Thursday, November 6, 2008

Schoenbereg: the Postmodernist?

The postmodern condition which I see prevalent in much of Schoenberg's writings (especially in his early work from Harmonielehre onwards) one that finds consonance not in Frederic Jameson's conceptualization of "Late Capitalism", which finds its form in a crises of historical representation, but one that is closer to Jean Lyotard's work (see especially the Postmodern Condition), which treats the condition of postmodernism as an epistemological one, albeit a structural condition concerning the production of knowledge, and knowledge systems. According to Lyotard, postmodernism as a condition of knowledge [systems] 'reject' overarching "metanarratives" that attempt to shoehorn a discontinuous, sublime discursive field into legible scripts, through various explanatory (and ideological) models.

This was precisely what I feel Schoenberg was reacting to by discussing the "emancipation of dissonance", that is, the rejection of the Modernist tendency (eg. Hauer) to articulate new disciplinary laws to organize 'new' discursive practices within the twelve-tone field. For Hauer, this new attempt of organization was rooted in neo-Romanticist notions of transcenence and transhumanity. By figuring the realm of the 'atonal' as a more 'authentic' intermediary space between author (composer) and reader (listener), Hauer pretty much rehearsed old Humanist neo-Platonist thought loosely through the frame of the philosophers of his time (eg. Nietszche, Schopenhauer... et al). His predilections for the "spiritual" vaguely recall absolutist visions of "Musica Mundana", whereby "God" or "Universal Harmony" is simply replaced by a conflation of the Hegelian "Geist", Kantian "Idea" and Nietschean/Schopenhauerian "Will". Human agency and heavenly spiritual realm are thus connected through mimesis of this spiritual realm, "performing" the inevitably flawed "musica instrumentalis" of higher organizing laws. In Lyotard-language, Hauer was merely repeating the act of epistemological (re)closures, finding new manipulations of an old structuralist formula. As it were, you can't teach an old dog to perform new tricks, but the dog may simulate the new by reapplying old methods.

Schoenberg's response is decisive by moving away from the Foucauldian field of "discourse" (and all its entrapments), and into the realm of the "discursive", which, as I have argued in my paper, offered a more democratic reflection of musical practice which Schoenberg both utopianized and idealized through the "emancipation of the dissonance". Read allegorically, this "emancipation" was not a liberation - Schoenberg himself asserted that it was not an excuse for absolute relativisim; and I quote:

"... [A] composer with twelve independent tones apparently possesses the kind of freedon which many would characterize by saying: 'everything is allowed'. 'Everything' has always been allowed to two kinds of artists: to masters on the one hand, and to ignoramuses on the other." (1941)

The "emancipation of the dissonance", put another way, is a crisis in 'freedom' (in the tyrannical Lacanian psychoanalytic "Real") that threatens to overwhelm "ignoramuses" with the harsh rays of meaningless relativity. It is as if to say, one were looking directly into Socrate's Sun years after lazing around in the cave of traditional tonality. And Schoenberg himself was aware of the 'dazzling' (read: overwhelming) implications of this liberation. Conversely, he was aware of false attempts that tried to completely theorize the space under the shadows of tonality (like Hauer) would be quickly recruited as a new 'metatheory', indeed a "confusion would arise" (1936) -

"I could have forseen that, when in 1921 I showed my former pupil Erwin Stein what means I had invented to profoundly provide for an organization, granting logic, coherence and unity. I then asked him to keep this a secret and to consider it as my private method to do the best for my artistic purposes." (December 1949)

Once word got of Schoenberg's method had reached the Viennese and American composerly spheres, Schoenberg was adamant about refuting any alliegence to "theory" of any kind:

"... when I came to America I could not change my trade-mark. I was the man with 'the system of the chromatic scale' ... I was of course only capable [of delivering] a superficial explanation, a description, of the methods of distribution of the twelve tones. I was always aware of this imperfection, and this is why I gave to the lecture the title - METHOD OF COMPOSING WITH TWELVE TONES!" (ibid.)

Clearly, Schoenberg insists on the tone-row method merely a method for composing, and not the be-all and end-all of compositional possibilities. Towards the end of his life, Schoenberg suprised critics and the interested public with a slew of tonal composition, although based on his principles, we should not be surprised at all. While decrying the disciplinary tendencies of tonality (in its construction of laws and strategies of proscription), at the same time Schoenberg recognized the immense value and worth of these limitations as formal constraints for creative composition. Indeed "abandoning tonality can be contemplated only if other satisfactory means for coherence and articulation present themselves". (1934) Tonality was one method of "articulation", but evidently not the only method of articulation.

Schoenberg's split with traditional traid-centered tonality was then secured with a pact: by abandoning the regimented ordering system of presentation (Darstellung), Schoenberg had to first reject the totalizing claims of any theory or musical law that touted itself to be ahistorical and transcendental. As mentioned earlier, this meant retreating from the sphere of discourse to the sphere of the discursive, a 'regression' of sorts. Of course, this was partially ideological. Recycling worn notions of psychological realism, subjectivity and the Freudian Unconscious (all large polemic topics of the late 19th and early 20th century), Schoenberg initiated a movement back to the (composerly) self:

"Tonality's origin is founded ... in the laws of sound. But there are other laws that music obeys, apart from these and the laws that result from the combination of time and sound: namely, those governing the working of our minds." (1926)

The composer then, became the locus of creative and "formal" energies, the ordering authority that authenticates its products based on "sound" as raw material. The consequences are immense, for this meant shifting away from the strongholds of a Tonality as "not an end in itself, but means to an end" (ibid), therefore leaving the system unclosed, open and therefore implicitly plural, susceptible to other laws drawn up by the composer himself. Lyotard sees this pact of knowledge as a postmodern condition, the rejection of metanarratives, whilst operational "rules" of the postmodern "game" are found preceding the "game" itself, i.e. based on the assemblage of raw material.

By harking towards a fluid self-defining concept of "unity" as found in the "Grundgestalt", Schoenberg sought to give name to the unnameable - a phemonenon that could be described as motivic "shape" on one had, or (in my preference), "structural trace", the assemblage of a basic rule or datum that structures the ordering of the entire composition (a lynchpin, if you like). One way to read the "Grundgestalt" is in its linguistic peculiarities. On one hand, "Grund" directly translates into "ground", or "soil", while "Gestalt" (making loud indications at German Gestalt psychology theory) implies "to take shape" or "to show one's true colours" (Collins Dictionary). By combining the seantic fields of both words, one imagines an Organicist idea of the "Grundgestalt" as a growth from "soil" to its full "shape". The "true colours" of the Gestalt, as it seems, would be contained in its germination (i.e. an cosmic-atomist view of musical composition).

Joseph Rufer's ruminations on the "Grundgestalt" implies an abstract germinal musical aggregate that gives rise to an entire composition (1954). Following, it is easy to see how Schoenberg's idea of the Basic Set fit the criteria of the "Grundgestalt" comfortably, a primordial compositional tool with which to flesh out the rest of a composition. On the other hand, the "Grundgestalt" rejects any resolute definition, it is an empty signifier that points to structural possibilities without itself being a determinate structural entity. Is it not so that the "Grundgetalt" as "structural trace" exists as a Lyotard's postmodern prefiguration of the compositional space with an indictement to construct rules BASED ON whatever fills the "Grundgestalt". The "Grundgestalt" therefore fulfills its own organicist destiny by creating rules (structural significance) by virtue of its filler components.

In closing, it must be said that Lyotard's formulation of the postmodern proceeds from the qualities of paradox (eg content (Grundgestalt) prior to rules (Structure)). As Lyotard claims, the postmodern is deceptive: while its etymology suggests a temporal 'afterwards', the postmodern itself resembles something more of the 'pre'Modern, although the condition itself can only arise as a consequence of the Modern. It is as if hitory, surveying its own ideologies, decides to take a step back in time to the messy inter-existing matrix of pre-ideologies with one foot still standing on the beyond. Is this then not Schoenberg, decrying the impoverty of totalizing theories as a modernist tendency, taking a historical step "backwards" to the 'free' indecisive moment of plural composerly activity which structures itself along its own "Grundgestalt"? Is this not Schoenberg, who embodied the very manifestation of paradoxical subjectivity by appealing to both "methods" of composition during his lifetime? Is this not Schoenberg who envisioned new possibilities of "unity" by rejecting epistemological claims to singular truths? This is Schoenberg, I believe, the postmodernist.

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