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Performance and the Silent Work
Mediation and Critical Reflexion in Adorno’s Theory of Musical Reproduction

Max Paddison
mai 2011



This article examines the concept of silence in Adorno’s writings on musical performance, and in particular in his unfinished project Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion. The relation between reflexion, mediation and reification in music is explored conceptually, taking as the central point of reference Adorno’s notion of silence as muteness (Stummheit). This is employed as a limiting concept (Grenzbegriff) in its various manifestations as the ‘silent work’, ‘silent reading’, ‘silent music-making’, and ultimately music ‘falling silent’ as critique. It is argued that the silent reading of the score functions as the extreme case which serves to reveal the gesture of muteness underlying the performed musical work, and which constitutes its riddle-character.


Texte intégral   

ah oui, quelques mots sur le silence 1
Samuel Beckett, L’Innommable.


1In this article2 I examine Adorno’s use of the concept of silence in his writings, taking as my focus a group of fragments3 from his never completed project on musical reproduction.4 The position presented by Adorno is radical, polarized, and often polemical in character, pitting score against performance, silence against sound, and because of the starkness of its formulation it demands engagement and critique. I argue that the key question raised by Adorno’s emphasis on the silent reading of the score over the performance of the work ultimately concerns his conception of what constitutes critical self-reflexion in musical terms, in view of the mediated character of all music and its institutions and the inevitability of music’s reification, first as score and then as performance. In short, I seek to explore conceptually the relation between reflexion, mediation and reification in music through a consideration of aspects of Adorno’s theory of musical reproduction, taking as my central point of reference his multivalent and frequently contentious concept of silence as muteness (Stummheit),5 understood as a limiting concept (Grenzbegriff)6 in its various manifestations as the “silent work”, “silent reading”, “silent music-making”, and ultimately music “falling silent” as critique.

1. Silence

2In a note from the mid 1940s, Adorno recorded his intention “to develop the ideal of silent music-making, ultimately the reading of musical texts, in the context of falling silent 7 And in parenthesis he linked this significantly with what he identified as “the complete destruction of the sensuous phenomenon of music through mass reproduction”8, thereby clearly signalling the critical direction of his thinking. Taken together as a cluster of ideas, this constitutes the most extreme position imaginable in the context of music. Silence is employed as a Grenzbegriff, as Adorno himself calls it,9 a “limiting concept” that can be used negatively, I suggest, to map the conceptual boundaries and polarities of the whole field between the silent reading of the score and its performance, and between the potential understandings and interpretations of the musical work and what could be seen as its opposite extreme, encompassing the culture industry, the marketing of musical commodities, and what Adorno saw as the encouragement of passive consumption. This position is capped by another note from the same period, where Adorno writes: “Perhaps – as a residue of unsublimated mimesis – “music-making” is already just as infantile as reading aloud 10 In advance of John Cage’s silent pieces of the 1950s, therefore, Adorno had raised in a much more fundamental and radical sense the issue of silence, its relation to the musical work as performance, and its critical relation to mass reproduction and the music business. Indeed, he brought to the fore the idea of the “silent” musical work in a number of related but distinctly different senses which I explore in the course of this article, treating them as freely related points of reference within an overarching concept of silence. Seen in the context of performance, however, music must speak, it must “sound” and break the silence. The predominant images are therefore either of compositions that gravitate towards silence even while sounding (the example of Webern inevitably comes to mind, but there are many more cases in twentieth-century and contemporary music), or the rejection of performance and the sensuous phenomenon of music for the “silent” contemplation of the score.

3In the light of this, I propose that Adorno’s trajectory is not one that culminates in the silence of John Cage’s famous silent piece 4’33’’ of 1952, where what is implied is the absence of sound, while, of course, the piece itself is a demonstration that there is no such silence – as the composer writes in his essay “Experimental Music” (1958), “try as we may to make a silence, we cannot”11. Instead, Adorno’s position seems to me to have more in common with the falling silent expressed in Samuel Beckett’s novel L’Innommable of the same period12 – the irony of the writer seeking an end to words but compelled to go on writing in order to say so: “ quelques mots sur le silence, puis une seule chose 13. I consider that Adorno’s search for the ideal, silent work underlying any particular realizations as performance is of this order, as is his notion of contemporary music “falling silent”.

4Adorno only became familiar with the very different positions of Cage and Beckett by the later 1950s, and by the time their impact on his thinking becomes detectable in the 1960s it is largely to do with problems of composition and the concept of the work of art. In the fragments from the reproduction project that mainly concern us here, however, and which go back to an earlier period when any “influence” from Cage or Beckett can be discounted, Adorno’s focus is primarily on performance and the relation to the score. As a particular mode of aesthetic experience, musical performance is understood by Adorno as a type of non-conceptual, non-discursive rationality which operates mimetically on the “inside” of the work. The performed work is the mediation of performer and score, of subject and object (in the relative and dialectical senses in which these terms need to be understood in Adorno), the spatiality of the score temporalized in performance, the pastness of the work as reified text made present through the warming subjectivity of the performer. Seen in this context, it is not difficult to conceive of an experience of music without its manifestation as a sounding event. The accomplished reader of the score traces and retraces the shape of the work through an act of focused imagination, drawing on the accumulated experience of harmonic, timbral and rhythmic relationships and correspondences which makes such an activity possible at all, and of course within a cultural and historical tradition of music that is score based. Whether such an accomplished reader actually exists – or still exists – or whether it is to be regarded simply as an ideal-type or historical category belonging to an earlier age, is open to debate. What is not in dispute, however, is that musical notation lies at the heart of the Western art tradition of music, has done so for nearly the last 1000 years since Guido d’Arezzo, and was the technology that made the whole tradition possible in the first place. Furthermore, the score, as the bringing together of separate parts viewable simultaneously on the page, provides an indispensable point of convergence for the work – the endpoint for the compositional process and the commencement point for the performance process. It is precisely as this point of convergence between composition and performance that the score can be read silently as the soundless work. It is also as this point of convergence that the soundless work as score can be regarded as the composition mediated “in itself” in advance of any further mediation by reproduction as performance.

5Like Lichtenberg’s bladeless knife without a handle,14 the idea of silent music at first sight appears to belong to a category of paradoxes that are self-negating, conceivable only in the context of pataphysics, the science of impossible objects. To see it in this way, however, is misleading. As object, the score “is” the (silent) work, and yet it is not so without its further mediation by a subject capable of mimetically retracing its contours as experience. This may be as performance, but, as we have established, it may also be as silent reading of the score, in which case the music can be “heard internally”. Nevertheless, the suggestion that the silent reading of the score, “the ideal of silent music-making”, could be of greater value in itself than the performance as sounding event seems genuinely to be a strange idea. This is particularly the case when we find that Adorno writes elsewhere in these fragmentary notes that “reproduction is necessary. Music needs it 15 These two statements, quite clearly diametrically opposed, are not easily brought into the kind of relationship that can become dialectically illuminating, and which, for Adorno, would surely have been essential had he succeeded in completing the book. As it is, the idea of “silent music-making”, and its relation to music “falling silent”, occupies a seemingly peripheral position in Adorno’s early sketches, notes and drafts as they stand, only to return in the equally fragmentary drafts of the late Ästhetische Theorie (posthumously published in 1970). It is precisely for this reason I have taken it as my point of focus here, and suggest that it can be seen not only as a provocative, but also as an extraordinarily thought-provoking and important idea. Its lack of integration within the project as available to us – even taking into account fleeting references to it in the brief schemata for the book sketched first in 1927 and then later in 194616 – possibly indicates the difficulties Adorno had experienced in bringing such a diversity of conflicting materials into a meaningful constellation. Whatever the reasons for it, its marginality lends it a challenging character, and such extreme polarization of score and performance cannot help but be provocative. As such it calls for a critical response in order to move beyond what appears at first sight to constitute a dialectical stalemate, frozen in its extremes, and to indicate how these extremes themselves can be understood as mediated by each other.

2. Context

6In itself, the claim that a trained musician can get a clear mental representation of a musical work from a silent reading of the score is commonplace enough, even though it is often greeted with some scepticism by less musically literate music lovers. But to argue, as Adorno does, that the situation is directly comparable to reading a book silently as opposed to reading it out loud, as if the need for the sound of music, or the making of music, is as rudimentary, unnecessary, and ultimately redundant as having to mouth the sounds of words while reading them in order to be able to understand them at all, is controversial. It not only challenges our most fundamental assumptions about the centrality of performance to music, but also goes straight to the heart of the question as to what music actually is. Even if we choose to treat this idea as one of Adorno’s wilder flights of fancy, and to categorize it as a typical case of exaggeration in order to make a point, we are still left with much to think about. If music is not, in the first instance, a sensuous, sounding experience of the performance of a work that takes place in time, then what is it? Is the musical work really a cognitive structure to be understood ultimately beyond its sonic realization, or is it simply a set of instructions as score intended solely for performance? Autonomous music in the Western art tradition, as it is generally accepted by writers on aesthetics, is to do with non-conceptual sound structures which unfold through time and which shape our inner experience of time. In hearing the music shaping our experience, we are at the same time also listening to ourselves – as Ernst Bloch memorably put it: “We hear only ourselves”17. But, however interiorized, sound remains nevertheless fundamental to this experience of music, and furthermore, the “sounding structure” itself is more than simply a blank screen for the projection of our own needs, being also the occasion for such projected meanings. What is significant in Adorno’s case is that, in a book he had clearly planned to be his most considered statement on performance, he argues a position, which, at first sight (deceptively, as we shall see), appears set on identifying a permanent, atemporal and transcendent location for the musical work, away from the transience of its sensuous and temporal realization as a sounding performance. He argues in his Ästhetische Theorie that “scores are not only almost always better than the performances, they are more than simply instructions for them; they are indeed the thing itself”18. Adorno locates the idea of the musical work firmly in the score, not in the performance.

7This raises the issue of the relationship of performance to score, a relationship which, as we have seen, Adorno proposes is mimetic rather than conceptual in character. Adorno argues that music is a form of non-conceptual cognition, but a form of cognition [Erkenntnis] nonetheless; that it is self-reflexive through its form; that the sensuous “sound” of music is not indispensable to this reflexivity – that is to say, music is more than just the noise it makes. Furthermore, while music, as a performing art, is necessarily a temporal art, in that it unfolds through time, it is not bound by its temporality but, in the form of the score, is also characterized by spatialization, as the spatialization of the temporal.19 This is a fundamental aspect of the preservation of music through writing, through a script – time as memory, the making of the past present, a process of which performance is part in its “imitation of the script”. He writes: “All music-making is a recherche du temps perdu”.20 It is in this broad context that we need to understand as fundamental Adorno’s insistence that autonomous art works are mimetic – not an imitation of something else, but of themselves – and that they can only be experienced, interpreted and understood by means of a corresponding mimetic behaviour on our part. In the case of music, this applies both to the sphere of reception and to the sphere of reproduction: that is to say, it applies both to the listener (and score reader) as well as to the performer and her relation to the score.

3. Performance, Score, and Unrealizable Work

8Performance does not exist in a vacuum. Musical works in the Western high art tradition change historically through the dynamic relationship of interpreter to score. They also change as the conditions of their reception change, and this includes importantly the extreme changes in the conditions of their technical reproduction and distribution. An aspect of this process of change is the degree of freedom of interpretation available to the performer, given the social situation of music at any particular historical period, together with the historical stage reached by the musical material in the interaction between composer and compositional techniques. It could justifiably be said that these concerns constituted the underlying themes of Adorno’s theory of musical reproduction right from the start. In his early essay “Zum Problem der Reproduktion”, published in Pult und Taktstock in 1925 when he was 21, Adorno wrote:

“For interpretation has its history, just like the works [themselves] and the interpretative freedom invested in them. All this becomes manifest in the problem of tradition, and also in the current question as to whether all works are interpretable at all times”21.

9Works of the past begin to be uninterpretable, Adorno argued in 1929 in an article entitled “Nachtmusik” in the journal Anbruch, when their subjective content decays and no longer speaks to us: the works “fall silent”, even in performance.22 At the same time, the question also arises as to whether any performance under any conditions can actually realize the ideal work implied in the score. My emphasis here, at least to start with, is on two extreme aspects of what can be called the “performance act”. These are, on the one hand, the unrealized, “ideal” work as score, and, on the other hand, the realized performance as what I have called “rhetorical act”, as object, and as commodity.

10The first aspect concerns the unrealized, ideal work, to which any particular performance is related but not identical. For convenience, in the case of Western art music, this idea of the unrealized, and perhaps unrealizable work is located in the score, as Adorno insists, although it is also not identical to it. Indeed, in its most extreme form the emphasis on the score as the location of the work “in itself” has affinities with philosophical Idealism, and, in its farthest reaches, with solipsism. It is the unheard work, the work which exists only in thought, in silent contemplation, available only to those with skills sufficiently highly developed to effect the transfer from written text to mental representation without the mediation of a “sounding” performance. I appreciate, of course, the dubious character of such an extreme claim, with the kind of elitism it appears to imply, but I posit it here simply as a philosophically necessary position, following Adorno’s indication that we should take it as a “limiting concept”, in order to shed light on aspects of our experience of music which are otherwise easily overlooked. To put it another way, it emphasizes the work at a level of multiple possibilities, the source of endless re-readings, behind or beyond any particular realization of the piece as an individual performance. An autonomous musical composition, in Adorno’s terms, establishes its own frame of reference – a context of meaning [ein Sinnzusammenhang] which the performer reconstitutes by means of mimetic behaviour. It is to the work-as-score that performance relates, argues Adorno, and it is this we need to understand as the real musical object.

11The other extreme aspect of performance posited here concerns what I shall call the rhetoric of performance, its oratorical aspect, something which applies equally whether the work is heard live or in its technical reproduction as recording. When, in one of the fragments from Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion I shall discuss in more detail later, Adorno talks of the performance of music having “in itself something of the sales pitch about it, persuasive and propagandistic”23, and that this “shows itself to be related to the domination of the culture industry today”24, I think that it is what I have called the “rhetoric” of performance that he has in mind. Even though he does not actually use the term Rhetorik as such, the terms Überredungskunst and Redekunst are the German synonyms for the art of persuading an audience to a point of view through the power of speech – that is, rhetoric. I suggest that, quite apart from its well-known associations with classical rhetoric which lasted right up to the Baroque period, musical performance is also rhetorical in the more commonplace senses of the term, both positive and negative, in that it seeks to capture our attention and to persuade us that this particular performance is the best there is. Furthermore, I would suggest that there can be no half measures in the rhetoric of performance, as the performed work must strike us as convincing, and this means persuading us that work and performance are in fact identical, at least for the duration of the performance. Indeed, the performance must of its very nature put itself forward as the work itself – or at very least as an art form in its own right.25 The performer seeks to convince us, in ways similar to the actor or orator, that this is the only possible way of performing the work. Furthermore, there is no real concession to the idea of multiple possible readings, because the performance says that, for the moment at least, there is only this reading. This applies equally to those scores which build in multiple possible routes for performance (one thinks, for example, of labyrinth and mobile form pieces from the 1960s), as the actual route taken becomes, in effect, the only one directly available to the listener, and seeks to persuade us of its viability and even its inevitability. Again, I exaggerate, of course, but only to make the point that to convince the audience is to persuade us that this is how it is, this is how it must be, and in this lies the “propagandistic” aspect of performance for Adorno. The recorded performance fixes this moment and, even though the performer may subsequently decide, for whatever reason, to modify the performance of the piece over a period of time, or even to change the interpretation radically, the recording remains not only a testament to that particular performance, but also its fixing in time, and its reification a second time (that is, after its “first reification” as score). Furthermore, the work in its technically reproduced form, as opposed even to the straightforward recording of a “live performance”, takes on another existence as an essential aspect of its marketing and distribution: that of a commodity.

12These two extreme positions could be characterized as the private and the public spheres of performance. Alternatively, to put it in Hegelian terms, on the one hand there is the autonomous work as an “in and for itself”, the silent work contemplated in silence, and on the other hand there is the heteronomous work as a “for other”, both as the rhetorical performance aiming to capture attention and persuade an audience, and as the sounding and technically reproduced work as commodity to be bought and sold in the market. From the perspective of the philosophy of art, some attempt must be made to conceptualize the relations which underpin these extremes – that is to say, their mediation – before going on to discuss the concepts of reflexion and mimesis. To this end I turn again to a close reading of Adorno.

4. Mediation

13In 1932 in his seminal essay “Zur gesellschaftlichen Lage der Musik”, Adorno wrote:

“The alienation of music from society is reflected in the antinomies of musical production: it is tangible as an actual social fact in the relation of production to consumption. Musical reproduction mediates between these two realms. It serves production, which can become immediately present only through reproduction, otherwise it would exist only as a dead text or score; it is further the form of all musical consumption, for society can participate only in reproduced works and never only in the texts. The demand of production – understood as the demand for authenticity – and that of consumption – the demand for comprehensibility – address reproduction to the same degree and intertwine in it 26

14This passage (from what is essentially a sociological text focusing on the public role of music, and which correspondingly underplays the importance that the score normally occupies for Adorno in his writings on aesthetics) emphasizes the mediating role of performance as well as identifying the polarity between production and consumption. Adorno implies here the complexity of such a mediating role, in case we should take the idea too simply and see the performer merely as the interlocutor between work and public. We need to remember that for Adorno mediation [Vermittlung] is not simply another term for communication between two spheres. On the contrary, the spheres themselves – i.e. as musical material, composition, performance and reception – are already historically and socially mediated through and through.27 The fragments collected together in Adorno’s Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion offer us a valuable opportunity to reconsider the relationship of performer to historically mediated work-as-score, and to understand this as a parallel to the relationship of composer to historically mediated musical material. Adorno writes:

“The historical changes in the work as such always come about in relation to the stage reached by the material – one of the most important categories. This can also be expressed as follows: that each later commensurable work objectively changes each earlier work. Reproduction registers these changes and simultaneously affects them. Between reproduction and the work reigns a dialectical relationship”28.

15In both cases (i.e. composermaterial and performerscore) the relationship comes under the concept of reflexion, in particular as the immanent reflexion of the musical work “in itself” (i.e. encompassing the dynamic internal relationship of the form of the individual musical workthe pre-formed handed-down musical material as the immanent dialectic of the work). Technical analysis is understood by Adorno as a form of “second reflexion” on the “first reflexion” (i.e. immanent reflexion) of the work in itself, in the sense in which Adorno always insisted that the work contains its own immanent analysis. These different levels or modalities of reflexion also come under the concept of mediation, in that the material itself is already socially and historically mediated (‘pre-formed’). It is further mediated within the form of the individual work, and that “immanent reflexion” is mediated a second time by the various forms taken by the reception of the work, whether as musical experience (where the work is imitated experientially “from the inside”, as it were), or as analysis (where the capacity of the work to function as a form of “conceptless cognition” is examined in technical detail, in terms of the relationship of parts to whole and of general to particular).

16Adorno’s interest in performance is twofold: on the one hand a good performance shows us an X-ray picture [Röntgenaufnahme] of the work, revealing the deeper structure beneath the skin; on the other hand, performances are always, to a greater or lesser extent, inadequate, given the multiple potentialities of the work (and to this extent the X-ray metaphor proves limited). As we have seen, Adorno elevates the “work” (whether as ideal work or as score representing potential other performances) over its performance, and argues that the status of the score is more than mere aide-mémoire or set of instructions. For Adorno, the score itself becomes the locus of the work, or at least the point of our access to the work beyond any individual performance and even beyond the further mediation of the performance by the music business (the culture industry). Hence Adorno’s impulse is to bypass the sphere of performance, while at the same time arguing for performance informed by analysis. Typically, there are contradictions here that need to be identified. But first we need to address the concept of reflexion itself in more detail.

5. Reflexion

17As is so often the case with Adorno’s terminology, the concept of reflexion is not clearly defined as such in his writings. Nevertheless I would argue that the term is used with a certain consistency, in particular the distinctions Adorno makes in usage between erste Reflexion (first reflexion) and zweite Reflexion (second reflexion). I suggest, unsurprisingly, that the important source for Adorno here is Hegel, but specifically Hegel’s Logik (Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften) (1830) and Wissenschaft der Logik, rather than Phänomenologie des Geistes or his Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik. Briefly, in his Logik (1830), Hegel argues that thought is active, and in its relation to its object, whether inner or outer, the mediation of the object by thought enables us to discover the true nature of the object. In §22 Hegel writes regarding reflexion: “it is thus only through the mediation of change that the true nature of the object comes to consciousness”29. Thought,in becoming aware of its object, also becomes aware of itself, and in so doing enables the object to be seen from a different – that is, double – viewpoint. But this consciousness of the object comes about as the result of a change, both in our awareness of the object and also importantly in the object itself as the result of our consciousness of it. This bending of thought back on itself is what he means by reflexion. Significantly, however, for Hegel reflexion is also to be understood as immanent to the object itself, and the adequacy of our thought lies in the extent to which it serves to reveal the immanent reflexion of the work in itself. This is what I mean by immanent self-reflexion. The act of reflexion alters the way we understand something, to the extent that it illuminates the immanent self-reflexion of the object itself. At the same time it also changes the object itself. Furthermore, reflexion for Hegel “leads to the universal in things”, that is, it connects the particular to the general principle, or universal.

18These aspects of the concept of reflexion as identified by Hegel are of importance for our understanding of the distinct levels on which Adorno uses the term in his aesthetics and, specifically, in his theory of musical reproduction. As we noted earlier, musical works of the past become increasingly difficult to interpret. At one level the works become mute, and fall silent – in the 1929 essay “Nachtmusik” Adorno uses the concept Stummheit – while at another level it is their “suprapersonal, original elements” [überpersonale, Ursprungselemente]30 which now come to the fore. This has nothing to do with the reactionary conviction that art works are immortal and exist “outside history”. Quite the reverse: art works for Adorno are thoroughly historical, and they grow old, die and decay. It is in this process, so he argues, that their truth content [Wahrheitsgehalt] becomes evident, and the approach to interpretation also changes.

19As the spontaneity and improvisatory playfulness of interpretation and performance also diminishes historically as part of this process, analysis becomes increasingly a prerequisite for adequate performance. As we have seen, musical analysis is for Adorno a form of “second reflexion” upon the musical work’s own immanent “first reflexion”. This “first reflexion” needs to be understood as the dialectical relationship within the work itself not only between part and whole, but equally importantly as that between the work’s form and its handed-down material (itself “pre-formed”). In the lecture “Zum Problem der musikalischen Analyse” (1969), Adorno argued that the process of immanent reflexion within musical works has increased historically, and that the works’ own need for analysis has thereby also correspondingly increased:

“If one takes Wagner’s claim regarding music’s ‘coming of age’ seriously – that is, the inescapable relation of music to reflexion – then with this the significance of analysis as something immanent to the works themselves must also increase correspondingly, and has indeed done so. Given the presence of living experience, music unfolds itself through analysis; it becomes fuller for this experience, richer rather than poorer. An art aware of itself is an analyzed art. There is a kind of convergence between the analytical process and the compositional process”31.

20There are three significant ideas contained in this extract, all of them pertinent to our understanding of the process of reflexion in relation to musical performance. First of all, there is the underlying insistence already discussed, that musical works are reflexive in themselves, in that through its particular form the individual work is a critical reflexion on what could be called the “universal”, which is the handed-down musical material. However, musical material is not natural Rohstoff, but is itself preformed as socio-historically mediated generic norms, tuning systems, harmonic systems, and of course, other works. The universality of the musical material has therefore to be understood as a distinctly relative concept: it is not a universal in any absolute sense, but is a historically and culturally mediated second nature. Second, there is the idea that the “progress” of music, if one dare use that term, is part of a larger process of historical “coming of age” [Mündigwerden, Mündigkeit] – growing up, becoming mature, self-aware. By this Adorno means a historically increasing awareness by music of its own technical processes and of those procedures previously taken for granted, which now become apparent and self-conscious. This is a further kind of mediation, as reflexion upon historical “becoming” [Werden] – a process which is incorporated as a key aspect of the constructedness of the music itself, and thus is mediated within the musical work as concrete, technical categories. Adorno had discussed this particularly in relation to Wagner, but also Brahms. It has to do with a process of inner rationalization whereby those elements which earlier allowed for freedom to play (for example ornamentation) now become necessary and thematic. It leads to what Adorno calls Schoenberg’s “Kritik an Schein und Spiel”, his “critique of appearance and play”, as discussed in Philosophie der neuen Musik, where nothing is superfluous, everything is relevant and has a structural role. As Adorno formulates it: “With the negation of appearance and play music tends towards cognition”32. And third, at the level of reception, but also of reproduction, the “second reflexion” of analysis becomes increasingly a necessary aspect of the music itself. The purpose of analysis for Adorno is to identify the “problem” of the work, around which the work is structured as a “force-field” of tensions. The problem of the work is also identified by Adorno with what he calls the tour de force of the work, the impossibility at the heart of the work which it is the task of performance to make possible (he employs the metaphor of performance as circus act, as risk-taking on a spectacular scale in public without a safety net, and always with the possibility of failure). In fact, performance can itself in this sense also be understood as a form of second reflexion upon the first reflexion of the musical work, and in the light of the second reflexion of the analysis which may precede performance. (Adorno’s model here was the Kolisch Quartet, whose practice it was, under the leadership of Rudolf Kolisch, to perform from memory after analysis of the work as a whole.) The mediating role of performance is its capacity to reveal, through its own mimetic reflexion upon the work, and after preliminary analysis of the score, the problem around which the work is structured.

6. Mimesis and Expression

21The distinctive feature of performance as reflexion is that, as we have seen, it is characterized by mimesis. The act of performance is to retrace the contours of the work mimetically. But what does this mean, particularly given the association of reflexion with rationality? Performance may benefit, for example, from technical analysis of the work, and perhaps demand it. We may even choose to analyse the work-as-performance after the event. Nevertheless, performance as a process of reflexion is not to be identified directly with the process of analysis in the formal, technical sense in which the term is normally used in musicology. Analysis may precede the performance and inform it, but the performance itself, while it is happening, is not analytical but mimetic. Performance operates “blind” on the basis of detailed preparation. For Adorno, the mimetic and the rational impulses (mimesis and ratio) are seen as dialectically related, but also as opposites. Need performers therefore “understand” in any rational sense what they are performing as they perform? If there is a paradox here, it is illuminated by a further point made in a fragment in Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion concerning the mimetic dimension of performance: Adorno’s wife Gretel had asked him how it was possible for otherwise uneducated actors to represent characters who convey the most complex ideas, like Hamlet, Prospero, Faust, or Mephistopheles. Adorno responds that:

“The behaviour of the actor is mimetic in a very real sense: he imitates the melodic-intonational-gestural aspect of language. And the more completely he succeeds in doing this, the more completely the idea of the representation comes together, even though – indeed precisely because – he does not understand it“33.

22This is at first sight a remarkable claim. I would suggest that it is certainly not to be taken in the sense of a prescription, that actors (and by extrapolation, artists generally) ought not to “understand” what they are doing in order to produce meaningful work, because this is not what Adorno means. Instead, the kind of “understanding” fundamental to performance is experiential and, as we have seen, is characterized by a mimetic relationship to that which is being evoked. I see two related aspects to it: the one concerning the work itself and the other specifically concerning the performance.

23In the first place, Adorno argues that art works retain their “riddle-character” [Rätselcharakter] even after they have been subjected to the most detailed and thorough-going analysis. Art works resist our attempts to define them, in spite of the illuminations thrown up by the effort to do so. In fact, Pierre Boulez, citing André Breton, has gone so far as to suggest that this is also an essential and inescapable element of the artist’s personality, and is characterized by what he calls un noyau infracassable de nuit, an “indestructible kernel of darkness”34. The implication is that the work of art itself “resists interpretation”, if by this is meant the attempt to reduce the work by means of interpretation to a clear set of unambiguous correspondences.35 The art work as object and as structure is characterized at all levels by a fundamental, essential and inescapable ambiguity. In the end, we still do not know “what it is”. The object in question, however, in all its ambiguity, is available to the performer in the form of the score.

24In the second place, therefore, the performer as interpreter responds to the ontological ambiguity and uncertainty of the work-as-score – something which, it must be emphasized, is partly a material, technical matter of construction, and partly because the score, however detailed, is always inadequate and full of holes. This applies, as we have seen, to all the performing arts, as Adorno’s example of the actor clearly shows. However, what the performer is mimetically tracing – imitating – is something that is also intrinsic to the structure of the performed work itself. Indeed, even literature has a performative element, to the extent that literature – the novel, for instance – is a response to the world outside itself, and in this respect is mimetic, in that it draws into itself aspects of the world, in the process transforming them and removing them from external purposiveness and functionality. There are moments – the work of Samuel Beckett offers many examples – where a combination of precise detail and an absence of evident purpose outside itself creates an intense experience of ambiguity which we are unable to dispose of through rationalizing it as something else: in brief, we cannot identify it, give it its definition as corresponding to something outside itself, as it is only identical to itself. The mimesis of the actor or performing musician in relation to a script or score is of this order, and the apparent lack of “understanding” on the part of the performer needs, I suggest, to be seen in this light. It is an aspect of the Rätselcharakter of art.

25This mimetic, objective character of art works is what makes them expressive. For Adorno, expression is an objective feature of art works, not subjective. It is an aspect of their “riddle-character”, and to this extent is speechless, mute – silent. Indeed, the expressiveness of art works is a product of their form, and it is by means of their form that art works are self-reflexive. In Ästhetische Theorie Adorno brings this complex of thoughts together to formulate what he calls a “subjective paradox of art” as follows:

“to produce what is blind, expression, by way of reflexion, that is, through form; not to rationalize the blind but to produce it aesthetically, ‘To make things of which we do not know what they are’”36.

7. The Silent Work and its Relation to Performance

26I should now like to relate the concepts discussed so far to ideas formulated in a particularly significant fragment, “Zur Reproduktionstheorie”, from Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion.37 Adorno puts forward five theses, preceded by a brief introduction, all circling around the central idea that the musical work and our potential understanding of the work are separate and distinct from the performance of the work as sensuous sound event. Adorno writes by way of introduction to his five “theses”: “The following arguments are fundamental for the question of the transformation of musical listening into reading with exact representation”38.

27The fundamental shift proposed by Adorno, therefore, is a move from the act of listening to music as sensuous sound event to the act of reading the score with a capacity to represent it clearly and precisely to one’s imagination – mit exakter Vorstellung39 – as a non-sensuous event. It is illuminating to bring this claim into conjunction with arguments put forward in Ästhetische Theorie, where Adorno writes:

“Even in concept-alien art there is a non-sensuous element at work. Theories that deny this element for the sake of their thema probandum join forces with that philistinism that is always ready to dub the music it finds cozy a ‘feast for the ears’”40.

28Adorno’s first thesis (labelled A) is as follows:

A. The requirement that we see something which is essentially mind [Geist] mediated through its sensuous representations, and then do not grasp these representations themselves by means of our mind, is infantile. Just as today it’s only old-fashioned country people who read aloud in order to be able to read at all, and just as it is still the case that only the rudimentary movement of the lips remains when reading the prayer book, so once it could easily have been the case with music. There is no reason at all to regard the sensuous sound of music as more essential for music than the sensuous sound of words for language”41.

29Adorno suggests that it is bizarre that it should be considered normal to listen to music (which is, after all, a product of the mind) in a mindless way, without using our mind to grasp it as a sensuous manifestation of mind. Our problem is that, when we hear music, we often remain content not to understand what we hear: we hear the gestures but do not understand their significance – that is, their structural context. Hearing music simply as a diverting pattern of sounds without their reflexion by a mind receptive to them reduces a work to a series of nonsense syllables, pleasant or otherwise. This is reminiscent of the joke attributed to the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and made at the expense of English music lovers: “The English don’t really like music – they just like the sound it makes”. But if we take Adorno literally, music does not need to be heard at all in order for it to make sense. Just as language is more than the sounds of words, and just as language can just as well be read and understood silently, so it is with music, insists Adorno. But at the same time, performance also remains a central forum for the unceasing engagement with the work as score, because the score provides the ideal which the performances fail to achieve.

30This brings us to Adorno’s second thesis (B):

B. While every performance of music is lacking in some respect, a really precise representation through reading can provide the ideal for performance, something that, as such, is not achievable. The musical work would be at the same time purified of the arbitrariness of its realization as performance42

31Much as it might appear to be so, I don’t think that this position represents a retreat by Adorno into the interior of the work – a kind of paradoxical retreat into Innerlichkeit, into “inwardness” at the level of performance which could be seen to parallel Adorno’s own critique of nineteenth-century lyricism as manifested in Brahms. That is to say, that the synthesis of private and public world is not historically possible, because the idea of social wholeness is by now an illusion, and that the only recourse available not only to the composer but also the theorist, is retreat. For the performer, given the rhetorical and public character essential to performance, this is not possible. Indeed, Adorno’s third thesis (C) brings into focus the crux of the matter, something briefly touched on in Section 2 in my discussion of the rhetorical aspects of performance:

C. The performance of music has something of the sales pitch about it, persuasive and propagandistic, and thereby shows itself to be related to the domination of the culture industry today. To exaggerate, one could say that each performance of a musical work acts as its own advertisement. On the other hand, the realization of the music in imagination would represent the work itself purely, without making the slightest concession to the context of its effect”43.

32What Adorno is proposing here is a dialectical and thereby a reflexive conception of performance. This is not simply the same as to say that the performer must reflect upon what he or she is playing while performing, and certainly not in the sense of technical analysis, because Adorno has already made it clear that performance of its very nature, given its mimetic, gestural and rhetorical character, does not allow for this as a simultaneous activity. Indeed, as we have seen from Adorno’s comments on acting cited earlier, he is even prepared to go so far as to say that performers do not need to understand the “meaning” of what they are communicating, at least not in any direct and rationalized manner, in order nevertheless to deliver a powerful and affecting performance. Performers, as artists, make things without knowing what it is that they have made. Analysis may be important to help cast light on the structure of the work, but it does not provide the solution to the riddle of the work, but rather it takes us to the point where the riddle stands out. Likewise, a good performance may bring to the fore the problem around which the work is structured, but it does not diminish its ambiguity, its point of resistance. Adorno’s fourth and fifth points appear to emphasize this interpretation. The fourth thesis (D) concerns the rescue of works from the banality of the culture industry through returning to the score:

D. Works would be largely removed from business and banalization”44.

33As we have seen, Adorno has argued in Ästhetische Theorie that “The fixation through writing or notation is not external to the work; only through them does the work become autonomous from its genesis: that explains the primacy of the text over its performance”45. But while it is notation, the score, that has guaranteed the autonomy of Western art music from its origins in social functionality to do with church, court, work and entertainment, and which also provides a modest bulwark against commodification and the culture industry, it also brings with it its own form of reification – the rigidification of the work-as-process into the work-as-thing.

34Adorno’s final thesis (E) emphasizes that by this means, by silent reading, the division that prevails in art music between work-as-composition and work-as-performance – and, indeed, work-as-commodity – would be bypassed, or transcended (in fact, Adorno uses the word liquidiert, “dissolved”):

E. The outmoded separation of work and reproduction would be dissolved”46.

35But in this case the solution put forward by Adorno to remove the gap between work and performance is at the expense of performance. In this particular version of Adorno’s dialectical scheme, the silent reading of the score is employed critically against the performance of the work, and functions as the extreme case, the Grenzbegriff, which serves to reveal the gesture of muteness – the silence – which underlies the performed musical work, and which constitutes its riddle-character, its enigma.

8. Falling Silent as Critical Reflexion

36As we have seen, when he talks of “silent music-making”, it is clearly not only silence and the silent work that Adorno has in mind, but also the act of falling silent. The silent work, in falling silent, acts as a protest against the banality of the “second reification” of musical performance: that is, its reification through mass reproduction. At the same time, the silent work also parallels the falling silent of music’s sensuous presence through commodification. The idea of music falling silent, becoming mute – Verstummen – has affinities for Adorno with language itself falling silent, as in Samuel Beckett’s late work, and indeed as in certain cases in the musical avant-garde, where the gesture of muteness – a gesture inherent to autonomous music even in its sounding – is also one of great expressive power. This is made clear in Ästhetische Theorie, where Adorno writes, in a passage which makes it quite evident why he had intended dedicating that book to Beckett:

“Aesthetic transcendence and disenchantment converge in the moment of falling mute: in Beckett’s oeuvre. A language remote from all meaning is not a speaking language and this is its affinity to muteness. Perhaps all expression, which is most akin to transcendence, is as close to falling mute as in great new music nothing is so full of expression as what flickers out 47

37This moment of resistance within works themselves – their element of muteness, of ambiguity, and, indeed, of “unintelligibility” – has its parallel for Adorno in the sphere of performance. There is a sense in which he proposes strategies of resistance to reification and commodification at the level of performance which mimic critical moments within the works themselves – their fragmentary character, the problem of achieving unity and finality, their riddle-character, and their resistance to interpretation.

38At another level, however, the work-as-performance then becomes reified, as we have seen, a second time as commodity. It is at this level, Adorno maintains, that the problem of performance today is particularly acute. In 1938 in his article “Über den Fetischcharakter in der Musik und die Regression des Hörens” he had argued that the fetishization of surface features of the work had led not only to a regression in listening, and the loss of “the capacity for conscious cognition of music”48, but also the rejection even of such a possibility – that is to say, of musical reflexion. The problem, as he identified it in the period of star performers and conductors like Toscanini in the late 1930s, was what he called, borrowing a phrase of Eduard Steuermann’s, “the barbarism of perfection”49.

39This second, definitive reification of music as commodity turns the performed work as process back into rigidified object, where all that happens in the course of the work – its unresolved tensions and dynamic conflicts – is ironed out, preordained, “already complete from the very first note”. This is crystallized by the recording and the recording process itself, which aims to produce the appearance of a flawless perfection to which live performance must then aspire – that is, to sound like its own recording. The fetishization of surface brilliance and perfection closes off the first reflexion of the work’s structure in all its multi-facetted ambiguity, offering a product which really does appear to say “this is all there is”, closing off its complexity of meaning to the second reflexion of musical experience. In the face of such reification, which is itself a falling silent of the work in the act of sounding, Adorno argues that all that remains is recourse to the score, to silent reading, to find again the essential ambiguity of the work as process and as silent structure. Listener and work are driven in upon themselves, to an inner reflexive silence, while the musical work itself falls silent.

9. Silence, ambiguity and non-identity

40In a sense, of course, Cage is right – there is no such thing as silence in the “outside” world, not even in the anechoic chamber; likewise, for Beckett, there is no “inner” silence, no respite from the endless inner monologue. But silence in both cases, as I have suggested, is not simply about the cessation of sounds in the literal sense of the term, but is instead a standing back from identification with established meanings. What both positions share with Adorno is the attempt to keep one step beyond reification by constantly moving in the direction of non-identity (das Nicht-Identische), the “not yet known” and the unforeseen. Apart from his book Negative Dialektik (1966), in which he addresses the philosophical concept of “the non-identical”, Adorno’s most extreme position on this in relation to composition is formulated in his 1962 essay “Vers une musique informelle”, a text which clearly takes Beckett as its point of departure, and is prefaced by a quotation from L’Innommable: “Dire cela, sans savoir quoi”.50 I suggest that this position in relation to composition in the 1960s helps our understanding of Adorno’s position on silence and performance in the 1940s. “Silence” is the non-identical, both endpoint and starting point for the work-as-performance.

41For Adorno, the tension between the work as score and its reproduction as performance cannot be resolved directly, but can only be understood from the perspective of silent reading as ideal – the reading of the score which contains all possible performances. But whereas silent reading is presented by Adorno as separate from, and even opposed to, any individual performance, I suggest that, implicit in this polarization, there is also the necessity for an understanding of the “silent work” to be present in the moment of performance itself. In this sense the performed work could also be said to be mediated by the silent reading of the work: Adorno talks of “silent reading as both outcome and endpoint of interpretation”.51 While each individual performance is an alienation (Entäußerung) of the work, in that it exteriorizes and objectifies the work by placing it in the public domain, where, as we have seen, it is subject to a second reification as commodity, the ideal of performance remains that of the realization of the work’s own immanent self-reflexion from the perspective of silence, of non-identity. It is the recovery of the capacity to perceive the work in all its essential ambiguity, and yet with “exact representation” (exakte Vorstellung) and “precise imagination” (präzise Imagination). The theory of performance after Adorno would thus suggest a mimetic and reflexive engagement with that ambiguity from the perspective of the ideal work as score – the silent work.


Adorno, Theodor W., “Zum Problem der Reproduktion” (1925), Musikalische Schriften VI. Gesammelte Schriften Band 19, eds. Rolf Tiedemann and Klaus Schultz (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1984), pp. 440-44.

Adorno, Theodor W., “Nachtmusik” (1929), Moments musicaux (1964). Gesammelte Schriften Band 17, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982), pp. 52-9.

Adorno, Theodor W., “Neue Tempi” (1930), Moments musicaux (1964). Gesammelte Schriften Band 17, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982), pp. 66-73.

Adorno, Theodor W., “Zur gesellschaftlichen Lage der Musik” (1932), Musikalische Schriften V. Gesammelte Schriften Band 18, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1984), pp. 752-3. Trans. as: “On the Social Situation of Music”, trans. Wes Blomster; revised Richard Leppert, in Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music, selected with Introduction, Commentary and Notes by Richard Leppert (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002).

Adorno, Theodor W., “Über den Fetischcharakter in der Musik und die Regression des Hörens” (1938), Dissonanzen (1956). Gesammelte Schriften Band 14, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973), pp. 14-50. Trans. as: “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening”, in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, eds. Andrew Arato & Eike Gebhardt (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978), pp. 270-99.

Adorno, Theodor W., Philosophie der neuen Musik (1949). Gesammelte Schriften Band 12, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1975).

Adorno, Theodor W., Minima Moralia (1951). Gesammelte Schriften Band 4, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1980).

Adorno, Theodor W., “Vers une musique informelle”, in Quasi una fantasia (1963). Gesammelte Schriften Band 16, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1978).

Adorno, Theodor W., Moments musicaux (1964). Gesammelte Schriften Band 17, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982).

Adorno, Theodor W., Negative Dialektik (1966). Gesammelte Schriften Band 6, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973, 1977).

Adorno, Theodor W., “Zum Problem der musikalischen Analyse” (1969), Frankfurter Adorno-Blätter 7 (2001), pp. 73-89. Trans. Max Paddison, “On the Problem of Musical Analysis”, in Music Analysis 1, No.2 (July 1982), pp. 169-87; also revised version of this trans. in Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music, selected with Introduction, Commentary and Notes by Richard Leppert (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), pp. 162-80.

Adorno, Theodor W., Ästhetische Theorie. Gesammelte Schriften Band 7, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1970). Trans. as: Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Athlone Press, 1997).

Adorno, Theodor W., Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, ed. Henri Lonitz (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001).

Beckett, Samuel, L’Innommable (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1953). Trans. as The Unnamable, trans. the author and Patrick Bowles, published as part of the whole Trilogy (London: John Calder Press, 1959; Picador, 1979).

Bloch, Ernst, Zur Philosophie der Musik, ausgewählt und herausgegeben von Karola

Bloch (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974). Trans. as Essays on the Philosophy of Music, trans. Peter Palmer, with an Introduction by David Drew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Boulez, Pierre, “Nécessité d’une orientation esthétique” (1963), in Points de repère I : imaginer, ed. Jean-Jacques Nattiez (Paris : Christian Bourgois Éditeur, 1995). Trans. as : “Putting the Phantoms to Flight”, in Orientations, ed. Jean-Jacques Nattiez, trans. Martin Cooper (London: Faber & Faber, 1986).

Cage, John, “Experimental Music” (1958), in Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1968; original edition, Middletown, 1961).

Hegel, G.W.F., Logik. Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften (1830). Werke Band.8 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1969-71). Trans. as: Logic (Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences Part I (1830)), trans. William Wallace, with a Foreword by J.N. Findlay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).

Kant, Immanuel, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, Werke Bd. III, ed. Wilhelm Weidschedel (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1968). Trans. as: Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (London: Macmillan, 1929).

Kivy, Peter, Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).

Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph, “Verzeichnis einer Sammlung von Gerätschaften”, Über die Macht der Liebe und andere Schriften, eds. Wolfgang Promies and Barbara Promies (Berlin: Manfred Pawlak Taschenbuch Verlag, 1974).

Paddison, Max, Adorno’s Aesthetics of Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Paddison, Max, “Performance, reification and score: The dialectics of spatialization and temporality in the experience of music”, Musicae Scientiae: Discussion Forum 3 (2004), pp. 147-179

Sontag, Susan, Against Interpretationand Other Essays (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1966).

Weber Nicholsen, Shierry, Exact Imagination, Late Work: On Adorno’s Aesthetics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997).


1  Samuel Beckett, L’Innommable (Paris : Les Éditions de Minuit, 1953), p. 199.

2  This article forms part of a larger research project on Adorno’s theory of reproduction, which began life as a paper given at the Theodor W. Adorno zum 100. Geburtstag Konferenz held in Frankfurt am Main in September 2003, and I should like to thank Adolf Nowak for the invitation to take part. An earlier version of this paper is due to appear in the proceedings of that conference, Musikalische Analyse und Kritische Theorie : Die Vorträge der Adorno-Konferenz 2003, eds. Adolf Nowak and Markus Fahlbusch (Tutzing : Verlag Schneider/ Frankfurter Schriften zur Musikwissenschaft, forthcoming). A companion piece is my article “Performance, reification and score : The dialectics of spatialization and temporality in the experience of music”, Musicae Scientiae : Discussion Forum 3 (2004), pp. 157-179, which explores the concept of time in Adorno’s performance project. The concepts of reflexion, reification and mediation are shared by both articles. As with the Musicae Scientiae article, I should like to express again my gratitude to Rolf Tiedemann and Henri Lonitz of the Adorno Archive for their help and generosity during my research visit to the Frankfurt Archive in 1999, and for allowing me to work on the unpublished fragments relevant to Adorno’s theory of musical reproduction.

3  I refer in particular to that remarkable section entitled “Zur Reproduktionstheorie” [Ts 49562], in Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, pp. 210-11. The five “theses“ presented here by Adorno underpin this article and are addressed directly in Section 7.

4  Adorno first began his musical reproduction project in the mid-1920s, and pursued it in the 1930s and 1940s as a collaboration with the violinist Rudolf Kolisch, finally returning to it sporadically in the 1950s and 1960s. It was never completed, and remained at his death in fragmentary form as notes, drafts and outlines. The fragments were finally published in book form under Adorno’s working title Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion by the Frankfurter Adorno Archiv in 2001, 35 years after Adorno’s death, in an edition edited by Henri Lonitz : Theodor W. Adorno, Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, ed. Henri Lonitz (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001).

5  In the context of this article, the German terms being used in relation to the English word “silence” are Stummheit, muteness, stumm, mute, and Verstummen, falling mute. The German for “silent film”, for example, is Stummfilm. The German words Schweigen and Stille, although alluded to, are not primarily intended here, as they have different associations in German.

6  The term Grenzbegriff is most often translated into English as “limiting concept”, although other translations are also often encountered (“limit-concept”, “border concept”, “borderline concept”, “boundary concept”, “conceptual extreme”, “liminal category”). It refers to what cannot be known as such, or to the limit of what can be known, and is used epistemologically as a negative concept against which to measure our knowledge. It is employed by Kant in his Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781) in his discussion of the concept of the “Ding an sich”, the noumenon : “Der Begriff eines Noumenon ist also bloß ein Grenzbegriff, um die Anmaßung der Sinnlichkeit einzuschränken, und also nur von negativem Gebrauche.” (Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, Werke Bd. III, ed. Wilhelm Weidschedel (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1968), p. 282. Trans. as : “The concept of a noumenon is thus a merely limiting concept, the function of which is to curb the pretensions of sensibility ; and it is therefore only of negative employment”. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (London : Macmillan, 1929), p. 272. Other examples of “limiting concepts” are “truth”, “nature”, “reality”, “death”, “infinity”.

7  “Das Ideal stummen Musizierens, schließlich des Lesens musikalischer Texte, im Zusammenhang mit dem Verstummen entwickeln ” (italics in original), Theodor W. Adorno, Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, ed. Henri Lonitz (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001), p. 11 (my translation).

8  “(NB die völlige Zerstörung des sinnlichen Phänomens der Musik durch die Massenreproduktion)”, ibid., p. 11 (my translation).

9  See ibid., p. 13 : “Den Grenzbegriff des bloßen Lesens von Musik einführen”. (“To introduce the limiting concept of simply reading music [without performing it].” My translation.)

10  “Vielleicht ist – als Rest unsublimierter Mimesis – das ‘Machen’ von Musik schon ebenso infantil wie lautes Lesen ...” ibid., p. 13 (my translation).

11  John Cage, “Experimental Music” (1958), in Silence (London : Marion Boyars, 1968), p. 8. Originally given as an address to the Music Teachers National Association in Chicago in 1957.

12  Beckett’s L’Innommable was completed in 1949 and published in 1953 by Les Éditions de Minuit.

13  “ a few words on the silence, then just one thing more ” Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable, in Trilogy, trans. the author and Patrick Bowles (London : John Calder, 1959 ; Picador edition 1979), p. 374. L’Innommable (Paris : Les Éditions de Minuit, 1953), p. 199.

14  “Ein Messer ohne Klinge, an welchem der Stiehl fehlt”, in Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, “Verzeichnis einer Sammlung von Gerätschaften”, Über die Macht der Liebe und andere Schriften, eds. Wolfgang Promies and Barbara Promies (Berlin : Manfred Pawlak Taschenbuch Verlag, 1974), p. 87.

15  “Reproduktion ist notwendig. Musik bedarf ihrer ” Adorno, Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, p. 238 (my translation).

16  Adorno’s schematic outlines for the book, provided by Henri Lonitz as appendices to the published fragments in Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, give some hints as to where discussion of “silent music-making” and Verstummen were planned. See “Materialien zur Reproduktionstheorie”, pp. 301-12, esp. p. 307, where connections are made with “the idea of becoming uninterpretable” [Idee des Uninterpretierbar Werdens] and the historical change brought about in works through interpretation – ideas originally aired in the very early essay “Zum Problem der Reproduktion” (1925) (see Musikalische Schriften VI. Gesammelte Schriften Band 19 (1984), pp. 440-44). It is also clear that Adorno intended to revisit ideas concerning “interpretative change and unchangeability” [interpretative Veränderung und Unveränderlichkeit], “decay” or “disintegration” [Zerfall], and “falling silent” or “becoming mute” [Verstummen], put forward originally in his early articles “Nachtmusik” (1929) and “Neue Tempi” (1930) (see Moments musicaux ; Gesammelte Schriften Band 17 (1982), pp. 52-59 and pp. 66-73). See also Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, “Zwei Schemata”, pp. 315-16 : in the “first scheme” he indicates “The convergence towards cognition and the idea of falling silent” [“Die Konvergenz zur Erkenntnis und die Idee des Verstummens”] ; and in the “second scheme” we find “Interpretation and the decay of works ; idea of becoming uninterpretable and falling silent” [“Interpretation und Zerfall der Werke ; Idee des Uninterpretierbarwerdens und des Verstummens”].

17  “Wir hören nur uns” Ernst Bloch, Zur Philosophie der Musik, ausgewählt und herausgegeben von Karola Bloch (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974), p. 7. Trans. as Essays on the Philosophy of Music, trans. Peter Palmer, with an Introduction by David Drew (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 1.

18  “Partituren sind nicht nur fast stets besser als die Aufführungen, sondern mehr als nur Anweisungen zu diesen ; mehr die Sache selbst” Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie. Gesammelte Schriften Band 7, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1970), p. 153. Trans. as : Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London : Athlone Press, 1997), p. 100.

19  See my article “Performance, Reification, and Score : The Dialectics of Spatialization and Temporality in the Experience of Music”, in Aspects of Time in the Creation of Music, Musicae Scientiae, Discussion Forum 3, ed. Irène Deliège (Brussels : ESCOM, 2004).

20  “Alles Musizieren ist eine recherche du temps perdu” Adorno, Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, p. 228 (my translation).

21  “Denn die Interpretation hat ihre Geschichte wie die Werke und die in ihnen angelegte interpretative Freiheit. Am Problem der Tradition wird all dies manifest, aktuell auch die Frage, ob alle Werke zu allen Zeiten interpretierbar seien.” T.W. Adorno, “Zum Problem der Reproduktion”(1925), Musikalische Schriften VI. Gesammelte Schriften 19, ed. Rolf Tiedemann und Klaus Schultz (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1984), p. 444 (my translation).

22  See Adorno, “Nachtmusik” (1929), Moments musicaux (1964). Gesammelte Schriften Band 17, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982), pp. 52-59. See also my article “Performance, reification and score : The dialectics of spatialization and temporality in the experience of music”, Musicae Scientiae : Discussion Forum 3 (2004), pp. 170-171 for a fuller discussion.

23  “ an sich etwas Aufschwätzendes, Überredendes, Propagandisches”, Adorno, Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, p. 210 (my translation).

24  “ zeigt sich damit der heute herrschenden Kulturindustrie verschwistert”, ibid.

25  Adorno had implied that the performance itself can also be regarded as a work of art in its own right : “Reproduction is a form” [“Reproduktion ist eine Form”], Zu einer Theorie …, p. 69. See also Peter Kivy, Authenticities : Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance (Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1997) for a similar view.

26  “Die Entfremdung zwischen Musik und Gesellschaft spiegelt in den Antinomien der musikalischen Produktion sich wider : als reale gesellschaftliche Tatsache wird sie greifbar am Verhältnis von Produktion und Konsumtion. Zwischen beiden vermittelt die musikalische Reproduktion. Sie dient der Produktion, die nur reproduziert unmittelbar gegenwärtig zu werden vermag, anders als toter Text verharrte ; sie ist die Form jeglichen musikalischen Konsums, weil nur an reproduzierten Werken und nie an bloßen Texten die Gesellschaft Anteil gewinnen kann. Die Forderung der Produktion – als die nach Authentizität – und die der Konsumtion – als die nach Verständlichkeit – richten sich gleichermaßen an die Reproduktion und verschränken sich in ihr ” T.W. Adorno, “Zur gesellschaftlichen Lage der Musik”, Gesammelte Schriften Band 18, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1984), pp. 752-3. Trans. as : “On the Social Situation of Music”, trans. Wes Blomster ; revised Richard Leppert, in Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music, selected with Introduction, Commentary and Notes by Richard Leppert (Berkeley & Los Angeles : University of California Press, 2002), p. 411.

27  See Chapter 3 “The Problem of Mediation” in my book Adorno’s Aesthetics of Music (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 108-48, where I address the concept of Vermittlung in detail.

28  “Die historische Veränderung der Werke als solcher erfolgt stets in Relation zum Stand des Materials – eine der wichtigsten Kategorien. Das läßt sich auch so ausdrücken : daß jedes spätere kommensurable Werk jedes frühere objektiv verändert. Die Reproduktion registriert diese Veränderung und bewirkt sie zugleich. Zwischen ihr und dem Werk herrscht ein dialektisches Verhältnis” Adorno, Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, p. 14 (my translation).

29  “ es ist somit nur vermittelst einer Veränderung daß die wahre Natur des Gegenstandes zum Bewußtsein kommt” G.W.F. Hegel, Logik. Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften (1830). Werke Band 8 (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1969-71), ¶22 (my translation).

30  T.W. Adorno, “Nachtmusik” (1929), Moments musicaux (1964). Gesammelte Schriften Band 17, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982), p. 58 (my translation).

31  “Nimmt man die Wagnersche Forderung des Mündigwerdens der Musik, also ihrer unausweichlichen Beziehung auf Reflexion ernst, so steigt damit die Bedeutung von Analyse eminent an und ist in der Tat angestiegen. Die lebendigen Erfahrung entfaltet sich die Musik durch Analyse, sie wird reicher für diese Erfahrung, voller, und nicht etwa ärmer. ... Die ihrer selbst bewußte Kunst ist die Analysierte ; es gibt etwas wie eine Konvergenz zwischen dem analytischen Prozeß und dem Kompositorischen” T.W. Adorno, “Zum Problem der musikalischen Analyse” (1969), Frankfurter Adorno-Blätter 7 (2001), pp. 73-89. Trans. Max Paddison, “On the Problem of Musical Analysis”, in Music Analysis 1, No.2 (July 1982), pp. 169-87 ; see also revised version of this trans. in Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music, selected with Introduction, Commentary and Notes by Richard Leppert (Berkeley & Los Angeles : University of California Press, 2002), pp. 162-80.

32  “Mit der Negation von Schein und Spiel tendiert Musik zur Erkenntnis” Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik (1949). Gesammelte Schriften Band 12 (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1975), p. 46 (my translation).

33  “Das Vermögen des Schauspielers ist mimisch im eigentlichen Sinne : er ahmt eben das melisch-gestische Moment der Sprache nach. Und je vollkommener ihm das gelingt, um so vollkommener fällt der Gedanke der Darstellung zu, auch und gerade wenn er ihn nicht versteht” Adorno, Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, pp. 206-07 (my translation).

34  Pierre Boulez, “Nécessité d’une orientation esthétique”, in Points de repère I : imaginer, ed. Jean-Jacques Nattiez (Paris : Christian Bourgeois Éditeur, 1995), p. 552 ; trans. as “Putting the Phantoms to Flight”, in Orientations, ed. Jean-Jacques Nattiez, trans. Martin Cooper (London : Faber & Faber, 1986), p. 83.

35  Susan Sontag argues what is ostensibly a similar case in her famous essay of 1964, “Against Interpretation”. However, Sontag’s case rests on the argument for a return to the sensuousness of art – “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”, she writes, with the function of criticism “to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means”. The argument is unfortunately undermined by a flawed concept of mimesis. See Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York : Dell Publishing Co, 1966), pp. 3-14.

36  “Blindes – den Ausdruck – aus Reflexion – durch Form – zu produzieren ; das Blinde nicht zu rationalisieren sondern ästhetisch überhaupt erst herzustellen ; ‘Dinge machen, von denen wir nicht wissen, was sie sind’” Ibid., p. 174 ; trans. Hullot-Kentor, p. 114 (trans. slightly modified). See also : Adorno, “Vers une musique informelle”, in Quasi una fantasia. Gesammelte Schriften Band 16, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1978), p. 540.

37  Adorno, “Zur Reproduktionstheorie” [Ts 49562], Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, pp. 210-11.

38  “Die folgenden Argumente sind wesentlich für die Frage der Verwandlung des musikalischen Hörens in Lesen mit exakter Vorstellung” Ibid., p. 210 (my translation).

39 Mit exakter Vorstellung – Adorno’s use of this idea is related to a number of variants, notably mit exakter Phantasie (“with exact imagination”), as employed by Shierry Weber Nicholsen in her book Exact Imagination, Late Work : On Adorno’s Aesthetics (Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1997), using the form in which it appears in Adorno’s radio talk “Schöne Stellen” (1965). Another variant is mit präziser Imagination. Weber gives the following account of exakte Phantasie : “The term points provocatively and explicitly to the relationship between exactness – reflecting a truth claim – and the imagination as the agency of a subjective and aconceptual experience.” (Weber, p. 4). It seems to me that, in the context of silent reading of the score, exakte Vorstellung means “exact representation” (although Vorstellung can also be translated as “imagination”), the capacity to represent the work as score to one’s inner ear with precision and imagination.

40  “Auch in der begriffsfernen Kunst ist ein unsinnliches Moment am Werk. Theorie, die es um ihres thema probandum Willen verleugnet, ergreift Partei für die Banausie, welche für Musik, die ihr behagt, das Wort Ohrenschmaus parat hält.” Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, p. 150 ; Aesthetic Theory, trans. Hullot-Kentor, p. 98.

41  “Die Notwendigkeit, ein wesentlich Geistiges durch seine sinnlichen Repräsentanten vermittelt zu sehen, und nicht diesen Repräsentanten selber in den Geist aufzunehmen, ist infantil. So wie heute nur noch zurückgebliebene Bauern laut lesen, um überhaupt lesen zu können, und so wie nur noch beim Lesen der Gebetbücher die Lippenbewegung als ein Rudiment übrig geblieben ist, so mag es sehr leicht auch einmal mit der Musik bestellt sein. Es liegt keinerlei Grund dafür vor, den sinnlichen Klang von Musik für diese für wesentlicher zu halten als den sinnlichen Klang der Worte für die Sprache”. Adorno, Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, p. 210 (my translation).

42  “Während jede Aufführung von Musik fehlbar ist, kann die wirkliche präzise Vorstellung beim Lesen das Ideal der Aufführung geben, das als solches nicht erreichbar ist. Das musikalische Werk wird gleichsam von der Zufälligkeit seiner Realisierung gereinigt.” Ibid., p. 210 (my translation).

43  “Das Aufführen von Musik hat an sich etwas Aufschwätzendes, Überredendes, Propagandisches und zeigt sich damit der heute herrschenden Kulturindustrie verschwistert. Übertrieben könnte man sagen, jede Aufführung eines musikalischen Werkes hat etwas von Reklame für dieses. Demgegenüber würde die Realisierung der Musik in der Imagination das Werk selbst rein darstellen, ohne dem Wirkungszusammenhang das leiseste Zugständnis zu machen.” Ibid., pp. 210-11 (my translation).

44  “Die Werke wären weitgehend dem Verschleiß und der Banalisierung entzogen.” Ibid., p. 211 (my translation).

45  “Die Fixierung durch Schrift oder Noten ist der Sache nicht äußerlich ; durch sie verselbständigt sich

46  “Die überholte Scheidung von Werk und Reproduktion wäre liquidiert.” Adorno, Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, p. 211 (my translation).

47  “Ästhetische Transzendenz und Entzauberung finden zum Unisono im Verstummen : in Becketts oeuvre. Daß die bedeutungsferne Sprache keine sagende ist, stiftet ihre Affinität zum Verstummen. Vielleicht ist aller Ausdruck, nächstverwandt dem Transzendierenden, so dicht am Verstummen, wie in großer neuer Musik nichts so viel Ausdruck hat wie das Verlöschende ” Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, p. 123 ; Aesthetic Theory, trans. Hullot-Kentor, p. 79.

48  “ die Fähigkeit zur bewußten Erkenntnis von Musik.” T.W. Adorno, “Über den Fetischcharakter in der Musik und die Regression des Hörens” (1938), Dissonanzen (1956). Gesammelte Schriften Band 14, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973), p. 34. Trans. as : “The Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening”, trans. unacknowledged, in Andrew Arato & Eike Gebhardt (eds.), The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (Oxford : Basil Blackwell, 1979), p. 286 (translation corrected).

49  “Barbarei der Vollendung” Ibid., p. 31 ; trans. p. 284.

50  Samuel Beckett, cited in Adorno, “Vers une musique informelle”, in Quasi una fantasia (1963), Gesammelte Schriften Band 16, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1978), p. 493. The actual passage in Beckett’s novel reads : “Cela, dire cela, sans savoir quoi” (Samuel Beckett, L’Innommable, Paris : Les Éditions de Minuit, 1953, p. 7) ; and in Beckett’s English version : “It, say it, without knowing what” (Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable, in Trilogy, London : Picador, 1979, p. 267).

51  “Das stumme Lesen als Erbe und Ende der Interpretation”, Adorno, Zu einer Theorie der musikalischen Reproduktion, p. 13.


Max Paddison, «Performance and the Silent Work», Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société. [En ligne], Numéros de la revue, La société dans l’écriture musicale, mis à  jour le : 27/05/2011, URL : https://revues.mshparisnord.fr:443/filigrane/index.php?id=147.


Quelques mots à propos de :  Max Paddison

Max Paddison est professeur de musique à l’université de Durham, Grande-Bretagne. Études de composition et de piano au Royal Manchester College of Music, de musicologie à l’université d’Exeter et boursier DAAD en philosophie et sociologie à l’université Johann Wolfgang von Goethe de Francfort. Principales publications : Adorno’s Aesthetics of Music (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993, 1998) ; Adorno, Modernism and Mass Culture (Londres, Kahn & Averill, 1996, 2004) ; direction scientifique (avec Irène Deliège) de Musique contemporaine : perspectives théoriques et philosophiques (Sprimont, Mardaga, 2001).