Mr Adams, I presume

Posted on Thursday, October 29, 2009

I've always enjoyed a heavy musicological discussion. I even, in my day, used to write some fairly heavy-duty articles for the Musical Times; but after a while you begin to question whether it all matters. If nobody listens to contemporary music anyway, what's the point of arguing endlessly over the finer details? One contemporary composer people do listen to a lot is John Adams, and Adams has, much to everyone's surprise (does the guy really have any time on his hands?) he has started a blog.

So in a post discussing Adorno, Adams talks about what he calls an 'Empty Form' - a form in which elements that have an 'intentionality' create an 'intentionless' whole. He counts Mahler as an exponent of such forms.

Adams then also sings the praises of these forms: "but those exhausted, shattered empty forms still exalt, can still conceal and contain a lot"

Now I think I get the idea of elements that have an 'intentionality' creating an 'intentionless' whole - isn't Adams really talking here about music that makes a kind of sense moment to moment - as his music always does - but that does not have an overall form that makes a grand 'summing-up' kind of statement. Indeed, I once wrote about this idea in the Musical Times in connection to Birtwistle's music, and in connection with Maxwell Davies's statement that music could no longer have a "unifying confidence of outlook" found in earlier periods of music, because this would be "inimical to contemporary experience" (quotes from Paul Griffiths's book on Max).

If that is roughly where Adams is coming from I can understand it. Indeed, thinking about it again here, I can see Max's statement in a more positive light than I did 10 years ago. I took it originally to be a rather pessimistic and patronising position that 'because modern times are so tough, we can't possibly have an optimistic, visionary unity', but now I can see you could take it as 'because contemporary life in general is so fast-paced and so much more diverse and fragmented, then you can't expect art not to be those things either' - which makes total sense. Ahh, the navel-gazing value of blogging!

However, what makes me question whether I really get Adams' premise at all is his further points - firstly, are Mahler's forms really 'intentionless' as Adams seems to suggest? Meandering maybe, but surely highly 'subjective'; and 'intended'; and trying to make a ballsy, unifying statement if ever I heard someone trying to do that. And then when Adams talks about an 'exhausted, shattered' form - what are we talking about? Surely it is the classical, traditional forms that are 'exhausted, shattered', surely an 'intentionless' form is forever fresh and new because it is always chaotic and ...unintended???

Well, like I say, I love trying to get my teeth into these matters, and to be honest it's rare enough to find someone, like Adams, who is interesting enough to want to even engage in these kinds of questions with. So, yes, please keep up the blogging Mr Adams, and good to bump in to you here out in the jungle!



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