Productive forces and concrete counterpoint

A short note to remind myself.

I have made the point that the composer today has to draw their counterpoint out of the materials of today (conditioned as they are by the de-reifying but anti-contrapuntal tendencies of spectralism, instrumental deconstruction, and complexism), rather than impose a predetermined vision of counterpoint onto the materials themselves. I have called this concrete counterpoint, as opposed to abstract counterpoint.

So I was surprised (or not at all surprised, but heartened) to read this passage in Adorno’s infamous Philosophy of Modern Music:

Schoenberg proved his ability as an exponent of the most mysterious tendencies in music in that he no longer imposed polyphonic organization upon the material but rather derived it from the material itself. (PMM, p. 91)

This of course hinges on the idea that the ‘productive forces’ (in Marxist jargon) of music are constantly developing and one must keep up in order to make music that could have any claim to authenticity. Now the immediate response to this is that just because something has the latest whiz-bang materials, doesn’t make it any better than a previous piece of music at a ‘lower’ stage of technological control. This is legitimate, but it does not negate the need, as a base, for materials which are commensurate with the latest developments. At the very least, the taboo of dated materials must be felt by the composer. It is more a negative determination in this sense. But this itself doesn’t guarantee worth. With the materials settled, it is then a matter of what you do with them. Again, Adorno, this time from his 1961 article Vers une musique informelle:

Over the last fifty years there has been a huge growth in the productive forces of music, that is to say, in technique, in the simple ability to exercise control over right and wrong. This does not imply that a stubborn belief in progress should lead us to ascribe a higher value to what is written now than to the products of the past. The point is rather that the advances in control over the material of music cannot now be reversed, even though the results, the actual compositions, do not show the same progress. This is one of the paradoxes of the history of art. No consciousness can assume a greater innocence than it actually possesses. Any attempt to ignore recent developments and to become fixated on the musical modes of the past in the belief that the technically less advanced i capable of achieving a higher quality, is doomed to failure. (p. 276)

In essence what he is saying is: while Boulez et al may have created more advance materials that needed to be utilised by any composer of the era, their overall musical project was less powerful than, say, that of Alban Berg (but that you couldn’t go back to Berg…).

Of course this leaves out two things: Firstly, are we not in a postmodern era where such a linear conception of material progress is impossible to uphold? And secondly, what, then, about the use of electronics? If I’m defending technological progress, even if only as a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition for greatness in music, surely I should be composing using the most state-of-the-art technology? Is my music really materially up to date? Now, I think both questions are partly legitimate, but also on the wrong track. But I’ll have to come back to them at some later point.

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