The critique of the note: the gestallt or the spectrum?

In the post on musique informelle I wrote (and quoted):

In [the] practice [of post-war serialism], 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)

It reminds me of the critique of the note that the spectralists (as well as people like Giacinto Scelsi) engaged in shortly after the post-war serialist moment. The difference is that the critique leads in opposite directions.

For Adorno, the critique of the note as abstraction is one that puts the gestallt and the concept of relation (and I would say practice) in the place of the primary material fact. For the spectralists, the critique of the note as abstraction puts the complexity within the actual acoustic note – the sound as such – in the place of the primary material. That is, for the spectralists, music went wrong when it started to abstract from the totality of sound (what I once derogatorily named ‘the primordial ooze’) and place the emphasis on the note (the invention of notation and then equal temperament being watershed moments). The note is a simplification of the sound.

These are two differing concepts of musical materiality, on the one hand relation (which has to do with practice, culture, and ultimately history), on the other, sound as such (with its ahistorical phenomenological perspective).

Ultimately the distinction is between a historical-materialist conception of music, and a vulgar empirical-phenomenological materialism (that lapses into mysticism quite quickly since its logic is ultimately idealist). The latter opposes a reified humanity to an integrated nature, the former opposes a reified humanity to a non-reified process of humanity in becoming. Adorno’s conception is much more fecund as a general principle for musical work today. (This is even if, or especially if, it comes with the crisis of material. That is, that the gestallt forms of today have only a vague internal dynamism, since we have moved beyond the cultural conventions of motion – harmonic or otherwise.) The latter is an abstract negation of history, the former a determinate negation.

There is an important point to make here though, and it has to do with the de-vulgarisation of historical materialism. Historical materialism must, no matter how difficult, accept the existence (and even, in a sense, the primacy) of the natural world and its processes, and humanity’s perceptive capacities with regard to nature. It cannot all be cultural-historical construction, or else our materialism would quickly become idealism. Nature is both a social category and a process in-itself, and humanity can know this process in-itself even if mediated by the practical (that is, metabolic) relationship it shares with this nature.

This is worth considering when it comes to constructing music today – how does the totality of the gestallt interact with the totality of the spectrum? It is not a neither/nor situation. This may seem a detour from my question of counterpoint today, but I feel it will serve as very important ground-work. For instance: what counterpoint accords with the emphasis on the abstract note (the counterpoint of the integral serialists)? What counterpoint accords with the emphasis on the sonic totality? What counterpoint accords with the emphasis on the relational-historical gestallt?

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