Saturday, March 21, 2009

Aesthetic Theory: Adorno 23

Adorno (23): "Schonberg noted what an easy time Chopin had composing something beautiful because all he needed to do was choose the then little used key of F-sharp major."

PH response: Our definition of beauty changes along with the culture’s tolerance for off-notes and dissonance. In our time, agreement of figure and ground is considered corny. We desire groundless figures and figureless ground. A contemporary guitar site refers to the Hendrix chord, the “7 sharp 9,” to be found on the song “Purple Haze” (E7#9). When struck, it jangled and satisfied the ears of its time. The dissonance in language poetry comes from the long-established device of parataxis, in which images or fragments, often dissimilar, are placed together without a clear purpose. The dissonance to be tolerated in Flarf is the less-than-heroic choice of the Google search engine as a compositional device; with Newlipo, dissonance appears in attention to formal play over seriousness and lyricism. No gravitas, no beauty? But Kenneth Koch's playfulness wasn't without weight. For example:


Aged in the fire.

Every age has its note. Grunge's blend of dissonant chords and "sludge" with Nirvana's "soft verse, hard chorus," supposedly borrowed from the Pixies, expressed the 90s prescient anxiety about a lost future. In the movie Hype! (1996), a Seattle musician explains that the plaintive Seattle sound resulted from a specific chord structure, but I don't know enough about music to recall how it worked.

Expressing, among other things, the comedy/pathos of the instrument's limitations, John Cage’s Composition for Toy Piano is a dignified and lovely work of art, but initially it may have seemed silly. Because Flarf and Newlipo present their carnivalesque and conceptual qualities first, their dissonance lies in a seeming lack of dignity. But poetry is capable of maintaining carnival and gravitas at the same time: the Beckett in Keaton and the Keaton in Beckett. The clown that never smiles (Keaton), the one that never speaks (Harpo Marx), and the reeling drunk who breaks into gorgeous song are stock types of pathos, just as pathos is a stock mode of comedy, and the ridiculous readily fledges with the sublime. Someone quite late to a performance of Hamlet might suppose, upon seeing the bodies lying all about, that the presentation had been farce.

The return to lyricism in our period arrives just in time for the greatest financial crisis in U.S. history. But that doesn't mean that irony is out of a job, with all the cognitive dissonance in need of words.

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At 1:11 PM, Blogger Tom Mandel said...

"Lots of great music still to be written in C Major."

-- Arnold Schoenberg


Nice post!


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