Televised Music Is Balderdash
Spiegel: Professor Adorno, you once dismissed radio concerts as empty strumming and jangling. 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 seeing on the first and second television channels? Is it possible to present an adequate reproduction of music on television?
Adorno: As an optical medium, television is in a manner of speaking alien to music, which is essentially acoustic. From the outset, the technique of television occasions a certain displacement of attention that is unfavorable to music. In general music exists to be heard, 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 as far as traditional music goes…
Spiegel: ...obviously on German television--aside from the third channel--only traditional music is music is played…
Adorno: ...as far as traditional music goes there is something unseemly about the whole thing, which is naturally occasioned by the fact that by analogy with radio broadcasting, a mechanism like television broadcasting has got to be constantly fed, that something constantly has to be getting stuffed into the sausage machine. On the whole I believe that the very act of reproducing music on television entails a certain sidelining that is detrimental to musical concentration and a meaningful experience of music.
Spiegel: We don’t believe that television viewers’ receptive capacity 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 advantages for music. Perhaps I can illustrate this with an example: my late teacher Alban Berg was always toying over and over again 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 market—he had absolutely no interest in things like that—but because he believed that through cinematic techniques you could make the 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, you could bring out the main voice more meaningfully, more malleably, than was possible in an ordinary opera performance in Berg’s opinion.
Spiegel: Granted, such possibilities don’t seem to be available in television. We’ve heard about 30 televised concerts and opera performances; for example, a performance of the Cappella Coloniensis in the Kaisersaal of Schloss Corvey, lots of baroque music, Handel, Purcell, Bach played on one, two, and three organs by Professor Nowakowski; Beethoven symphonies, of course; Schubert’s Winterreise, of course, sung by Hermann Prey, who additionally sang a potpourri of opera arias called “Schaut her, ich bin’s” [“Look here, it’s me”]. There was also an Arabella and a colorful performance of Figaro by the Hamburg State Opera in which a lot of the shots were extremely embarrassing because the close-ups showed how much the singers had to contort their faces in order to intone beautifully…On top of that the sound engineer really cranked the volume up during the arias, as if he were trying to say, “Now you’ve got your lovely melodies that are the only reason you’re slogging through this whole opera.” Then during Verdi’s Requiem conducted by Herbert von Karajan the camera evinced especial fondness for the maestro’s closed eyes.
Adorno: Your observations are judicious, and I think we will be of one mind about their implications.
Spiegel: Yes, if you can acknowledge that there is something second-rate about television productions of music–namely, the fact that the technical means, the performative activity, 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 texture. This is the fault of the sound engineers, who 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, which are also congenial to the highly problematic taste of the public.
Spiegel: But surely the engineers are well-trained enough to be capable of realizing the musical and aesthetic intentions of the conductors during playback in the control room.
Adorno: That’s hard to say. On the one hand, they’ve got to yield to certain technological exigencies—by, for example, making sure that the ratios of the forces involved are kept within the limits of what is possible in this medium. But on the other hand—I owe my knowledge about this mostly to the usual practices in film production as I became acquainted with them in Hollywood—they’re guided by their own intuitions. They decide what sounds good and what sounds bad, and during playback they adjust the recording accordingly. As they’re making these adjustments, most of them operate in conformity with completely obsolete musical conventions. The resulting product is that certain middle-of-the-road so-called harmoniousness, that culinary seasoning of the sound at the cost of all the structural elements of the music. This is of course partly owing to the fact that the engineers are practically all recruited from the ranks of technicians, because so far nobody has managed to bring in people who obviously aren’t very easy to come by—people who are technically competent and at the same time musically talented and also knowledgeable about music. If this were changed, things would be a lot better.
Spiegel: The culinary element seems especially pronounced in music broadcasts. A Karajan and Menuhin concert by candlelight 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-faced putti and Madonnas. Is this acceptable?
Adorno: It’s horrible, the worst sort of prostitution of art. Here the mass media—which precisely because they are technical media are duty-bound to forgo everything inapposite and extraneous—are conforming to the abominable convention of showcasing temple-braided lady harpsichordists 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 illusionary kitsch and of the whole Salzburg phantasmagoria that’s forever lurking in it.
Spiegel: Are you really of the opinion that this kitsch engenders a completely distorted image of music?
Adorno: It engenders an absolutely inadmissible image, above all because here there’s a superaddition of an illusionary element; as if the viewer 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.
Spiegel: Television critics have been scandalized by the fact that only star conductors appear on German television and that they’ve got to be fascinating at the drop of a hat. Is this actually an unwritten law of the mass media?
Adorno: This reminds me of that nice anecdote about the two cultural hyenas who were sitting at a Nikisch concert maybe 60 years ago or even longer than that. The one lady pokes the other one and says, “If he starts to get fascinating, please give me a poke.” This completely gratuitous, manipulative concept of the fascinating conductor is an appalling nuisance. If this sort of false personalization didn’t reign supreme in every area of official musical life, all of this would inevitably have been swept away without even leaving a trace a long time ago. If I may take the liberty of mentioning this, in the last chapter of my book Der getreue Korrepetitor [The Loyal Music Coach] I have tried to develop some thoughts on how to apply the medium of radio appropriately to music and even set out a detailed program describing how one would have to go about doing this. But I am afraid that not much of this has seeped into general consciousness through the cracks in official musical life.
Spiegel: Have the people in charge of the radio networks not been listening to you?
Adorno: I can’t say that my suggestion of an appropriate application of the so-called mass media, for example of broadcasting music with a running comment, with an analytical commentary that runs in synchrony with the work, has had many practical results.
Spiegel: Are the proposals you’ve tendered for radio transferable to television? In other words, is there a specific form for the presentation of music on television?
Adorno: This is the crux of the matter. What I mean is that they’ve been making do with something that’s quite similar to the way things are done in, for example, the film industry, with cannibalizing, flogging, the cultural artifacts that are already available, even when this flagrantly contradicts the nature of the medium, instead of developing new possibilities out of the medium itself. Of course there is an entire group of avant-garde artists who think differently; for example, Stockhausen has called for quite similar things entirely independently of me. Or I’m thinking of the most recent attempts of Mauricio Kagel, which are very much tantamount to a meaningful application of television. But this is just a drop in the bucket compared with the dominant mode of production in the culture industry. So one can never shake the feeling that such things must be regarded as concessionary schmaltz-fests within the politics of the broadcasting networks, 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 recordings of works of so-called—I might have almost said rightly so-called—classical music.
Spiegel: So for example Brahms’s German Requiem on the second channel. During it they broadcast pictures of trees, forests, lakes, fields, monuments, and cemeteries.
Adorno: The acme of nonsense. It’s just aping the standard use of nature photographs in commercial films.
Spiegel: Do you mean to imply that the people in charge of the television networks don’t understand that this way of reproducing music contributes to cultural stultification?
Adorno: I’d like to answer that question in sociological terms. There’s a certain dead weight of the apparatus that wins out, in a way that should be analyzed at some point, against the better knowledge and against the will of the people involved. The magazine The New Yorker once showed in an analysis how a properly and intelligently planned film ends up being just another kitschy product exactly like all the others against the will of all the people involved simply on account of the awful apparatus, which has taken on a life of its own. I believe that an analysis of these objective processes would tell us more than would merely thinking about them in terms of incompetent individuals. Being involved in this whole sphere always entails being constantly confronted by so-called technological exigencies. The worst things are always underpinned by the best objective arguments. And so you very easily get a feeling of helplessness. The first thing that one would have to ask television to do in this regard would be to broach the question of a televisually specific form of music or a televisual way of relating to music and especially to opera, instead of producing all this falsehood and inadequacy, instead of simply making do with the sterile photographic duplication of such events.
Spiegel: So far you’ve only offered criticism. Can you tender any proposals for a form of music specific to television? There have of course already been some attempts at these. The Swiss Heinrich Sutermeister has written a television opera, and Benjamin Britten is working on one.
Adorno: Quite often these are simply hybrid products, products of an awkward situation. The composers need money, which God knows is nothing they should be blamed for, and so they get mixed up in such things without having the freedom to think through the dramaturgical possibilities completely in the context of the industry in its present state. Whether there can be something like a form of music unique to television, in other words, music that’s absolute and at the same time intrinsically stands in need of a visual supplement, is something I don’t know. I must say for the time being I have grave doubts about this, although I’m quite happy to be convinced that they’re misplaced. Attempts are indeed being made. Musicians like Stockhausen, like Kagel, like the highly talented György Ligeti, are occupying themselves quite seriously with these things.
Spiegel: That’s true. But their attempts are shown behind virtually closed doors-- in other words, on the Third Channel. On Channels One and Two, on the other hand, we get the standard cultural artifacts—for example, Der Freischütz—not once but twice—Madama Butterfly, the Missa Solemnis, and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. To judge by the selection, it’s the culinary element, the culture consumer-oriented element, that’s given pride of place.
Adorno: Parenthetically, I believe that in this case something else is supervening in what you call the culinary element, something social. What’s being savored here is not only the pleasure of pure euphony but also prestige. From the outset such constructions are governed by the tacit premise that the pinnacles of cultural life are Salzburg or Bayreuth or the major festivals in Edinburgh or in Venice or wherever else. When this is offered in recorded form, there’s this sense that nothing is too lofty or expensive for us to present to you, the television viewer, and so you can participate in these events parasitically, in a manner of speaking. Latent in this is a profoundly conformist disposition to the dominant culture industry.
Spiegel: You just used the word parasitic. Can one really get away with calling it that, since after all, the festivals can only be attended by a small number of people?
Adorno: Yes, it’s parasitic, but Lord knows when I said that I didn’t mean to disparage the people who experience the festivals vicariously through television. But the truth is that there’s no genuine contact between the performance and the audience in this case. It’s entirely the fault of an apparatus that reinforces, redoubles, the already-extant prestige and cultural scuttlebutt engendered by a high-intensity publicity machine. This gives rise to the mistaken impression that these star-studded performances—which do indeed often showcase some truly marvelous voices and colossally virtuosic conductors, but which are hardly ever truly artistically integrated—are the pinnacle of music and of culture in general. This culture is supposed to be democratic, but there is something inherently artificial, inherently ersatz, in this manipulation of democracy. It’s a pseudodemocracy.
Spiegel: Let’s return to the subject of the selection of repertoire. So the television viewer is expected to consume the same cultural wares over and over again, to consume what is barbarously known as “classical” music. As you yourself have put it, “Whatever is most familiar is most successful.” And this viewer is always seeing the same conductors. Above all Karajan with his telegenic gestures.
Adorno: He’s being converted into a theatrical impersonator of his own artistic achievement.
Spiegel: And are you of the opinion that this no longer has anything to do with musical achievement and interpretation?
Adorno: ...Indeed: it no longer has anything to do with it. To a large extent it’s turning into a show. And the line between what’s designated by the term show business nowadays, between that business and official musical culture, has long since become ideological, a total sham. In reality there’s scarcely any sort of difference between these spheres anymore. These things also result in the complete distortion of a conductor’s actual achievement. His task consists in nothing less than getting to know a work intimately enough to attain complete analytic mastery of it, to develop a precise conception of it and then to communicate and to realize this conception as rationally as possible. What’s being brought forth now in lieu of this, thanks to these televisual confidence tricks, is the illusion that the conductor is a kind of magician, a medicine man, who through the pure exertion of his will or some other refractory force is making something happen that can probably only ever happen as a result of thoughtful and painstaking rehearsals. In a certain sense this modus operandi does an injustice to a musician of Karajan’s stature and quality, because it accentuates certain features that whatever else they may be are quite unrepresentative of his best qualities.
Spiegel: But isn’t Herbert von Karajan himself one of the main proponents of this televised music? We recall his famous statement: “What good does it do me when 6,000 people in Salzburg hear me? The whole world should be in the audience.” He’s already thinking of global telecasts, and he even believes that television is the quintessential future medium of music.
Adorno: Nowadays there’s a kind of secondary naivety among artists; not the primary sort of naivety, the much-famed cult of primordial nature, but rather a kind of naivety that suggests to the artist that the reified, commodified mode of activity he’s locked into is something God-given, absolute. It’s the naivety of someone who without thinking too much about it is kowtowing to the fiats of the culture industry. This naivety causes them to utter pronouncements like the one by Mr. von Karajan that you just quoted. Here I think it would quite simply be helpful for someone to make a point of drawing such artists’ attention to the problems we’ve been discussing here.
Spiegel: Professor Adorno, a pedagogical argument is also always trotted out in connection with this. According to this argument, televised music is meritorious because it 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 certainly don’t think that in the experience of art there can ever be processes of gradual familiarization that gradually lead from what’s wrong to what’s right. Artistic experience involves qualitative leaps, not that murky sort of process.
Spiegel: Don’t you also think it’s possible that over time the offering of the same thing over and over again on television will actually cause the charm to wear off and that the intended goal of awakened interest will be turned into its antithesis—namely disgust with these things?
Adorno: That sounds plausible. But of course psychologically speaking we’re largely dealing here with an infantile, meaning a regressive, psychological mechanism—the child that always demands to have the same food—and so unfortunately so far I have seen very little evidence of this disgust and this surfeiting and much more of a diminution of the capacity for artistic experience, meaning any sort of possibility of leaving oneself open to anything that’s qualitatively new and different. I would almost say that these procedures are augmenting people’s aversion to things that aren’t pre-labeled. In any case, in the so-called cultural domain I have so far observed no symptoms of what in America they call sales resistance, meaning resistance to having the same products pitched to you over and over again.
Spiegel: But won’t television be required to take on new responsibilities once the provincial opera houses and orchestras pretty much stop receiving government subsidies, as of course seems very likely to happen in the course of the next few decades?
Adorno: If it involves the broadcasters, say, providing increasingly substantial support to the indigenous orchestras in the German provinces, orchestras that have of course always figured among the greatest assets of German musical life and whose collapse would be a terrible loss, that would be a very good thing. As far as opera goes; I think it will perhaps survive to the end of this century and then hardly beyond that. I can easily envisage a culture in which opera has disappeared in a way similar to that in which a whole array of other art forms have—for example, realistic portraiture in painting. Then people who take a specialized interest in it will just listen to it on records. I’ve honestly got to say it would be better to have no opera at all than the transmogrification of every conceivable opera into a carbon copy of Der Rosenkavalier. Recently Pierre Boulez has quite rightly highlighted the crisis in opera. I completely agree with his opinion of the problematic nature of opera in its traditional form as something intrinsically bound up with the great opera houses. What’s going through an acute crisis is opera in itself as an art form, not the public’s enthusiasm for it, because they’re still running in droves to performances of Aida and Die Meistersinger. But the production of new operas of the traditional kind is over and done with—even if this kind is understood to include Wozzeck and Lulu and Moses and Aron.
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 erroneous argument. Although I have absolutely no interest in championing some moth-eaten ideal of interiority, it seems to me that something profoundly inauthentic is going on here, because the works themselves aren’t indifferent to this manner of presenting them. A televised Figaro is no longer Figaro. Consequently, when the masses come into contact with it, they’re no longer by any means coming into contact with the thing itself but rather with a pre-dissected, cliché-ridden product of the culture industry, which gives them the illusory sense that they could become involved in culture in an active way. 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 at least for the moment televised music is a lot of balderdash?
Adorno: Indeed, I really am of that opinion. Televised concerts and televised operas are nothing but complete wastes of cultural endeavor.
Spiegel: Professor Adorno, we thank you for this interview.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. 19, p. 559.