A Discourse between the Poles of Music Aesthetics and Music Sociology

The starting point for this dissertation project was a figure of thought that can be observed quite often in the discourse on “new music”: it claims a fundamental structural relationship between the musical and the societal levels to the effect that “new music” representative of the most advanced stage reached by a given period’s musical material can be viewed as reflective of society. In that it irritatingly violates listening conventions, this aesthetic reflection is held to stimulate critical thought among the recipients and hence contribute to societal change. In 1972, Nicolaus A. Huber referred to this compositional stance as “critical composition”, a term that authors including Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf and Rainer Nonnenmann subsequently applied to a group of primarily West German composers who entered public view during the late 1960s and 1970s.

According to Nonnenmann, the “critical” telos of “critical composition” is threefold: it is aimed at the treatment of the musical material as well as at the sociocultural conditions of both music production and reception. The topic of this dissertation is not, however, the compositional phenomenon of “critical composition” itself, but rather the accompanying discourse that normatively calls for an attitude towards composing that reflects critically upon the societal conditions of music production and reception. Thereby, in the tradition of Theodor W. Adorno, music is attributed an enlightening function that it can only do justice by devoting rigorous reflection to its own musical means. In our present day, this discourse can already be considered a historical one: the 1970s and 1980s, during which art music was quite assertively accorded meaning in the context of societal transformation processes, were followed by a second phase that replaced the radical political demands of that initial era with a stronger focus on issues internal to the aesthetics themselves without losing sight of critical aspirations. Therefore, without denying the differences and breaks within this discourse, the main focus of the present project is on the shared argumentative patterns and narratives that construct the discourse as such.

The texts authored by Helmut Lachenmann, which had a significant impact on the discourse around “critical composition” as well as around “new music” in general, can serve as a case study for the examination of this phenomenon. Lachenmann’s writings form the core of the body of works examined here, supplemented by exemplary texts from the same discursive milieu. Like other representatives of “critical composition”, Lachenmann distances himself from “committed” music that employs non-musical means to call for political action. But even so, the desired transformation of thought and the desire that this may form the basis for changes in action can indeed be viewed as striving for a political effect, assuming a broad notion of the political. The question as to what political implications can be observed in the discourse on “critical composition” therefore stands at the centre of this dissertation.

In order to answer this question, the method of critical discourse analysis—particularly as developed by Norman Fairclough—is employed. This makes it possible to combine the approach to analysing the discourse with a theory of practice within a social field. The analysis of this body of works is accomplished in three steps: first, the significant lines of argumentation in Lachenmann’s texts are sketched out, with it being elucidated how—according to Lachenmann—“advanced” music manifests its potential to change society. The second analytical step is aimed at hidden and implicit presuppositions upon which the discourse unquestioningly bases itself. These presuppositions are queried as to their ideological character, which—in the context of critical discourse analysis—is evaluated in terms of how the discourse is positioned relative to existing power relations. Then, in a third step, the findings of the discourse analysis are set in relation to the social science research concerning the realm of “new music”. The intent here is to confront the perspectives of the protagonists with an outside perspective.

According to Pierre Bordieu, struggles within a particular social field always challenge the definition of said field as a whole. Applied to the field of “new music”, this entails that the discourse around “critical composition” does indeed occupy an emancipatory position that advocates the liberation of perception, of the individual, and of society in its entirety. But at the same time, this discourse also strives to demarcate and regulate access to the realm of “new music”, thus supporting established power relations.

Author: Lena Dražić

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