Of the traditional reception of Bach, Adorno writes “His music is said to be elevated above the subject and its contingency; in it is expressed not so much man and his inner life as the order of Being as such, in its most compelling musical form. The structure of this Being, understood to be immutable and inexorable, becomes a surrogate for meaning; that which cannot be other than its appearance is made the justification of itself. This conception of Bach draws all those who, having lost either the ability to believe or the desire for self-determination, go in search of authority, obsessed by the notion of how nice it would be to be secure. The present function of his music resembles the current vogue of ontology, which promises to overcome the individualistic condition through the postulation of an abstract principle which is superior to and independent of human existence and yet which is free of all unequivocally theological content. They enjoy the order of his music because it enable them to subordinate themselves”.
Bach’s music, as a consolidation and recapitulation of Baroque style, but also as a mathematical and cosmological music of the spheres, transcends the individual in the name of God, and subsequently, in post-enlightenment aesthetic interpretations, Bach becomes a symbol for the human triumph of reason, to which this world is subordinated, through which existence becomes ordered. Thus Bach becomes the secular musical resacralization of “man’s” supposedly demystified triumph over nature and over “himself”. Hence Adorno’s assertion that those who listen to Bach “enjoy the order of his music because it enables them to subordinate themselves”. Sub-ordinate. Perhaps Bach is beyond redemption—and that is precisely the point. His listeners subordinate themselves in service of the promise of universality, of order, and above all, of meaning.
But then the question becomes one of militating the abyssal structure of this desire for meaning—that is to say its constant deferral and perpetual failure—back into the “universality” of Bach’s harmonies: a question of deriving, from musical subordination, the evacuation of the order that gives ideological comfort, without reasserting the autarchy (literally: autos-arkhē) of the supposedly sovereign political-theological subject who listens to all that shit. Adorno later writes that “Perhaps the traditional Bach can indeed no longer be interpreted. If this is true, his heritage has passed on to composition, which is loyal to him in being disloyal”. So I want to show that what is important in Bach is that his music is self-defeating, that the harmonies of his mathematics give way to the decay of the bare sound out of which he creates and deifies a “higher” order of being. Ultimately, this “higher” order relies upon the resonances and reverberations that—if they were to no longer operate within and for this Baroque subordinating logic (as perhaps in these hyperbolic “studies”)—undermine the structure from which they are supposed to redeem the meaning of Bach’s ontotheological promise.
I tried to subordinate myself to and to “open up” two of Bach’s songs in this vein. The first is the adagio from the G minor sonata for solo violin, and the second is the prelude from the second cello suite in D minor. Both are transcribed for and played on viola.
released January 31, 2016
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