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La société dans l’écriture musicale

Jean-Paul Olive
mai 2011Traduction de Joyce Shintani


1The temptation is great to assign to art and music a specified place in society. This authoritarian and political temptation already existed in Greek antiquity, and its multiple recurrences mark Western history. It is conceivable that in the thick fog of contemporary culture current manifestations of such a temptation might take the form of certain cognitive sciences, of communication science, or of sociology. In all these disciplines empirical practice, be it of experimental or statistical nature, usually aims at general knowledge ; while art with its very gesture tends toward particular sensory experience. It is to be feared that, without realizing it, the practices of the above named disciplines, which regard art through narrow spectacles, will arrive at objects that are, so to speak, dead. Or they will arrive at objects that have reached such a state of stiffness that in order to finish their reports, they must rely on the sole element supposedly still alive : the receiver, the audience under the influence of gospel word. As for art, it lives elsewhere, limitless ; and to begin with, next to those who produce it.

2The cognitive, communicative, and social dimensions, however, are far from being absent in works of art. They are to be found in forms other than those a particular, often dominating, discipline uses to evaluate them and, in doing so, reduces them. As behavior based on its own forms, art debates within its own confines topics such as knowledge, human relations, and the society that produces it. When art ceases to debate, it has ceased to be inventive, and it descends without noticing to the level of the publicity slogan that falsely presents itself as the mirror image of reality. But when, in its own way, art takes charge of the debate, it contradicts the movement that by an inverse process would make of it a social object – antisocial, as it were. The interrogation of external aspects – visual and auditory characteristics, emotion, comprehension – the workings of appearance open a glimpse (not related to cinematic effects or virtual reality) that everything could be otherwise. According to Herbert Marcuse, this is where the utopian dimension of aesthetic experience dwells, a dimension that today is readily rejected, but one that deserves renewed interest : a fragile antidote to an all too general platitude.

3Music, which questions the collective We at the deepest levels of the individual Me, which merges with the World in order to contemplate it – music, after its passage through the heart of subjective experience, also assimilates in its own way the disparate members of society, albeit by transforming them profoundly. Although musical notation has its own logic, there is hardly a phenomenon within it that doesn’t refer to society : polyphony, of course, but also harmonic anchoring, the relationship to dissonance, the unfolding of time through forms, technical tools that evolve parallel to those of society. There is nothing in music that is constituted without having been the expression of a social situation, nothing that is sedimented without the tacit approval of a community that appropriates its signs, nothing that is reified without the collective forgetting of initial meaning. That is why Adorno, in his Aesthetic Theory, writes “Music betrays all art. Just as in music society, its movement, and its contradictions appear only in shadowy fashion – speaking out of it, indeed, yet in need of identification – so it is with all other arts.”1

4The importance of measures that seek to analyze the place and function of art and its works in society will certainly not be denied here, though it would seem useful to advise against an assimilation of art that tends to neutralize its import. The power of socio-economic mechanisms at work in sectors of the cultural industry has already done much in this direction by optimizing technical procedures and by manipulating psychological effects, as well. One shudders at the notion that under the influence of scientific reason that allows no resistance, in a society that no longer accepts ambivalence and opacity, art is reduced to a secondary function, quickly salvaged by the entertainment industry.

5For this reason, in this issue of Filigrane points of view have been selected that consider art as a specific kind of knowledge, irreplaceable in its form and its basis, in its production and its reception ; knowledge that does not content itself with merely backing up reality, rather knowledge that plumbs reality’s depth as it disrupts it.

6We publish as a prelude to this issue of Filigrane Adorno’s text “Bourgeois Opera,” a beautiful and provocative text on a genre that never ceases to question us. Our warm thanks are due to Contrechamps publications and to Philippe Albèra for allowing us to publish this article, an extract of the new French translation of Adorno’s Klangfiguren, Musikalische Schriften to appear shortly.

7Each of the following articles in its own way examines society’s place in artistic writing. First, through the importance of writing for Western musical thought (Gianmario Borio) ; then, through the presence of politics (in the most intense and lacerating sense) in expressionist works (Georges Bloess) and in the late works of Luigi Nono (Laurent Feneyrou). And just as the question of the image with its deceptions and aporias is at the heart of relations between art and society, the three articles that follow form the problematic center of this issue. A text close to music queries Samuel Beckett’s ‘imaging processes’ (Sophie Charlin) ; another discusses the problems that new uses of tonality pose for criticism (Vladimir Safatle) ; yet another text explores Walter Benjamin on Baudelaire and criticism (Philippe Ivernel). The issue continues its reflection with two historical articles, one that sheds light on how musical composition integrated social contrivances at the dawn of the Baroque era (Joël Heuillon), the other showing how before its unification the category of basso continuo was diversified and linked to cultural contexts (Denis Morrier). The final article investigates what happens to the social imprint in a work when no (or almost no) score fixates it ; dance provides a case in point with the Bagouet Notebooks (Isabelle Launay).

8As a postlude to this third issue of Filigrane, we return to Adorno’s thought with one of the most profound themes of his aesthetics, but perhaps also one of the most polemical with regard to mediation between music and society : the question of muteness and the silent reception of musical works (Max Paddison).


1  Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (Robert Hullor-Kentor, translator), London, continuum, 2002, p. 226.


Jean-Paul Olive, «La société dans l’écriture musicale», Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société. [En ligne], Numéros de la revue, La société dans l’écriture musicale, mis à  jour le : 26/05/2011, URL : https://revues.mshparisnord.fr:443/filigrane/index.php?id=126.


Jean-Paul OliveJoyce Shintani