Musique informelle, non-neutral material

It is the right of subjectivity to be present in the music itself, as the power of its immediate performance, instead of being excluded from it once it has been launched. (Adorno, Vers une musique informelle, p. 320)

We could say, in philosophical language, that Adorno is seeking in his idea of musique informelle a way out of the bourgeois antinomies of subjectivism or mechanism – that is, either unmediated freedom (which simply reproduces unconfronted constraints) or pure necessity (which is at a higher level completely unnecessary and arbitrary). On the one hand the subject could remain external to the work, in its magisterial pre-compositional complexity, and when the work commences the subject ends; on the other hand the subject is totally relinquished in favour of the pure, aleatoric materiality of the work. Neither approach is adequate. What Adorno is arguing for is a conception of the compositional subject that is not external to the work, and a concept of the work that is not external to the subject.

[A]s a reflex of the composing ear, control over the material must intensify itself self-critically until it ceases to rub against any alien matter. It must become the ear’s form of reaction that passively appropriates what might be termed the tendency inherent in the material. (p 319; emphasis added)

Or again:

[The subject] renounces its surplus over the composition. (p. 319)

Non-neutral material

It’s clear from this that what Adorno is largely polemicising against is the attempt by post-war serialism to reduce the materiality of the work to the naked note (or parameter) and then calculate a complex system of interrelations that can be imposed on this totally atomised (pre-)musical object.

[T]he practice of serial music hitherto has consisted of stripping everything right down to the parameter of the individual note and then … building up the totality from scratch. (p. 299)

In this practice, all the historically constructed relations and configurations that the individual note grew up with have been excised. This is the critical function of this music: all of the unreflected, cultural (ideological) assumptions are removed and the basic building block – the note – is then deployed according to a wholly new, apparently rational invented logic. Yet this form of abstract reason must itself be subject to critique, since it becomes itself completely arbitrary, non-materialist, and inhuman and this is Adorno’s point.

The bare note is a transitional element in the critical process of music’s reflection on itself, an anti-ideological marginal value. For it to become music, it must needs have [sic] recourse to those configurations which it cannot discover within itself. Music is not composed simply of elements purified of larger structures. (p. 298; emphasis added)

In contrast to this, Adorno sees the ‘configuration’ or Gestalt as the primary material element of music.

Reduced to an element of music the unmediated is not the individual note, but the individual configuration [Gestalt]; it should be seen as relatively flexible and distinct from contrast and progress. In comparison, in the actual piece of music, the notes are abstract; they would only be thought of as primary in an acoustic sense, not in the realm of composition. Ce n’est pas le ton qui fait la musique. (p. 299)

Why is this so important? If the configuration or Gestallt is the primary element of music, if it is the case that the note is an abstraction from actually existing musical structures and not the primary material around which these structures are built, what does this mean for composing?

Essentially Adorno is calling for the re-appropriation of non-neutral material – that is, local level structures that have their own dynamism, not determined by the larger logic imposed upon them. A motive that points beyond itself, an antecedent requiring a consequent, a tension requiring a resolution. He wants a music that recaptures this dynamism and redeploys a properly musical time. The post-war serialist vision, where pure notes are controlled by a system that is external to them, is one that is essentially static and formalist. Adorno claims that since time is necessary material component of music’s concept (a kind of non-negotiable, beyond which you’re not making music), to do without it in music is to undermine music itself:

To neglect time means nothing less than that music is failing to concern itself with one of its specific material preconditions. (p. 310)

Now this non-neutral material can be immensely ambiguous, determined only in the composition itself – it is not as though Adorno is asking for some new rules, that fit human listening, that would prescribe which note comes after which.

Every note that comes within the compass of music is always more than a note, even though it is not possible to say precisely what that ‘more’ amounts to. (p. 300)

(In fact, ambiguity and indecision would have to be at the heart of this musique informelle.)

Ironically, the spectral reaction of the 70s and 80s against the serialist extremes of the previous generation, while representing a ‘return of the repressed’ periodicity, and while critiquing the note itself as a cultural construct, also based itself on total neutrality of its material. Except that this material is determined by the ‘science’ of spectral analysis and ultimately the period. The period is the building block, which has no dynamism pointing beyond itself, and inside is neutrality – pleasant stuff that does not contradict the whole it fills. So, the same could be said for both post-war serialism and spectralism:

Looked at from this point of view, its most recent development should be seen as the attempt to discard fictive dynamism, that is to say, to make itself as static in acoustic form as it always was in written form. (p. 296)


The musicality which a musique informelle would require … would both carry the constituents of the old music in itself, but would also recoil from the demands of the conventions. (p. 320)

But, seeing as tradition is the locus of non-neutral material, we have a problem. How do write music that is properly modern? This is especially difficult today since composers broke with tonal music a full century ago now. How to recapture the dynamism of material without obviously recuperating structures from this older music which would cause the new music to sound immediately false.

Adorno gives only the vaguest, abstract outline of this – and this is where he is a philosopher and not a musician. The quote above simply states that the dynamism embedded in the old would have to be ‘sublated’ and raised to a higher level (concrete as opposed to abstract negation). The rest is left largely for guessing theoretically, and experimentation practically.

I will have to write a post soon on what this means for contrapuntal writing today – but it is true that contrapuntal writing goes into crisis when the traditional structures of tonality, modality, phrase structuration, etc, are placed under ‘taboo’. Lines become meaningless, the counterpoint becomes weak and stale. There is no mathematical solution to this problem – it has to come from the material itself.