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1941 __ « The radio symphony: An experiment in theory »
Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)
Comment : Less figuratively the listening technologies of mass culture - radio and gramophone (and in post-Adornian times CD, MP3 and so on) - have increasingly become the medium through which music is delivered to us. Typically, though, Adorno forestalls celebration of their scope for massively widening the dissemination of music (including 'serious' music), because of their detrimental effect on structural listening. Remarks in ‘The radio symphony: an experiment in theory' are bound to raise the hackles of radiolovers. Signal compression, he tells us, poses a 'threat to the structure' of a Beethoven symphony: « Only if the motif can develop from the restrained pianissimo to the striking yet affirming fortissimo, is it actually revealed as the "cell" which represents the whole [...] The more the gradation is compressed - which is necessarily the case in radio - the less this tension is felt » (p.259). Similarly, radio fails to deliver the necessary enveloping sound intensity for symphonic listening; hence « if the symphony today reaches masses who have never before been in touch with it, it does so in a way in which their collective aspect and what might be called the collective aspect of the symphony itself, are practically eliminated from the musical pattern - which becomes, as it were, a piece of furniture of the private room » (p.257). Well, no and yes (to be dialectical). On the one hand Adorno is here fetishising the objective qualities of the sound source while downplaying the subjective possibility of compensating in cognition for the underspecified aspects. On the other hand he is right to insist on recognising the far from neutral effects of technology on the aesthetic and social meanings of the music it mediates. These determinations too are caught up in history. The advances in broadcasting and sound reproduction technology since Adorno made those remarks in 1941 have arguably raised further problematics as they have resolved some of the initial ones. Enveloped in the hyper-real immediacy of digital sound in our private living spaces, we are these days maybe even less inclined to want the original experience of a live public performance which seems such a pale copy of the simulacrum. (David Clarke, “Alongside Adorno”, 2003)Recording has arguably had a democratizing effect on music. Put simply, the recording of music has provided access to different kinds of music, to many more people, than otherwise would have been the case. The strongest example of this is radio. For the relatively cheap price of a radio a whole family can access the concert hall as well as music from around the world. Because of the reproduction of music, all strata of society have access to all types of music, including musics that had previously been out of reach of most owing to the expense of witnessing, for example, the opera, or the difficulty of experiencing musics from remote locations. The most commonly cited example of the argument for reproduction having a democratizing effect on cultural forms comes from Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" [and Paul Valéry's "The Conquest of Ubiquity]. [...] The choral production, once available only to those who could afford a ticket, can now be heard in the drawing room, most probably initially though listening to the radio. It is the very reproduction of the artwork that "emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual". Adorno, however, does not perceive this as democracy or as a positive development. In his essay "The Radio Symphony: An Experiment in Theory", he makes his position on the negative effects of radio, and by association the phonograph, very clear. [...] Adorno [...] compares the live performance of a symphony to that of a recording of the piece broadcast via radio transmission, arguing that: the intrinsic nature of the live performance is bound up in variation, an aspect that cannot be reproducd via the medium of recording; the "absolute dynamics" of the concert hall are not adequately reproduced via recording; the volume of the work in the concert hall and the ability to "enter" the work is not reproduced in the privacy of the home; and the subtleties of the symphony are lost to reproduction. To Adorno's ears, the works are transformed into poor chamber music. He concludes from these arguments that the radio in fact has no true democratizing effect; rather what is actually presented is not the work but a distorted shadow of the original. Adorno's critique was strongly influenced by the state of recording and playback technologies at the time. Fidelity was poor and long-paly records were yet to be released on the market, and as such the actual experience of listening to records, or the radio, could not compare to that of attending a concert. Nevertheless, Adorno's critique is still valid in the contemporary context where fidelity is much better, as his argument is about the democratizing effect of recording technology. Even perfectly transparent playback cannot reproduce qualities of live performance such as variation, chance, and environment; hence the masses are still getting a poor copy of the real thing. (Caleb Kelly)
Original excerpt : « The Problem.To make a study of what radio transmission does musically to a musical structure or to different kinds of music would be a vast undertaking. It involves problems of a great many types and levels, concerning the materia land technicalities of transmission, which can be solved only by the close collaboration of analytically minded musicians, social scientists, and experts on radio engineering. Here would appear the problem of the role played in traditional serious music by the "original" -- that is, the live performance one actually experiences, as compared with mass reproduction on the radio. Or one would have to investigate to what extent the technical conditions of jazz in themselves establish a configuration of quasi-mechanized technique with quasi- subjective expression weirdly analogous to that of the actual mechanization of radio transmission with the quasi-expressive ballads with which our radio programs are jammed. Attention must be accorded to chamber music, which structurally is best suited to radio transmission but which, for socio-psychological reasons, is very rarely heard over the air. [...] We are primarily concerned with pointing out the fact that serious music as communicated over the ether may indeed offer optimum conditions for retroprogressive tendencies in listening, for the avalanche of fetishism which is overtaking music and burying it under the moraine of entertainment. The statement of the problem and the model analysis which we offer here are in the nature of a challenge to musical and social research. We are undertaking an experiment in theory. The subject matter of this experiment in theory is the fate of the symphony and, more specifically, of the Beethoven symphony, when it is transmitted by radio. The reasons of this approach are sociological and musical. A typical statement exhibiting official optimism presents claim that today "the [hypothetic] farmers" wives in the prairies states listen to great music performed by great artists asthey go about their morning housework. The Beethoven symphony is popularly identified with such great music. The truth or falsity of such complacent statements concerning the spreading of great music, however, can be gleaned only by an investigation into their pre-suppositions, namely, the naïve identification of a broadcast with the presentation of a live symphony. [...] Earlier symphonic music is less exposed to changes by radio because the problem of sound volume and the issue of dynamic development play a lesser role than in Beethoven; the latter romantic symphony is less characteristic because it does not offer the central problem of the radio symphony : the problem of the fate of the "integral form". [...] What characterizes a symphony when experienced in immediate listening, as distinct not only from chamber music, but also from orchestral forms such as the suite of the "tone poem", is a particular intensity and concentration. This intensity rests musically upon the incomparably greater density and concision of thematic relationships of the symphonic as against other forms. This density and concision are strictly technical and not merely a by-product of expression. They imply first a complete economy of craft; that is to say, a truly symphonic movement contains nothing fortuitous, every bit is utlimately traceable to very small basic elements, and is deduced from them and not introduced, as it were, from outside, as in romantic music. [...] The density of thematic interwovenness, of "antiphonic" work, tends to produce what one might call a suspension of time consciousness. [...] It is this very power of symphonic contraction of time which annihilates, for the duration of the adequate performance, the contingencies of the listener's private existence -- thus constituting the actual basis of those experiences, which, in commentator phraseology, are called the elatedness of an audience as a result of the sublimity of the symphony. -- The Role of Sound Intensity.To what extent are the inherent constituents of the Beethoven symphonic form realized by radio ? To start from the most primitive fact about symphonic music: it may be stated in terms of "absolute dynamics", the meaning of which is well known from the visual sphere, particularly from architecture. A cathedral acquires an essential condition of its actual function, as well as its aesthetic meaning, only in proportion to the human body. [...] Absolute symphonic dimensions, furthermore, carry with them the existence of an experience which it is difficult to render even in rough terms, but which is, nonetheless, fundamental in the apperception of [the] symphony and is the true musical objective of technical discussion of auditory perspective: the experience of symphonic space. To "enter" a symphony means to listen to it not only as to something before one, but as something around one as well, as a medium in which one "lives". It is surrounding quality that comes closest to the idea of symphonic absorption. All these qualities are radically affected by radio. The sound is no longer "larger" than the individual. In the private room, that magnitude of sound causes disproportions which the listener mutes down. The "surrounding" function of music also disappears, partly because of the diminutions of absolute dimensions, partly because of the monaural conditions of radio broadcasting. [...] One must be careful not to derive therefrom a premature judgment on radio, or try to "save" music from it. The abolition of the "surrounding" quality of music on the radio, has its progressive aspects. This "surrounding" quality of music is certainly part of music's function as a drug, the criticism of which, inaugurated by Nietzsche and revived by such contemporary writers as Jean Cocteau, is justified and has been considerably furthered by radio. The drug tendency is very clear in Wagner where the mere magnitude of the sound, into whose waves the listener can dive, is one of the means of carching the listeners, quite apart any specific musical content. [...] Clearly, a Beethoven symphony played on the piano by four hands, although it is only a one-color reproduction, is to be preferred to a chamber music arrangement, because it still preserves something of the specifically symphonic attack by fingers striking the keys, whereas that value is destroyed by the softened chamber music arrangemernt, which, by virtue of its mere arrangedness, easily approaches the sound of the so-called salon orchestra. Radio symphony bears a stronger resemblance to the chamber music transcription than to the simple yet faithful translation into the mere piani sound. Its colorfulness is as questionable as it would be in a salon arrangement. -- Trivialization.In the light of the preceding analysis, the hackneyed argument that radio, by bringing symphony to those formerly unfamiliar with it, compensates for its slight alterations, tilts over into its opposite : the less the listeners know the works in their original form, the more is their total impression necessarily erroneously based on the specific radio phenomena delivered to them. And these phenomena are, in addition, far from being structurally consistent. [...] A process of polarization sets in through radio transmission of the symphony : it becomes trivialized and romanticized at the same time. [...] What is heard is not Beethoven's Fifth but merely musical information from and about Beethoven's Fifth. -- Quotation Listening.The issue of "quotation" is inseparably bound up with the structure and significance of symphonic themes themselves. Sententious precision which summarizes the meaning of preceding dramatic development or situation, is an age-old ingredient of dramatic structure. [...] For by sounding like a quotation -- the quintessence of the whole -- the trivialized theme assumes a peculiar air of authority, which gives it cultural tone. Only what is established and accepted as a standard social value is quoted, and the anxiety of the listeners to recognize the so-called Great Symphonies by their quotable themes is mainly due to their desire to identify themselves with the standards of the accepted and to prove themselves to be a small cultural owners within big ownership culture. This tendency again springs form the "electrocution" of symphony by radio, without taking into account radio's social authoritarianism. It has already been mentioned that radio tends to present symphony as a series of results rather than a process. [...] The transformation of the symphonic process into a series of results means that the listeners receive the symphony as a ready-made piecemeal product which can be enjoyed with a minimum of effort on his part. Like other ready-made articles, radio symphony tends to make him passive. [...] [O]ne should not speak about spreading music while that spreading implies the abnegation of the same concepts of musical classicism, in the name of which serious music is handled by radio. At least no responsible educational attempt can be built directly upon radio symphony without taking into consideration that the radio symphony is not the live symphony. No such educational attempt is worth undertaking that does not give the fullest account of the antagonist tendencies promulgated by serious music in radio. »
Source : Adorno, Theodor W. (1941), “ The radio symphony: An experiment in theory”, In: P. Lazarsfeld and F. Stanton (editors), Radio research 1941., New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, pp. 110–139.
Source : Kelly, Caleb (2009), "Cracked Media : The Sound of Malfunction", Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 49-52.
Urls : http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3870/is_200307/ai_n9237449/pg_5 (last visited )

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