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1934 __ « Die Form der Schallplatte »
Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)
Comment : My claim is that in considering the instrument-with-memory we encounter that aspect of modernity which is defined by the capture and reproduction of reality. We need to consider the prehistory of the gramophone. As Theodor Adorno and more recently Hillel Schwartz have argued, it was the player piano that first represented musical reproducibility, offering ghostly or virtual performances.advertisements promised the actual keying inputted by Rachmaninoff, his musical personality captured on a piano roll (Schwartz 1996, 375).10 In fact, given the short length of early gramophone records and their poor quality, it was a long time before they achieved what the player piano could offer. ... In his 1934 essay ‘The Form of the Phonograph Record’, he argues that the record ‘petrifies’ the actuality of the performance it records; that it turns it into stone, a speaking monument or a fossil impression like Hardy’s fossilized bird. But at the same time, Adorno sees something else in this dead storage: recorded music saves the past. And importantly, it does so by returning music to the status of text. [...] The dry script which is musical notation is not what Adorno has in mind here; rather, something fuller and more experiential, open to multiple experience and constant re-interpretation. Implicitly, I think, Adorno is using the metaphor of writing to hand music back to the listener. In terms of historicity, recorded music saves the past; but in providing an indexical trace of a passage of time, a snapshot of the reified moment in which the musical text is realized and written into the medium, it also challenges the listener to open up the past and inhabit it as an objectified phenomenon. [...] In Schopenhauer and others, the attempt to explain how music related to temporality led to notions of music ‘storing’ human consciousness, emotion, and struggle, though the relation between musical text and its effects remained unclear. Recorded music offers some solutions to this problem: as Adorno argued, recording detaches music from an occasion (as musical notation does) and from an original producing consciousness, but nevertheless something of that consciousness, and indeed the trace of the body as music-producer, remains inscribed within it, rather than passing away. The music of Being, as described by Schopenhauer, is actualized in the process of recording, as it is in Tom Hardy’s texts, in which music, detached from any particular consciousness and incarnated in its technology, figures human freedom. (Tim Armstrong, 2003)
Original excerpt : « [...] Just as the call for “radio-specific” music remained necessarily empty and unfulfilled and gave rise to nothing better than some directions for instrumentation that turned out to be impracticable, so too there has never been any gramophone-specific music. Indeed, one ought to credit the phonograph record with the advantage of having been spared the artisanal transfiguration of artistic specificity in the arty private home. Furthermore, from their phonographic origins up through the electrical process (which, for better and for worse, may well be closely related to the photographic process of enlargement), the phonograph records were nothing more than the acoustic photographs that the dog so happily recognizes. It is no coincidence that [in German] the term “plate” is used without any modification in with the same meaning in both photography and phonography. It designates the two-dimensional model of a reality that can be multiplied without limit, displaced both spatially and temporally, and traded on the open market. This, at the price of sacrificing its third dimension: its height and its abyss. According to every standard of artistic self-esteem, this would imply that the form of the phonograph record was virtually its nonform. The phonograph record is not good for much more than reproducing and storing a music deprived of its best dimension, a music, namely, that was already in existence before the phonograph record and is not significantly altered by it. There has been no development of phonographic composers; even Stravinsky, despite all his good will towards the electric piano, has not made any effort in this direction. The only thing that can characterize gramophone music is the inevitable brevity dictated by the size of the shellac plate. Here too a pure identity reigns between the form of the record disc and that of the world in which it plays: the hour of domestic existence that while themselves away along with the record are too sparse for the first movement of the “Eroica” to be allowed to unfold without interruption. Dances composed of dull repetitions are more congenial to these hours. One can turn them off at any point. The phonograph record is an object of that “daily need” which is the very antithesis of the humane and the artistic, since the latter cannot be repeated and turned on at will but remain tied to their place and time. [...] Through the phonograph record, “time” gains a new approach to music. It is not the time in which music happens, nor is it the time which music monumentalizes by means of its “style”. It is time as evanescence, enduring in mute music. If the “modernity” of all mechanical instruments gives music an age-old appearance -- as if, in the rigidity of its repetitions, it had existed forever, having been submitted to the pitiless eternity of the clockwork -- then the evanescence and recollection that is associated with the barrel organ as a mere sound in a compelling yet indeterminate way has become tangible and manifest through the gramophone records. The key to the proper understanding of the phonograph records ought to be provided by the comprehension of those technological developments that at one point transformed the drums of the mechanical music boxes and organs into the mechanism of the phonograph. [...] There is no doubt that, as music is removed by the phonograph record from the realm of live production and from the imperative of artistic activity and becomes petrified, it absorbs into itself, in this process of petrification, the very life that would otherwise vanish. The dead art rescues the ephemeral and perishing art as the only one alive. Therein may lie the phonograph record’s most profound justification, which cannot be impugned by an aesthetic objection to its reification. For this justification reestablishes by the very means of reification an age-old, submerged and yet warranted relationship: that between music and “writing”. [...] Decisevely, because this writing can be recognized as true language to the extent that it relinquishes its being as mere signs : inseparably committed to the sound that inhabits this and no other acoustic groove. If the productive force of music has expired in the phonograph records, if the latter have not produced a form through their technology, they instead transform the most recent sound of old feelings into an archaic text of knowledge to come. Yet through the theologian may feel constrained to come to the conclusion that “life” in the strictest sense -- the birth and death of creatures -- cannot be ascribed to any art, he may also tend to hold that the truth-content of art only arises to the extent that the appearance of liveliness has abandoned it, that artworks obly become “true”, fragments of the true language, once life has left them; perhaps even only through their decline hand that of art itself. It would be then that, in a seriousness hard to measure, the form of the phonograph record could find its true meaning : the scriptal spiral that disappears in the center, in the opening of the middle, but in return survives in time. A good part of this is due to physics, at least to Chladni’s sound figures, to which -- according to the discovery of one of the most important contemporary aesthetic theorists -- Johann Wilhelm Ritter referred as the script-like Ur-images of sound. The most recent technological development has, in any case, continued what was begun there: the possibility of inscribing music without it ever having sounded has simultaneously reified it in an even more inhuman manner and also brought it mysteriously closer to the character of writing and language. The panicked fear that certain composers express regarding this invention captures precisely the extraordinary threat to the life of artworks that emanates from it just as it already did from the gentler barbarism of the phonograph record albums. What may be announcing itself here, however, is the shock at that transfiguration of all truth of artworks that iridescently discloses itself in the catastrophic technological progress. Ultimately the phonograph records are not artworks but the black seals on the missives that are rushing towards us from all sides in the traffic with technology; missives whose formulations capture the sounds of creation, the first and the last sounds, judgment upon life and message about that which may come thereafter. » (Translated by Thomas Y. Levin)
Source : Armstrong, Tim (2003), "Hardy, History, and Recorded Music", in "Thomas Hardy and Contemporary Literary Studies", ed. Tim Dolin and Peter Widdowson, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2003.
Source : Armstrong, Tim (1998), "Modernism, Technology and the Body", Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Source : Adorno, Theodor W. (1934), “The Form of the Phonograph Record”, In October, Vol. 55. (Winter, 1990), pp. 56-61; and also, In "Broken Music : Artists's Recordworks", Ed. Ursula Block and Michael Glasmeier, Berlin : DAAD and Gelbe Musik, 1989, pp. 47-48; with a French translation: "La Forme du Disque", Translated by Carole Boudreault, pp. 51-52.
Source : Adorno, Theodor W. (1934), “Die Form der Schallplatte”, (Signed "Hektor Rottweiler"), In 23: Eine Wiener Musikzeitschrift 17-19 (December 14, 1934), pp. 35-39.
Urls : http://personal.rhul.ac.uk/uhle/012/0333_994450_15_cha10.pdf (last visited )

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