Friday, May 27, 2016

The Ostracism of the Tonal Composers (Part Two) - Theodor Adorno

The Ostracism of the Tonal Composers - Part Two

By Don Robertson

from the online book:

“Music Through the Centuries”
By Don Robertson
Published on
Revised and Expanded–  2016

    This is Part Two of a multi-part series exploring how the new style of classical music that arose during the 20th century - music composed with non-harmonious discords that had never been used before - became prevalent in the new classical music of Europe and America. Composers who continued to write music based on the tradition of harmonious music from the previous century began to be blacklisted for the most part. 
     In Part One, I showed how during the 20th century the music of two men who today are considered to be master composers, Sibelius and Rachmaninoff, were ridiculed by writers, critics, conductors and several American composers because they continued to create music in the traditional manner, employing concordant harmonies as their musical basis, rather than discords. In this article I discuss how Western composers and musicians were influenced by an intellectual philosophy that demanded the acceptance of discordant music as the new norm.

The Intellectuals
    This musical misdirection in the 20th Century was spearheaded by intellectuals such as philosopher and sociologist Theodor W. Adorno. Adorno hated Sibelius' music. He wrote that the great Finnish composer should be lumped in with "the other amateurs who were too frightened to study composition theory."
    In addition to his writing and philosophizing, Adorno composed his own discordant music based on the theories of the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg whom Adorno idolized because he had "stripped music of its crutches”... the "conventions" that had been inherited from past music. Pierre Boulez, who is a
nother discordant composer, liked to call this "the stripping away of the accumulated dirt." Of course this "dirt" was the harmonic framework of all great music from all of the world's great music traditions. These pronouncements represented the abnegation of sacred reality, of nature, and humanity itself.

Theordor W. Adorno

       Adorno wrote that music, because of the way in which it was composed, affected consciousness, and was being used as a way of “social management and control.” Adorno’s argument was that the listener could only attain true “consciousness” by listening to Schönberg’s discordant music. Why? Because, Adorno stated, the listener had to use his or her intellect to truly understand music, and Schönberg’s music instigated critical reasoning in the listener. By listening to this music that contained “all the darkness and guilt of the world,” the listener attained “true consciousness.”
    Thus, the intellectuals came forth in the 20th Century to define “true consciousness” as that which one attained through an intellectual comprehension of music. This is exactly the opposite of attaining consciousness through transcending the the limiting mental process while attuning oneself with the higher emotions expressed in music by masters such as Beethoven, Franck and Wagner.

Adorno Trashes Popular Music
    Adorno called popular and folk music "predictable music." He felt that the sense of critical hearing in listeners who liked predictable music would regress in the same manner that one’s sense of taste would regress by eating fast food and diet colas, an argument that completely eliminates the emotional and spiritual effects of popular music. 
    During the 20th century, this argument became fodder for music intellectuals who wanted to sell people on atonal and serial music. Intellectually, the argument was appealing: If one listens to predictable pop music all the time, one will never develop a taste for classical music, this argument says. But emotionally, this does not make sense, as powerful feelings can be aroused by those “musical clichés” that Adorno and his intellectual comrades abhorred. Those feelings can also be aroused by listening to classical music, especially music from the romantic era of classical music that spanned the 19th century, music that Adorno also abhorred.  
     Adorno's argument says that in order to attain true consciousness, people should turn off popular music and turn on the discords, studying the twelve-tone rows and 'sets' and all of the intellectual theoretical rubbish that fills 20th-century music theory textbooks and theses. What a load of real "dirt" this is!     
     Realistically? I would say that either in the case of food or music, it is not the awareness of the common foods or common music that dulls and makes unreachable the deeper tastes. People reach higher levels on the "food and music chain" when they are ready for it. 
     It is the absence of awareness, training, understanding and acquaintance with the deeper tastes of any art, be it food, architecture, poetry, music or painting, that has prevented many people today from even being introduced to the truly great masterworks of the classical traditions. Additionally, most children are raised in an environment where the classical arts are either ignored or pronounced "high bow," and corporate-controlled radio and television rules the roost. Meanwhile, public education provides very little value for the most part. Of course, the shift to discordant music and negative art during the 20th century has lent a hand in the un-popularizing process.
    Adorno considered listening with our emotions as an abdication of reason. “Popular music is objectively untrue and helps to maim the consciousness of those exposed to it,” Adorno wrote in 1976. This kind of intellectual garbage was that which empowered much of the thinking that took place in the music departments of our universities, turning them into think tanks that lacked any real spirit of music.
     Adorno further wrote that music “sets up a system of conditioned reflexes in its victim.” He is referring to, of course, what he calls the “wrong” kind of music, such as popular music, and music by such romantic composers as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. He felt this music was used to control society by causing conformism. What Adorno failed to understand was that when listening to romantic music, profound feelings can be invoked, and it is the positive feelings of love, joy and peace that are pathways on the road to true consciousness!
     Conformism has nothing to do with the outer world of man, and all to do with the inner. No matter what is going on without, it is the inner acquiescence to anything exterior (from casual comments by others to full out-and-out brainwashing) that is the essence of conformism. People are already conformists, having been raised and bred, schooled, and set on the "acceptable" paths proposed by "society." Listening to popular and romantic music does not breed conformism. If anything, it can help liberate the listener by allowing him or her to better understand their own feelings, thus supporting the work of the true, nameless spiritual path.

"Hero" by Mariah Carey

    For example, this song by singer Mariah Carey, called "Hero," appeals to the emotions with its strong communication of feeling, and to the mind with its message of inner strength. The song was the result of Carey's own guidance as she struggled to gain inner strength in a difficult period of her life. 
    Yes, we know that the corporate music industry sold Mariah Carey as just so much sex, but that is not what we are talking about here. In this song, she was able to encapsulate in an emotional way how she discovered the hero within herself, the hero that brought her triumphantly through her trials. I wonder how many thousands, if not millions, of people this song has helped and inspired. Personally, I recall a time over twenty years ago when driving alone in Virginia headed to a gospel concert, I listened to this song over and over, and just sobbed from the emotional impact that the song resonated within me during a time when I needed to find my own hero. Discords can never produce a result like this.
     The thing about philosophy of any kind, including religious philosophy, is that it can help create a set of patterns in the intellect that become the ruling force in one’s life. But the true mission of philosophy must be the liberation of the individual spirit to think and feel for oneself, as all necessary answers are then within grasp. After one has reached a true state of self-awareness, philosophy and religious dogma are no longer as useful as a personal motivator; guidance and understanding are gained from intuition and true cognition.
     Welcome to the 21st Century everybody! it is time to unleash ourselves from the poison darts of truly ignorant intellectuals such as Theodor Adorno, whose ideas have imprisoned composers of classical music for years and caused concert goers to flee the concert halls. 
     And by the way, as for the laughable theory proposed by writer John Coleman (and flooding the internet) that Theordor Adorno was the force behind the Beatles, writing all of their songs, this is quite simply disinformation of the highest rank.
    In the next installment of "The Ostracism of the Tonal Composers" (in progress) I will discuss some of the great concordant works of music that managed to come out of the discordant classical music culture of the 20th century.

© 2005, 2016 by Don Robertson

Thursday, May 19, 2016

"Don Robertson," an Article by Mike Watson

Don Robertson
 by Mike Watson - Ambient Music Guide

Don Robertson enjoyed substantial sales success in the early days of new age music in the USA. He's a lifelong musician and multi-instrumentalist adept at many styles, as well as a passionate music educator and a voluminous writer on music history and culture.

Positive music

Robertson writes lucidity about the history of Western music, from medieval and baroque music right through to modern electronica. His own concept of "positive music" - which he says returned to Western music when the brutal Serialist school was usurped my the American minimalists, progressive pop and new age - is especially interesting because it shines a clear light on where his own music comes from.

In his book Music Through The Centuries he writes:

"Although anyone can make a CD and call it "new age" music, there still has been a very active thrust on the part of musicians to create music that is harmonious, stripped of the discordant elements - the stress - that characterized so much of the music of the 20th Century. I feel that minimalism and new age music are the two currents of 20th century music that provide the lead-in for the 21st. The minimalists, even though they moved from atonality back to tonal roots, for the most part had not completely cleaned their music of the discord, the stress. This is true for some of the neo-romantic composers also. It was the early new age composers, like Iasos and Paul Horn, who moved out of the murky depths of stress, that really grasped the reality of positive music, as well as some of the very fine Celtic musicians, and some of the inspired native American composers and musicians. The correct understanding of music as a healing force is the actual - as opposed to commercial - heart of new age music.

In a 2004 interview he also said:

"The term positive doesn't just apply to happy music. Sad music is positive too, if you think about it. Sadness, happiness, joy, love, peace, these are all positive emotions, and positive music conveys these emotions. Negative music, however, is music that coveys negative emotions, such as hatred and anger."
Now, while Robertson's music may be stripped of stress, it's far from being bereft of substance or dynamics; a crucial distinction that elevates his classic ambient and synthesiser recordings well above the earwash that usually gets labeled new age. Although he would later abandon new age when the opportunists and money men moved in, it was a genre to which he initially felt a powerful attraction, a natural home where he could combine his spiritual inclinations, musical curiosity and - like fellow new age traveler Hari Deuter - his tremendous command of melody.

New age classics

His signature ambient albums date from the early to mid 1980's, a time when new age was still a cottage industry and the domain of genuinely independent DIY musicians. During most of this period he lived in California's San Francisco Bay area - a new age Mecca of sorts - and from this base found an audience on the West Coast with help from local ambient radio programs like Music From The Hearts Of Space and Musical Starstreams.

Although in the late 1960's he released a curious experimental album for zither and other instruments called Dawn (1969), he spent most of the 1970's not recording music but studying it, specifically classical music. Then with encouragement from pioneering new age music distributor Ethan Edgecomb, Robertson returned to recording in 1979 and released Celestial Ascent the following year, the first in a sequence of what would become some of new age music's most enduring albums (current availability issues aside). On two long tracks - one in a major key and the other in a minor - he plays an 80-string zither and improvises rich, elaborate melodies over single chords. The music sighs and surges beautifully, from almost whisper-quiet to dense walls of sound where the secondary tones start to sound like ghostly vocal chanting.

Then Robertson discovered synthesiser music - hearing Vangelis, Klaus Schulze and Ashra for the first time - and the inspiration just poured out of him. Holed up in his bedroom with a piano and recently acquired Minimoog synth and Roland string machine he composed and recorded Resurrection and - a few years later - Spring, two albums of wide-eyed, melodious wonder. The music on these records mimics neither the old-school synth masters nor the better talents on the Californian new age scene of the time. Instead Robertson takes a much more personal route, fusing elements of classical and pop with ethereal ambient sound. From the happy electro-waltz of "Dance" to contemplative drone pieces like "Ships" and "Journey Into The Infinite", it's stunningly pretty music grounded by superb musicianship and a sophisticated understanding of harmonic progression. Around this time he also provided piano and zither improvisations on Aeoliah's exquisite new age album Inner Sanctum (1981).

Falling in between these two releases is the album Starmusic recorded in 1982, another masterwork. It's a more overt exercise in cosmic spacemusic, this time performed on the just-released Synclavia II digital synthesiser. Robertson's inspiration was the Bay area radio program Music From The Hearts Of Space and in fact the album is co-produced by that programs's host Stephen Hill. It's long, droned-based tracks are intricate, melodic and awe-inspiring. There's sometimes an organ-like quality to the chords that gives the album the sacred flavour of Renaissance church music. Although Starmusic was released on Robertson's own label DBR, in many ways it's a pointer to the core sound that Hearts Of Space Records was founded on, the pioneering label that Stephen Hill himself would launch a few years later.

By 1984, Robertson was tiring of the Bay area's new age scene. He returned to Colorado but for a while traveled regularly to California and continued to make music in the styles he'd been creating on the West coast. Celestial Voyager is the best of these - recorded mostly in 1986 but not actually finished and released until 2008. Some tracks echo the intricate patterns heard on Resurrection and Spring, while others like the Eno-esque "Le Calme Et l'Océan" are more minimal and feel slower, their breathing chords stretched out over longer distances.

End of an Era

By the end of the 1980's, the West Coast's original new age music scene had largely being replaced by a world-wide business model that trafficked in bland, safe easily listening instrumental pop, jazz and light classical. Meanwhile the music sections of new age bookshops and markets were soon dominated by spiritless "relaxation" muzak. Robertson, in his own words "disgusted and disillusioned", left the scene altogether.

Since then his focus has mainly been on music education and the study and composition of classical recordings in the "positive music" mode that he's been championing since the 1960's. However he has still found time to record the occasional new age/ambient album. Aum from 2009 is a fine example, a deeply meditative work featuring gorgeous suspended strings, reverberating piano notes, floating chorales and long, arcing clouds of synthetic sound.

There's more albums in Don Robertson's discography if you want to dig deeper, as well as a number of books and a large archive of his articles, all on his website at Some of the albums listed above have still not been re-released in CD or digital form, something that will hopefully be rectified soon so that a new generation might discover this master of melody.

About the author

Mike Watson (Mike G), founder of Ambient Music Guide
lives in Sidney, Australia and has been been playing and writing about ambient and related music since his university days in the late 1980's.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Ostracism of the Tonal Composers (Part One) - Sibelius and Rachmaninoff

The Ostracism of the Tonal Composers - Part One

By Don Robertson

from the online book:
“Music Through the Centuries”
By Don Robertson
Published on
Revised and Expanded–  2016
Copyright 2005, 2016

     During the 20th Century, when what was called modern or contemporary music was officially launched by the infamous 1913 performances of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Schönberg's Chamber Symphony, composers writing in the more traditional “romantic” style of the 19th century began to suffer the consequences of being branded out-of-date, and this seriously limited the amount of positive music that was being written for the concert halls, now increasingly filled with discords and confusion.
Jean Sibelius

     Jean Sibelius was born in Finland in 1865. By the 1890s, he had made his mark as a composer of orchestral music, his En Saga being completed in 1892 and Karelia Suite the following year. His first symphony was finished in 1899 and his famous Violin Concerto (one of the greatest ever written) came five years later.
     Sibelius composed in a thoroughly romantic style, with lush chords and melodies. His music was filled with passion, and therefore, as the concert world turned more and more to the "modernity" the current fashion (music infused with stress, discordant and disjointed rhythm) it became increasingly difficult for the music of Sibelius to be accepted.
     University professors in the theory and composition classes of major universities began falling more and more into the footsteps provided by Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg, adopting his intellectual theories and punishing with abuse those students who wrote in "outdated" musical styles. Music critics and other well-known personalities were also lured into the dark force of "modern" music. Sibelius's music was severely criticized, first by only a few critics, then finally by some of the most influential figures in European classical music.
     The famous conductor René Leibowitz (1913-1972) called Sibelius the world’s worst composer. Nadia Boulanger, one of the most influential figures in 20th Century music, with whom most of the famous American twentieth century composers had studied (Elliot Carter, Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Cecil Effinger, Donald Erb, Irving Fine, Philip Glass, Andrew Imbrie, Roy Harris, Norman Lockwood, Daniel Pinkham, Elie Siegmeister, Walter Piston, and Virgil Thompson for starters) called Sibelius "a tragic case."
     This kind of criticism effected Sibelius deeply. 
     “I have had to suffer a good deal for having persevered in composing symphonies at a time when practically all composers turned to other forms of expression,” he said.
     Around mid-century, Sibelius stopped writing music altogether. By this time he had become a laughing stock among the "Musical Elite." However, in America his music had developed a wide popular appeal, a situation largely due to the fact that not only did the American public love his music, but he was tirelessly championed by Olin Downes, the music critic for the New York Times. 
     Sibelius was also loved by the public in England, where he was greeted favorably by the famous English critic and writer Ernest Newman, and in Germany, where he found public acceptance. Other central European countries, where Sibelius's music wasn't (and perhaps still isn't) performed, wanted little to do with him, though, and critics in these countries scoffed at stories about those silly American and English concert attendees.
     Downes had a difficult job in America promoting Sibelius' music, however, as he was continually challenged by the machine called "The American Composers," most of whom had studied with Boulanger. Among them was Aaron Copland, considered one of America’s elite composers by the musical establishment, who in his 1941 book called Our New Music, wrote:
     "The nonsense about Sibelius was due to the exaggerated commentaries of a handful of English and American critics [referring to Newman and Downes, mostly] who obscured the true picture of a late-19th-century composer who had nothing significant to say for 20th-century ears....The attempt to set Sibelius up as a great modern composer is certain to fail.”
     Copland was well off the mark on that one, as Sibelius continues to move his way up the food chain of those who really were the great composers of the 20th Century. Personally, I consider Sibelius to be one of the five greatest composers of that century (with Scriabin, Ropartz, Ives and Durufle).
     Sibelius had not adopted Schönberg's atonality, nor had he mimicked Stravinsky's disconnected rhythmic monstrosities, and therefore he was washed up as far as the music elite was concerned. Meanwhile, Copland was composing the most trivial of trinkets, such as his ballet Rodeo, for public consumption, side-by-side with his concession to modern music: more ‘serious’ works written in a discordant style such as his Piano Concerto, Connotations, and Inscape... compositions that are practically unknown today, but guaranteed to keep his fellow 'serious' composers happy, ensuring that his “Great 20th-Century Composer” status remained alive. But can any work of Copland's even come close to Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, or to his symphonies, works that have a spiritual potency that touches the soul?
Aaron Copland - "Rodeo"

    Copland wasn't alone, however. Another American composer, Virgil Thomson, began tearing into Sibelius publicly during 1940, when Thomson became the music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. His first printed review was a scathing attack on Sibelius and his 2nd Symphony. He branded Sibelius a “provincial composer beyond description” and derided his music’s popular appeal. Another composer, Russian composer Nicholas Nabokov, called Sibelius’s symphonies “antediluvian monstrosities.” Musicologist Paul Henry Lang, professor at Columbia University, author of the 1,107-page Music in Western Civilization and successor to Thomson at the Tribune, was astounded by the popularity of Sibelius’s music in America and wrote that the good points in the composer’s favor were offset by the “obesity…turgidity, and redundancy” in his music, where the melodies were too long and drawn out. Famous American critic Harold C. Schonberg, in his book The Lives of the Great Composers labeled Sibelius "simply a minor composer."
     Music that expressed beauty and love, such as Sibelius’s, was an anachronism during the period of 20th-century “modernity,” and critics referred to it as being overly sentimental, boring, and bad. Meanwhile, the American and English public preferred the music of Sibelius over that of the modern intellectuals such as Webern, Schönberg, and Stravinsky, who are still to this day considered 20th century musical Gods. There was such a negative acceptance of Sibelius’ music by those in charge that the extremely sensitive composer found it more and more difficult to create new works, so much so that he was unable to give his last 8th symphony to the world, and destroyed it instead. Following this, his last decades were musically silent.

Sarah Chang performing the great Sibelius Violin Concerto, one of the greatest works of the 20th century and one of the greatest violin concertos ever. 3,000,000 views on Youtube.

Sibelius' Second Symphony "The Romantic" conducted by Lenny Bernstein

Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 conducted by Lenny Bernstein

Sibelius' Swan of Tuonela conducted by the NHK Symphony Orchestra

     Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff had similar problems. He continued to write in the romantic-era style from his first to his last composition, carrying into nearly the middle of the 20th century a tradition that he had begun in the 19th. In 1927, Viktor Belyayev wrote in the Musical Quarterly:
“It was Rachmaninoff’s fate to live in the midst of this multitude of jostling and divergent currents in contemporary Russian music. In this concourse of circumstances we see the reason for the profoundest tragedy of his work – the tragedy of a great soul expressing itself in language and by methods which were antiquated, whereas under other conditions they would have harmonized with the times.”
      There was always a continual torrent of abuse heaped on Rachmaninoff. Works such as his Second Piano Concerto, one of the most beautiful piano concertos ever written, were neglected and criticized and dismissed as “twaddle” because they were not composed using discords. One critic wrote that the second piano concerto was “the sort of thing that any pianist and orchestra could extemporize by the yard.” Yet no other composer during the entire century, with the exception of Sibelius, came close to composing a work that compares to this beautiful work, one of the widest-excepted works by any 20th-century composer.
     In the 5th Edition of the sacred Grove’s Dictionary published in 1954 (THE standard music reference dictionary in the university libraries), Eric Bloom had this to say about Rachmaninoff: 
  • “As a composer, [Rachmaninoff] can hardly be said to have belonged to his time at all. . . His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes accompanied by a variety of figures derived from arpeggios. The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favour.”
     Unwilling to embrace the discordant, nervous music that had taken over their musical world, and defeated by continual criticism, Sibelius and Rachmaninoff, along with English composer Edward Elgar, had by the 1920s curtailed composing music. Sibelius stopped abruptly after his gorgeous 1926 composition Tapiola and the 1928 Incidental Music to the Tempest; After revising his first piano concerto in 1917, Rachmaninoff wrote only six more works in the remaining 25 years of his life, and Elgar stopped writing after the Cello Concerto of 1919. Thus, three great composers, two who had composed two of the greatest concertos ever written, gave in to defeat, to watch silently as concert halls jangled with the discords and nervous energy of 20th-century music... music that came not from the heart, but as a reflection of the stress of life during the twentieth century.
     In a plebiscite conducted in America, where people were asked which living composers were most likely to be performed a hundred years from then, Sibelius came in first, Richard Strauss second, and Rachmaninoff third.

Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto performed by Anna Fedorova. 8,000,000 views

Next in the Series is Part Two - Theodor Adorno

© 2005, 2016 by Don Robertson