Tag Archive | Theodor Adorno

Hymnody As Social Practice

“Heavy metal” now denotes a variety of musical discourses,  social practices, and cultural meaning, all of which revolve around concepts, images, and experiences of power.  The loudness and intensity of heavy metal music visibly empower fans, whose shouting and headbanging testify to the circulation of energy at concerts.  Metal energizes the body, transforming space and social relations.  The visual language of the metal album covers and the spectacular stage shows offer larger-than-life images tied to fantasies of social power, just as in the more prestigious musical spectacles of opera.  The clothing and hairstyle of metal fans, as much as the music itself, mark social spaces from concert halls to bedroom to streets, claiming them in the name of a heavy metal community.  And all of these aspects of power provoke strong reactions from those outside heavy metal, including fear and censorship. – Robert Walser, Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, p.2


The social interpretation of light and, in the final analysis, of all music is faced  by the one central question: what method is it to employ to avoid, still further presumption in methodology of the ambiguity of the static state of nature – in the components of drives – and of dynamic historical quality – in its social function.  If music, as it has done up to the present, is to escape the schematism of individual psychology, if the most elementary of its effects presupposes a concrete social condition of which it offers a tendentious indication, and if nature itself does not appear in music other than in historic images, then the material character of music might offer an indication that dialectical materialism might not answer the “question” about the relation of nature and history, but that it might rather contribute to the elimination of this question both in theory and praxis. – Theodor W. Adorno, “On The Social Situation of Music,” in Richard Leppert, ed. Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, p. 433

I suppose I’m backtracking a bit.  After a day spent wondering where to take my reflections from my experience on Sunday at Christ The Carpenter UMC, I’ve also been struggling with what probably shouldn’t be a struggle: What should I read?  While I suppose I should continue with Taylor’s A Secular Age, the truth is the “story” he is telling is one with which I’m overtly familiar; he tells it in much the way I would tell it, first breaking the constituent parts then reassembling them to give the reader a picture of the historical movement.  For me, this is well-worn territory, and in all honesty, I’m bored with yet another presentation of something that is as familiar to me as as the clothes I wear.  So, I wonder: What next?

I picked up Robert Walser’s ground-breaking study of Heavy Metal music and was skimming the early pages when the paragraph quoted above leaped out at me.  In a moment, while I hadn’t resolved what I wanted to read next – for all its importance as the first serious musicological study of Heavy Metal; for the way Walser incorporates both social and cultural theory in his analysis both of the music and what another musicologist, writing about British Progressive Rock, Edward Macan, calls the music’s “taste public” (a term I find far more satisfying than “fan”), it is now over 20 years old, dated in its references, and doesn’t include the way the “unity” of the style shattered in the 1990’s even as it morphed in its public presentation – I knew that I had to go back and talk a bit about what music is.  All the important texts I have read over the past several years have wrestled with this most basic question.  Some have been totally absorbed by it, such as This Is Your Brain On Music, which looks at the neurophysiology of music production and reception (as well as the distinctions between those parts of music that exist “out there” in the real world and those parts of music that are wholly produced by how our brain interprets particular types of physical stimuli).  It became clear to me, reading that paragraph from Walser that I  had to discuss the function of music in Church, precisely because our diverse preferences for styles of church music, hymnody, and gospel music are less reflective of reductionist descriptions of the sounds themselves (although these are important and can never be ignored).  Indeed, the distinctions and preferences of individuals and congregations are far more easily, and interestingly, explained by the social function particular musical style play for those who prefer them.  Any attempt to introduce theologically interesting music from outside what is acceptable as “church music” is as much a matter of confronting changing social functions (sometimes radically) as it is personal or congregational preferences for one style over another.

Thus it is that I drag Adorno along to remind us both of the social reality and function of music, as well as the limitations not only of his own particular vantage point, but the limitations of a solely social understanding of music.  For music is many things: it is, at its simplest definition, “organized sound”; it is a particular type of organized sound, emerging from an individual or group of individuals at different points in time; it is both the reflection of and answer to the social contradictions with which all societies live, often seeking to resolve them through a social dynamism in which social distinctions are submerged for the good of the whole.  In the West, particularly the White West, we have lived far too long under the spell of an aesthetic that insists the “highest” art is functionless, existing solely for itself.  Not only those who wrote about music, but those who composed it, on occasion accepted this inhuman, unhistorical, and impossible view of music.  Far too many of those who are current patrons of what is far too narrowly (and ignorantly) called “classical” music – including opera, the ballet, and chamber music – accept not only this understanding; their social practice of listening as a group demonstrates an insufficient understanding of the social function such music played in the past, and how audiences were lively, sometimes rowdy, and that it was for such audiences the music was originally produced.

Yet Adorno nevertheless is important precisely because he forces us to consider not only the historical and socioeconomic embeddedness of all music; he understood that precisely because music is historical to its core, it is thus functional to its core.  It is only when music ceases to be a part of a particular historical moment it becomes what Adorno calls “museum pieces”, his derisive term for much of the music-going public in the mid-20th century, who preferred music from previous centuries than the ongoing, living orchestral tradition that, Adorno continued to argue throughout his life, was ignored precisely because its major function: reflecting the absurdity and contradictions of emerging monopoly capitalism, the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and those who followed in their wake offered a vision of the current age that was far too threatening to be acceptable by the patrons of the arts, who also tend to be among the upper reaches of the bourgeoisie.

If there is any music that exists precisely because it is functional, it is church music.  Removed from the context of worship services, church music becomes less meaningful, even if its presentation is aesthetically pleasing, such as Beyonce’s performance of “Precious Lord”.  When music meant for a particular group of people at a particular time and place to perform particular social functions becomes yet another performance piece, its meaning necessarily changes.  For example, Joan Baez singing “Amazing Grace” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” at Woodstock means something completely different than if she were to sing them along with a congregation worshiping on a Sunday morning.

Hymnody, then – as a way of encapsulating all the varieties of church musics, past and present – is a social practice that includes not only the sounds themselves; it includes where they are performed, by whom, under what conditions (solo performance, choral performance, congregational performance), the histories both of the song as well as its reception by the particular congregation performing it.  The well-known backstory to the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”, for example, can make such a song not only a hymn, but a performance piece for solo or groups, without any reference to any religious context.  Indeed, it can be a song of personal strength in the face of a life tragedy that, while specifically dated (we in the West don’t lose too many to passenger ships sinking) is nevertheless an experience to which all can relate.  On the other hand, a hymn such as “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, cannot be removed from its particular religious setting without becoming meaningless, a performance piece to showcase either vocal virtuosity, or perhaps rearranged to demonstrate technical musical skill.  The particularity of the song, however, is lost.

It is for these reasons – set out only in sketch-like form here – that there is always resistance to changes in music in worship.  We become both familiar and comfortable with particular hymns that have brought solace, comfort, or some other meaning to our lives at particular times; they have become part and parcel of the life-history of a congregation; particular musical styles, including instrumentation and therefore timbres and tone colors, are part and parcel of this identity-forming social function.  Attempts to mix and match musical styles – to bring in “traditional” hymnody, “contemporary” praise music, and perhaps musics from other worshiping traditions, cultures, languages, or even confessional traditions – run up against the social practices of the particular congregation in question, resulting in conflicts rather than a more harmonious (pun intended) acceptance of a wider variety of musical possibilities open to more people.  I believe this is why, for example, in the mid-1980’s when the United Methodist Church last revised their hymnal, the acquiesced to pressure to include the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” despite its questionable theology, and the fact that fewer and fewer congregations actually sing it.  Just the thought of not offering the possibility to congregations who had sung it in the past was perceived as an attack upon their social identity, and the practices including musical practices that make up their identity.

While it might be profitable to become more inclusive in our musical choices both as congregations and as the Church as a whole, we must recognize the very real social barriers that exist in making even incremental changes in our musical practices.  This should give me pause as I try to work out the possibility of including secular musical styles in to our worship.  It might be beneficial to have classes, courses, discussion groups and whatnot in local congregations on hymnody, its history and function, the way musical styles have changed not only with technology (the invention of musical notation; the setting out of the well-tempered chord; the distinctions among musical modes and how they function; the rise of the organ, the piano, and resistance to their use, etc.) but as part of larger social processes rooted in particular histories.  Such an approach, making congregations more self-aware, might offer opportunities for growth, for self-reflection, and for a willingness for at least incremental experimentation with a larger diversity, first of musical style intended for church use.  Only then, perhaps, can we bring our congregations to hear the Word and feel the Spirit in all sorts of musical styles.


The Fullness Of Time: Handel’s Messiah, Timeliness, And The Future Of The UMC

I’m not sure a piece like The Messiah could be composed today. During Handel’s time, educated people were far more steeped in Bible then we are today. Their sources of information far fewer, the ones they had were more known than ours. When Charles Jennings put together that string of Scriptures that became the libretto to the composition, he clearly did so with an in-depth knowledge of the Bible, of the state of humanity, and of the grace and goodness of God.

– – – –

Somewhere, somehow, we need a new Pentecost, one that will teach us once more how to speak the Gospel in languages others know. I believe that it will come. I believe that God still wants to speak peace to the “heathens,” whom I define as any who have yet to come to the healing language of grace, peace and forgiveness. – Rev. Christy Thomas, “Denton Mystery Worship Eleven: Reflections On The Messiah And Methodism,” The Thoughtful Pastor.com, December 17, 2014

What becomes problematic for some Christians is the notion that Jesus would even be in places like a club, rap concert, and/or event that was not centered around some church.  Some Christians cannot see beyond the four church walls and the programs that run it.  So, finding Jesus in these irregular and nontraditional places will be hard to understand.  Still, even in these nontraditional spaces, community is happening.  And, if we really believe that God is Alpha and Omega, omnipresent, “sell-seeing,” might Jesus be in that smoke-filled strip club trying to talk to the inhabitants there? – Daniel White Hodge, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs, and a Cultural Theology, p. 120

I have another blog where I reflect on what I’m reading.  I’m currently reading Daniel White Hodge’s The Soul of Hip Hop.  In a recent post on two chapters in that book, I included a video from DMX for the song “Look Thru My Eyes”, about which I wrote:

 The rapper is confessing a life lived hard, fast, and violent.  He is searching, however, for forgiveness and understanding.  He understands why so many are afraid of him, precisely because they should be afraid of who he was.  Who he is, or at least wants to be, however, is a daily struggle, made no easier with the  knowledge of who he was, which includes a preference for striking out and striking back.  As he says at the end, his heart is both good and ugly.  Which, in the end, is a description of all of us, unless we are to deny the reality of sin in our lives.  The only difference is DMX is both more clear and more honest.

In the song above, DMX has clearly moved on, yet still struggling to be who he knows he can be even as he is immersed in a world that only wants him to be what they tell him he should be: violent, threatening, the very poster-child for our social evils.

In a piece written about attending a partial performance of Handel’s The Messiah at a United Methodist Church in her hometown of Denton, TX, Rev. Thomas wonders whether such a piece could even be written and received today.  I would insist that such a question is meaningless, for several reasons.  For one thing, it reifies what is historical, ripping Handel’s oratorio out of its place in history and making it not only a commodity, but in doing so making it something it is not – a fetish, something timeless, a thing unto itself (thank you, Theodor Adorno!).  Handel wrote The Messiah at a time when the baroque style was exhausting itself across Europe; when the continent itself was undergoing a socio-economic shift driven by aristocratic protests against absolute monarchy; when the move from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment was already underway.  In short, for all its beauty and power, it is a thing of history, with a past, a present that is our past, and a future that is our present.  The meaning of the words has also most certainly shifted, as our understanding of the Scriptural passages has changed over the centuries.  Not the least problem is that it was written as an Easter oratorio, not a Christmas oratorio.  That alone demonstrates the massive shift in our understanding of the piece.

Furthermore, by searching the conservatories and concert halls for The Messiah, by claiming a need for a new Pentecost without looking around – or better listening around – Thomas misses all the ways contemporary music styles provide all sorts of thoughtful, meaningful Biblical and theological fodder for people younger than we.  Wondering about The Messiah ignores the socio-historical reality that people younger than we are distrustful of large institutions and organizations; I would extend that to attempts at large-scale musical compositions as well.  The Messiah was written in a time and place when the all-encompassing, totalizing reality of Christianity offered a wholeness that has been questionable for over a century.  This is not due to any fault within Christianity itself.  Rather, the events of the 20th century, particularly for youth and young people in the United States for the past two generations have all but eliminated any faith in completion, finality, and wholeness.  The Messiah could not be written, and if it were would not be received well, because it offers what too many no longer accept – a narrative that encompasses all of reality, purporting to explain what is actually a series of open questions to be pursued by communities of faith in their own way.

When Rev. Thomas brings up the issues facing The United Methodist Church, while noting the absence of younger people in far too many of our congregations, she may not be aware that we have yet to understand how our churches turn away youth and young people by our demands, our answers, and our refusal to listen to a vernacular with which we are uncomfortable.  It isn’t just our recent focus on sexuality; it is a whole system of youth and young adult ministry that seeks to provide answers without waiting for the questions.  Far too many of our churches are uncomfortable with baggy pants, tattoos, and most especially white congregations are afraid of young people like rapper DMX, even as he insists we should be afraid, but not of who he is.  We are at a point in our history, yet again, where the young African-American male is yet again the front-page threat to our lives and our social stability.  Our churches could provide safe places for young African-Americans to come and be heard, to be listened to on their own terms without judgment or precondition, yet even our historically black congregations seem unwilling to open our doors that far, despite our marketing motto.

The Messiah may well be out there.  Just not in one piece.  It might be in a small club holding a freestyle poetry night.  It might be in a concert venue, filled with youth, black and white, listening to the questions, given against a background that makes those questions not so much aesthetic and theological as existential and of deadly importance.  When we wonder where our youth and young people are, it might be a good idea to listen to them, their fears, their rage, their distrust of institutions, and how we contribute to our own demise through our refusal, as an organization, to open ourselves to the world as it really is, preferring to perform The Messiah at Christmas instead of selections from Lauryn Hill, Tupac Shakur, and Ice Cube.

Reflections On

Some of Adorno’s most beautiful, and most floridly descriptive, work in two essays on Gustav Mahler.  I don’t even try to do them justice.  I just point to them, offering a reason to visit again those vast spaces Mahler created.

Reflections On

Adorno tries to show Wagner is still relevant.  I try to show that he that he may be right.

Stating The Problem

Lately, it’s been very necessary when the music is playing and we’re supposed to be singing, you know, to God. Frankly, I’m tired of it. Maybe all the “seekers” are enjoying it, but I’m finding it hard to sincerely engage in anything resembling worship.

Instead of feeling the joy of joining with other believers in offering praises to the Almighty, I often feel insulted, bored, and disconnected from 2,000 years of worship history. And just when I think that maybe it’s just me having a selfish and sinful attitude — a very real possibility — a flamboyant electrical guitar solo breaks out. I’m left deciding whether to waive my iPhone and buy the t-shirt or just shut up and go home. – Bill Blankenschaen, “Why I’ve Stopped Singing In Your Church”, Patheos.com, July 15, 2012

Among the many challenges the contemporary church faces is worship.  Specifically, how do we construct worship services that are faithful to the goal of worship, offer something both for the regular attendee as well as those who come only occasionally or the newcomer, is rooted in the Gospel and Biblical witness, and is faithful to over 2,000 years of church history even while speaking – and singing – in an idiom that is recognizable.  Clergy, worship planners, and church musicians face these challenges each day as they struggle with the balancing act necessary to make worship just that even while preventing the experience from being either stale or nonsensical.  If anyone thinks this is easy, I’d invite them to try it just once.

In the article linked above, Bill Blankenschaen gets to the heart of part of our problem: church music in “contemporary” worship services.  The article has over one thousand comments, and while I won’t pretend to have read them all I will say that the discussion covers the gamut that has been at the heart of discussions and arguments about church music since New Testament times.  That this is not a new issue is cold comfort, however, to those who are forced to work with limited material resources, limited ability among many church musicians, and limited appreciation from many congregants.  The responses, too, seem to suggest that the matter of church music occurs in a vacuum.  What some, like me, are left with – despite some excellent beginning suggestions from Blankenschaen – is little more than recognition that we are at an impasse where church music is concerned and little direction other than an understanding of church history on the one hand and the contradictory requests/demands from church members about what they would like.

One of the lessons I’m learning from reading Adorno on music is that the best music confronts us with the truth of our contemporary world.  Thus, for example, for Adorno Beethoven is the true Hegelian composer, offering not just the antitheses of early 19th century, but their synthesis in a hopeful, Enlightenment-infused belief in the secular perfection of humanity through a combination of reason and sympathy (thus the first stirrings of Romanticism in Beethoven’s later works).  At the other end of the spectrum, Arnold Schoenberg shows Europe in the early 20th century the collapse of the Enlightenment project through the use of atonality; Schoenberg offers no solutions – music, like all art, isn’t a problem solver but rather a problem-definer – but precisely because of the clarity of his musical vision, his works are rejected because who wants to hear the truth that one’s world is collapsing?

Our church music should be no less cognizant of the social realities of our time than is the best secular music.  Indeed, what has always made the best music in church is the confrontation between the Biblical witness and the contemporary world as the hymn or song writer experienced it.  Even as we praise God, we should always be doing so with an understanding that our praise is limited by our ongoing life lived this side of the eschaton.  We cannot escape the world, with all the ambivalence the Bible ascribes to that world, in which we live.  Nor should we; it is this world in which we live and to which and for which we should be living as a church.  Our music, no less than our prayers, should resonate with St. Paul’s dictum that we just don’t know how to do it as we ought.  We should be willing to approach Jesus and ask, “Teach us to sing,” no less than the Disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray.

Finally, as a guide toward a path through the thickets of opinions, ideas, suggestions, demands, theological and Biblical concerns, and a history that is as confounding and contradictory as all history tends to be, I would suggest that this is a “problem” without solution.  There is no answer to the question, “What’s the best way to offer music that praises God while engaging the congregation?”  There is only the experiences, good and bad, of churches who keep working on this conundrum, week in and week out.  No one gets it right.  Many get it very, very wrong, but at least they keep trying.  Being thoughtful, knowledgeable, aware both of the needs of the congregation and the world in which it worships and works, and most of all prayerful – these are the best ways to begin moving forward in the full knowledge there is no end to the path, and it is always one surrounded by thorns, steep cliffs hidden in shadows, and mobs of angry church-goers who are quite ready to demand something different even if they don’t quite know what that might sound like.

Reflections On

I take a look at three brief pieces on jazz, kitsch, and background music.  It’s fun, it’s prophetic, and it’s disturbing.

Reflections On

I think I’m polite as possible in raking Adorno over the coals for writing about popular music when it’s clear through his writing he has no idea what he’s talking about.