Televised Music Is a Pointless Rigmarole


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Herbert von Karajan directing Verdi’s Messa da Requiem in Milan’s La Scala theater. Aired in West Germany on November 26, 1967.


From an interview in
Der Spiegel (February 26, 1968).

 

DER SPIEGEL

Professor Adorno, you once dismissed radio concerts as empty strumming and chirping. Does this characterization likewise apply to the performances of baroque concertos, classical symphonies, masses, and operas that are ever more frequently available for hearing and viewing on the first and second television channels? Is it possible to present an adequate performance of music on television?

THEODOR ADORNO

As an optical medium, television is to a certain extent intrinsically alien to music, which is essentially acoustic. From the outset, the technology of television occasions a certain displacement of attention that is disadvantageous to music. In general music exists to be heard and not to be seen. Now one can certainly say that there are certain modern pieces in which the optical aspect also has a certain importance. But at least in the case of traditional music—

SPIEGEL

Obviously on German television—aside from the third channels—only traditional music is performed …

ADORNO

—in the case of traditional music there is something unseemly about the whole thing, an unseemliness naturally occasioned by the fact that by analogy with its counterpart in radio, a piece of machinery like the television-production process has got to be constantly fed, that something has got to be getting constantly stuffed into the sausage machine. On the whole I believe that the very act of performing music on television entails a certain displacement that is detrimental to musical concentration and the meaningful experience of music.

 

SPIEGEL

We don’t believe that the receptive capacity of consumers of television is completely engrossed by the optical element. Don’t you think that the medium of television can also be acoustically stimulating?

ADORNO

I by no means wish to deny that the medium of television can also be acoustically stimulating, or even that its optical procedures can have certain benefits for music. Perhaps I can clarify this with an example: my late teacher Alban Berg was always toying with the seemingly quite paradoxical idea of having Wozzeck, which really is one of the last operas in a strict sense, made into a film, not, to be sure, out of anything like a desire to break into the so-called mass media—he had absolutely no interest in things like that—but because he believed that by filming the work one could make its musical events more malleable, so to speak, than is the case in normal opera performances. For example, through the techniques of the roving microphone, which of course correspond to the changing camera positions in the film, one could bring out the main voice at any given time more meaningfully, more malleably, than was possible in an ordinary opera performance in Berg’s opinion.

SPIEGEL

Admittedly, such possibilities don’t seem to be available in television. … The technical means, the execution, the craftsmanship involved gains primacy over the music.

ADORNO

Yes, one’s attention is drawn away from the essential things and towards the inessential ones, namely, away from the music as an end and towards the means, the manner, in which the keyboardists and wind players and string players are playing it. But I’d like to point out that these irritating practices are well established in the techniques of all forms of mechanical reproduction. In radio and in many gramophone recordings one also encounters a predilection for accentuating so-called principal voices or so-called melodies out of all proportion to their place in the musical fabric. This is the fault of the sound engineers, who subsequently engage in fundamentally quite unmusical procedures by surgically extracting these voices, which is quite in keeping with their—if I may say this—unartistic intuitions and is also congenial to the highly problematic taste of the public. … What results from this is that certain middle-of-the-road so-called euphony, that culinary seasoning of the sound at the expense of all the structural elements of the music.

SPIEGEL

The culinary element seems to us to be especially prominent in music broadcasts. A candlelit Karajan and Menuhin concert framed by the plush furnishings of a Viennese salon; Bach passions and cantatas in the obvious setting, a baroque church. As the distinguished vocal soloist is singing his part …

ADORNO

The listeners make furiously sorrowful faces …

SPIEGEL

… And the camera fondles lovably chubby-cheeked putti and Madonnas. Is this acceptable?

ADORNO

It’s horrible, the worst sort of commercialization of art. Here the mass media—which precisely because they are technical media are duty-bound to forgo everything unseemly and gratuitous—are conforming to the abominable convention of showcasing lady harpsichordists with snail-shell braids over their ears who brainlessly and ineptly execute Mozart on jangly candlelit ancient keyboards. I think it’s more than high time for purging the mass media of all this illusional kitsch and of the whole Salzburg phantasmagoria that’s forever haunting it. … It engenders an absolutely inadmissible image, above all because here an illusional element also supervenes; it’s as if one were present at some sort of shrine where a unique ritualistic event were being enacted in the hic et nunc—a notion that is completely incommensurable with the mass reproduction that causes this same event to be seen in millions of places on millions of television screens. … One can never shake the feeling that such things must be regarded as grudgingly doled-out servings of schmaltz within the politics of programming, wherein the so-called desires of the public, which I have absolutely no inclination to gainsay, are oftentimes employed as an ideological excuse for feeding the public mendacious rubbish and kitsch. I would also include in this kitsch the kitschified production styles applied to the presentation of so-called—I might have almost said rightly so-called—classic cultural artifacts.

SPIEGEL

Take for example Brahms’s German Requiem on the second channel. The images concurrently broadcast with it were of trees, forests, lakes, fields, monuments, and cemeteries.

ADORNO

The acme of wanton stupidity.

SPIEGEL

Professor Adorno, a pedagogical argument is also always trotted out in connection with this. According to this argument, televised music gives consumers a preliminary introduction to the work and thereby stimulates them to attend concerts or opera performances in person. What do you think of this kind of musical therapy?

ADORNO

It’s wrong. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a pedagogical path to the essential that starts out by getting people to concentrate on the inessential. This sort of attention that fixates on the inessential actually indurates; it becomes habitual and thereby interferes with one’s experience of the essential. I don’t believe that when it comes to art there can ever be any processes of gradual familiarization that gradually lead from what’s wrong to what’s right. Artistic experience always consists in qualitative leaps and never in that murky sort of process.

SPIEGEL

There’s yet another argument with which the cultural-industrialists rally to televised music’s defense. The fact that operas and concerts are reaching a mass audience via the television screen is something they equate with a cultural resurgence. What do you think of that?

ADORNO

Once again I regard this as a completely wrong argument. Although I have no desire to put in even the faintest of good words for some fusty ideal of interiority, it seems to me that above all something profoundly inauthentic is going on here, because the works themselves aren’t indifferent to the manner in which they are presented. A televised Figaro is no longer Figaro. Consequently, when the masses come into contact with it, they are no longer by any means coming into contact with the thing itself but rather with a predissected, cliché-ridden product of the culture industry, which gives them the illusory sense that they could become actively involved in culture. For quite some time now, so-called great, traditional music has been following the same trajectory as the one completed by Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia once it was hanging on the wall of each and every petit bourgeois bedroom.

SPIEGEL

So then, Professor Adorno, are you really of the opinion that for the time being televised music is a pointless rigmarole?

ADORNO

Indeed, I really am of that opinion. Televised concerts and televised operas are a complete waste of cultural activity.

SPIEGEL

Professor Adorno, we thank you for this interview.

 

From Theodor W. Adorno’s Orpheus in the Underworld: Essays on Music and Its Mediation, translated by Douglas Robertson, to be published by Seagull Books this July.

Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) was the author of Minima Moralia, Philosophy of Modern Music, and Prisms, among many other books. 

Douglas Robertson is a translator of German-language literature.



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