankless. I don’t always like Marcello’s most-loved music — and doubtless vice versa — but I think his solution to both these problems is often exemplary.

3 thoughts on “blue notes on the modern bürgerliches trauerspiel”

  1. Strange (or not strange) that Adorno apparently thought there were only two extremes. Why not 23 extremes? Or at least we could draw a three-dimensional graph, which only gives us six axes, hence six extremes to work with, but we could come up with an infinity of extremes from those six simply by deciding that anything that’s an extreme on one axis is extreme no matter where else it is on the others; for something that’s on the extremely chicken-screaming end of the chicken-scream/chicken-blasé axis, on the one hand, but is dead in the middle on the piccolo/tuba axis, on the other, is an extreme of a different flavor than something that’s at the chicken-scream extreme but is heavily piccoloed, yet different also from full chicken-scream but heavily tuba’d. (Haven’t yet chosen my third axis. Night-Train/Jiyeon is a possibility, though someone could argue that that is too similar in spirit to chicken-scream/chicken-blasé.)

    I will admit that what I just wrote doesn’t particularly touch on Pink Floyd or Marcello.

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