Rationality in electronic music - what would Adorno say?

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Pinni B building lecture hall 4141, address: Kanslerinrinne 1



Doctoral student Noora Tienaho speaks at the research seminar of philosophy.

What is rationality in music, and how does it differ from other kinds of rationalities? Is electronic music especially rational as it can be controlled thoroughly? How does the progressive rationalization of society affect music? What is the relationship between control and freedom in electronic music? In my paper, I will outline answers to these questions from the perspective of Theodor W. Adorno's philosophy.

Following Max Weber, Adorno believes that Western culture tends towards the ever-increasing rationalization of all aspects of social life. With the aid of means-ends rationality the domination of nature is developing further and further. In music, this tendency has led to the extended composition techniques and technologies. The quest for total control over musical means and material characterizes the process, and the most extreme case can be found in electronic music.

Rationalization brings music closer to science, and its rationality threatens to turn into means-ends rationality. Yet, artworks do not have a clear end or purpose and Adorno sees that their rationality is more like mimesis of scientific processes. Art mimics the means-ends rationality in order to criticize it and free itself from it. Due to their own rationality, artworks show that there can be other types of rationalities.

According to Adorno, compositions are rational because of the systematic control over their predetermined material, but at the same time there is some pre-rational mimetic impulse. With rational procedures art helps this impulse to fulfil itself. That is, the control of material as the domination of nature gives voice to suppressed nature, and only rationally articulated artworks can illustrate freedom. I will expand on this in my paper.

Rationalization can easily turn against itself and lead to the loss of freedom. For example, the rationality of twelve-tone technique liberated music from the shackles of tonality, but later it petrified into a collection of rules. In the field of electronic music, the musical variables can be controlled more accurately than ever. There are no bodily limitations and harmonic series can be created freely. The problem is that electronic devices might determine the course that music takes. In my paper, I will consider whether rationality increases the freedom of composers or binds their hands. I will also ponder, what kind of rationality electronic music embodies today.



Additional information

 Professor Arto Laitinen, 050 318 7018