Paul Klee, In the Style of Kairouan

Radical Sound: the Postwar Avant-Garde

Instructor: Nathan Shields
558 St. Johns Place
Brooklyn, NY 11238

“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The philosopher Theodor Adorno, writing in 1951, captured the then-common belief that European artistic culture, its humanizing aspirations called into question by 30 years of war and genocide, would have to be radically reconceived if it was to remain possible at all. To the musical avant-garde that formed around Adorno in the decade after World War II, this pessimistic conviction became the charter for a revolutionary program of artistic and social change, as composers like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen set out to rebuild music aus Null —“from nothing.”

In this course we will examine the relationship between Adorno’s philosophy of music, his critique of modernity, and the musical movement he helped to create, exploring both how his thought inspired the composers of the avant-garde and how it may serve as a key to their interpretation. We will address the fundamental questions about music and modern society with which the avant-garde’s history confronts us: How did the rupture of the war years shape the music that came afterward, conditioning both its troubled relation to tradition and its relentless drive to reinvent itself? How, and with what consequences, did music become a refuge for utopian aspirations that had become unrealizable in society at large? And what are the implications of the avant-garde’s revolutionary project—whether as model, influence, or warning—for the art of the present?

Students will consider these questions by examining pivotal compositions by Boulez, Stockhausen, György Ligeti, and others with an eye toward understanding their musical language, their esthetic aims, and the broader political and cultural aspirations that shaped them. Through the writings of Adorno, Boulez, and their contemporaries, alongside the avant-garde’s later champions and critics like Michel Foucault and Richard Taruskin, we will consider its continuing artistic and intellectual legacy.

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm
November 14 — December 12, 2017
4 sessions over 5 weeks
We will skip Tuesday, November 21st.


Registration Open

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